Wa `alaykum As-Salamu wa Rahmatullahi wa Barakatuh.
In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
All praise and thanks are due to Allah, and peace and blessings be upon His Messenger.
Dear brother in Islam, thanks for your question, which reflects your concern about Islam and its teachings. Also, we appreciate the great confidence you have in us and implore Allah to bless your efforts in pursuit of knowledge.
In Islam, Salah stands as the second pillar of Islam after testifying that there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is His final Messenger. The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said, ďIslam is built upon five pillars: testifying that there is no true god except Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, performing Salah, paying the Zakah, making the pilgrimage to the Sacred House (Hajj), and fasting the month of Ramadan.Ē (Reported by Al-Bukhari)
However, following is an illustration of the virtue and significance of Salah:
Prayer is the pillar of Islam, the pinnacle of good deeds, and the peak of obedience. `Uthman ibn `Afan (may Allah be pleased with him) reported that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said: "If the time for a prescribed Salah comes, and a Muslim performs Wudu' properly (and then offers his Salah) with humility and bowing (to Allah), it will be an expiation for his past sins, so long as he has not committed a major sin; and this is applicable to all times." (Reported by Muslim)
Humran said that he saw `Uthman performing Wudu'; he washed his hands thrice, rinsed his mouth and then washed his nose, by putting water in it and then blowing it out, and washed his face thrice, and then washed his right forearm up to the elbow thrice, and then the left forearm up to the elbow thrice, then wiped his head with water, washed his right foot thrice, and then his left foot thrice and said, "I saw Allah's Messenger performing ablution similar to the one Iíve just performed, and then he said, 'Whoever performs Wudu' (as Iíve just done) and then offers two Rak`at in which he does not think of worldly things, all his previous sins will be forgiven.'" (Reported by Al-Bukhari and Muslim)
You should know that Salah consists of pillars, duties, and Sunnan. The spirit of Salah is intention, devotion, and contemplation of heart. Without contemplation, invocation is of no avail since this will be futile utterance. By the same token, all other acts of Salah will not bring forth its avowed fruits, i.e., the act of Qiyam (standing) connotes service and Sujud (prostration) implies humility and glorification, which will never be attained without attention. Allah, Most High, says, "It is not their meat or their blood that reaches Allah: it is your piety that reaches Him." (Al-Hajj: 37)
It is now clear that what counts most in the Sight of Allah, Most High, is the state of the heart, by which one submits to the commands of Allah. In this way alertness and mindfulness are required in Salah even if a lapse of negligence is pardoned by the Law-Giver as long as consciousness dominates it.
Nevertheless, the following three are the yardstick of any acceptable Salah:
1- Consciousness: It means to show indifference to all worldly interests and have absolute consciousness of Allah, Most High. The cause of such consciousness is decisive intention since the man who has decisive intention to do something, necessarily puts his heart to it. Consciousness, in fact, differs according to the strength of belief in the Hereafter and scorn of this world. Therefore, if you miss consciousness in Salah, you should know that the root-cause of this is weakness of faith, and so you should exert yourself to strengthen and bolster it.
2- Reflection on the words; this is the second step after consciousness: Consciousness may be present without grasping the meaning, and so attention should be directed to grasping the meaning by refraining from thinking of other matters.
3- Glorification and fear of Allah, Most High, which emanate from two facts: realizing the Majesty and Magnificence of Allah, and looking down upon one's self, which would result in humility and consciousness. Hope is also an important factor in Salah. The one who offers Salah should hope for the reward of Allah, and fear the punishment due to his imperfection.
The worshiper should contemplate on every act of Salah. When he hears the Adhan (Call to Salah), he should remember the call on the Day of Judgment, and prepare himself to the answer, thinking how to reply. When the worshiper covers his private parts, he should remember his concealed vices which no one knows except Allah, Most High, and which require repentance.
When the worshiper faces the Qiblah (Direction of Salah), he turns his face towards the House of Allah and turns his back to all other directions. No doubt, directing his heart towards Allah is worthwhile.
When you say: "Allah is Greatest", your heart should not belie your tongue. If you believe that there is something greater than Allah, you will be a liar. Be cautious.
When you say: "I seek refuge in Allah from the accursed Satan", you should take into account that you resort to Allah, Most High. In this case, if your heart is not in tune with your tongue, what you say will be nonsense and irrational. Try to grasp the meaning of what you say.
When you say: "Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the Worlds," you should ponder over the meaning of these words. Also, you reflect on Allah's mercy when you read: "Most Gracious, Most Merciful". Think about Allah's power when you read: "Master of the Day of Judgment". In this way, one should reflect on what he reads or say in Salah.
It is reported that Zararah ibn Abi Awfa (may Allah be pleased with him) fell dead when he recited the Qur'anic verse, "Finally, when the trumpet is sounded." (Al-Muddathir: 8) This is, no doubt, is due to his imagination of this horrible scene.
When bowing, try to show humility to your Lord. Likewise, you should be more humble when prostrating since you place yourself in its proper and original position, namely, the earth from which you have been created. In this case, try to reflect on what you say.
Finally, you should know that performing Salah in such a manner purifies and enlightens the heart, which, in turn, could behold the Glory of Allah. In fact, no one but the devout scholars can grasp these meanings.
In contrast, whoever performs Salah without observing its requirements would in no way grasp its significance. Such a man, furthermore, may exceed the limit and deny its existence.
Quoted, with slight modification, from Ibn Qudamah Al-Maqdisi's Mukhtasar Minhaj Al-Qasidin, published by Dar Al-Manarah for Translation, Publishing and Distribution, Egypt, 2001.