An important insight about prayer or salat, which is almost never discussed, is in Sura 107 Ayas 4–5:
There is calamity for those who are praying,
Who are unmindful in their prayer.
As everyone knows mindless prayer is very common. You are praying and your mind is somewhere else. This is because you don’t find inspiration or purpose in salat.
Children are made to memorize the Arabic words, the correct pronunciation and the body postures, with frequent reminders that any departure from the prescribed routine makes the prayer unacceptable to God. People are told that it may be better for them to know the meaning of the words, but it is not necessary; what matters is that you utter the words with correct Arabic pronunciation.
The important fact that your innermost thoughts and feelings are the real prayer is never discussed. There is no mention of creating a high purpose for your life, and prayer a means of achieving it.
With absence of meaning and purpose, people often find their attention wandering everywhere. They experience boredom, frustration and dejection. They also experience guilt for feeling like this. These are the emotions they convey to God in their prayers day after day and month after month.
How these attitudes produce calamity is discussed in the commentary on the above given ayas in chapter 13 of my book ‘The Quran and the Life of Excellence”.
Calamity that has resulted from unmindful prayer can be seen everywhere. People in almost any mosque are divided into groups quarreling with each other, as are Muslims outside the mosque. Everyone says Muslims should be united by holding on to “the rope of Allah”, but the feelings of enmity in the hearts are so strong they cannot agree even on simple matters.
How many times did you meet a person who prays regularly and on meeting him you said to yourself: ”Vow, this is a wonderful person, a great role model, I want to be like him”?
I believe that a mosque should provide education about prayer not in the traditional method of memorization, but by holding discussions on how to create a positive purpose for your life. How can we contribute to the society around us? How can we learn to live life such that when we are gone, people will remember us as doers of good? Salat is then a way of finding help to achieve such a purpose. We should remind people of Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) teaching that an hour of thinking is better than a year of prayer.