Every year, Ashura is commemorated by hundreds of millions of lovers of the Holy Progeny…
Prostration: An Act of Submission and Humility
What does it mean for us as human beings to prostrate before God? Though the term may bring images to our mind of the physical act of prostration, it also symbolizes a great spiritual discourse. God never asks anything of us without reason or meaning. So, what is the deeper spiritual significance behind this act that we must perform in our daily prayers?
“Believers, worship your Lord, bow down and prostrate yourselves before Him and do virtuous deeds so that perhaps you will have everlasting happiness.” (22:77) (For rulings on verses requiring obligatory prostration (sajdah), click here.)
Prostration as a manifestation of humility
Narrations tell us that Imam Jafar al-Sadiq (p) said, “Prostration is the highest degree of worship that a person can perform.” 1
The meaning of the verb “to prostrate” is to be stretched out with [one’s] face on the ground in adoration or submission.2 Prostrating is an act of surrender and thus requires a high degree of humility. You would not lower your head unless the one you bow before is greater and more powerful than yourself. It is an acknowledgment of yielding to another.
When the greatness, beauty, and graciousness of God overcomes us, we can naturally fall to our knees in prostration. This could be due to the realization of our insignificance as we submit ourselves to that which we accept as Greater and more Powerful.
“Say, ‘It does not matter whether you believe in it or not, for when it is read to those who had received the knowledge (heavenly Books) that were sent before, they bow down and prostrate themselves before the Lord.’ They say, ’Our Lord is too Glorious to disregard His promise.’ They bow down in prostration and weep and it makes them [humbler] (before the Lord).” (17:107-109)
The act of prostration requires a believer to shed their arrogance. One must be humble in order to bow before our Creator when we recognize His importance. “Whatever is in the heavens and the earth, the cattle and the angels prostrate themselves before God without pride.” (16:49) A person would not bow to that which is not deserving unless there was some element of coercion involved. God, however, does not force us to worship or obey Him. “There is no compulsion in religion. Certainly, right has become clearly distinct from wrong. Whoever rejects the devil and believes in God has firmly taken hold of a strong handle that never breaks. God is All-hearing and knowing.” (2:256)
Therefore, lowering our foreheads before the Almighty is yielding to the worthiest and the All-Powerful. When we submit, we accept God’s command. However, Iblis (Satan) disobeyed God’s first command to prostrate to His vicegerent. Iblis felt he was a superior being to Prophet Adam (p) and thus did not bow: “When your Lord told the angels, ‘I will create a mortal out of clay, and when I give it proper shape and blow My spirit into it, bow down in prostration to him,’ all the angel then prostrated themselves except Iblis who puffed himself up with pride and became a disbeliever.” (38: 71-73) When we prostrate to our Creator, therefore, we have set aside any pride, arrogance, or egotism and have submitted to God’s superiority over us.
In another part of the Quran, we see, “When We told the angels to prostrate before Adam, they all obeyed except Iblis who abstained out of pride and so he became one of those who deny the truth.” (2:34) If Iblis truly submitted to the authority and command of the Almighty, then he would have obeyed as the angels had. “Nonetheless, they were prepared to obey God’s command and prostrate before him, only because of their conviction that God would only command what is good.”3 Read more about Prophet Adam (p) and Iblis in God’s Emissary’s.) When we bow our heads, we submit ourselves to the Almighty and should trust Him in all our affairs by obeying His command.
Spiritual Dimension of Prostration
We can prostrate before God at any given time, place, and moment. However, the most common instance of prostration is while performing the obligatory daily prayers. It can therefore become a ritualistic routine carried out blindly without reflection upon the symbolism and significance behind the act. We must make every effort to spend time contemplating the action we are performing. What is its purpose? Why do I choose to submit? What is the deeper significance?
Throughout our lifetime, we may try to shed our imperfections and misdeeds so we can become closer to our Creator. Prostration is also a means of gaining proximity to God. It provides direct communication to the Almighty without distractions. Our focus and attention are solely inward. The Commander of the Faithful, Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib (p) is reported to have said, “Nothing can bring about proximity to God, Glory be to Him, except an abundance of prostration and bowing.” 4
Our foreheads touch the earth, connecting us to God’s universe at the same time our spirit is meant to connect with the Almighty. One could say that the intimacy between God and the believer is greatest while prostrating because of the vulnerable state we are in, forcing us to concentrate on the All-Powerful. Therefore, the soul is better able to disassociate from the material world, arrogance, and pride.
Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib (p) is also reported to have said: “The external appearance of the [ prostration] is the placing of the forehead on the ground with sincerity and humility, but its esoteric essence is the detachment of the heart from all perishable things, attachment of the heart to the eternal abode, and relief from pride, fanaticism, and all worldly attachments.”5
It is the responsibility of the believer to reflect upon the underlying significance of our actions so that we are better able to connect with our Creator and understand the profound wisdom of what we are doing.
Imam Ali (p) received a question concerning the wisdom behind prostration. The Imam (p) said: “The first prostration means that I was dust in the beginning, and as I raise my head from prostration, it means that I came to the world from the dust. The second prostration means that I will again return to the soil, and as I raise my head from prostration, it means that on the Day of Resurrection I will rise up from the grave and be summoned.” 6
The way we say our prayers encapsulates our entire existence from its creation until its return on the Day of Judgment. We begin from dust, enter our existence in this world, are buried in the dust from which we were created, and eventually are raised on the Day of Judgment.
Harmony in Prostration
Another spiritual benefit of prostration is the harmony that it fosters, not only amongst fellow believers but also with all of God’s creations. All of God’s faithful creations bow their heads in unison in submissive prostration to the All-Knowing: “Have you not considered that those in the heavens and the earth, the Sun, the Moon, the Stars, the mountains, the trees, the animals, and many people, all bow down to God?” (22:18) Although we may seem alone when we bow our heads in prostration, there is a recognition that, through the Divine, we are in concordance with all that worships Him.
The action of prostrating in our prayers can become just a ritual that we perform unless we take some time for contemplation on its underlying significance and meaning. Submitting ourselves to the Almighty requires humility and recognition of His superiority over us. And this acknowledgment unifies us with the rest of His creation and allows us to better obey His commands.
1. Alrawandi, Al-daawat, p.33, no. 70.
3. Shaykh Rizwan Arastu, God’s Emissaries (I.M.A.M., 2014), 26.
4. Al-Wasity, Ayioon il hikam wal mawaiz, 544.
5. Mustadrak al-wasa’il, vol. 4, p. 486.
6. Bihar al-anwar, vol. 82. p. 139.
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