Many explanations have been offered for the word ṣalāwāt, such as to exalt, to praise, to bestow mercy on, to bless, to forgive. Through an investigation of several verses of the Qurʾān, and drawing upon the ḥadīth and the insight of several great imams culled from an array of rare and precious sources, a clearer explanation is offered linking the word ṣalawāt to light.
Ṣalawāt is a Type of Mercy
First, we know if we look closely at the Qurʾān and ḥadīth that ṣalawāt is a type of mercy. This is clear from one verse of the Qurʾān and one ḥadīth of the Messenger of Allāh ﷺ.
1) The verse:
هُوَ الَّذِي يُصَلِّي عَلَيْكُمْ وَمَلَائِكَتُهُ لِيُخْرِجَكُم مِّنَ الظُّلُمَاتِ إِلَى النُّورِ وَكَانَ بِالْمُؤْمِنِينَ رَحِيمًا
It is He who [does ṣalawāt upon you] , as do His angels, in order to lead you out of the depths of darkness into the light. He is ever merciful towards the believers (33:43)
Here Allāh most great explained the fact that He does ṣalawāt upon us, by stating that it is because He is ever merciful towards the believers. What this means is that ṣalawāt is linked to the mercy of Allāh, and is part of it. The link is made even stronger in the ḥadīth, almost suggesting that ṣalawāt and mercy are the same thing.
2) The ḥadīth:
When the verse commanding the believers to send ṣalawāt upon the Prophet ﷺ was revealed, they went to the Prophet to ask him what exactly they should say in order to fulfil the command in the verse. The Prophet ﷺ could have simply instructed them to say: “Allahumma ṣalli ʿalā Muḥammad,” which is what the verse prescribed. However, the Prophet ﷺ said to them:
Say: “O Allāh, [do ṣalawāt] upon Muḥammad and the āl (folk) of Muḥammad, as You have [done ṣalawāt] upon the āl of Ibrāhīm; You are worthy of all praise and glory. O Allāh send blessings upon Muḥammad and the āl of Muḥammad as You have sent blessings upon the āl of Ibrāhīm; You are worthy of all praise and glory.”1
As the great Imām al-Ṭībī (d. 743 A.H./1342 C.E.) noted in his commentary on this ḥadīth, here the Prophet ﷺ is referring to something already known regarding a ṣalawāt and blessings upon the Prophet Ibrāhīm (peace be upon him) and his family, because he ﷺ said, “as You have done ṣalawāt… as You have blessed.” This can only be referring to what is mentioned in the Qurʾān:
رَحْمَتُ اللَّهِ وَبَرَكَاتُهُ عَلَيْكُمْ أَهْلَ الْبَيْتِ إِنَّهُ حَمِيدٌ مَّجِيدٌ
The mercy of Allāh and His blessings be upon you, people of this house! He is worthy of all praise and glory (11:73)2
The Prophet of Allāh ﷺ ended his duʿāʾ with the same ending as this Qurʾānic verse, as if asking Allāh by the same attributes linked to the descent of mercy and blessings upon the household of Ibrāhīm (peace be upon him), to also send ṣalawāt and blessings upon Muḥammad and his folk. We see here a clear parallel: the attributes of Allāh (awj) match, the baraka is mentioned in both the verse and ḥadīth, and those with connection to each prophet are mentioned (ahl in the Qurʾān, which is household, and āl in the ḥadīth, which can mean household or followers, or all those with a special connection with the Prophet). Therefore that leaves the mercy in the verse and the ṣalawāt in the ḥadīth to be paired together as equals, or as close parallels.
While in Arabic, as in English, the word mercy is tied to compassion and closely linked with the act of forgiveness and pardon, it also has a different definition provided by our scholars. Theologically, Islamic tradition defines mercy as the intent to bring good to others and cause them benefit. But is the meaning of ṣalawāt then identical to mercy? The Arabic language would probably beg to differ, for otherwise they would have been the same word, but more than that, there is another verse in the Qurʾān that tells us otherwise.
Ṣalawāt and Mercy are not Identical
The Qurʾān says:
أُولَٰئِكَ عَلَيْهِمْ صَلَوَاتٌ مِّن رَّبِّهِمْ وَرَحْمَةٌ
These will be given ṣalawāt and mercy from their Lord (2:157)
This verse clearly tells us that ṣalawāt and mercy cannot be identical, because it differentiates between the two. Therefore if we say that ṣalawāt are a type of mercy, or something tied to the mercy of Allāh, then this verse is giving a particular (khāṣṣ) followed by a general (ʿāmm). In other words, it is first mentioning one type of mercy, to give particular attention to it, and then following it with the general mercy, and the meaning becomes: “They will be given ṣalawāt as well as other types of mercy.” Or another way to look at it, as shaykh Aḥmad ibn Idrīs (d. 1837) explained, is to say that it is mercy and something extra beyond just mercy.3 So what type of mercy, then, are ṣalawāt?
Ṣalawāt as Light
Shaykh Muḥammad Bahāʾ al-Dīn al-Bīṭār (d. 1910), an author of a commentary on the Fourteen Ṣalawāt of Shaykh Aḥmad ibn Idrīs, gives us this answer taken from the Qurʾān itself:
The ṣalāt from Allāh can be explained with different meanings, amongst them praise, compassion, and mercy. However, mercy is highly unlikely because Allāh (awj) differentiated between ṣalawāt and mercy in His statement: These will be given ṣalawāt and mercy from their Lord (2:157). Therefore the ṣalāt of Allāh must have a specific meaning that is different from “mercy” in its general sense, otherwise its mention here in this verse would not have any purpose, and the magnificent Qurʾān is too great to do such a thing.
What appears to this servant is that the ṣalāt from Allāh (awj) is a way to describe a tajallī (manifestation) of the divine through the reality of His Name an-Nūr (the Light). That is because He (awj) said:
هُوَ الَّذِي يُصَلِّي عَلَيْكُمْ وَمَلَائِكَتُهُ لِيُخْرِجَكُم مِّنَ الظُّلُمَاتِ إِلَى النُّورِ
It is He who (yuṣallī ʿalaykum: does ṣalawāt upon you), as do His angels, in order to lead you out of the depths of darkness into the light… (33:43)
The Prophet ﷺ said in his supplication in order to teach us what to ask for, “Make me light!” (Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim). Therefore this tajallī (this is the word used in the Qurʾān to refer to Allāh’s manifestation of His glory to the mountain, making it crumble in 7:143) to us will be according to what is befitting of us, and to the one who is a shining lamp (33:46) as is befitting of him ﷺ. For he ﷺ, though he may be light, that does not mean that he cannot accept increase and multiplication, because the manifestations of the lights of Allāh never end. That is why he asked Allāh to make him light, though he is light, because he is asking for light that is different than the light he already has, and he is always being raised spiritually through Allāh (awj). Therefore the ṣalāt of Allāh upon us is to bring us out into the light, and the ṣalāt of Allāh upon the Light ﷺ is light upon light!4
Did anyone before al-Bīṭār — a very late figure — also equate ṣalawāt with light? Yes, we have two very early figures, two of the greatest imāms of the religion, both of whom lived in the third century of Islam.
The first is Imām Sahl al-Tustarī (d. 283 A.H. / 896 C.E.). Al-Tustarī at first defined ṣalawāt as maghfirah (forgiveness). In his commentary on verse 33:43 which addresses the believers, he wrote:
However, we would be wrong to stop here and think that al-Tustarī has in mind only what comes to our minds today when we think of maghfirah as forgiveness. Rather, al-Tustarī is thinking of the original linguistic meaning of maghfirah, which is to cover something. The origin of the word ghafara is to cover or conceal, and everything that you covered, you have done maghfirah to. That is why protective battle headdress is called mighfar in Arabic, because it covers the head. This becomes clear when we look at how al-Tustarī dealt with a very interesting and often overlooked detail in the following verse:
مَّثَلُ ٱلْجَنَّةِ ٱلَّتِي وُعِدَ ٱلْمُتَّقُونَ فِيهَآ أَنْهَارٌ مِّن مَّآءٍ غَيْرِ ءَاسِنٍ وَأَنْهَارٌ مِّن لَّبَنٍ لَّمْ يَتَغَيَّرْ طَعْمُهُ وَأَنْهَارٌ مِّنْ خَمْرٍ لَّذَّةٍ لِّلشَّارِبِينَ وَأَنْهَارٌ مِّنْ عَسَلٍ مُّصَفًّى وَلَهُمْ فِيهَا مِن كُلِّ ٱلثَّمَرَاتِ وَمَغْفِرَةٌ مِّن رَّبِّهِمْ
Here is a picture of the Garden promised to the pious: rivers of water forever pure, rivers of milk forever fresh, rivers of wine, a delight for those who drink, rivers of honey clarified and pure, all flow in it; there they will find fruit of every kind; and they will find maghfirah from their Lord… (47:15)
But how could the people of taqwā, who in the Qurʾān refer to the elite of the believers, the greatest of those in rank and the nearest to Allāh, still require forgiveness, or experience, forgiveness in Paradise? Would they enter Paradise with sins that still need forgiveness? And is this something that happens often in Paradise that it is mentioned as one of its features along with the rivers and fruits of paradise? Al-Tustarī explains this verse by going back to the original meaning of maghfirah. He says:
“Maghfirah in Paradise is that which covers them of the lights of the Real when they see Him.” Al-Tustarī then connected ṣalawāt to maghfirah and maghfirah to being covered in lights. That is how we should assume al-Tustarī understood the verse when it comes to the sinless Prophet of Allāh ﷺ. Najm al-Din Kubrā (d. 618 A.H./ 1221 C.E.) likewise in his great Qurʾān commentary, when commenting on the first two verses of Sūrat al-Fatḥ mentioning Allāh’s maghfirah for the Prophet explains the maghfirah as a covering with Allāh’s lights of majesty. Shaykh Aḥmad ibn Idrīs likewise explained the word maghfirah as to cover and erase one’s faulty human qualities with the lights of Allāh so that one’s actions are guided by Allāh.6
The second early figure is al-Ḥakīm al-Tirmidhī (d. c. 295 A.H/ 905 C.E.). In his work ʿIlm al-awliyāʾ, he comments on the meaning of Allāh and His angels doing ṣalawāt upon the believers. He says that the ṣalawāt of the angels is to seek maghfirah for them. As for the ṣalawāt of Allāh, it is to give the believers the light of furqān (a light with which one is able to distinguish between truth and falsehood as mentioned in verse 8:29), and “to bring them out from the darkness into the light, from the darkness of the nafs (soul) into the light of Allāh.” He continues to explain that when this light shines in the heart of the believer through the ṣalāt of Allāh, the believer will attain both outward and inward taqwā, and therefore every act that he does will be accompanied with the remembrance of Allāh, and with intention to be rewarded for it by Allāh. This light keeps increasing in the heart of the believer until all of his affairs are done for Allāh, and through (i.e. with the assistance of) Allāh, until he becomes those about whom Allāh said, “I become his hearing with which he hears, his seeing with which he sees, his heart with which he understands, his hand with which he grasps, and his foot with which he walks.”7
The Linguistic Basis for this Meaning of Ṣalawāt
One of the most important works dedicated to the topic of ṣalawāt is al-Ṣilāt wa-l-bushar by the Arabic lexicographer al-Fayrūzābādī (d. 817 A.H. / 1415 C.E.), the author of the great al-Qāmūs al-muḥīṭ, one of the most important and widely used classical Arabic dictionaries. After going through the meanings usually offered as explanations for ṣalawāt, al-Fayrūzābādī declares that he will give a definitive explanation that no one gave before him. He did this by studying the triliteral root of the word ṣalāt. He studied both possible origins: (ص * ل * و) and (ص * ل * ي). He found that all the words derived from these roots come back to a single meaning: al-ḍamm wa-l-jamʿ (to unite or bring together). He found that this remained the case even when rearranging the triliteral roots. For example, (و * ل * ص) could be rearranged as (ص * و * ل) or (ل * و * ص) or (و * ص * ل) or (ل * ص * و), and (ي * ل * ص) could be rearranged as (ل * ي * ص) or (ل * ص * ي), and in every case the words derived from these roots revolve around meanings of being close to each other, united together, connected to each other, or exposed to each other. Many nouns and verbs that are related to things being put together, brought together, collected, or being knotted or kept close to each other, come from these roots, as well as words and nouns referring to mulāzama (always being with each other or close to each other).8
Among the most important meanings for us here that emerge from this investigation are words like: ṣila (connection), waṣl (to arrive at, reach), and ṣalī (to expose something to fire) from which we get the word ṣalā and ṣalī for fire. This expression is used many times in the Qurʾān to refer to people being exposed to the flames of the Hellfire: they will be scorched (taṣlā) by a blazing fire (88:4) and he will be scorched (yaṣlā) by a flaming fire (111:3). In fact, around twenty variations of this word is used in the Qurʾān.
This brings us back to Shaykh al-Bīṭār’s explanation of ṣalāt as a certain exposure, in a sense beyond our comprehension and known only to Allāh (awj), to the manifestation of Allāh through His name an-Nūr (the Light). This is in fact how many have explained the meaning of another ṣalāt, the ritual prayer.
The Ṣalāt Ritual Prayer as Light
The Prophet ﷺ said: “The ṣalāt is light.” (Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim).
Many scholars have explained the meaning of ṣalāt in terms of the meanings given to us by al-Fayrūzābādī and the other figures we have mentioned. Here is an passage from Imām al-Qastallānī (d. 923 A.H./1517 C.E. — author of a great commentary on Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī) as quoted by Shaykh Ṣāliḥ al-Jaʿfarī in Reassurance for the Seeker, which I will abridge:
The prayer was called ṣalāt for the following reasons:
First, that it takes one (ṭūṣil) to paradise….
Second, that it is from al-ṣila (connection), because when the servant performs it he is connected to his Lord, and when he leaves it he is cut off….
Third, that it is from taṣliya, which means to straighten metal by putting it in the fire. That is because it makes the human upright and improves and corrects his heart and mind….9
Likewise Shaykh ʿAbdullāh al-Shabrāwī (d. 1758 C.E.), the famous Grand Shaykh of the Azhar, wrote in his commentary on Zabīdī’s abridgement of Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī :
The ṣalāt is derived from ṣalī, which is to expose a crooked stick to the fire in order to straighten it. In our human nature there is some crookedness. He who prays a real ṣalāt will have his crookedness straightened by his exposure to the blaze of the Lord’s power. Then, through that, his spiritual ascent (miʿrāj) is realised.10
In his book on the meanings of different terms in the Qurʾān, Taḥṣīl naẓāʾir al-Qurʾān, al-Ḥakīm al-Tirmidhī expounded on the meaning of the word ṣalāt when it refers to the ritual prayer. He said it comes from the verb “ṣallā” meaning to stand near a fire in order to receive its heat, and from it comes the usage in the Qurʾān of seeking warmth from a fire:
إِذْ قَالَ مُوسَىٰ لِأَهْلِهِ إِنِّي آنَسْتُ نَارًا سَآتِيكُم مِّنْهَا بِخَبَرٍ أَوْ آتِيكُم بِشِهَابٍ قَبَسٍ لَّعَلَّكُمْ تَصْطَلُونَ
Moses said to his family, ‘I have seen a fire. I will bring you news from there, or a burning stick for you to warm yourselves(taṣṭalūn).’ (27:7) [taṣṭalūn comes from the same root ( ṣ * l * ī ), but the letter tāʾ has been added due to the iftiʿāl form, and then it was subsequently changed into a ṭāʾ for ease of pronounciation because of its nearness to a heavy letter (see Tafsīr al-Jalālayn)]
He stated that this is why fuel and fire, are called ṣalī, because one receives warmth from them by coming near them. He then wrote:
The ṣalāt of the servant is for him to stand and face with his body the majesty and grandeur of Allāh, and His glory and generosity, compassion and mercy. (He faces all that) with what he has in his heart of tawḥīd of Allāh and love of him, and glorification and veneration of him, along with the lowliness of his own self, and his submission to Him, and his fear and hope. The servant brings all these things that are in his heart and chest, which constitute his knowledge of his Lord, and faces with them, and with all his body and limbs, the greatness and lordliness of Allāh in a state of servitude and humility. Through that he seeks the compassion of Allāh, and draws to himself His mercy and generosity, and calls out to Him so that He would pour upon him from His generosity and grace. These things reach him from his Lord as warmth reaches a person who stands near it to escape the cold. This light that reaches the servant from standing in the presence of Allāh protects him from the heat and cold of the Hellfire…This is the ṣalāt of the servant: he stands in the presence of his Lord, calling upon him, hoping to take light from His light through that nearness.11
Likewise the great Imām of the Azhar, Shaykh Ṣāliḥ al-Jaʿfarī (d. 1979 C.E.), said in one lesson at the noble Azhar Mosque:
When we come to rest in the courtyard of the generous, their generosity overflows onto us. Old peasant women have a wise saying: “He who is in the vicinity of the blessed will be blessed, and his lights will overflow onto him; and he who is in the vicinity of the damned will be damned, and will be burned by his fire.” How could you stand before Allāh (most high) every day, five times, without one of His attributes overflowing onto you, when He is the source of all generosity? Among the expressions of His generosity is that animals find food, drink, and the ability to procreate. However, there is a more sublime expression of His generosity, a very valuable type of giving: precious things that only humans and angels can attain, and that is the attributes of Allāh. The Prophet ﷺ said, “The ṣalāt is light.” Truth did he ﷺ speak! Five times a day you stand before Him in the five daily prayers, he will manifest upon You, high and sublime is He, through His attribute of an-Nūr.
وَلَمَّا جَاءَ مُوسَىٰ لِمِيقَاتِنَا وَكَلَّمَهُ رَبُّهُ قَالَ رَبِّ أَرِنِي أَنظُرْ إِلَيْكَ قَالَ لَن تَرَانِي وَلَٰكِنِ انظُرْ إِلَى الْجَبَلِ فَإِنِ اسْتَقَرَّ مَكَانَهُ فَسَوْفَ تَرَانِي فَلَمَّا تَجَلَّىٰ رَبُّهُ لِلْجَبَلِ جَعَلَهُ دَكًّا وَخَرَّ مُوسَىٰ صَعِقًا فَلَمَّا أَفَاقَ قَالَ سُبْحَانَكَ تُبْتُ إِلَيْكَ وَأَنَا أَوَّلُ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ
When Moses came for the appointment, and his Lord spoke to him, he said, ‘My Lord, show Yourself to me: let me see You!’ He said, ‘You will never see Me, but look at that mountain: if it remains standing firm, you will see Me,’ and when his Lord manifested to the mountain, He made it crumble: Moses fell down unconscious. When he recovered, he said, ‘Glory be to You! To You I turn in repentance! I am the first to believe!’ (7:143)
Allāh (awj) said, “tajallā” (manifested), and did not say that He appeared. The attributes of Allāh (awj) cannot be explained, imagined, or fully comprehended by the intellect, because they are the attributes of His Essence (awj) and none knows the attributes of His Essence except Himself….The Sufis have a saying: “tadakdakat al-jibāl, wa-r-rijālu rijāl (The mountains have crumbled but the men (of Allāh) remained men).”12
This exploration of the meaning of ṣalawāt, through the different verses of the Qurʾān, as well as the insight of some of the greatest imams of this religion, from the 3rd century until today, allows us to go deeper than the usual words offered as meanings of the word ṣalāt. It allows us to understand the word ṣalāt both as the ritual prayer of the servant, and as the ṣalāt of Allāh and His angels upon the Messenger of Allāh ﷺ and the believers. Ṣalāt in essence is exposure to something, to come near something and become connected to it, united with it, and take from it, like coming close to a fire to take from its heat. The ritual ṣalāt of the servant is to stand in the presence of Allāh, making a connection to Him, and receiving a tajallī from the reality of His name an-Nūr. The ṣalāt of Allāh upon the Messenger of Allāh ﷺ or the believers is likewise for them to receive a tajallī from His Name an-Nūr. When people, or angels, ask Allāh to do ṣalawāt upon the the believers, it is to ask for them to receive from Allāh’s light, and to increase in light, and to continually ascend spiritually through that light, until their actions are guided by the light of Allāh, and they see clearly with the light of Allāh, as the Prophet ﷺ said: “Beware the insight of the believer, for he sees with the light of Allāh” (narrated by al-Tirmidhī). When the Prophet ﷺ said to the believers: “Go visit your dead and greet them and ṣallū ʿalayhim (do ṣalawāt upon them),”13 the ṣalāt here is a supplication, but a specific type of supplication, and it is very clear why the supplication for those in their graves should be associated with asking for increase of light for them. And as for the ṣalawāt upon the Messenger of Allāh, it is to ask for him more light upon his light!
إِنَّ اللَّهَ وَمَلَائِكَتَهُ يُصَلُّونَ عَلَى النَّبِيِّ يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا صَلُّوا عَلَيْهِ وَسَلِّمُوا تَسْلِيمًا
Allāh and His Angels do ṣalawāt upon the Prophet- so, you who believe, do ṣalawāt upon him and give him greetings of peace in abundance (33:56)
We must remember here the ḥadīth of the Messenger of Allāh ﷺ: “Whoever sends one ṣalāt upon me, Allāh will do ten ṣalawāt upon him for it.” (Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim).
Labbayk Allāhumma Labbayk! We answer Your command O Lord!
اللَّهُمَّ صَلِّ عَلَى مُحَمَّدٍ وَعَلَى آلِ مُحَمَّدٍ كَمَا صَلَّيْتَ عَلَى آلِ إِبْرَاهِيمَ إِنَّكَ حَمِيدٌ مَجِيدٌ اللَّهُمَّ بَارِكْ عَلَى مُحَمَّدٍ وَعَلَى آلِ مُحَمَّدٍ كَمَا بَارَكْتَ عَلَى آلِ
إِبْرَاهِيمَ إِنَّكَ حَمِيدٌ مَجِيدٌ
.Dr. Samer Dajani is the translator of Light for the Seeker: A Daily Litany of Forty Salawat and Other Supplications (Beacon Books), now available on Amazon and Beacon Books
1. This is wording preferred by Imām Bukhārī in his Ṣaḥīḥ.
2. Al-Ḥusayn al-Ṭībī, al-Kāshif ʿan ḥaqāʾiq al-sunan (aka Sharḥ al-Ṭībī ʿalā Mishkāt al-maṣābīḥ), Karachi edition, v. 2 p. 179.
3. Aḥmad ibn Idrīs, al-ʿIqd al-nafīs, p. 43.
4. Muḥammad Bahāʾ al-Dīn al-Bīṭār, al-Nafaḥāt al-aqdasiyya fī sharḥ al-ṣalawāt al-aḥmadiyya l-idrīsiyya, p. 31.
5. Al-Tustarī’s explanation of all the verses related to ṣalawāt is in his commentary on 2:157.
6. Aḥmad ibn Idrīs, al-ʿIqd al-nafīs, p. 284.
7. Al-Ḥakīm al-Tirmidhī, ʿIlm al-awliyāʾ, pp. 142-3. I have combined the wording from two narrations of the ḥadīth, to include the words in the narration of Sayyida ʿAīsha, always quoted by al-Tirmidhī, which includes “his heart through which he understands.”
8. Al-Fayrūzābādī, al-Ṣīlātu wa-l-bushar, 5-19. Also abridged by al-Sakhāwī in al-Qawl al-badīʿ, Jeddah: Dar al-Minhāj, pp. 46-9.
9. Dajani, Samer, Reassurance for the Seeker, p. 111.
10. The Shaykh here is referring to the famous statement, “The ṣalāt is the believer’s miʿrāj.” ʿAbdullāh al-Shabrāwī, Fatḥ al-mubdī, v.1 p. 182.
11. Al-Ḥakīm al-Tirmidhī, Taḥṣīl naẓāʾir al-Qurʾān, pp. 71-3.
12. Ṣāliḥ al-Jaʿfarī, Dars al-jumuʿah, v. 9, pp. 31-2.
13. See this ḥadīth and its commentary in Reassurance for the Seeker, pp. 135-6.
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