Why do people pray? Do they remember God when they are in trouble? This is particularly true for those who have no genuine faith in God. For instance, people remember God when they encounter a storm, whereas they forget all about Him once they are safe.
For those who believe that there is no intervention in the universe and what is in it -- their belief is based on atheism whereas their philosophical thoughts stem from positivism -- they believe that prayer is an act in which people who are unable to fully explain the reasons behind what is happening in the universe seek refuge in a superior entity. These very same people believe that if those who pray were aware of the laws effective in nature and the causation between events, they would not feel the need to pray.
From a modern paradigm and perspective, it is not possible to understand and explain prayer, one of the means of communication between man and God, based on a rational and scientific justification. Some Muslims who attempt to offer a rational explanation for prayer do nothing but repeat 19th century positivism without even knowing what they are doing. The final stage that those who offer to subject the Islamic faith and Islamic thought to a Western-style rational critique would get to is the conviction that anything that is rational should be explained scientifically. This suggests that what is rational needs to be scientific and what is scientific is rational. But we all know that some facts are rational and reasonable but they cannot be explained scientifically. For instance, it is not possible to explain the birth of Jesus without regular conception (as believed in Islam) from a scientific perspective, but it is rational.
From another positivist point of view -- interestingly, some Muslims have subscribed to this view -- prayer refers to worldly and material measures that people need to take in order to address their problems. For instance, for a patient, it is all about seeing a doctor and taking the prescribed medicine. God does not do anything else to cure the illness.
But is this really the case? Of course not. Were this the case, we would consider that it is the medicine itself that has the curing effect. However, what is curing is the composition of the medicine. Every element in the medicine has been created by God; the delicate production of the medicine through the processes involved is possible through recognition of and reliance on the laws that God has prescribed. Attributing the cure to the medicine alone means that the medicine would be considered “God.”
Man lives in a limited and dependent world. God, on the other hand, intervenes with life all the time. Given that we all live under His might, we need His endowment, blessing and help all the time.
Prayer is the calling upon of God’s intervention and help by His servants. Even though it is misperceived as a passive action, prayer is a demand for attention and attraction. It is a channel of communication and attraction in which nobody else is allowed to take part. Given that God is between man and his heart, and is closer to man than his soul, it is only natural for man to call for God’s help and blessing when necessary. In this relative and dependent world, man is always in need of God in every case and time. For this reason, God says in the Quran, “What would my Lord care for you if not for your supplication?”
A prayer answered by God in our personal life may change the course of our life, and this means Divine intervention. For instance, the current outlook of the time and the world would have been different if the Prophet Abraham had been burnt by fire, the Prophet Moses had drowned in the water and if a handful of Muslims had been defeated by the infidels at the Battle of Badr. So this means that the course of history is controlled by God; the intersections of the will of God and the will of man, rather than the vague mythos of progress, constitute the purpose of history.
The great Islamic dervish and Sufi Qushairi defines prayer as the appearance of man before God in shame and modesty. This means that prayer is not a passive state of affairs; instead, it refers to an active attitude. In a broader sense, even daily religious practices are considered prayer; the servant ascends to the presence of God by salaat (daily prayer) because the moment of prostration in it is described as the Miraj (ascendance into the heavens) of a Muslim.