Answered by Shaykh Shuaib Ally
Question: Assalam alaykum,
Are the five daily prayers performed on time but without attentiveness accepted by Allah?
Answer: Wa alaikum assalam wa rahmatullah,
There are two things worth bearing in mind: legal validity and excellence in action:
An action is legally valid as long as its conditions and integrals are fulfilled, and one does not do anything that would invalidate it. With respect to prayer, if one were to fulfil its preconditions, such as purification, then perform it correctly, and not do anything that would invalidate it, the prayer would be considered legally valid. That is, it accomplishes the requirements a person had been legally obligated to fulfil. By this definition, a prayer performed without attentiveness could be legally valid.
Excellence in Action
Divine acceptance is an entirely different matter. It is impossible for us to guarantee, but is what we nevertheless strive towards by attempting to perform actions that are legally valid, with excellence. In the case of prayer, attentiveness is one of the primary markers of excellence.
Attentiveness in Prayer
The Qur’an declares, “Successful are believers; those who are attentive in their prayers” (Qur’an, 23.1-2). This is because real benefit accrues from prayer in which one’s mind and body are both at rest, and in which one is unencumbered by outside thoughts and concerns.
Imam al-Ghazali, commenting on the verse: “You who believe, do not approach prayer if you are intoxicated, not until you know what you are saying” (Qur’an, 4.43), points out this Qur’anic directive provides guidance for those who are not literally drunk, yet approach prayer with the same level of heedlessness, and do not know what they say in their prayers. This is problematic because prayer is meant to be direct conversation with God, and intimate conversation does not take place when one party is not fully engaged.
However, this level of mindfulness is something that a person needs to work on continuously, as distractions abound and presence of mind isn’t easily attained. Many have noted that the verse: “Woe to those who pray; but are heedless of their prayer” (Qur’an, 107.4-5), is in fact an example of God’s mercy. While He cursed those who are heedless of their prayer, he did not likewise curse those heedless in their prayer, a curse that would then have encompassed us all.
Please see also: Presence of Heart in Prayer: A Reader