What is Worship (Servitude)?
Al-Ibada (االْعِبَادَةُ ) is often translated as worship, but is more specifically "servitude". It is a wider notion than secular worship that usually comprises dogma and rituals. It refers to all acts that please God, that he has said he loves. One could use the phrase 'worshipful acts' to describe the servitude intended here - every act can be worshipful depending on its nature and reason it is undertaken.
The Hanbali jurist Ibn Taymiyyah is representative of the scholarly consensus on this:
الْعِبَادَةُ هِيَ إسْمٌ جَامِعٌ لِكُلِّ مَا يُحَبُّهُُ ااَّللُه ويَرْضَاهُ مِنَ الأَقْوَالِ وَالْأَعْمَالِ الظَّاَهِرَةِ وَالَْباطِنَةَِ..
"Ibada is a collective name of all that Allah loves and is pleased by, of both hidden and manifest acts and statements." (Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmu' al-Fatawa, Vol. 10, p. 149)
Why is the question asked?
We generally ask this question because we try to subjugate God to our standards.
When we see God orders ibada, in our human framework given we ask or order in times of need, we conclude God also needs it.
But this is not the case as purposes differ from one person to another. When a doctor asks a patient, who had asked him for help, to take medication, the doctor is not in need for the medicine rather it is the patient. Whilst both share the same act of 'asking', the purposes differ.
In a similar way, we should realize the differences between our purposes and God's purposes, as our essence is different from His. Whilst we hear, see, speak and love as does God, it does not mean that God is subjugated to our processes.
Allah says describing Himself:
لَيْسَ كَمِثْلِهِ شَيْءٌ وَهُوَ السَّمِيعُ البَصِيرُ
"There is nothing like unto Him, and He is the Hearing, the Seeing." (Qur'an 42:11)
Thus we should see a request as simply a request. Only when we are able to understand its context can we make sense of its purpose. A patient's context of help is required due to illness. In the context of God, He said:
ولَهُ مَا فِي الْسَّمَاوَاتِ وَالأَرْضِ وَلَهُ الدِّينُ وَاصِباً أَفَغَيْرَ اللّهِ تَتَّقُونَ، َمَا بِكُم مِّن نِّعْمَةٍ فَمِنَ اللّهِ.
"And to Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and the earth, and to Him is (due) ibada constantly. Then is it other than Allah that you fear? And whatever you have of favor - it is from Allah." (Qur'an 16:52-53)
So whatever we enjoy is a favour from Allah, therefore, who is in need for Whom?
We should also be conscious of our imperfection compared with the perfection of God. The firm belief in the absolute perfection of God's attributes is necessarily driven from the belief in His existence and His creation of such a complex universe. The imperfection of our limited minds impedes us from reaching or understanding the underlying wisdom.
The Hanbali jurist and theologian Ibn Taymiyyah said:
فَكُلُّ مَا فَعَلَهُ اللَّهُ عَلِمْنَا أَنَ لَهُ فِيهِ حِكْمَةٌ وَهَذَا يَكْفِينَا مِنْ حَيْثُ ااْلُجُمْلَةِ، وَإِنْ لَمْ نَعْرِفْ التَّفْصِيلَ، َوعَدَمُ عِلْمِنَا بِتَفْصِيلِ حِكْمَتِهِ بِمَنْزِلَةِ عَدَمِ عِلْمِنَا بِكَيْفِيَةِ ذَاِتهِ..
"We know that everything God does is based on a wisdom, this is generally enough for us even if we don't know the details. We don't know how His Self is (as it is beyond our comprehension) in the same way we may not know some details of His Wisdom." (Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmu' al-Fatawa, Vol. 6, p. 128)
God's Acts are neither Arbitrary nor Purposeless
There is no way to understand God's purposes except through revelation. Revelation tells us that Allah does not do arbitrary or purposeless matters:
وَمَا خَلَقْنَا السَّمَاء وَالْأَرْضَ وَمَا بَيْنَهُمَا لَاعِبِينَ، َوْ أَرَدْنَا أَن نَّتَّخِذَ لَهْواً لَّاتَّخَذْنَاهُ مِن لَّدُنَّا إِن كُنَّا فَاعِلِينَ.
"And We did not create the heaven and earth and what between them in play. Had We intended to take a diversion, We could have taken it from [what is] with Us - if (indeed) We were to do so." (Qur'an 21:16-17)
People see worship as rituals, finding such movements meaningless and then ask why we worship at all.
But in reality, ibada is a broader relationship with the Creator, a form of communication or dialogue between the Creator and his creation.
Allah says in a Qudsi hadith:
أَنَا عِنْدَ ظَنِّ عَبْدِي بِي، وَأَنَا مَعَهُ إِذَا ذَكَرَنِي، فَإِنْ ذَكَرَنِي فِي نَفْسِهِ، ذَكَرْتُهُ فِي نَفْسِي، وَإِنْ ذَكَرَنِي فِي مَلَإٍ، ذَكَرْتُهُ فِي مَلَإٍ خَيْرٍ مِنْهُمْ، وَإِنْ تَقَرَّبَ إِلَيَّ بِشِبْرٍ، تَقَرَّبْتُ إِلَيْهِ ذِرَاعًا، وَإِنْ تَقَرَّبَ إِلَيَّ ذِرَاعًا، تَقَرَّبْتُ إِلَيْهِ بَاعًا وَإِنْ أَتَانِي يَمْشِي، أَتَيْتُهُ هَرْوَلَةً
"I am as My servant thinks I am. I am with him when he makes mention of Me. If he makes mention of Me to himself, I make mention of him to Myself; and if he makes mention of Me in an assembly, I make mention of him in an assembly better than it. And if he draws near to Me an arm's length, I draw near to him a cubit, and if he draws near to Me a cubit, I draw near to him a fathom. And if he comes to Me walking, I go to him at speed." (Buhkari, Muslim, Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah)
It is difficult to be bothered by such communication when he speaks and Allah answers him.
Allah deserves to be Worshipped
Muslims serve and worship Allah because he deserves to be served and worshipped. In light of His eternal attributes, we praise, magnify and glorify Him.
If you live in a place made by God and in tranquillity bestowed by God, why don't you thank Him?
Is He not deserving to be thanked for the favours he conferred?
When a person granted us a favour, we would thank him and be appreciated to his help. What about the One Who everything we have and enjoy is bestowed by him?
The One Who subjugated the whole Universe to our benefit. Does not he deserve to be thanked, served and worshipped?
Love is the Corner Stone of Worship
Worship to Allah is the proclamation of love, and no one can truly serve or worship Allah before loving Him and as much as he loves Allah as much as rituals he performs as a sign of his love. Ibn al-Qaym said:
كَمَالُ الُْعُبُودِيَةِ تَابِعٌ لِكَمَالِ الْمَحَبَّةِ، وَكَمَالُ الْمَحَبَُّةِ تَابِعٌ لِكَمَالِ الْمَحْبُوبِ فِي َنْفسِهِ، وَاللَّهُ سُبْحَانَهُ لَهُ الْكَمَالُ الْمُطْلَقُ التَّامُّ فَي كٌلٍّ وَجْهٍ ... وَمَنْ هَذَا شَأْنُهُ فَإِنَّ القُلُوبَ لَا يَكُونُ شَيْءٌ أَحَبُّ إِلَيْهَا مٍنْهُ ... فَلاَ مَحَالَةَ أَنَّ مَحَبَّتَهُ تُوجِبُ عِبَادَتُهُ وَطَاعَتُهُ وَتَتَبُّعُ مَرْضَاتِهِ.
"The perfection of ibada follows the perfection of love and the perfection of love follows the perfection of the beloved himself. Allah is absolutely perfect in all matters… Hearts would not love any person more than their love to Whom such attributes belong to… it is not implausible, our love to Him necessitates worshiping and obeying Him as well as seeking His satisfaction." (Ibn al-Qaym, Madarij as-Salikin, Vol. 3, p. 28)
We need ibada
Ibada does not benefit or harm God, but it is for the good of the servant. We see many statistics argue the closer your life to God, the better it would be.
For example, in a longitudinal study published in 2018 on thousands of people who were followed up from their childhood until tens of years later, and they were watched for how closely they are to religious practices. The result of the study was:
"In the present study, we prospectively examined the associations of religious involvement in adolescence (including religious service attendance and prayer or meditation) with a wide array of psychological well-being, mental health, health behavior, physical health, and character strength outcomes in young adulthood… All models were controlled for sociodemographic characteristics, maternal health, and prior values of the outcome variables whenever data were available. Compared with no attendance, at least weekly attendance of religious services was associated with greater life satisfaction and positive affect, a number of character strengths, lower probabilities of marijuana use and early sexual initiation, and fewer lifetime sexual partners… We hypothesized that both frequent service attendance and prayer or meditation are each associated with greater psychological, mental, behavioral, and physical health and character strengths outcomes." (Y. Chen et al)
So Allah orders us to do what will benefit us and forbids what will lead us astray. Ibn Qutaybah said:
إِنَّ اللَّهَ لَمْ يَأْمُرْ العِبَادَ بِمَا أَمَرَهُمْ بِهِ لِحَاجَتِهِ إِلَيْهِ، وَلَا نَهَاهُمْ عَنْهُ بُخْلًا مِنْهُ، بَلْ أَمَرَهُمْ بَمَا فِيهِ صَلاَحُهُمْ، وَنَهَاهٌمْ عَمَّا فِيهِ فَسَادٌهُمْ.
"Allah did not order the servants with what he did because of His need to it and He did not forbid (some matters) out of stinginess. He rather prescribed upon them what leads to their goodness, and forbade what leads to their corruption." (Ibn Taymiyyah, Qa'ida fi al-Mahabah, p. 183)
One of the best kinds of ibada man can perform to Allah is the supplication which is to ask Allah for help. As the Prophet (saw) said:
إِنَّ الدُّعَاءَ هُوَ الْعِبَادَةُ
"Supplication is itself the true worship." (Bulugh al-Maram, Tirmidhi, Nasa'I, Majah, Abi Dawud and others).
So we are the one who is in need of material, intangible and psychological help.
Muslims serve and worship Allah because they are forced from inside to do, and they are demanded from outside (from God) to do. The worship and obedience would be necessarily offered to Allah or to anyone else, whether this one is others we follow or love, or ourselves or to institutions. So, we should give the rights to whom He deserves.
Worship is our Test
The purpose of our existence in this world is to pass the test of worship (servitude), as Allah says:
وَمَا خَلَقْتُ الْجِنَّ وَالْإِنسَ إِلَّا لِيَعْبُدُونِ
"And I have not created the jinn and Human beings but for ibada." (Qur'an 51:56)
Allah has created us not for suffering or vexation, rather elevate our ranks and to have mercy on us. In serving this purpose, Allah (swt) sent messengers and callers to guide people to Him right path. He opens for them the gates of forgiveness and mercy through an effortless action they may do. There are many ahadith say who does or says so and so (very easy action or short statement), his sins would be forgiven and he would receive so and so of a huge reward. He (swt) loves for us the guidance, but he did not oblige us to do it. As Allah says:
وَأَمَّا ثَمُودُ فَهَدَيْنَاهُمْ فَاسْتَحَبُّوا الْعَمَى عَلَى الْهُدَى
"And as for Thamud, We guided them, but they preferred blindness over guidance" (Qur'an 41:17)
Ibada is a duty because Allah deserves it, our psychological and spiritual need to communicate with our Creator and grace because it bestows us with marvellous feelings in our hearts.
Ibn Taymiyyah, Qa'ida fi al-Mahabah
Sami Ameri, Limadha Yattlub Allah min al-Bashar 'Ibadatahu?
Y. Chen et al, Associations of Religious Upbringing With Subsequent Health and Well-Being From Adolescence to Young Adulthood: An Outcome-Wide Analysis, Vol. 187, No. 11