Du’a (prayer) literally means to call. In Islamic terminology du'a means calling God, whether for worldly assistance or for salvation in the Hereafter.
Prayer has great significance in Islam. According to one of the hadith, the Prophet Muhammad said, 'It is prayer (du'a) which is worship,' and 'Prayer is the essence of 'ibadah’1. The reason prayer has such importance is that it is the ultimate expression of God's greatness and power and of man's helplessness. That is why a sincere prayer is the most precious of all deeds in the eyes of God.
(1A technical term in theology meaning act of worship or ritual from the word 'abada "to serve" and 'abd "slave.”)
Prayer does not mean learning certain words by rote and then constantly repeating them. Although many prayers have been recorded in the books of Hadith, they are meant only to give us the substance of prayer, not its wording.
Prayer, in fact, is the expression of a distressed state of the heart. Such a state of the heart cannot be bound within certain set words of prayer. True prayer comes from the lips of a person when, on the one-hand, he learns the full meaning of being a servant of God and, on the other, he discovers God in all His perfection. The words which come to his lips spontaneously with this two-sided realization are called prayer in the Islamic Shari'ah.
The concept of prayer in Islam and how to offer a true prayer is described in great detail in the Qur'an and Hadith. Here I should like to present some Quranic references.
1. Firstly prayer should be made to one God alone. The Qur'an says: 'Do not pray to anyone other than God, which can neither help nor harm you' (10:106). The Prophet Muhammad said: 'Whenever for anything you have to ask, ask it from God.' This is quite consistent with Islamic belief in monotheism. When Islam teaches mankind to believe in one God, with all power vested in Him alone, then praying to someone other than God can never be in accordance with Islam. That is why the Qur'an has this to say: 'His is the true prayer.' (13:14)
2. Prayer should always be marked by sincerity. The Qur'an says: 'Call to God, with sincere devotion to Him.' (40:14) When we conceive of God as being able to see one's heart, that prayer alone is of value wherein man's heart is fully in accord with his lips. A prayer which comes from one's lips alone is inconsistent with God's Majesty. Such a prayer certainly deserves to be rejected by God.
3. Prayer is the call of the helpless to the Almighty. It is therefore essential that it should be imbued with appropriate feelings. The Qur'an says: 'The faithful call on Us with piety, fear and submission.' (21:90) The Qur'an further says: 'Call on your Lord with humility and in private.' (7:55) When the suppliant has a correct perception of God, his prayer will of necessity be imbued with such feelings.
4. God disapproves of man 'praying for evil as fervently as He prays for good.' (17:11) Praying for good is in accordance with man's humble position. True belief in God inculcates in man a temperament of sympathy and of kindness. One so inclined will always pray for good, he will never pray for evil.
5. According to a hadith the Prophet Muhammad said that God is best pleased when man prays to Him for peace (Al-Tirmizi). God likes peace. The Prophet frequently used to say this prayer: "O God! You are peace, and peace is from You. O God, help us to live with peace and reside in the home of peace, O Lord of Majesty and Glory." This invocation sums up the spirit of prayer.
I would like to quote here, a part of a sermon by Jesus Christ, relating to prayer. These words of Jesus Christ, to which Islam also subscribes, are the very essence of prayer:
Ask, and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks will receive, and anyone who seeks will find, and the door will be opened to him who knocks. Would any of you who are fathers give your son a stone when he asks for bread? Or would you give him a snake when he asks for a fish? Bad as you are, you know how to give good things to your children. How much more, then, will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:7-11).