Salah is the Arabic word for prayer and its name and basic movements are familiar to Muslims all over the world. Much less commonly known is that there is a physical aspect to the word’s origin, as it comes from ‘salan’ which means ‘the middle of the back’. A possible connection is that this distinctive form of the prayer (also practised by the prophets mentioned in the Bible, such as Moses and Jesus) is largely constituted by the position and inclination of the back in the four positions of standing straight, bowing, prostrating and sitting.
A study in 2002 carried out in the Hokkaido University School of Medicine sought to assess the impact of light exercise in Salah, as a mechanism for the rehabilitation of the health of old and disabled patients. The researchers monitored the active ranges of the motions of prayer by placing a goniometer (an instrument that measures angle) on the joints of patients. Also, brain blood pressure was monitored in order to assess the effect of gravity at the different positions. The following analysis of the medical benefits of prayer, although based on the study of old and disabled patients, without doubt has an application to the health and well being of people of all ages and fitness.
Standing for Prayers
Standing, according to the research, helps develop balance. While standing, Muslims exert pressure comfortably, the centre of pressure is usually midway between the instep of the two feet. In the standing position, Muslims raise their hands and then bring them down clasping their left hand with right. The hands are placed above or below the navel, chest or abdomen. It was found that the voluntary clenching of the left wrist with the right hand increased blood to the hand area, the left motor cortex and the sensory areas in the post-central gyrus (in the brain).
The prayer itself then consists of Muslims uttering verses from the Qur’an in Arabic. The research shows that through the exercise of the muscles during speech there is an increase in blood flow to the tongue, face, mouth, sensory and motor areas, and the upper pre-motor cortex in the brain. This is just the physical speech act. When the person also contemplates or becomes involved in creative speech, blood flow is increased to specific speech areas in the brain.
After standing, praying Muslims bow. This is simply the forward movement of the vertebrate column (especially the lumbar region), with their hands coming to rest firmly on their knees. Following the utterances of “Glory be to God the Almighty”, there is a reversion to the standing position. Several muscles and joints are stimulated during these movements. For example, among the muscles exercised are the abdominals of both sides, which are the paired muscles that run vertically across the abdomen. They are crucial for respiration, protecting the internal organs, and creating the intra abdominal pressure required to lift heavy items. Thus the stimulation of such muscles would be highly recommended and beneficial.
After having reverted back to the standing position, Muslims then prostrate themselves before God ﷻ. This is done simply by first kneeling and then putting the forehead and bridge of the nose to touch the ground, with the arms out to the side and the palms flat. The researchers claim these movements “Have a great impact on the blood flow in the human brain.” They also assert that because of the varying motions in prostration it helps improve, cerebral (brain) circulation and helps avoid ischemic brain disease. Also they assert movements from a natural vertical position to prostration, help in the maintenance of a steady postural equilibrium.
Sitting is the final position of Salah, and it again stimulates a variety of joints and muscles, firming the toes, knees, thighs and legs. To conclude their Salah, Muslims invoke salutations of peace by saying, “Assalamu alaykum wa rahmatullah” (peace be upon you together with God’s mercy), first over the right shoulder and then left, which involves the stretching of the neck muscles.
The study concluded that Salah “has psychological, musculoskeletal and cerebral effects on improving the muscular functions of geriatric, disabled and dementia patients in a rehabilitation program.” Thus old and disabled patients can benefit greatly for Salah, but such good light exercise is also wonderful for younger people, alongside more strenuous physical workouts. There is additional value in Salah as it is relatively short, mild and moderate, stimulates the brain and body, and also is prescribed consistently (i.e. five times or more a day).
All in all, while Muslims perform their prayer, because it has been commanded by Allah ﷻ, there is an underlying and undeniable wisdom to the practice for health and well being. Abu Dharr narrated that the Prophet ﷺ said: “In every morning there is a charitable act on the joints of any of you. Every tasbihah (to say subhanallah, i.e. glory be to Allah) is a charitable act; every tahmidah (to say alhamdulillah, i.e. praise be to Allah) is a charitable act, every tahlilah (to say la ilaha illallah, i.e. there is none worthy of worship but Allah) is a charitable act; every takbirah (to say allahu akbar, i.e. Allah is the greatest) is a charitable act; enjoining the right is a charitable act; forbidding the evil is a charitable act. However, to fulfil that charity, it is sufficient to pray two rak’at (units) of Duha (the optional mid-morning prayer).”
Here we can see that the performance of just two units of prayer suffices for the charity due to thank Allah ﷻ for every joint in the human body. Why should this be, except that Salah, as an act that affects every part of the body, requires every joint to make its contribution to the total performance of the worship?
First published in The Invitation (www.invitation-magazine.com).