Bowing and Prostrating
(rukūʿ, sujūd)

Gibril Fouad Haddad and Fatimah Ahmadshah

This article comprises the following sections: (i) Definitions and Usage; (ii) Bowing and Prostration as Worship and Submission Generally, and Ritual Prayer Specifically; (iii) The Prostration of the Angels to the Prophet Ādam, upon him and them peace; (iv) Satan’s Refusal to Prostrate to Ādam; (v) The Bowing and Prostration of Prophets, upon them peace; (vi) The Prostration of the Prophet Muḥammad, upon him blessings and peace; (vii) The Prostration of Believers and Human Beings Generally; (viii) Prostration of Yūsuf’s Parents and Brothers, Firʿawn’s Sorcerers, and the Israelites; (ix) The Prostration of Jinns; (x) The Prostration of All That Is in the Heavens and Earth; (xi) The Verses of Prostration; (xii) The Jāhiliyya Aversion to Bowing; (xiii) The Disbelievers’ Refusal to Bow or Prostrate; (xiv) The Pagans’ Prostration after the Prophet’s Recitation of Q 53; (xv) Bibliography. 

Definitions and Usage

Bowing and prostration are integrals (arkān) of Muslim ritual prayer (ṣalāt), without which prayer is invalid; they are among the most recognizable signs of a Muslim’s submission to Allah and the expression of a human being’s utter servanthood to his Creator (see Slaves of Allah). Bowing (rukūʿ) is defined as bending the upper body to a straight horizontal position so that the hands reach the knees and the torso is at a right angle to the legs while sujūd is the prostration of the “seven bones” (sabʿat aʿẓum) of a person—the forehead (jabha), hands (palms down), knees, and toe-tips (aṭrāf al-qadamayn) (Bukhārī, Adhān, al-sujūd ʿalā al-anf; Muslim, Ṣalāt, aʿḍāʾ al-sujūd) (see Bones)—flat on firm ground so that one’s chin is near the ground: they fall to their chins, prostrate (Q 17:107) (Sarakhsī, Mabsūṭ 1:19-22; Ḥiṣnī, Kifāya, Ṣalāt, arkān al-ṣalāt; Ibn ʿĀbidīn, Radd al-muḥtār 1:481-482). These acts are mentioned 77 times in 48 passages in the Qurʾān, four of which mention bowing alone (Q 2:43, 5:55, 38:24, 77:48) and six both acts together (Q 2:125, 3:43, 9:112, 22:26, 22:77, 48:29). Prostration is mentioned alone almost ten times as frequently as bowing, which indicates its special significance, as reflected in this entry. The act of placing one’s face—particularly the forehead and nose, which are the highest prominences of the body and symbolize honor and prestige—on the ground is an expression of absolute obedience to Allah; it is the very embodiment of humility and servanthood (Nawawī, Sharḥ Muslim, Ṣalāt, faḍl al-sujūd wal-ḥathth ʿalayh; Rāẓī, Tafsīr, sub Q 9:35; 68:16).

Lexically, the root r-k-ʿ indicates any kind of bending down (inḥināʾ) (Jawharī, Ṣiḥāḥ) in a person or an object (Ibn Fāris, Maqāyīs), whether in worship or other than that (Rāghib, Mufradāt) as well as humility and submission (al-khuḍūʿ: Ibn Sīda, Muḥkam; al-tadhallul: Rāghib, Mufradāt). The act is called rukūʿ (as in the ritual prayer) and its doer a rākiʿ (pl. rākiʿūn and rukkaʿ), “anyone who lowers his head, whether his knees touch the ground or not” (Farāhīdī, ʿAyn; Azharī, Tahdhīb), “anyone who falls on his face (kabā/yakbū ʿalā wajhih), as in the rukūʿ of prayer” (Ibn Durayd, Jamhara; Saraqusṭī, Afʿāl, 3:68).

The root s-j-d and its verb sajada indicate lowering oneself, showing humility and submission (taṭāmun wa-dhull, Ibn Fāris, Maqāyīs; khaḍaʿa, Jawharī, Ṣiḥāḥ), even figuratively, as in sajadat al-nakhla “the palm tree bent over” (Ibn Qutayba, Gharīb al-Ḥadīth, 1:168, alfāẓ al-ṣalāt) or the pre-Islamic boast spoken by one of the overlords of Najd, the poet and warrior-Companion Zayd b. Muhalhal al-Ṭāʾī, known as Zayd al-Khayl (Zayd of the Horses), whom the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, renamed Zayd al-Khayr (Zayd of Goodness) (d. 9/631): “You could see the crags there prostrating (sujjadan) to the hooves (al-ḥāwāfir)” in reference to mounted riders who had no dif­ficulty climbing even the steepest rocky slopes, as if they were trampling them under­foot (Ibn Qutayba, Taʾwīl, p. 417; Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 2:58). Its infinitive noun sujūd means (i) literally, “to look down to the ground for a long time with one’s head bent” (Ibn Durayd, Jamhara); (ii) showing submission through prostration in prayer and (iii) the prostration itself (Jawharī, Ṣiḥāḥ; Saraqusṭī, Afʿāl, 3:504). The doer of the act is called sājid (pl. ṣajidūn and sujjad), its place masjad and masjid (Ibn Sīda, Muḥkam). The Form-IV verb asjada, however, means “to lower the head or bend down,” for example a camel, so as to allow the rider to mount: “And they told it: ‘Bow (asjid) for Laylā!’ so it bowed” (Azharī, Tahdhīb; Ibn Qutayba, Gharīb al-Ḥadīth, 1:168, alfāẓ al-ṣalāt), exactly as rakaʿa does. It also suggests the submission of covenanted non-Muslims (ahl al-dhimma, see Alliance and Treaty) since its infinitive noun isjād can denote the jizya (poll-tax) they remit (Azharī, Tahdḥīb). Sajada is also defined as “to stand erect” in the dialect of Ṭayyiʾ (or Ṭay), which puts it among the auto-antonyms (aḍdād) (Ibn Sīda, Muḥkam; Ṣaghānī, Takmila; Fayrūzābādī, Qāmūs).

A less common usage of the terms “bowing” and “prostration” is as synonyms. For example, the Prophet Dāwūd, upon him peace, fell down bowing and repented (kharra rākiʿan wa-anāb, Q 38:24), which according to many commentators means that he prostrated, not only bowed (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr; Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf; Ālūsī, Rūḥ; etc.). Likewise, while some (Rāzī, Ālūsī) understand the Divine injunction to the Children of Israel that they enter the gate in prostration (Q 2:58) to mean “in submissive humility,” others hold that it actually means to bow while entering, “because it would be impossible to enter while prostrating, in the literal sense of the word” (Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Baghawī, Ibn al-Jawzī, sub Q 2:58; see section “Prostration of the Israelites” below).

Four semantic distinctions emerge:

  1. Rukūʿ may include genuflexion but not necessarily: rakaʿa al-shaykh means the old man became hunched with age, not that he knelt (Ṣiḥāḥ); unlike Christian Arabic, classical Arabic does not use rakaʿa for “kneel” but jathā, baraka or kharra (e.g. Bukhārī, ʿIlm, man baraka ʿalā rukbatayh ʿinda al-imām aw al-muḥaddith; “The wind never blew but the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, fell to his knees (jathā ʿalā rukbatayh) and supplicated,” Shāfiʿī, Musnad, 2:69 §537), while rukūʿ, as defined above, entails bowing of the head sine qua non.
  2. In the latter sense, rukuʿ and isjād are exactly synonymous.
  3. Rukūʿ may also mean falling on one’s face in prostration, as suggested above and as shown in the discussion of Q 38:24 below, in which sense rukūʿ and sujūd are also synonymous.
  4. Rukūʿ is further synonymous with sujūd in that both can also be defined as humility and submission (khuḍūʿ).

Bowing and Prostration as Worship and Submission Generally, and Ritual Prayer Specifically

In addition to the literal meanings of “bowing” and “prostration” as the integrals of prayer already discussed, the Qurʾān employs these two terms to signify

  1. individual acts of worship outside ritual prayer, performed expressions of exaltation, either rightfully as in the angel's prostration to the Prophet Ādam (Q 2:34, 7:11, 15:30, 17:61, 18:50, 20:116; 38:73) and the prostration of the Prophet Yūsuf’s brothers to him (Q 12:100); or unrightfully, as in the hoopoe’s (see Animals) description of the Queen of Sabaʾ and her nation, I found her and her people prostrating to the sun instead of Allah (Q 27:24), meaning either literal “prostration at sunrise” (Ibn Abī Ḥātim) or “worship” (Māturīdī), or both (Ṭabarī);
  2. the believers’ humble submission to Allah (al-khushūʿ wal-ikhbāt wal-tawāḍuʿ lillāh) that such acts express, as implied in the verse Verily, your [true] friends are none other than Allah, His Messenger, and the believers—those who establish regular prayer and give charity while they bow down (Q 5:55) (Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf; Rāzī, Tafsīr; Ālūsī, Rūḥ); and
  3. ritual prayer (ṣalāt) in its entirety, for which the terms act as synecdoches (majāz mursal), as does “bowing” in the verse just mentioned (Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar; Ibn al-Jawzī, Zād, sub Q 5:55), “raising up” in Q 2:3, and glorification (tasbīḥ) and prostration in Q 50:40, And spend part of the night glorifying your Lord, and after prostration, which encourages supererogatory prayer after the obligatory one (Tafsīrs of Farrāʾ, Wāḥidī, Zamakhsharī, Rāzī, Nasafī). “He named the performance (adāʾ) [of prayer] a ‘rais­ing up’ (iqāma) because it involves standing (qiyām), just as He also referred to it by the names of ‘devotion’ (qunūt), ‘bowing’ (rukūʿ), ‘prostration’ (sujūd), and ‘glorification’ (tasbīḥ)” (Bayḍāwī, Tafsīr, sub Q 2:3). “Prostration” also stands for prayer in the words spoken to the Companion Rabīʿa b. Kaʿb al-Aslamī (d. 64/683)—one of the paupers of Ahl al-Ṣuffa—who had asked to be in the company of the Prophet in Paradise: “Then help me against your ego with much prostration” (fa-aʿinnī ʿalā nafsika bi-kathrat al-sujūd) (Muslim, Ṣalāt, faḍl al-sujūd wal-ḥathth ʿalayh), “that is, frequent prayer” (Nawawī, Sharḥ Muslim, Ṣalāt, faḍl al-sujūd wal-ḥathth ʿalayh), “abundant voluntary prayer” (ʿAzīzī, Sirāj, 3:322). Likewise, the verses And when they are told “Bow down!” they do not bow down (Q 77:48), And when the Qurʾān is recited before them, they do not prostrate (Q 84:21), according to the massive majority, both refer to the disbelievers who refused to pray altogether (Tafsīrs of Mujāhid, Māwardī, Wāḥidī (Wajīz), Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Rāzī, etc. sub Q 77:48, “and it is the more correct gloss:” Ibn al-Jazwī, Zād; Thaʿlabī, sub Q 2:1, 77:48; Ibn Abī Zamanīn, Thaʿlabī, Samʿānī, Baghawī, etc., sub Q 84:21; Māturīdi, sub Q 22:77-78).

Exegetes do not always agree which of the above-mentioned three usages are intended in a given verse. For instance, the predominant interpretation of the final injunction in the verse addressing the Jews, and establish prayer and give charity, and bow down along with those who bow down (Q 2:43), is that they were ordered to submit to Allah Almighty, pray and remit zakāt  just as the Muslims were (Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Samarqandī, Ibn Abī Zamanīn, etc., sub Q 2:43), “for anything else is as zero prayer and zero zakāt” (Bayḍāwī); so what is meant is the rukūʿ of Muslim prayer, and Allah is commanding the Jews to follow the rituals of the Muslims and pray as they pray (Ibn ʿĀshūr). Another view, however, maintains that it means simply to pray in company, as Jews prayed individually, and the mention of “bowing” is to indicate that the first injunction (establish prayer) was particular to Muslim prayer, since bowing was not known to these exegetes to be a part of Jewish and Christian prayers (Aḥkām of Jaṣṣāṣ and Kiyā; Baghawī, Tafsīr; Ālūsī, Rūḥ). Others yet consider all the above meanings possible within the realm of interpretation (Tafsīrs of Māturīdī, Zamakhsharī, Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Rāzī).

In addition to being among the most significant parts of the ritual prayer, bowing and prostrating also stand for religion as a whole, as in the hadith, “There is no good in a religion devoid of bowing” (Abū Dāwūd, Kharāj, mā jāʾa fī khabar al-Ṭāʾif; Aḥmad, 29:438 §17913) and spiritual approach to the Creator, as in the hadith, “The nearest a servant comes to his Lord is when he is prostrating” (Muslim, Ṣalāt, mā yuqālu fīl-rukūʿ wal-sujūd). Abū Zakariyyā Muḥyī al-Dīn Yaḥyā b. Sharaf al-Nawawī (d. 676/1277) explains nearness here to refer to the Lord’s mercy and kindness (not spatial proximity to Allah Himself, cf. ʿIyāḍ, Shifā, pp. 255-257, fī mā warada min al-dunūw wal-qurb), and adds, “It serves as a proof for those who claim that sujūd is higher in excellence than standing in prayer (qiyām) or any other element in prayer” (Sharḥ Muslim, Ṣalāt, mā yuqālu fīl-rukūʿ wal-sujūd).

The Qurʾān attributes the acts of bowing, prostration, or both to the angels, human beings, and all that is in the heavens and the earth, as the following sections show.

The Prostration of the Angels to the Prophet Ādam, upon him and them peace

The Qurʾān refers to two types of angelic prostrations. The first is to Allah the Exalted, as in the verse verily those who are with your Lord are never too proud to worship Him, and they exalt Him and prostrate before Him (Q 7:206), which is understood as referring to the angels (Ibn Qutayba, Gharīb al-Qurʾān; Ṭabarī, Tafsīr; Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf), especially in light of the explicit verse to Allah prostrate all that are in the heavens and on the earth of creatures that move, and the angels; and they are not proud (Q 16:49), and they do so in permanency, glorifying night and day without flagging (Q 21:20). Commentaries on the above verses adduce the hadith that states, “The sky groans, and it may well groan: there is not a hand-span in it but some angel’s forehead (jabha) occupies it as he prostrates to Allah” (Tirmidhī, Zuhd, mā jāʾa fī qawl al-Nabī “law taʿlamūna mā aʿlamu la-ḍaḥiktum qalīlan,” rated ḥasan) to aver that angelic prostration is of the same type as the one Muslims perform in ritual prayer (Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf; Abū Ḥayyān, Baḥr, sub Q 7:206). Some opined that prostration here is a synecdoche for unqualified prayer (Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Makkī, sub Q 7:206; cf. section (ii), type (iii) above) just as “every glorification in the Qurʾān invariably means ṣalāt” (Ibn ʿAbbās in Ṭabarī, Tafsīr; Thaʿlabī, Kashf; Makkī, Hidāya, sub Q 24:36; Qaranī, Kulliyyāt, 1:272-296, al-kulliyyāt al-muṭṭarida). The wording of the above hadith, however, leaves little doubt as to the literal sense of prostration being meant. It is echoed by other reports that add bowing and the specification that these angels do nothing else until Resurrection:

There is not, in the seven heavens, the space of a foot or a cubit or a hand-span but it is occupied by some angel standing, or some angel bowing, or some angel prostrating (Ṭabarānī, Kabīr, 2:184 §1751; Awsaṭ, 4:44 §3568; Tafsīrs of Yaḥyā b. Sallām, Ibn Abī Zamanīn, Samʿānī, Ibn ʿAṭiyya, etc.). Allah Most Glorious has angels prostrating to Him ever since He created heavens and earth, never raising their heads, nor shall they, until the Day of Resurrection; and angels bowing, never raising their heads, nor shall they, until the Day of Resurrection; when they rise they shall say, “Our Lord, we have not worshipped you as You deserve to be worshipped” (Ibn Naṣr, Taʿẓīm, 1:267 §260; Abū al-Shaykh, ʿAẓama, 3:993 §515; Bayhaqī, Shuʿab, 1:324-325 §164, Branch 3, al-Īmān bil-malāʾika, faṣl fī maʿrifat al-malāʾika; Tafsīrs of Makkī and Ibn Kathīr, sub Q 74:31, rated isnāduh lā baʾsa bih).

At the same time, the angels’ prostration is considered to be similar to its syntagmatic pair in Q 16:49, the prostration of all moving and living creatures (sing. dābba; pl. dawābb) in the heavens and on earth, with added magnification (taʿẓīm) and/or emphasis on non-corporeality, and thus as metaphors (cf. section (ii), type (ii) above) for a state of submissive compliance with the measured order (qadar) and will of Allah Almighty (Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Bayḍāwī, Abū Ḥayyān, sub Q 16:49; Naḥḥās, Iʿrāb, sub Q 7:206). These figurative interpretations do not contradict the more literal or specific usages, given the Qurʾānic statement that each already knows its [method of] prayer and glorification (Q 24:41). Angels thus can be said to worship Allah in various ways, by praying and carrying out His commands (Q 66:6) as well as by prostrating (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr; Ālūsī, Rūḥ, sub Q 7:206, 16:49).

The second type of angelic prostration is to the Prophet Ādam, upon him peace: And behold, We said to the angels: “Prostrate to Ādam.” So they prostrated (Q 2:34). It was a command to prostrate to Ādam himself as a token of respect, honor, and magnification (Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Baghawī, Rāzī, Ibn Kathīr, Ibn ʿĀshūr) or, alternatively, Ādam was the direction (qibla) of their prostration rather than its locus (Tafsīrs of Qurṭubī, Bayḍāwī, Biqāʿī, sub Q 2:33-34, 7:11, 17:61, 18:50, 20:116). Both views find widespread acceptance (Jaṣṣāṣ, Aḥkām; Thaʿlabī, Kashf; Māwardī, Nukat; Ibn al-ʿArabī, Aḥkām; Naysābūrī, Gharāʾib; Samīn, Durr; Ibn ʿAjība, Baḥr; etc., all sub Q 2:34), but Abū Ḥayyān cites the former as that of the majority (Baḥr). All exegetes agree that this prostration was not an act of worship (Rāzī, Tafsīr) (see Ādam and Angels for more on this topic).

There is little difference of opinion regarding the modality of the angels’ prostration to Ādam, upon him peace. The majority consider it a literal prostration (qawl ahl al-taʾwīl ilā ḥaqīqat al-sujūd in Māturīdī, Tafsīr, sub Q 20:116; cf. Samʿānī, Tafsīr, sub Q 2:34) “as in the way of prayer, and this is the prevailing sense” (Ibn al-Jawzī, Zād), while a few interpret it to be similar to bowing or as a figurative command to display humility before Ādam and acknowledge his excellence (Tafsīrs of Thaʿlabī, Baghawī, Abū Ḥayyān; Khafājī, Ḥāshiya). The above-mentioned hadith of the groaning of the sky, however, suggests that the modality of the angels’ prostration is as real and literal as can be imagined, as already mentioned.

This is the first mention of prostration in human history as recorded in the Qurʾān. It is cited in seven suras (Q 2:34; 7:11-12; 15:28-33; 17:61-62; 18:50; 20:116; 38:71-76) and illustrates the high status conferred on the first human, as Allah Most High ordered His honored servants (ʿibādun mukramūn, Q 21:26) to acknowledge him reverentially (takrimatan wa-taʿẓīman, Māwardī, Nukat; tashrīfan, Qushayrī, Rāzī, Tafsīr, sub Q 2:34; ʿalā sabīl al-taʿẓīm, Samīn, ʿUmda, 2:172, sub s-j-d). It also underscores the significance of the act of prostration, for it was Divinely chosen as the first greeting received by humankind (Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī and Ibn ʿĀshūr, sub Q 2:34).

Satan’s Refusal to Prostrate to Ādam

The same passages that mention the prostration of the angels to Ādam invariably also mention the refusal of Satan, at that time called Iblīs, to prostrate (Q 2:34, 7:11, 15:31, 18:50, 20:116, 38:74), ostensibly because, since he was made of fire, he considered himself superior to a being made of clay (Q 7:12, 15:33, 17:61, 38:76), but in reality due to pride, arrogance and presumption:

So they prostrated, but not Iblīs: he re­fused and was proud, and he was of the disbe­lievers: he declined doing what he had been ordered, too arrogant (i) to take him as a means of access (wuṣla) in the worship of his Nurturer; (ii) to magnify him and welcome him with greetings; (iii) or to serve him and do everything necessary wherein lie his benefit and welfare. Refusal is wilful non-compliance, pride (takabbur) to consider oneself greater than others, and arrogance (istikbār) is to pursue the same through presumption (Bayḍāwī, Tafsīr, sub Q 2:34).

That refusal to prostrate, furthermore, was relatedly premeditated by Iblīs for the forty years in which he witnessed the form of Ādam before life was breathed into him, at which time he had said to the angels that were with him: “This hollow creature who is neither firm nor hold­ing together—what do you think you will do if he is preferred over you?” They said, “We will obey our Lord.” Iblīs said in himself, “By Allah, I will not obey him if he is preferred over me; and if I am preferred over him I will destroy him.” Iblīs’s exchange with the angels and his rumination to himself is what Allah meant in His saying, and I know what you disclose and what you try to keep hidden (Q 2:33) (Ibn ʿAbbās, Ibn Masʿūd, and unnamed others in Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 2:30).

The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, labelled the two “prostrations of forgetfulness” (sahw, at the end of any prayer in which one had a lingering doubt as to the number of cycles (rakʿa) already done or yet to be performed) “a vexation of Satan” (targhīm lil-shayṭān) (Mālik, Sahw, al-ʿamal fīl-sahw; Muslim, Masājid, al-sahw fīl-ṣalāt wal-sujūd lah; Dārimī, Ṣalāt, al-rajul lā yadrī athalāthan ṣallā am arbaʿā?; etc.), which in and of itself constitutes an increase in goodness (Shāh Walī Allāh, Ḥujja, 2:22, Min abwāb al-ṣalāt, sujūd al-sahw). The Ḥanafī jurists inferred from this causality that this might also be the reason every cycle of prayer contains two prostrations for every one bowing: Satan refused to prostrate in disobedience of Allah, while Muslims do prostrate in obedience not only once, but twice; alternately, the first prostration points to our being indeed created from earth and the second that we return to earth (Sarakhsī, Mabsūṭ, 1:21; Bābartī, ʿInāya, 1:315-316).

The Bowing and Prostration of Prophets, Upon Them Peace

Prophets are the archetypes of those who bow and prostrate to Allah Most High among human beings because they are the Divinely-chosen archetypes of true worship: Those are the ones whom Allah has most favored of the descendants of Ādam, among those We carried aloft with Nūḥ, the progeny of Ibrāhīm and Isrāʾīl, and of those We guided and chose; when the signs of the All-Merciful are recited to them they fall prostrate, weeping (Q 19:58), “abasing and humbling themselves before Him, submitting to His command, obeying Him” (Ṭabarī). One of their epithets is “the prostrates” (al-sājidīn) according to a gloss that states Prophets are meant in Q 26:219 (Ṭabarī and others, see next section).

The verse and Dāwūd realized that We had tested him, so he asked forgiveness from his Lord and fell bowing (kharra rākiʿan) and repented (Q 38:24) was glossed as the Prophet Dāwūd, upon him peace, going into a forty-day fasting prostration uninterrupted except by obligatory prayer until Allah Most High revealed to him, “Raise your head, I have forgiven you” (Tafsīrs of ʿAbd al-Razzāq, Ṭabarī). The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, confirmed that prostration could serve to express repentance as well as gratitude as he explained his voluntary prostration at the recitation of the above verse: “Dāwūd prostrated in repentance, and we prostrate in gratitude” (Nasāʾī, Sunan, Iftitāḥ, sujūd al-Qurʾān). “This [hadith] establishes [the validity of] prostrating in repentance from sins. His saying ‘in gratitude’ means gratitude to Allah for accepting the repentance of His servant Dāwūd, which establishes [the validity of] prostrating in gratitude for Allah’s blessings on others, a fortiori on the one prostrating” (Ṣanʿānī, Taḥbīr, 5:579, Kayfiyyat al-ṣalāt, tafṣīl sujūd al-Qurʾān).

The Prostration of the Prophet Muḥammad, Upon Him Blessings and Peace

The Seal of Prophets, Muḥammad, upon him blessings and peace, is their paragon as “the Servant (ʿabd) of Allah” (Q 72:19, cf. Q 17:1, 18:1, 25:1, 39:36, 53:10, 57:9) par excellence, thus named in absolute terms as a mark of exclusive honor and nearness (Ibn Juzay, Tafsīr, sub Q 72:19), whence Allah Most High said, “I have made public address (khuṭba) impermis­sible for your Commu­nity unless they first witness that you are My Servant and Mes­senger” (ḥadīth qudsī in Ṭabarī and Ibn Abī Ḥātim, rated fīhi nakāra in Ibn Kathīr, all sub Q 17:1; Bazzār, Musnad, 17:5-12 §9518 “through narrators that have all been declared trustworthy, but an alternate was left unnamed:” Haythamī, Majmaʿ, 1:67-72), Servanthood (ʿubūdiyya) arguably being a higher station yet than Messengership (risāla) (Rāzī, Tafsīr, sub Q 1:6, 96:10). He is the first of Muslims (Q 6:163)—“not in time but in terms of the celerity of his response and his obedience to Him” (Māturīdī, Tafsīr), “the first of Muslims on the Day of Promises (yawm al-mīthāq)” (Samarqandī, Baḥr), before time, a sense in line with the gloss of the verse and your translation (taqallubak) among those who prostrate (Q 26:219) in the sense of “through the loins of Prophets until He brought you out as a Prophet in this Community” (Ibn ʿAbbās in Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Thaʿlabī, Samʿānī,  cf. Muqātil, Tafsīr; Naḥḥās, Maʿānī; etc.). According to what is perhaps the earliest Sufi Tafsīr, not only is he the first prostrator in absolute terms, but his prostration was part of the primal matter of creation:

And when your Lord brought forth from Adam’s Children, from their reins, their progeny, and made them testify of themselves: Am I not your Lord? They said: Yes, truly. We testify. That was lest you should say on the Day of Re­sur­rection: Truly of this we were unaware (Q 7:172): the first sense of dhurriyyatahum is Muḥammad—upon him blessings and peace—because when Allah Most High wanted to create Muḥammad, He caused a light to appear out of h/His light (aẓhara min nūrihi nūran); when he/it reached the Veil of Magnificence he/it went into a great prostration to Allah. Allah then created out of his/its prostration a magnificent pillar like glass made of light, both its inward and outward containing Muḥammad himself (bāṭinuh wa-ẓāhiruh fīhi ʿaynu Muḥammad), whereupon he stood before the Lord of the worlds in service for a million years with the indelible markers (ṭabāʾiʿ) of belief, namely, the eye-witnessing of faith, the uncovering of cer­tainty, and the sighting of the Lord. Thus Allah Most High honored him with sight [of Him] before the beginning of creation by a million years. (Tustarī, Tafsīr)

The Prophet, furthermore, is defined by prayer (Q 96:10), as supplicating long in the hours of the night, prostrating and standing erect, cautious of the Hereafter and hoping for the mercy of his Lord (Q 39:12), worshipping day and night (Q 20:130, 73:20, 94:7), and specifically commanded to prostrate to Allah (Q 96:19) for long periods of the night (Q 76:26), inside prayers praised as indescribably beautiful:

Ibn ʿAbbās, may Allah be well-pleased with him and his father, said [in Muslim:] I spent the night in my maternal aunt Maymūna’s house and observed how the Messenger of Allah prayed. […] He said in his prayer—or his prostration: O Allah, place light in my heart, light in my hearing, light in my sight, light to my right, light to my left, light before me, light behind me, light above me, light under me, and make me light (Ṣalāt al-musāfirīn, al-duʿāʾ fī ṣalāt al-layl wa-qiyāmih); [in Tirmidhī:] I heard the Messenger of Allah say one night, after he finished praying, O Allah, put light in my heart, light in my grave, light before me, light behind me, light to my right, light to my left, light above me, light below me, light in my hearing, light in my eyesight, light in my hair, light in my skin, light in my flesh, light in my blood, light in my bones, O Allah, reserve abundant light for me, give me light, and grant me light (Daʿawāt, bāb minh, rated gharīb).

ʿĀʾisha, may Allah be well-pleased with her, said: “The Messenger of Allah, upon him blessings and peace, did not add—whether in Ramadan or any other month—to eleven cycles of prayer. He would pray four—and do not ask [me to describe] how beautiful and how long they were; then again four —and do not ask how beautiful and how long they were. Then he would pray three (Mālik, Ṣalāt al-layl, ṣalāt al-Nabī ṣallā Allāh ʿalayh wa-sallam fīl-witr; Bukhārī, Tahajjud, qiyām al-Nabī ṣallā Allāh ʿalayh wa-sallam bil-layl fī Ramaḍān wa-ghayrih; Muslim, Ṣalāt al-musāfirīn wa-qaṣruhā, ṣalāt al-layl).

Allah Most High frequently enjoins the Prophet and his followers as well as humankind at large to bow and prostrate to Him in the sense of prayer (Q 2:43, 15:98, 22:77, 41:37, 53:62, 76:26, 96:19), especially in the hours of the night when relief, Divine support and mercy are nearest (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr; Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf; Gūrānī, Ghāya; Ālūsī, Rūḥ, sub Q 76:26).  The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, instructed that, in bowing, the worshipper repeat thrice, subḥāna Rabbiya al-ʿaẓīm (Glory to my Lord Magnificent) and, in prostration, subḥāna Rabbiya al-aʿlā (Glory to my Lord Most High) (Abū Dāwūd, Ṣalāt, miqdār al-rukūʿ wal-sujūd; Ibn Mājah, Iqāmat al-ṣalāt wal-sunna fīhā, al-tasbīḥ fīl-rukūʿ wal-sujūd) and he did so himself, together with the supplication “O my Lord, forgive me” during the sitting position between the two prostrations (Aḥmad, 38:392 §23375, 38:406 §23399, 5:459-460 §3514; Abū Dāwūd, Ṣalāt, mā yaqūl al-ajul fī rukūʿih wa-sujūdih; Nasāʾī, Taṭbīq, al-duʿāʾ bayna al-sajdatayn; etc.). The Ḥanbalī school alone deems this latter supplication an obligation (wājib) whose deliberate omission invalidates the entire prayer (Ibn Qudāma,ʿUmda, p. 26, Ṣalāt, arkān al-ṣalāt wa-wājibātuhā). In addition, the hadiths on the whole show a high frequency of prostrations performed outside prayer by the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, and several Companions to express gratitude.

The Prostration of Believers and Human Beings Generally

Bowing and prostrating to Allah Almighty are defining features of those who believe in Him (see Believers): the Prophets Ibrāhīm and Ismāʿīl, upon them peace, were commanded to purify the Kaʿba for those circumambulating it (al-ṭāʾifīn), those who seclude themselves there (al-ʿākifīn), and “those who bow and prostrate” (al-rukkaʿ al-sujūd), i.e. perform prayer (Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf, sub Q 22:26; Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar, sub Q 2:125). Allah praises the believers among the People of the Book (Ahl al-Kitāb)  as those who were granted knowledge before its [the Qur’ān’s] time; when it is recited to them, they fall to their chins, prostrate, and they say, ‘Glory to our Lord! Verily our Lord’s promise is fulfilled;’ and they fall to their chins weeping, and it makes them more humble (Q 17:107-109, cf. 3:113).

The Qurʾān describes the believers who bow and prostrate as those who deserve allegiance (wilāya) (see Alliance and Treaty; Clients and Patrons), and declares that whosoever takes Allah, His Prophet, and these believers as allies (awliyāʾ) will be of the victorious party (ḥizb) of Allah (Q 5:55-56). They are also those whom Allah has promised Paradise for upholding their covenant : that is, devoting their lives and properties to Him (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 9:111-112) (see Buying and Selling). They are further described as the slaves of the Most Gracious (ʿibād al-Raḥmān) (Q 25:63-64) and as those who are true believers in the signs of Allah (Q 32:15) (see Slaves of Allah). Allah illuminates their faces (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 48:29), whereas He has forbidden to Hellfire (see Hell) those parts of sinful believers’ bodies that touched the ground in prostration (Muslim, Īmān, maʿrifat ṭarīq al-ruʾyā).

The Companions of the Prophet —Allah be pleased with them all—are described as those whom you see bowing and prostrating, seeking bounties from Allah and His pleasure. The mark of them is on their faces from the traces of prostration. That is their likeness in the Torah (Q 48:29). The “traces” were interpreted as a physical reflection of the believer’s inner state:

The Believer in Allah is a face without reverse (wajh bilā qafā), always orienting himself to Him and never turning away from Him. That is the mark of the Believer. ʿĀmir b. ʿAbd Qays said, “It is as if the Believer is telling about the contents of his knowledge; such is also the face of the unbeliever; and that is [the meaning of] His saying, the mark of them is on their faces.” Ibn Masʿūd said, “The Believer’s innermost (sirr) becomes a garment he wears (ridāʾ ʿalayh).” And Allah Exalted and Most High knows best (Tustarī, Tafsīr).

The above gloss was expressed by other early figures in similar terms of visible excellent demeanor, humbleness and modesty (al-samt al-ḥasan, al-khushūʿ wal-tawāḍuʿ, al-takhashshuʿ) in this world as well as the marks that will be seen on the Day of Resurrection (see Beauty, Day of Judgment) (Ṭabarī, Qushayrī), in accordance with the hadith, “I shall certainly know my Community out of all others on the Day of Resurrection. I shall know them because they will be given their records in their right hands; and I shall know them because their signs will be in their faces from the traces of prostration (Q 48:29)” (Aḥmad, 36:66 §21740). Thus the praise extends to all Muslims for all time through their sharing the same traces. “This is praise for them, for their eagerness to perform the most outstanding act of worship that purifies the soul—the five obligatory prayers as well as the supererogatory prayers—through which they seek His pleasure and satisfaction” (Ibn ʿĀshūr, Tafsīr). A third understanding of the mark as consisting in the callus caused by the friction of the worshipper’s forehead over the surface of prostration, “popularly called the lump of piety (zabībat al-ṣalāḥ)” (Zabīdī, Itḥāf, 2:272), is implied in the context of a hadith identifying one of the Khawārij as “bearing the trace of prostration between his eyes” (Aḥmad, 33:26-27 §19783).

Prostration of Yūsuf’s Parents and Brothers, Firʿawn’s Sorcerers, and the Israelites

One specific Qurʾānic instance of the mention of prostration is that of the Prophet Yūsuf’s parents and brothers to him, And he raised up his parents on the dais, and they fell before him prostrate (Q 12:100, cf. Ibn ʿAbbās in Ṭabarī) as the conclusion of his vision in dream forty years earlier (Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Tafsīr), in which he had seen eleven stars, the sun and the moon prostrating to him (Q 12:4). “The greeting of people in that time was for them to prostrate to one another” (Qatāda, Ibn Jurayj, Ḍaḥḥāk, Sufyān al-Thawrī, Ibn Zayd and ʿAdī b. Ḥātim in ʿAbd al-Razzāq, Ṭabarī, Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Tafsīrs, sub Q 12:100), “part of a custom of reverence” (min sunnat al-taʿẓīm, Zajjāj, Maʿānī) which Yūsuf’s family performed “possibly in awe and submission to him; some said in gratitude” (Māturīdī, Tafsīr). A later gloss specified that such was not face down on the ground but only respectful bowing (Thaʿlabī, Kashf, sub Q 2:34, 12:100; his student Wāḥidī, Wajīz; Baghawī and Rāzī sub Q 12:100), a view many either ignored or rejected (Tafsīrs of Samʿānī, Zamakhsharī, Bayḍāwī, Nasafī, Ibn Kathīr, etc.; Ibn al-Rāzī, Mabāḥith, pp. 181-182, sub Q 12:100) as precluded by the wording and they fell (Abū Ḥayyān, Baḥr). There is, as in the case of Ādam with the angels, consensus of the exegetes that it was a prostration of respect, not of worship (Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar; Qurṭubī, Tafsīr), while they took note of the element of gratitude specific to Yūsuf’s parents who were finally reunited with him again (Ibn al-Jawzī), otherwise the Prophet Yaʿqūb had a much greater right to veneration as a father, an elder and a greater Prophet than Yūsuf, upon both of them peace (Rāzī). There is also agreement that the prostration was towards Yūsuf: “al-Ḥasan [al-Baṣrī] (d. 110/728) [alone] said the pronoun him [in and they fell before him prostrate] referred to Allah Most High [rather than to Yūsuf], and this position was flatly rejected” (Thaʿālibī, Jawāhir); it is thus introduced, if at all, with the passive anonymizer wa-qīl, “it was also said” (Bayḍāwī; Shawkānī, Fatḥ). Nevertheless, “they treated Yūsuf as the qibla and prostrated to Allah… for it is said, ‘I prayed to the Kaʿba’ (ṣallaytu lil-Kaʿba) just as it is said, ‘I prayed towards the Kaʿba’ (ṣallaytu ilā al-Kaʿba)… which indicates that it is permissible to say so-and-so prayed to the qibla, just as it is permissible to say so-and-so prostrated to the qibla” (Rāzī).

The sorcerers (see Magic) of Firʿawn were immediately cast prostrate (Q 20:70) upon witnessing the Prophet Mūsā’s staff transform into a live snake and consume their ropes and sticks. Their falling prostrate expressed repentance and belief in Allah Almighty, as well as rejection of their previous religion (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 26:46; Rāzī, Tafsīr, sub Q 20:70), to which Firʿawn responded by threatening to cut off their limbs and crucify them all, because he had not first permitted them to so (Q 20:71).

Allah commanded the Israelites to enter this town, eat from it howsoever you wish, and enter the gate prostrating and say “Reprieve!” (ḥiṭṭa) (Q 2:58, 7:161); and We told them, enter the gate prostrating (Q 4:154). The town is glossed as (i) Ilyāʾ (Ælia, Jerusalem: Tafsīrs of Mujāhid, Muqātil, sub Q 2:58); (ii) Bayt al-Maqdis (Jerusalem: Tafsīrs of Muqātil, sub Q 7:161; ʿAbd al-Razzāq, Ṭabarī, sub Q 2:58, 7:161); (iii) Arīḥā (Jericho: Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Samarqandī, Ibn Abī Zamanīn, Thaʿlabī, Māwardī, Baghawī, Wāḥidī, sub Q 2:58; Ṭabarī, sub 5:21-22); (iv) and several other locations (see Thaʿlabī, Baghawī). Prostrating is interpreted as meaning bowing or showing humility while entering (see brief discussion in section (i) above and Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī and Rāzī, sub Q 2:58). The wrongdoers replaced what they had been told to say with something else (Q 2:59): instead of obeying the two commands, it is narrated that they made up derisive phrases such as ḥabbatun fī shaʿra (a seed on a hair!) which they blurted out as they entered the gate shifting on their backsides (Bukhārī, Tafsīr, wa-qūlū ḥiṭṭa; Muslim, Tafsīr, Q 2:58) and, instead of ḥiṭṭa, ḥinṭa (wheat) (Tafsīrs of Mujāhid, Ṭabarī, Q 2:58).

Allah also ordered Maryam, mother of ʿĪsā, upon them peace, to prostrate and bow with those who bow (Q 3:43). These two vital elements of prayer have been understood to refer respectively to prayer, alone and in congregation (Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf; Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar).

The Prostration of Jinns

The exegete and linguist al-Rāghib al-Aṣfahānī (d. 502/1108) cites the verses prostrate to Him and worship (Q 53:62) and to Allah prostrate whoever is in the heavens and the earth willingly or unwillingly as do their shadows mornings and evenings (Q 13:15) to emphasize that prostration (sujūd) is a universal act, attributed in the Qurʾān to other creatures besides humans, as already mentioned. He divides it into two types, “voluntary prostration” (sujūd bi-ikhtiyār) which he says is “exclusive to humans” (laysa dhālik illā lil-insān) since they are endowed with will and ability; and “compulsory prostration” (sujūd taskhīr) (see Subservience), which is exhibited throughout creation (cf. Q 22:18) in the inherent or instinctive recognition by all beings and things that they were created by Allah, the Wise (Mufradāt, sub s-j-d).

It is established, however, that jinns also bow and prostrate freely and wilfully as indicated in the reports:

  1. when the Servant of Allah stood and called unto Him, they [the jinn] were almost on top of him in throngs (ʿalayhi libadan) (Q 72:19), “Ibn ʿAbbās said, ‘When they saw him and his Companions praying, they bowed with his bowing and prostrated with his prostration; they were astonished at the compliance (ṭawāʿiyya) of his Companions to him’” (Ṭabarī); and
  2. “the Prophet performed prostration upon reciting Sūrat al-Najm, and so did the Muslims, the polytheists, the jinns and human beings” (Ibn ʿAbbās in Bukhārī, Tafsīr, fa-sjudū lillāhi wa-ʿbudū; see also Ibn Ḥajar, Fatḥ, 2:554, Abwāb sujūd al-Qurʾān, sujūd al-Muslimīn maʿa al-mushrikīn wal-mushrik najas laysa lahu wuḍūʾ).

It was said, likewise, that in the verse See you not that unto Allah prostrate whosoever is in the heavens and whosoever is on the earth, and the sun, and the moon, and the stars, and the mountains, and the trees, and the beasts, and many of humankind? (Q 22:18), “the recognized prostration of obedience [i.e. willful] is not exclusive to many of humankind, for many of the jinn are also described thus; any claim that they are not legally responsible is counter to the more correct position” (Ālūsī, Rūḥ); “[al-Ḥasan] Ibn Ḥāmid [b. ʿAlī al-Baghdādī al-Warrāq] (d. 403/1012) said in his book [al-Jāmiʿ fīl-madhhab], ‘Jinns are like human beings in [the duties of] worship and legal responsibility’” (Ibn Mufliḥ, Furūʿ, 2:460, Ṣalāt, ṣalāt al-jamāʿa, faṣl: al-jinn mukallafūn fīl-jumla); “the entire Qurʾān is replete with mention of the legal tasking of the jinn and it is known from Sacred Law by necessity (maʿlūmun min al-sharʿ bil-ḍarūra)” (Subkī, Fatāwā, 2:602). Thus they possess will, are addressed by the Divine injunctions, tasked (see Legal Responsibility) and tested (see Trials and Strife), their numbers include believers  and disbelievers , they worship and will be judged for their sins like humans (Q 55:31-40, 72:1-17; cf. Suyūṭī, Luqaṭ, pp. 40 (dhikr taklīfihim), 69-80 (dhikr ʿaqāʾidihim wa-ʿibādatihim)). Thus prostration represents a common factor by which all things in the heavens and the earth can relate to one another (see next section).

The Prostration of All That Is in the Heavens and Earth

That all creation prostrates is a recurrent theme in the Qurʾān: And unto Allah prostrates whosoever is in the heavens and the earth, willingly or unwillingly, as do their shadows morning and evening (Q 13:15); And to Allah prostrates whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is in the earth, of creatures (dawābb) and angels (Q 16:49); Q 22:18, already mentioned in the previous section; And the stars and trees both prostrate (Q 55:6) (see Animals;Moon;Stars and Planets; Sun). Many commentators hold that this prostration of all created things denotes the daily course of their shadows, in light of Q 16:48: Have they not observed the things Allah has created: [how] their shadows incline to the right and to the left, making prostration unto Allah?—that is, fluctuating in length according to the position of the sun (Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī and Rāzī; Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar, etc., sub Q 13:15; 16:48; 22:18; 55:6). As for the prostration of the sun, moon, and stars, it is glossed in various ways:

  1. Their prostration means their setting (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr; Ibn al-Jawzī, Zād, sub Q 22:18) as per the hadith of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, about the setting sun: “It goes and prostrates beneath Allah’s Throne (ʿarsh)” (Bukhārī, Tafsīr, wal-shamsu tajrī li-mustaqarrin lahā; Muslim, Īmān, bayān al-zaman al-ladhī lā yuqbalu fīh al-īmān). Its movement (jary) and resting-place (mustaqarr) in the verse And the sun runs on unto its resting place (Q 36:38), and its movement and prostration referred to in the above hadith, are similes (tamthīl) (see Parables of the Qurʾān) for its visible daily course and its nightly absence from sight respectively (Ibn ʿĀshūr, Tafsīr, sub Q 36:38).
  2. Their prostration is their compliance with and surrender to the will of their Creator (Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf, sub Q 22:18).
  3. Their prostration is the prostration of the angels in charge of them (Ibn Ḥajar, Fatḥ, Badʾ al-khalq, ṣifat al-shams wal-qamar).

All such metaphorical explanations  reflect the possibility that each creature prostrates in its own unique manner, the manner of which is unknown to us, in the same way the Qurʾān reveals regarding all creatures’ glorification (tasbīḥ): The seven heavens, the earth, and all therein glorify Him, and there is not a thing but glorifies His praise; but you understand not their glorification (Q 17:44). It is thus equally possible that the celestial bodies are imbued with forms of intellect such that they prostrate in their own manner, just as they glorify Him in their own manner, its modality all unknowable to us (Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr, sub Q 22:18).

The Verses of Prostration

In certain verses of the Qurʾān (see next paragraph) the reciter and/or listener are implicitly (mostly) or explicitly commanded to prostrate. The vast majority of the authorities consider the “prostration of recitation” (sajdat al-tilāwa) a recommended or meritorious sunna (see Path) but not obligatory, based on various hadiths (Nawawī, Tibyān 1:135-6). Among them: (i) the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, listened to the recitation of Sūrat al-Najm (Q 53) in its entirety without prostrating in the end (Bukhārī, Abwāb sujūd al-Qurʾān, man qaraʾa al-sajda wa-lam yasjud; Muslim, Ṣalāt, sujūd al-tilāwa), and (ii) the statement of the Rightly-Guided Caliph ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb (d. 23/644) from the pulpit on a Jumuʿa (see Friday) after reciting a passage that included one of the verses of prostration (Q 16:49), “Whoever does not prostrate is faultless, and Allah did not make prostration obligatory; it is up to us” (Bukhārī, Abwāb sujūd al-Qurʾān, man raʾā anna Allāha ʿazza wa-jalla lam yūjib al-sujūd), which is viewed as constituting consensus (Ibn al-ʿArabī, Aḥkām, 2:370, sub Q 7:206). It is legally required (wājib) in the Ḥanafī school, however, on the basis of (i) the hadith “The son of Ādam was commanded to prostrate and he did, whereby he gets Paradise” (Muslim, Īmān, bayān iṭlāq ism al-kufr ʿalā man tarak al-ṣalāt), which implies obligatoriness, and (ii) the specific Divine censure of the disbelievers’ refusal to prostrate (Q 84:20-21) (Sarakhsī, Mabsūṭ, 2:4). Other schools understand the hadith as referring to categorically obligatory prayer and hold that the disbelievers were condemned for combining refusal to prostrate with disbelief and upstart defiance (kufran wa-istikbāran), which is inapplicable to Muslims, in addition to the evidence already cited (Māzarī, Sharḥ, 1:366-367, Ṣalāt, sujūd al-Qurʾān faḍīla).

The main schools differ regarding the number of these prostrations in accordance with their approaches to relevant hadiths and whether a general Qurʾānic injunction to prostrate necessitates the actual prostration of the reciter or listeners. Ḥanafīs count fourteen prostrations of recitation: Q 7:206, 13:15, 16:49, 17:107, 19:58, 22:18, 25:60, 27:25, 32:15, 38:24, 41:37, 53:62, 84:21, and 96:19; so do Shāfiʿīs, but the latter list Q 22:77 instead of Q 38:24, while Mālikīs only count the first eleven mentioned by Ḥanafīs (the rest they deem abrogated, see Abrogation), and Ḥanbalīs count all those mentioned by Ḥanafīs as well as Q 22:77, bringing the count to fifteen (Bābartī, ʿInāya, Ṣalāt, sujūd al-tilāwa; Dardīr, Sharḥ, 1:307-308, Ṣalāt, faṣl fī sujūd al-tilāwa; Nawawī, Tibyān, 1:137-138; Ibn Qudāma, Mughnī, 2:352-358, Ṣifat al-ṣalāt, masʾalat sujūd al-tilāwa sunna muʾakkada), which is the maximum count by consensus (Ibn Ḥazm, Marātib, p. 37). There is also agreement that every verse in which prostration is mentioned as something related from others (bi-lafẓ al-khabar), i.e. in the indicative mood (Q 7:206, 13:15, 16:49, 17:107, 19:58, 22:18, 25:60, 27:25, 32:15, 38:24, 84:21), is a verse of prostration (Ṭaḥāwī, Maʿānī, 1:359-360). Consensus formed among the schools over the utterance of takbīr (saying Allāhu akbar, Allah is Greatest) both upon prostrating and upon rising from prostration (including back to a standing position in prayer), and over the precondition of ritual purity (ṭahāra) for that prostration, even outside prayer (Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr, Istidhkār, 8:110-112 §10673, §10684, Qurʾān, mā jāʾ fī sujūd al-Qurʾān).

Symbols indicating the verses of prostration appeared in Qurʾānic codices from the early 3rd/9th century or possibly earlier (Ismāʿīl, Rasm, p. 91), typically, a line over the most explicit word or words to that effect in the verse and a note in the margin, sometimes replaced or, in modern prints, supplemented with a small mark—for example, a prayer-arch or a fleuron—at the end of the verse where the reciter should prostrate.

In explanation of the rationale behind the verses of prostration it was observed that wherever the angels’ prostration (Q 7:206; 16:49) or that of the Prophets (Q 19:58; 38:24) is mentioned, the physical act of the reciter or listener is to express his or her identification with those praiseworthy believers and creatures (Q 13:15; 22:18; 32:15). In other passages, the ruling of prostration serves to contrast the submission of believers with the disbelievers’ stubborn refusal to bow (Q 25:60; 27:25; 84:21; 96:19). In all instances, prostration reflects a physical demonstration of obedience to Allah and implicit reiteration of faith (Ibn ʿĀshūr, Tafsīr, sub Q 17:107; 41:37; 53:62; in addition to the above-cited). The prostrations of recitation thus vividly show that the Qurʾān is not merely a cognitive text that speaks to the mind, imparting information and logical argumentation, nor is it merely a literary text that stimulates the emotive and imaginative faculties. Rather, it fosters an engagement that translates into immediate practice for reciter and listeners, including the bodily prostration that is the age-old mark of belief and servanthood to the Creator separating Believers from those who, when reminded of the signs of their Lord, pass over them deaf and blind (Q 25:73).

The Jāhiliyya Aversion to Bowing

When the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, was inviting the tribes to Islam and told the Banū Thaqīf of the modalities of prayer, they objected to bowing with the protest that “it is too insulting for us (innahā masabbatun ʿalaynā),” whereupon was revealed the verse And when they are told “Bow down!” they do not bow down (Q 77:48) (Thaʿlabī, Kashf; Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf; Ibn al-Jawzī, Zād). “Nothing was harder (ashadd) on the [pre-Islamic] Arabs than bowing and prostration,” given their symbolic significance in that culture of arrogance and pride (Kashshāf). The Prophet’s supercentenarian, Kaʿba-born nephew-in-law and his senior by 13 years, the mukhaḍram (having lived half his life in Jāhiliyya and half in Islam) Companion Ḥakīm b. Ḥizām b. Khuwaylid al-Asadī (65bh-60/557-680) revealed he had given his pledge (bayʿa) to the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, “on condition that I not fall except [from a] standing [position]” (ʿalā an lā akhirra illā qāʾiman: Aḥmad, 24:28 §15312), i.e. eschewing rukūʿ, “as they considered it outrageous in Jāhiliyya” (Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal, Masāʾil, 2:192 §2014). The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, accepted it in order to show that “one’s Islam is valid even if made conditional on an invalid demand; thereafter, one is still bound by all of the rulings of Islam” (Aḥmad in Ibn Rajab, Jāmiʿ, 1:229). The same report is also construed as the Prophet making the bayʿa conditional on Ḥākim having to stand erect after rukūʿ before going into sujūd (Nasāʾī, Taṭbīq, kayfa yakhirr lil-sujūd; Ṭaḥāwī, Mushkil, 1:195 §204-205), among other interpretations (Abū ʿUbayd, Gharīb, 1:277-278; Ṭaḥāwī, Mushkil, 1:196-197 §206-207; Samʿānī, Tafsīr, sub Q 32:15; Ibn Kathīr, sub Q 3:102). The sense of eschewing rukūʿ is mentioned in a gloss of the verse and bow down along with those who bow down (Q 2:43):

It was also said that [bowing down was specified] because it weighed heaviest on Jāhiliyya people. One of those who became Muslim—I think it was ʿImrān b. Ḥuṣayn—even said to the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, “on condition that I not fall except standing.” Among the interpretations of that phrase is, “on condition that I not bow down.” When Islam became firmly rooted in his heart, his soul felt at rest doing that, and he complied with what he had been told; namely, to bow down (Qurṭubī).

The Disbelievers’ Refusal to Bow or Prostrate

In contrast to the believers, those who deny Allah (kuffār) (see Disbelievers) are distinguished by their refusal to bow or prostrate to Him (Q 25:60; 84:20-21), in keeping with their mindless worship of what can neither profit nor harm them (Q 10:18; 21:66; 25:55). The willful prostration to other than Allah with the intention of glorification is apostasy and unbelief (kufr) (see Apostasy; Disbelief) (Sarakhsī, Mabsūṭ, 24:130; Zaylaʿī, Tabyīn, 6:25). On the Day of Reckoning, such people shall be called to prostrate [to Allah], but they shall not be able to do so. Their eyes will be cast down and ignominy will cover them; they used to be called to prostrate while they were healthy and good [in the life of this world, but they did not] (Q 68:42-43). A hadith mentions the same fate for those who used to prostrate merely for show: “Allah will bring forth the severest Hour; then all the believers, men and women, will prostrate before Him. There will remain those who used to fall prostrate ostentatiously in the world (i.e., making a show of their piety). Such people will try to prostrate [then] but their backs will be as stiff as if they were a single bone” (Bukhārī, Tafsīr, yawma yukshafu ʿan sāq; Muslim, Īmān, maʿrifat ṭarīq al-ruʾyā). This inability will only increase their humiliation, grief, and regret over their past disobedience and pride.

The Pagans’ Prostration after the Prophet’s Recitation of Q 53

One occasion, however, is reported in which the disbelievers of Makka did prostrate: “The Prophet prostrated upon reciting Sūrat al-Najm (Q 53) and so did the Muslims, the polytheists, the jinns and human beings” (Bukhārī, Tafsīr, fa-sjudū lillāhi wa-ʿbudū). The account to that effect has long been misconstrued by all sides (early Christian polemicists, modern Islamophobes, and defenders of Islam) with various untoward consequences, including sweeping claims of inauthenticity both by classical scholars (Ibn al-ʿArabī, Aḥkām, 3:303-307, sub Q 22:52; ʿIyāḍ, Shifā, pp. 643-653,, Dafʿ baʿḍ al-shubuhāt; Thaʿālibī, Jawāhir, sub Q 22:52) and contemporaries, some scapegoating “Israelite stories” and “freethinkers’ (zanādiqa) forgeries” (Abū Shahba, Isrāʾīliyyāt, pp. 314-323; Sirāj al-Dīn, Hady, pp. 155-182; Albānī, Naṣb), all predictably so since this sensitive subject touches on the doctrine of Prophetic infallibility (ʿiṣma). Nevertheless it calls for precise documentation at some length, even if only marginally related to prostration, as such is all but missing in English.

The common feature in most accounts relates that the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, recited Q 53 to a mixed gathering of believers and disbelievers in the Haram in Makka. When he reached the end of the sura, he prostrated and so did the Muslims and the polytheists. Various versions of the account then differ as to why the polytheists prostrated despite not believing in the revelation. In some versions of the account, it is said that during one of the short pauses of the Prophet's recitation, Satan (or one of the idolaters) uttered words of praise for the gods of the idolaters in a voice that resembled that of the Prophet, so the latter joined in the prostration at Q 53:62 thinking their deities were now accepted, whereas they were but “from the oracularities of Satan” (min sajʿ al-shayṭān) (Tafsīrs of Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Ibn Kathīr, sub Q 22:52). “Thereafter, Allah declared their claim to be false and showed that the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, never recited it in the first place, but that it was only recited by one of the idolaters. Allah named that person a satan because he was one of the devils of humankind... shayṭān being a name for every obdurate rebel among jinn and humankind. It was also said it is possible that he was one of the devils of the jinn” (Jaṣṣāṣ, Aḥkām).

The above scenario is also the position of the Transoxanian exegete and heresiologist known as the Imam of Guidance, Abū Manṣūr Muḥammad b. Muḥammad b. Maḥmūd al-Samarqandī al-Māturīdī (d. 333/945) (Ṣābūnī, Muntaqā, pp. 238-244), who contextualized the incident within the Makkan naysayers’ strategy of muddling the Message by any means, mostly through spurious objections but, in this case, by outright tampering (Māturīdī, Tafsīr, sub Q 22:52). Many exegetes also related this incident to the a passage of Suratul Hajj (Q 22:52-55), even though it was revealed much later in Madinah: And We never sent forth any Messenger before you or any Prophet but, when he longed [for something], Satan interjected something into his longing (umniyyatih), but Allah obliterates what Satan interjects; then Allah clinches His verses/signs—and Allah is All-Knowing, All-Wise—so that He makes whatever Satan interjects an ordeal for those in whose hearts is sickness and the obdurate of heart. Verily the wrongdoers are far gone in their strife! (Q 22:52-53) and the next two verses (ʿAbd al-Razzāq and Ṭabarī; Zajjāj, Maʿānī; Samarqandī, Baḥr; Kirmānī, Gharāʾib; Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar; Qurṭubī, Tafsīr). These four verses were revealed thereafter (Yaḥyā b. Sallām, sub Q 22:52; Ibn Abī Zamanīn, sub Q 53:20) “for the Prophet’s relief and solace” (musalliyan wa-muʿazziyan lah) (Samʿānī, sub Q 53:20), as the incident had greatly affected him, upon him blessings and peace (Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, sub Q 22:52; Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Samarqandī, sub Q 17:73; Makkī, sub Q 22:52).

The Hadith master Shihāb al-Dīn Abū al-Faḍl Aḥmad b. ʿAlī b. Muḥammad Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī (773-852/1372-1449) offered an authoritative resolution of the issue:

It is required to interpret the [accounts of the] incident and address what appears to be reprehensible, namely the statement “the devil interjected upon the Prophet’s tongue the words ‘Those are the elevated cranes: truly their intercession is dearly hoped.’” Such a thing is precluded from being accepted in literal terms [i.e. as spoken by the Prophet] for it is impossible for the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, to add something to the Qurʾān that does not belong to it, whether deliberately (ʿamdan) or erroneously (sahwan)…. al-Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ did well when he said: “It is possible the Prophet was mentioning the belief of the pagans by way of derision” (cf. Māturīdī, Tafsīr, sub Q 53:22), noting that at the time it was still permitted to speak in the midst of prayer. To this position leaned Ibn al-Bāqillānī. It was also said that when he reached the words Have you thought upon al-Lāt and al-ʿUzzā? and Manāt, the third, the other? (Q 53:20) the pagans feared lest he would then say something to mock their gods, so they hastened to interject and jeer to cover up what was coming next, as was their habit per the verse, Those who disbelieve say: Heed not this Qurʾān, and drown the hearing of it; perhaps you will prevail (Q 41:26). This act on their part was attributed to the devil, as it was he that inspired it to them. Or, what was meant by the devil is the devil of humankind.... It was also said that the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, used to recite the Qurʾān slowly, so that the devil lay in wait for one of the pauses and uttered the words in question with the same timbre of voice. Those that were near him heard it as if coming from the Prophet and attributed it to him. This is the best of all interpretations (Ibn Ḥajar, Fatḥ, 8:439-440, Tafsīr, Sūrat al-Ḥajj).

As for the question whether the Makkan polytheists’ prostration was at all valid given the fact that they are ritually impure (cf. Q 9:28), the reply is no; nor was their prostration to Allah in the first place but only because they imagined their deities had been praised (Ibn Baṭṭāl, Sharḥ, 3:57, Abwāb sujūd al-Qurʾān, sujūd al-Muslimīn maʿa al-mushrikīn). Yet Ibn Ḥajar, noting that another version of the account said the one polytheist who did not actually prostrate was later killed as a disbeliever (Bukhārī, Abwāb sujūd al-Qurʾān, sajdat al-Najm; Muslim, Ṣalāt, sujūd al-tilāwa), expressed the pious view that “perhaps all those who were fortunate to prostrate that day were granted an excellent end and became Muslim due to the blessing of prostration” (Fatḥ, 2:554, Abwāb sujūd al-Qurʾān, sujūd al-Muslimīn maʿa al-mushrikīn wal-mushrik najas laysa lahu wuḍūʾ).


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See also

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