A long time ago, as a new Muslim, I struggled with the phrase we attach to the mention of the Prophet Muhammad (صلّى الله عليه وسلم), or sullâ Llah[u] ‘alayh[i] wa salam, because of the implication that we as Allah to make (صلأة), or saláh (i.e. perform the formal prayer) to, or for, him. Coming recently from Christianity, this seemed a little too extreme. Jesus is regarded as Deity, along with “the Father”, but not a god to God! There had to be another meaning to (صلّى), or sullâ other than performing prayers, or praying.
To research, I consulted Word Reference, (http://www.wordreference.com/enar/), which is an online a general dictionary, and Lane’s Arabic-English Lexicon, a work specific to the words found in the Quran, and their roots. The words with the letters (ل ل ص) or (ى ل ص) or (و ل ص) or (صِ ل ة) as root letters bear examining. I put together the following reasoning:
(صِلة), or silah, is a noun which means a relationship, connection, link, bond, tie or contact. Therefore, forming such a contact with God and establishing it regularly is closely related to (صلأة), or saláh, and the action (صلّى), or sullâ. The Prophet (صلّى الله عليه وسلم) in an authentic hadeeth,
(إِنَّ اللَّهَ يَرْضَى لَكُمْ ثَلاَثًا … فَيَرْضَى لَكُمْ أَنْ تَعْبُدُوهُ وَلاَ تُشْرِكُوا بِهِ شَيْئًا وَأَنْ تَعْتَصِمُوا بِحَبْلِ اللَّهِ جَمِيعًا وَلاَ تَفَرَّقُوا ...)
“It pleases Allah for you to acquire three qualities …: It pleases Him that you worship Him Alone and not associate anything or anyone with Him in worship, that you hold on to the Rope of Allah altogether and do not divide, and that you advise whoever Allah appoints as your Leader.” [Muslim}
He also said,
(مَنْ قَامَ بِعَشْرِ آيَاتٍ لَمْ يُكْتَبْ مِنَ الْغَافِلِينَ وَمَنْ قَامَ بِمِائَةِ آيَةٍ كُتِبَ مِنَ الْقَانِتِينَ وَمَنْ قَامَ بِأَلْفِ آيَةٍ كُتِبَ مِنَ الْمُقَنْطَرِينَ)
“If anyone prays at night reciting regularly ten verses, he will not be recorded among the negligent if anyone prays at night and recites a hundred verses, he will be recorded among those who are devout to Allah; and if any-one prays at night reciting one thousand verses, he will be receive an immeasurable amount of reward.” [Abu Dawud]
(إِنَّ هذَا الْقُرآنَ هُوَ حَبْلُ اللّهِ سببٌ طرفُه بيد الله و طرفُه بأيديكم فتمسَّكوا به فإنكم لن تضِاُّوا ولن تهلِكوا بعده أبدًا)
“Indeed, this Qur’an is a rope – one end of it is in the Hand of Allah and the other end is in your hands. So, hold firmly to it [so] that you would never go astray and never be destroyed.” [Ibn Hibben]
In the Quran, Allah says,
(وَاعْتَصِمُوا بِحَبْلِ اللَّهِ جَمِيعًا وَلَا تَفَرَّقُوا ۚ وَاذْكُرُوا نِعْمَتَ اللَّهِ عَلَيْكُمْ…)
And hold firmly to the rope of Allah all together and do not become divided. And remember the favor of Allah upon you… [3:103]
(سُنَّةَ مَن قَدْ أَرْسَلْنَا قَبْلَكَ مِن رُّسُلِنَا ۖ وَلَا تَجِدُ لِسُنَّتِنَا تَحْوِيلًا أَقِمِ الصَّلَاةَ لِدُلُوكِ الشَّمْسِ إِلَىٰ غَسَقِ اللَّيْلِ وَقُرْآنَ الْفَجْرِ ۖ إِنَّ قُرْآنَ الْفَجْرِ كَانَ مَشْهُودًا وَمِنَ اللَّيْلِ فَتَهَجَّدْ بِهِ نَافِلَةً لَّكَ عَسَىٰ أَن يَبْعَثَكَ رَبُّكَ مَقَامًا مَّحْمُودًا)
[An] established way for those We had sent before you of Our messengers; and you will not find in Our way any alteration. Establish the prayer at the decline of the sun [from its meridian] until the darkness of the night and [also] the Qur’an of dawn. Indeed, the recitation of dawn is ever witnessed. And from [part of] the night, pray with it as additional [worship] for you; it is expected that your Lord will resurrect you to a praised station. [17:77-79]
This praised station is believed to be the highest station in Paradise and closest to Allah, promised to Muhammad (صلّى الله عليه وسلم), here.
Another Prophet known to be lifted up close to Allah is Jesus, son of Mary. Allah says in the Quran,
(وَقَوْلِهِمْ إِنَّا قَتَلْنَا الْمَسِيحَ عِيسَى ابْنَ مَرْيَمَ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ وَمَا قَتَلُوهُ وَمَا صَلَبُوهُ وَلَٰكِن شُبِّهَ لَهُمْ ۚ وَإِنَّ الَّذِينَ اخْتَلَفُوا ( فِيهِ لَفِي شَكٍّ مِّنْهُ ۚ مَا لَهُم بِهِ مِنْ عِلْمٍ إِلَّا اتِّبَاعَ الظَّنِّ ۚ وَمَا قَتَلُوهُ يَقِينًا بَل رَّفَعَهُ اللَّهُ إِلَيْهِ ۚ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ عَزِيزًا حَكِيمًا
And [they say], “Indeed, we have killed the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, the messenger of Allah.” But they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him; but [another] was made to resemble him to them. And indeed, those who differ over it are in doubt about it. They have no knowledge of it except the following of assumption. And they did not kill him, for certain. Rather, Allah lifted him to Himself. And ever is Allah Exalted in Might and Wise. [4:157-8]
In the first set of verses, a praised status is promised to Muhammad, the closest anyone can be to Him, whilst in the second set of verses, another messenger, the Messiah, has already been lifted up close to Allah – by Allah’s will. In these latter verses, no mention is made of Jesus being on the praised station, however, just that he was lifted to Allah Himself, implying the strongest of bonds. The praised station is promised due to not only reciting the rope of Allah daily on a regular basis, and recited late into the night, but also living the Quran.
A’isha, when asked about her husband’s character, replied:
(فَإِنَّ خُلُقَ نَبِيِّ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ كَانَ الْقُرْآنَ)
“Verily, the character of the Prophet of Allah was the Quran.” [Muslim]
From this I adduce the Quran being the link to Allah, and Allah conferring Salah upon the Prophet as recognition of the strong and ever strengthening relationship he has with Allah due to the increasing reach of the message and the prayers of his followers reciting the Quran he taught us.
There is another Arabic word that is used to recommend someone to calm down and think positively. The word is most often used in the imperative or subjunctive mood (as a wish or as a command). The same word can also mean to make a noise like that of a bell or a cymbal. Such sounds are often used as preludes to a meditative action, and can also accompany the purification ceremony in a temple or other place of worship when using a censor to perfume the air. The word is (صَلّ), or sull[a].
This idea suggests the attitude people should bring to the link between themselves and their Creator in – (صلأة) or saláh.
Similar in to this word is another, (أَصُلَ), or asoul[a], which means to be of noble origin or be original.
This gives two qualities associated with being a believer. First, Islam is the original religion – original way of life – and is part of the fitrah. It is also the most noble and most rewarding of ways of doing/being. The true believer lives in this world like a stranger – the mundane is strange to him and brief. He lives for the noble afterlife which is long-lasting.
Putting a (ّ), or shuddâ, on the (ص), or såd (i.e. doubling the letter), gives the word a close, but different, meaning.
(أَصَّلَ) or assul[a] means to give a firm foundation, and this is the function of (صلأة), or saláh. It also indicates establishing the origin of something. (صلأة), or saláh, establishes that Allah is (الصمد), or us-Samad, the eternal firm foundation of everything. Finally, it means to “document”, or “record something in detail”. (صلأة), or saláh, is documented and recorded and is the first of a Muslim’s actions to be weighed and assessed on the Day of Judgement.
The last of the etymological relative to (صلّى), or sullâ, is (صلي), or salī. This word means to bear or endure something, particularly heat.
Once Aisha asked her husband why he prayed all night every night when he knew his sins had been forgiven, to which he replied,
(أفلا أحب أن أكون عبداً شكوراً؟)
“should I not be grateful slave?” [Bukhari & Muslim]
Enduring the night on your feet is also recommended in the Quran instead of looking with envy at the goods mundane people had. Finally, the Quran admonishes that when we face difficulties, it should be with patience and endurance – that is (صبر), or sabr. This, then, is the attitude we should bring to (صلأة), or saláh.
This brings us back to the word (صلّى), or salī, meaning to “pray” or “convey a wish” to bless or receive blessings. Ordinarily, Muslims use the word to describe the action of formal prayer. Most often, it is used in this way in the phrase, (صلّى الله عليه وسلم). Yet the word is also used in the meaning of (الأدّعاء), or du’aa (prayerful invocation or supplication directed to Allah) asking Allah’s benefits and support for another creature.
(سلّم) or sallam means to “surrender”, “send one’s greeting or/& love” [to], “salute”, and is related to embracing Islam or giving the greeting of peace. As a noun, it means a stairway, or ladder (to heaven?)
(سلم) or salam however, means to give safety, security and peace.
When we say, (صلّى الله), or sullâ Llah[u], we are invoking Allah’s bond, or relationship to something. That is, we are asking Allah to raise something up close to Him – to elevate something or someone in status and blessing. Adding (عليه), or ‘alayhi, is to indicate who or what is the object of the action we are supplicating/invoking. So, when we say (محمد صلّى الله عليه) we are asking Allah to raise Muhammad up close to Him, forge the closest of relationships with him and grant him the highest and noblest status and most blessings a creature can have.
This idea, or meaning, is supported by the use of (صَلُّو) in verse, in which Allah declares:
( إِنَّ اللَّهَ وَمَلَائِكَتَهُ يُصَلُّونَ عَلَى النَّبِيِّ ۚ يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا صَلُّوا عَلَيْهِ وَسَلِّمُوا اتَسْلِيمً )
This is translated into English in the Sahih International Quran as:
“Indeed, Allah confers blessing upon the Prophet, and His angels. O you who have believed, ask blessing upon him and ask peace.” [33:56]
However, Lane’s dictionary states
[صَلُّواْ] means God conferred blessing upon him: and He had mercy on him. [It also means] He magnified him, or conferred honour upon him: … in the saying in Quran 33:56, [ إِنَّ اللَّهَ وَمَلَائِكَتَهُ يُصَلُّونَ عَلَى النَّبِيِّ ۚ], the verb does not import two meanings; for it has there only one meaning, which is “ magnification ” [i. e. these words mean Verily God and his angels magnify the Prophet; However, if you (did) render them, bless the Prophet, this rendering implies magnification and also a meaning of the quasi-infinitive, which is “commendation” or “eulogy,” bestowed by God upon his messenger, while it imports God’s “conferring of blessing” and the angels’ “invoking thereof”].
It is said that اللّٰهُمَّ صَلِّ عَلَى مُحَمَّدٍ means O God, magnify Mohammad in the present world by exalting his renown and manifesting his invitation [to Islam] and rendering permanent his law, and in the world to come by accepting his intercession for his people and multiplying his reward. It is disputed whether or not this form of prayer may be used for any but the Prophet [Mohammad].
Adding (وسلم), or wa salam, means we want Allah to include, with that status and blessing, both security and peace. Occasionally, a Muslim may say (وسلّم), or wa sallam, which requests Allah to convey greetings, submission and love, unfortunately rather vaguely. One would have to say (وسلّم له), or wa sallam lah[u], in order to specify to whom the greetings, submission and love should be sent.
I imagine that what is implied by this honorific prayer used by Muslims whenever we mention our Prophet, (صلّى الله عليه وسلّم) is that we ask Allah to ennoble him and to forge the strongest bond with him because we submit to him in love and obedience as commanded by Allah, and this ligature provides him with the Peace and Security we desire to be a part of when we are able to exchange greeting of with him in Paradise. Meanwhile we want Allah to convey those greetings now wishing that this foreshadows what we hope for in the Hereafter.
Ahmed ibn Hanbal
Then I turned to the scholars of the madhab, or school of thought, that taught me Islam: the hanbali school of thought. This more classical explanation of this phrase is given by Islamqa, a website of rulings run by Shaykh Muhammad Sálih al-Munajjid, in Saudi Arabia. The English translations of extracts quoted from (https://islamqa.info/en/69944) have been slightly paraphrased to work better and give a clearer idea of the meaning in English. In addition, I have changed the word translating (صلّى), which was rendered as “blessings” as opposed to “mercy”, to “bonds” or “ligatures” (still contrasted to mercy), so as to more closely reflect the notion of being drawn closer to Allah and the promotion in status it implies, which is at the heart of how I conceive of Allah’s saláh on the Prophet (وصلاة وسلام عليه).
Sallī ‘alâ Muhammad (صلّي على محمّد)
According to Muhammad Sálih al-Munajjid’s website, IslamQ&A, the earlier, later and contemporary hanbali scholars are of the view that the meaning of blessings upon the Prophet (صلّى الله عليه وسلّم) is praise for him among the “higher group” (الْمَلَإِ الْأَعْلَىٰ) or al-mala’ al-‘a’la, mentioned in Quran 37:8, meaning the “angels”. Furthermore, the prayers of the angels and the Muslims for blessings upon him are for him (صلّى الله عليه وسلّم) to be praised by Allah among the “higher group”.
The site recommends Ibn al-Qayyim’s discussion of the meaning of blessings upon the Prophet (صلّى الله عليه وسلّم) at length, the rulings thereon, and its benefits in (جلاء الأفهام في فضل الصلاة والسلام على خير الأنام), or Jala’ al-Afham fi Fadl al-Salati wa’l-Salam ‘ala Khayr il-Anam.
It also reports that Shaykh Muhammad ibn Sáleh al-‘Uthaymīn (replacing the translation of “صلّي” with “prayers” or “prayer for blessings” instead of the word “blessings” on its own) said:
The phrase (صلّي على محمّد), or “Sallī ‘ala Muhammad”, was said to mean “mercy” when invoked of Allah, “prayer for forgiveness” when invoked of the angels, and “prayers for blessings” upon him when invoked of humans. In other words, if it is said:
- “Allah sent prayers upon him,” it means that “He bestowed mercy upon him”.
- “The angels sent prayers upon him,” it means that “they prayed for forgiveness for him”.
- “The khateeb (the preacher) sent blessings upon him,” it means that “he prayed for blessing for him”.
Although, according to the Shaykh, the above is well known among the scholars, there is a difference in opinion about the exact meaning, because (الصلاة) is more specific than either “prayers for blessing” or “mercy”. Hence the Muslims are unanimously agreed that it is permissible to pray for “mercy” for every believer, but they differed as to whether we may invoke “blessing” for someone by sending “prayers” upon him using this specific word of (الصلاة) or (… صلّي على) for anyone other than the Prophets. If the word (صلاة) here is taken to mean “mercy”, then there is no difference between them, and just as we pray for “mercy” for a person we may send “prayers for blessing” upon them.
Moreover, Allah says (the explanation “i.e. bonds of” added in):
(أُولَٰئِكَ عَلَيْهِمْ صَلَوَاتٌ مِّن رَّبِّهِمْ وَرَحْمَةٌ ۖ وَأُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْمُهْتَدُونَ)
“They are those on whom are the Prayers for (i.e. bonds of) blessing from their Lord, and receive His Mercy, and it is they who are the guided ones” [al-Baqarah 2:157].
The word (رحمة), or Mercy, is mentioned in conjunction with the word (صلوات), or Prayers, which indicates that they are two different things, so the verse clarifies the meaning. The scholars have used the word salah in some places and the word rahmah in others, so salah is the not the same as rahmah. The best that can be said concerning this is what Abu’l-‘Aaliyah said: The salah of Allah upon the Prophet (صلّى الله عليه وسلّم) is His praising him among the angels in (الْمَلَإِ الْأَعْلَىٰ الملائكة من), or the “higher group”.
So, what is meant by “Allahumma salli ‘alayhi” (اللهمّ صلّي عليه) is: “O Allah, praise him among the higher group,” i.e., among the angels who are close [to Him] (عند الملائكة المقرَّبين).”
At this point, the Shaykh addresses the issue of concern for many new to Islam from Christianity. He said (replacing the translation of “صِلة” with “bond, ligature or rapprochement” instead of “gift”):
If this seems unlikely from a linguistic point of view, because (الصلاة), or the prayer (salah) in Arabic, means (الدُّعاء) or supplication (du’aa), not praise, then consider that the word (الصلاة) is also connected to the word (صِلة) which means a bond, ligature or rapprochement. So, clearly, praise for the Prophet (صلّى الله عليه وسلّم) among the higher group (angels) is one of the greatest ligatures. Based on this, the sending salah upon him means invoking praise for him along with the higher group (the angels) seems the strongest view.
Al-Sharh al-Mumti’, 3/163, 164
Wa Salam (وسلم)
Sending greetings upon him (صلّى الله عليه وسلّم) means praying for (السّلمة), or salamah, which means the soundness of his body and of his religious commitment during his lifetime until death takes him, the soundness of his body and of his religious commitment in the grave, and his safety and well-being on the Day of Resurrection.
Shaykh Muhammad ibn Saleh al-‘Uthaymin said:
The phrase (السلام عليك) or al-salamu ‘alayka.
It was said that the meaning of (السلام) or al-Salaam, is one of the names of Allah, because the messenger of Allah (صلّى الله عليه وسلّم) said: (الله السَلام) or “Allah is al-Salaam,” and Allah says in His Book:
(هُوَ اللَّهُ … الْمَلِكُ الْقُدُّوسُ السَّلَامُ)
“the King, the Holy, the Bestower of Peace” [al-Hashr 59:23].
So according to this view, the meaning is:
May Allah protect, keep safe and take care of His Messenger (صلّى الله عليه وسلّم). It is as if we are saying: Allah is watching over you, protecting you, helping you, etc.
He also says that
(السلام), or As-Salam, is a noun that comes from the root (سلّم), or sallama, which means greeting. The meaning of greeting the Messenger (صلّى الله عليه وسلّم) is to pray for him and ask that he be kept safe from all harm.
It could be said that this (دُعَاء), or du’aa’, meaning supplication, is something obvious during his lifetime, but after his death, how can we pray that he be kept safe and sound when he (صلّى الله عليه وسلّم) has died?
The answer is that prayer for safety and well-being are not limited to the time when someone is alive. There are the terrors of the Day of Resurrection yet to come. Hence the prayer of the Messengers when the people cross (الصراط), or al-sirat (a bridge over Hell) will be:
(اللهمَّ سلِّم سلِّم)
“Allahumma, sallim, sallim (O Allah, grant safety, grant safety).”
A man does not cease to face danger and harm just because he has died.
So, we pray for the Prophet (صلّى الله عليه وسلّم), that he will be kept safe from the terrors of the standing (on the Day of Resurrection).
We also say that there may be a more general meaning, i.e., that safety and protection for him also includes protection for (الشَّريعة), or His shari’ah, meaning God’s Law, and (السُّنَّة), or Sunnah, meaning the example, or way, of the Prophet, (صلّى الله عليه وسلّم), that they may be kept safe from the hands of those who would tamper with them, as the scholars said concerning the verse:
(فَرُدُّوهُ إِلَى اللَّهِ وَالرَّسُوِلِ)
“refer it to Allah and His Messenger” [al-Nisa’ 4:59]
One referred directly to him during his lifetime, but refers to his Sunnah since his death.
Al-Sharh al-Mumti’, 3/149, 150
(al-salamu ‘alayka) السلام عليك
Another uncomfortable phrase we are taught to say at the closing of the prayer is (السلام عليك أيها النبي) or “al-salamu ‘alayk ayuhal- nabī,” meaning, “Peace be upon you, O Prophet.” To me, that seems like direct speech to the Prophet, (صلّى الله عليه وسلّم), which is like speaking to Jesus as if he can her us. The question also nags at others, so the ask the scholars.
Is addressing the Messenger (صلّى الله عليه وسلّم) this way like one person addressing another?
In response to this question, Shaykh Muhammad ibn Saleh al-‘Uthaymin replied that it is not. He said:
If it were spoken like that, then the prayer would be invalidated thereby, because no ordinary audible human speech is acceptable during the prayer. If it were the case that it was like the normal speech between people, then the Sahabah would have spoken it out loud so that the Prophet (صلّى الله عليه وسلّم) would hear them in his hearing, and he would have returned the greeting, as happened when they met him, and they would not have said it when praying when he was not present with them. Hence the Sahabah used to say (السلام عليك), or “Al-salamu ‘alayka” although he could not hear them, and they would say “Al-salamu ‘alayka” when they were in one land and he was in another, and we say “al-salamu ‘alayka” although we are in lands other than his, and in a time other than his.
In his book (إقتضاء الصراط المستقيم), Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyah said
Because you think so much about him (صلّى الله عليه وسلّم) when you (إرسال السلام على الرسول) send salams upon the Messenger, it is as if he is in front of you and you are addressing him.
Al-Sharh al-Mumti’, 3/149, 150
For this reason, it is reported that some of the sahaba, or companions of the Prophet, or their followers would say (السلام على النبي) or “Al-salamu ‘alaa an-nabi,” meaning, “Greetings of Peace to the Prophet,” instead of (السلام عليك أيها النبي), or “Al-salamu ‘alayka, ay-you an-nabi,” after he died.
Shaykh said concerning this:
With regard to the report narrated in Sahîh al-Bukhârī from ‘Abd-Allah ibn Mas’oud, which says that after the Messenger (صلّى الله عليه وسلّم) passed away, they used to say “(السلام على النبي ورحماةالله وبركاته) meaning, “Peace be upon the Prophet and Allah‘s mercy and His blessings” – this was the interpretation of Ibn Mas’ood, which differed from that of one who was more knowledgeable than him, namely ‘Umar ibn al-Khattáb, for he addressed the people from the pulpit of the Messenger of Allah (صلّى الله عليه وسلّم) and said in the testification of faith: (السلام عليك أيها النبي ورحماةالله) or “al-salámu ‘alayka ayyhu’l-nabiyyu wa rahmatullah,” meaning “Peace be upon you, O Prophet and the mercy of Allah)”, as was narrated by Malik in al-Muwatta’ with the soundest of chains of narrators.
Al-Sharh al-Mumti’, 3/150, 151
However, although the practice of saying “…Alsalam ‘alá an-nabi” is frowned upon as going against the stronger tradition from the Prophet (صلّى الله عليه وسلّم), I feel more comfortable with saying it.
Nevertheless, even if we accept we should use direst speech here, the true Muslim should not regard this form of greeting the Prophet as an elocutionary address. Rather, it should be treated as a supplication to Allah to pass on our greetings.
Shaykh Muhammad ibn Saleh Al-‘Uthaymīn, addressing this issue, said:
(هو دُعاءٌ تدعو بأنَّ الله يُسلِّمُه ، فهو خَبَرٌ بمعنى الدُّعاء)
It is a supplication, asking Allah to protect him. So, it is a statement that serves as a supplication.
Al-Sharh al-Mumti’, 3/149, 150
الشرح الممتع على زاد المستقنع – ابن عثيمين