By Nastik Durrani, New Age Islam
28 March, 2014
Ahmad Bin Wazeh al-Yaqoobi has reported that the first prayer enjoined upon the Prophet of Islam (pbuh) was the afternoon prayer (Salat-ul-Zuhar). The apostle of God, Gabriel came to the Prophet (pbuh) and taught him to perform ablution. Then, the apostle offered the prayer in order to show the Prophet (pbuh) the way of doing it. The Prophet (pbuh) then offered the prayer in the same way (1). This view has been endorsed by Naf’e too (2).
To my view, neither the reports stands up to scrutiny, because some of the Qur’an exegetes hold that the Zuhar prayer is the “middle prayer” , as outlined in the holy Qur’an: “maintain with care the [obligatory] prayers and [in particular] the middle prayer and stand before Allah , devoutly obedient” (3). So, if the Zuhar prayer is supposed to be the middle prayer, it should come between two prayers. But this is something which stands contrary to the Prophet’s first prayer, which should have been the first and the last prayer, in case it is supposed to be the middle prayer. Moreover, most of the revealed religions have prescribed their prayers to be offered in the morning and evening, as the determination of time is relatively easy in either of these times. Going by this, it is not rational to say that the Salat-ul-Zuhar was the first prayer in Islam.
This issue, right from the beginning, has been an apple of discord in Islam. Some Qur’an exegetes have referred to the Fajr as the middle prayer, while some others have referred to the prayer of Isha (the night prayer). Some declared the Jumu’ah as the middle of the prayers (4), while others have stated that it is “the collective prayer” or “Salat-ul-Khauf”. This contention went to the extent that even the prayers of Eid-ul-Fitr, Eid-ul-Azha and Witr have also been declared as the middle prayer by some or the other commentators of the holy Quran. On the other hand, a few of the scholars have maintained silence over this matter due to the conflicting reports and failed to determine any particular prayer as the middle. Consequently, the issue has not been resolved from the time of the Prophet’s holy companions until today (5).
Some Quran exegetes write that the verse (“maintain with care the [obligatory] prayers”) refers to the five daily prayers. This verse is mentioned in the Surah Baqura which was revealed in Madina. Putting the words “al-Salat-ul-Wusta” (the middle prayer) followed by the Arabic letter “W’aw” (و) is a clear indicative of the paramount importance attached to this prayer, which has been selected out of the other daily prayers (6). However, the question remains as to why the middle prayer has been given this distinction, when all the five daily prayers are obligatory and are offered just for the sake of God’s pleasure?
In fact, it is apparently not possible to arrive at any convincing conclusion regarding the issue of “the middle prayer”. We have some other reports narrated by the Prophet’s companion, Bar’a Bin Aazib that tell us that in the Prophet’s era, people continued to recite the verse: “maintain with care the [obligatory] prayers” until they came to a halt.
According to another report, when the Quranic calligrapher of the Prophet’s wife Hazrat Hafsa (r.a) reached the verse: “maintain with care the [obligatory] prayers”, Hazrat Hafsa ordered him to write “Salat-ul-Asr” in its explanation. One tradition attributed to the Prophet’s wife, Hazrat Aisha (r.a) says that she had a Mus'haf (a collation of the Quranic verses) with her in which the verse was written like this:
”حافظوا على الصلوات والصلاة الوسطى وهي العصر“
(Meaning: maintain with care the [obligatory] prayers and [in particular] the middle prayer, which is the Asr prayer).
In Tafsir al-Tabrasi, there is a fine explanation of why “the middle prayer” has been separately mentioned, while it is counted among the other five daily obligatory prayers. It produces a narration by one of the Prophet’s companions, Hazrat Zaid Bin Sabit (r.a) which reports that: when the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) led the prayer in the scorching heat, it was difficult for most of his companions to turn up for the Salah. So, there used to be only one or two prayer queues behind the Prophet (pbuh) in those days. Having noticed it, the Prophet (pbuh) said: I am going to burn down the houses of those people who do not turn up for the prayers. The author the Quranic exegesis “Tafsir al-Tabrasi” goes on figuring out the reasons behind the special mention of the middle prayer in the Holy Quran. He elaborates: “Since the middle prayer comes between the two prayers of the night and two of the day, it has been specifically mentioned in the Quran, because this is the time when people get extremely busy with their works” (8).
It appears to me that considering the Zuhar or the Asr as “the middle prayer” is the best explanation of the verse. The reason is that it was an uphill task to perform the Salah in warm regions like Hijaz. This is precisely why many of the Prophet’s companions were not able to turn up for this prayer behind the Prophet (pbuh). Therefore, God laid stress on the commandment of the middle prayer. Since the verse was revealed in Medina and it referred to all the five daily prayers, it is inevitable to declare the Asr as the middle prayer.
As far as the Zuhar prayer is concerned, it comes between the Fajr and the Asr prayers and this too has to be performed in the heat, although not so scorching as in the Asr time. But it cannot be counted as the middle of the five daily prayers. Therefore, I believe that the “Sal ‘at-ul-Wusta” (the middle prayer) is the Asr prayer. And this opinion is endorsed by the majority of Islamic scholars.
1 – Alyaqubi, 16/2, published in Najaf.
2 - Sirat Ibn Hisham 156/1.
3 - Surah Al-Baqura verse: 238, Tafseer Al-nisapuri, Tafseer al-Tabari 385/2 and the following pages.
4 - Tafseer Al-Khazin 179/1, Risala of Ibn Abi Zayd, 23, footnote commentary on Tafsir al-Tabari in Tafseer al-nisapuri, 383/2 and the following pages, Tafsir al-Tabari, 343/2 published in Tehran, Tafsir Ibn Kathir 290/1 and the following.
5 - Tafsir Ibn Kathir 294/1.
6 - Tafsir al-Jalalain 35/1.
7 – Al-Muwatta 254/1, Sunan al-Shafi'i 8, Tafsir al-Tabari 321/2, Madhahib al-Tafseer al- Islami 24, Tafsir Ibn Kathir 290/1.
8 - Commentary of Al-Tabrasi (Tafseer Al-Tabrasi) 342/1.