Q: Why are the fard prayers of Zuhr, 'Asr, half of 'Isha and the third unit of the Maghrib generally performed silently?
A: Shaykh Sha'arawi, in responding to the same question replied thus: "...At the beginning of Islam, the Muslims were weak and oppressed. They therefore used to recite their prayers audibly only at such times that the kuffaar enemy were sleeping -- during the fajr, maghrib, and 'Isha, or otherwise occupied in the housebound distractions that the evening brings. (The prayers were at this time only two rakaats). During Zuhr and 'Asr, the Muslims prayed quietly for the enemy was wide awake and all around them. When Islam finally triumphed and the Muslims were no longer weak (some prayers were made four rakaats), the quiet prayers remained quiet, and the audible prayers remained audible, sticking to a precedent already established.
Regarding this matter, however, even if Shaykh Sha'arawi's explanation did not come to us, we would have to realize that matters of worship are carried out as instructed by the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.a.w) (tawqeefi) and not subject to our interpretation. Since our Prophet said: "Pray as you have seen me pray," and also "Take your rituals from me," and since every narration on the subject shows that he performed the prayer as we know it, we have no choice but to follow his example.
Solely from the aspect of theory, in my research on the entire aspect of prayer, I found that as far as the performance of the prayer is concerned, and what the numerous ahadith indicate, there is a great argument for the similarities of the performance of this aspect of ibadah between the Jews and the Muslims at the time of the Prophet. The famous researcher, Louis Ginzbery, also showed that the Jews of Arabia prayed five times per day, and this was reduced to three.
Hannah of the Bible, as far as the Talmudic imagery goes, was the one who prayed quietly (sirri) while only her lips moved. It is interesting that this is the way the hadith exhorts us to perform the sirri prayers. What does this have to do with the question? Well, from the Qur'an too, we know that the Jews were ordered to do "al-salat" -- note "the prayer" and not "prayer". The hadith also makes a strong connection between Moses and the Prophet, as is seen in the various narrations regarding al-Isra. The matter of prayer then, may well have been the same as that of the Jews of the Prophet's time.
I am aware that there are Muslims who take umbrage at any mention that some form of worship may be the same as that of the Jews. As a researcher, I cannot cater for these unIslamic likes and dislikes, and can only report on my findings. The Jews are a people whom Allah honored as long as they followed His commands, and if those commands, and the method of performance, are the same as we find in Islam, then we cannot but accept that fact.
If the Prophet's prayer, and his way of performance was that of the Jews of the desert, we can only say that this is proof that such a divine injunction had been amazingly constant in form and fard from the earliest times, and that the Prophet simply, by divine command, continued it.
Posted November 3, 1998. This question and answer was printed in the November 1994 issue of the Voice of Islam newsletter. (This newsletter is published by the Islamic Society of the Washington Area).