A Prayer-Based Civilizational Order: The Social Dimension of the Rules of Ritual Prayer

By Sohail Hanif

Ritual prayer (alāh) is a pillar of Islam. It functions as a pillar that upholds the daily routine and spiritual journey of a believer. However, the spiritual dimension of prayer is not a topic of investigation in works of Islamic law. There is, on the other hand, another overarching interest of Muslim jurists that should not be overlooked amongst the myriad rules of prayer. This overarching interest pertains to prayer as a pillar of social organization. It is to exploring angles of a social vision through prayer that the current post is dedicated. The following discussion draws from the Kitāb al-Ṣalāh (Chapter of Prayer) from early classical Ḥanafī works, though most of these insights will have parallels in the works of other periods and schools. The key subsections (bāb) in these works are given headings below.

Prayer Times

Prayer times is the first subsection of the Kitāb al-Ṣalāh. It presents timed windows within which each of the five prayers may be offered. Each of these windows begins and ends with a movement of the sun throughout a 24-hour period. After presenting these windows, the Kitāb al-Ṣalāh offers recommended times for prayer. Apart from the sunset prayer, these recommended times are often significantly delayed past the beginning time of the prayer. We are told that dawn (fajr) prayer should be delayed until shortly before sunrise so that the pathways are illumined and a greater number can attend. Noon (uhr) prayer should be significantly delayed in the summer, so that people may find shade to walk in, and hastened in cooler weather, though not overly hastened in cloudy weather to ensure entry of the prayer time. Afternoon (ʿaṣr) prayer is delayed till a short while before sunset, to allow people to perform extra supererogatory prayers and perhaps to allow them to conclude their days’ work before heading to the mosque; but it is hastened in cloudy weather so as not to accidentally be offered too close to sunset. The evening (ʿishāʾ) prayer is delayed till a third of the night, based on ḥadīth reports, but should be hastened in cloudy and wet weather, so as not to be too dark for those walking to the mosque, especially when it is muddy. Each of these recommended times is chosen to maximize the number of attendees in the group prayers of mosques.[1] We can see from this discussion that, although it is the movements of heaven that give the windows for prayer, it is movements on earth that ultimately determine when in the window these prayers are best offered.

This picture of how group prayers are to be managed is intriguing. There are no fixed times for prayer in the mosque. The change of weather on any day can affect when the imām will commence prayer; and the imām is expected to be well acquainted with communal patterns so that mosque attendance can be maximized. There is an anticipated harmony between a community and its mosque, as each responds to environmental changes. This is especially the case considering there is no ritual call that signals the commencing of the prayer, as the iqāma (call to commence group prayer) takes place inside mosques.[2] One senses from this topic the close social ties nurtured by a neighborhood mosque (masjid al-maalla) that served a small close-knit community. Indeed, until the early modern period, Muslim cities such as Damascus and Cairo were divided into numerous, small ‘quarters’ (hāra), each structured around a mosque.[3]

Call to Prayer (adhān)

The call to prayer is presented as a sunna,[4] the proper transmitted practice of the community. However, this particular sunna is treated by jurists as the pre-eminent marker of a community where the sharī‘a has authority. Thus, although it is labelled a sunna, we are told that if people fail to establish a call to prayer in their settlement, it is the ruler’s duty to establish the adhān in these settlements, with threat of force if necessary.[5]

This point of legal doctrine presents the abandonment of the adhān as an act of communal treason, because that community of Muslims have held back from establishing a most public symbol of Islamic civilization. This topic bears a similarity with the udūd punishments that are discussed later in books of Islamic law. Those punishments ultimately symbolize that this realm labelled Dār al-Islām is God’s realm. God is the ruler, and He is, therefore, the determiner of legitimate violence.[6] The temporal ruler may only act within the confines that the Real King (al-Mālik, al-aqq – two Qur’ānic names for God) has laid out for him. It is the jurists of Islam who represent the order of the Real King in this temporal realm. Their commanding the ruler to threaten violence if necessary to establish the adhān presents the juristic community as existing outside of the political order, regulating its boundaries and symbols through their discourse. This relationship between the Muslim community, the political order and the community of jurists will be a recurring theme that I will address more directly in my final post.

Group Prayer

The presence of a call to prayer requires a public space dedicated to the public group prayer. The mosque is an assumed entity in the Kitāb al-Ṣalāh, whose theory is only discussed later in works of fiqh in the Kitāb al-Waqf, the book of endowments.[7] The theory is insightful: a space for public prayer may only be considered a mosque if no one claims ownership of it. Private property will never be a mosque, and therefore cannot be the site for the community-marking call to prayer discussed above. The mosque is a space of land whose legal ownership is God’s, and this is the meaning of the endowment. ‘House of God’ is not merely an honorific for the mosque; it is its legal status, arising out of the human act of dedicating this space, permanently, to God. And in belonging to God, it belongs to all people equally.

We may consider the consequence of the adhān doctrine discussed above to the mosque. The requirement of an adhān for a Muslim-ruled territory necessitates the presence of a space of land dedicated legally to God. If the residents of the settlement are remiss, the ruler is duty-bound to establish this in their midst. Once these symbols are established, it is understood that not everyone will be able to make it to the prayer, thus their own attendance in the mosque is a sunna.[8] The communal duty lies in establishing the symbols.

In imagining this map of God’s territory, with God as the Real King, we have so far spoken of a place that is God’s and a public call to stand before Him. We can now add to this the fascinating assertion in these Ḥanafī texts that these mosques should also be where people turn for justice. Thus in the Kitāb Adab al-qāḍī (Chapter on the Judge’s Conduct), we are told that it is in the mosque that the qā, the sharī‘a judge, should have his office.[9] The symbolism is perfect. In God’s realm, the courts of justice are in His house, a space of public equality, where no powerful force may claim ownership and, therefore, interfere. In this vein, the act of passing judgement (qaḍāʾ) is framed as worship (ʿibāda), and thus fitting to occur in the mosque.[10]

There are many points of social interest in the rules of the group prayer that I will not be able to explore here. These other points pertain to social norms. Amongst these is the simple symbolism of prayer behind a single leader who must be followed throughout the ritual. This is symbolic of the imagined public order in works of fiqh, a picture of community moving as one behind an appointed authority. The leader of group prayer is ideally the greatest of the group in knowledge and virtue, but, if not, the group must still gather and follow.[11] Another central point is the question of gender. The fact that works on gender in Islam must typically contend with the rules of group prayer underscore the centrality of prayer to the imagined social order.[12] Dress is another interesting theme. The rules of prayer have a minimum dress and an ideal dress for both genders, no doubt of important social significance. It is fascinating that even hermaphrodites receive a very matter-of-fact treatment in this social order. Since gender functions as a central organizing factor in public group prayer, people of uncertain gender are given their own space in the group prayer.[13] One may look at this as exclusion, but equally it is an act of inclusion: they may not be barred from God’s House and have a space dedicated to them.

Although I have said I will not address these social norms, there is just one interpretive angle to the question of women in the mosque that I wish to add from these Ḥanafī works. As Marion Katz has shown in her excellent study of women in the mosque, Ḥanafī texts are perhaps the most restrictive of women’s mosque attendance. Readers may turn to Katz’s study for the details of theory and practice in Ḥanafī lands.[14] I only wish to add that, even on the level of theory, these Ḥanafī texts do not actually present the mosque as an exclusively male space. This is borne out most clearly in the Kitāb Adab al-qāḍī of these books, where, as mentioned above, we are told that the qāḍī’s office should be in the mosque. This implies clearly that women litigants were expected to come to the mosque to seek resolution to worldly disputes. We are told that if a female litigant is menstruating, a state in which women may not enter the mosque due to the absence of ritual purity, they can come to the doors of the mosque, and the judge will come out and conduct his session there.[15] We are even told that women may themselves be judges, implying that a female judge can occupy an office inside of the mosque.[16] In the light of the Kitāb Adab al-qāḍī, we can read the gendered rules of group prayer with greater nuance. It appears that, in this Ḥanafī doctrine, ritual prayer should not be a reason for women to leave their homes to attend at the mosque, for which these jurists cite the precedent of the early community and the fear of unhealthy gender mixing (fitna); however, women are expected to leave their home for worldly needs, and where these worldly needs are best tended to in the mosque, then women are expected to make their way there and be accommodated.

Friday Prayer

The Friday prayer is the climax of this picture of prayer-led social organization. The scene for considering this unique public ritual is set by the Hidāya’s opening sentence on the topic: “The Friday prayer is not valid except in a city that can hold the Friday prayer (mir jāmiʿ)[17] … . It is not valid in a village (qarya).”[18] This is followed immediately by a definition: “A city that can hold a Friday prayer is every place that has a commander (amīr) and a sharī‘a judge (qāḍī) who implements the law (yunaffidh al-am) and establishes the udūd punishments (yuqīm al-ḥudūd).”

The Friday prayer is the prayer of cities. It is a duty in every settlement where law and order, meaning specifically the law of Muslim jurists and the force of the ruler, may be found. An area not fully governed by the ruler has no Friday prayer. The Friday prayer is conceived as the ultimate public symbol of Muslim rule. This is why, shortly after the definition, we are then told: “It may not be established except by the ruler (sulṭān) or someone appointed by the ruler.”[19] The reason offered for this is that there should only be one Friday prayer per city, but people would not ordinarily agree on who the imām of this important, city-unifying ritual should be. Thus to avoid this dispute, only the political authority, the authority entrusted to maintain public order, may appoint the imām, and, therefore, authorize the Friday prayer.

We see here another case, perhaps the ultimate case, of ritual as a marker of territory, with God as Real King. The ruler is presented in this topic with a duty that he must discharge, in this case, by authorizing Friday prayers. And the public have a duty to offer this important ritual behind the ruler or the ruler’s appointee. The prayer is thus political in significance. Whether people agree or disagree with the ruler’s policies and conduct, they need his authorization for ritual. And whether the ruler cares or not for the matter of prayer, he has a need to establish this ritual for public order. So the prayer confirms the essential unity of the city, behind a political order established for maintaining unity and order, but in a display not of magnifying the political order but rather of magnifying God. This is God’s realm and God’s order. God simultaneously legitimizes the political order while subjugating it through this ritual act. The force of symbolism here is undeniable, underscored by the complete prohibition of all competing group prayers in this time; even prisoners are prevented from offering the noon (uhr) prayer in congregation on Friday.[20]

Other Chapters

I am unable to explore other topics of prayer in this short post. I will note only that prayer as a fundamental principle of social organization continues throughout the Kitāb al-Ṣalāh. The Eid prayer continues the symbolism of Friday prayer discussed above.[21] The prayer of fear (alāt al-khawf) presents how armies should pray to maintain unity behind their leader.[22] The prayers for eclipse and rain both present communal prayer and organization as a means for protection at times of natural upheaval.[23] The funeral prayer (alāt al-janāza) presents a key piece of the geography of the Muslim-ruled territory, namely, the Muslim graveyard, found at the outskirts of the city, and the rituals that pertain to it.[24] Not without symbolism is the conclusion of the Kitāb al-Ṣalāh with the Bāb al-Shahīd, section on the victim of murder.[25] A special ritual of burial is presented for every innocent victim of murder, whether at home or on the battlefield. A special ritual to recognize the ultimate violation of public order, the intentional taking of a soul, is a fitting conclusion to a chapter that provides the map and purpose of this public order. The very last masʾala, or legal issue, in this section pertains to rebels. Again, a burial ritual is provided for those who, though they be believers, rose up against the public order: they are to be denied ritual washing upon burial. The precedent cited for this is that of ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib (d. 40/661) from his war against the Khawārij.[26] Rebellion is the symbolic undermining of the unity and organization to which the Kitāb al-Ṣalāh is dedicated.


I hope I have shown that there is no tidy distinction in works of fiqh between chapters of ritual worship (ʿibāt) and chapters of social dealings (muʿāmalāt). The entirety of the fiqh is intertwined. Researchers cannot afford to ignore the legal significance of the opening chapters of fiqh works. Through the various chapters of fiqh, this juristic tradition tells a story and lays out a map. It is only once the entire story is considered that a person may allow themselves the luxury of imagining, of conceiving the map in its entirety. Wael Hallaq’s short presentation of the five pillars of Islam as representing the underlying moral values of the Islamic political order is deeply insightful.[27]

There are many interrelated threads in this and my next post that pertain to politics, society, ritual, the madhhab and jurisprudence. I will attempt to tie these threads in my final conclusions. I will also consider there the symbolism of public prayer and Friday prayers in Muslim minority settings, for these texts present a way to legitimize Friday prayers with the absence of a Muslim ruler. But before concluding these themes, I wish to present another case of ritual laying out the boundaries of a social and political order, and that is by considering the rules of zakāt. It is to this topic that I turn in my next post.


[1] Al-Marghīnānī, al-Hidāya sharḥ Bidāyat al-mubtadī, ed. Aḥmad Jād (Cairo: Dar al-Ḥadīth, 2008), 1:65-66.

[2] In later periods, we are told, people developed a proclamation (tathwīb) in a manner customary to them (bi-mā yataʿārafu ahl kulli balda) to inform the public of the commencing of group prayer: al-Mawṣilī, al-Ikhtiyār li-taʿlīl al-Mukhtār, ed. Bashshār Bakrī ʿUrābī, 2 vols. (Damascus: al-Maktaba al-ʿUmariyya, n.d.), 1:64.

[3] Tim Winter, “In search of a contemporary Shari’a discourse of pluralism,” in EUARE LecturesSecond Annual Conference 2019, ed. Jocelyne Cesari (Bologna: European Academy of Religion, 2020), 95-134.

[4] Al-Marghīnānī, al-Hidāya, 1:68.

[5] Al-Mawṣilī, al-Ikhtiyār, 1:62.

[6] Cf. Hallaq’s assertion that legitimate violence is the prerogative of the modern state: Wael Hallaq, The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament (New York: Columbian University Press, 2013), 29-30.

[7] Al-Marghīnānī, al-Hidāya, 2:26-9.

[8] Ibid., 1:95.

[9] Ibid., 2:145.

[10] Ibid., 2:145.

[11] Ibid., 1:95-6.

[12] The authoritative work on this topic is Marion Katz, Women in the Mosque: A History of Legal Thought and Social Practice (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014). See also the case studies in Behnam Sadeghi, The Logic of Law Making in Islam: Women and Prayer in the Legal Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[13] Al-Mawṣilī, al-Ikhtiyār, 1:92.

[14] Marion Katz, Women in the Mosque: A History of Legal Thought and Social Practice (Columbia University Press, 2014), 71-87 (esp. Ch. 2).

[15] Al-Marghīnānī, al-Hidāya, 2:145.

[16] Ibid., 2:150.

[17] Calder explains that jāmiʿ in the phrase miṣr jāmiʿ means “a garrison town which ‘ gathered together’ or ‘ united’ (jamaʿ) the members of different tribes”: Norman Calder, “Friday Prayer and the Juristic Theory of Government: Sarakhsī, Shīrāzī, Māwardī,” BSOAS 49, no. 1 (1986): 35. I rendered it with the circular translation of ‘city that can hold the Friday prayer’ as Marghīnānī’s definition relies on city structure and not citizenry.

[18] Al-Marghīnānī, al-Hidāya, 1:135.

[19] Ibid., 2:135.

[20] Ibid. 1:138. For a more detailed reflection on symbolism of the Friday prayer, see Calder, “Friday Prayer.”

[21] Al-Marghīnānī, al-Hidāya, 1:139-41.

[22] Ibid., 1:144-5.

[23] Ibid., 1:142-3.

[24] Ibid., 1:145-51.

[25] In the main Ḥanafī mukhtaṣars, this section is followed only by a brief section on how group prayer is conducted inside the kaʿba.

[26] Al-Marghīnānī, al-Hidāya, 1:152-3.

[27] Hallaq, The Impossible State, 116-28.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Sohail Hanif, A Prayer-Based Civilizational Order: The Social Dimension of the Rules of Ritual Prayer, Islamic Law Blog (Mar. 24, 2022), https://islamiclaw.blog/2022/03/24/a-prayer-based-civilizational-order-the-social-dimension-of-the-rules-of-ritual-prayer/)

(Suggested Chicago citation: Sohail Hanif, “A Prayer-Based Civilizational Order: The Social Dimension of the Rules of Ritual Prayer,” Islamic Law Blog, March 24, 2022, https://islamiclaw.blog/2022/03/24/a-prayer-based-civilizational-order-the-social-dimension-of-the-rules-of-ritual-prayer/)

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