Why Do Ismailis Pray Three Times A Day Instead of Five?
In Mecca, the Prophet and the early Muslims first only prayed two times a day: Sunrise ( salat al-fajr) and Sunset (salat al-maghrib). In Medina, the Prophet ordered the community to pray three times a day:
“And establish regular prayers at the two ends of the day (tarafayi al-nahari) and at the approaches of the night (zulafan mina al-layli).”
- Holy Quran 11:114
These prayers were at Sunrise ( salat al-fajr), Sunset (salat al-maghrib) and Night (salat al-isha). In Medina, there also started a weekly tradition where the Muslims congregated at noon or afternoon for a special prayer on Fridays. The Prophet also voluntarily prayed the Noon Prayer (salat al-zuhur) and the Afternoon Prayer (salat al-asr) on a daily basis.
After the Prophet’s death, the jurists sought to standardize the prayers. They took the three Qur’anic prayer times and added the Noon and Afternoon prayers that they heard the Prophet do, to make Five Prayers. The Five Prayers became standard shari’ah for Sunni and Shi’a Islam. Academic and historical study of Muslim tradition has shown that the idea of 5 prayer times emerged at least 100 years after the death of Prophet Muhammad and does not go back to Muhammad's historical teachings.
“When the worship was stabilized by the later jurists, it became obligatory for every Muslim to perform it five times daily. It is doubtful, however, whether the five daily hours were regularly observed even during Muhammad’s closing years, and a phrase from the Quran shows that there must have been at least three hours of prayer daily.”
- W. Montgomery Watt, ( Muhammad in Medina, London 1956, p. 305)
“Verily the prayers (al-salata) are enjoined upon the believers at fixed times (kitaban mawqootan).”
- Holy Quran 4:103
“And establish prayers (aqimi al-salata) at the two ends of the day (tarafayi al-nahari) and at the approaches of the night (zulafan mina al-layli).”
- Holy Quran 11:114
“Establish regular prayers (aqimi al-salata) - at the sun's decline (li dulooki al-shamsi) till the darkness of the night, and the morning recitation (wa qurana al-fajri).”
- Holy Quran 17:82
“Guard strictly your prayers (al-salawati), especially the Middle Prayer (al-salati al-wusta); and stand before Allah in a devout (frame of mind).”
- Holy Quran 2:238
These verses speak about, if any, three times of prayer: Sunrise ( salat al-fajr), Sunset (salat al-maghrib), Night (salat al-‘isha). The Middle Prayer refers to the Sunset prayer (salat al-maghrib). Those who perform five prayers interpret the above verses in combination.
The Qur’an does not command a daily Noon Prayer ( salat al-zuhur) or Afternoon Prayer (salat al-asr). In fact, one Qur’anic verse speaks of the believers praying at sunrise and sunset, but laying off their clothes and resting during the afternoon.
“O ye who believe! Let your slaves, and those of you who have not come to puberty, ask leave of you at three times (before they come into your presence): Before the prayer of dawn (salati al-fajri), and when ye lay aside your raiment for the heat of noon, and after the prayer of night (salati al-‘ishai). Three times of privacy for you.”
- Holy Quran 24:38
Some point to the below verse as evidence for an Afternoon Prayer:
“Yea, to Him be praise (wa lahu al-hamdu), in the heavens and on earth; and in the late afternoon and when the day begins to decline.”
- Holy Quran 30:18
The above verse uses the word hamd (praise) and not prayers (salat). The Quran (4:103) says the Prayers (salat) are enjoined at fixed times.
Even in the Sunni tradition, the earliest sources used to prove the 5 prayers are contradictory and consist of two different Hadiths:
One Hadith claims that the Prophet during his Mi'raj was ordered by God to have his community pray 50 times per day and then Moses told the Prophet to go back and negotiate with God to reduce the number; it is said that the Prophet negotiated until it was down to 5 times and he was embarrassed to reduce it anymore. Notwithstanding the theological problems of this Hadith, historical scholars have dated this Hadith to the end of the 1st century of Islam, i.e. mid-700s, 100 years after the Prophet., at the earliest (Juynboll dates it even later). Also, this Hadith was originally narrated by Anas b. Malik, not from the Prophet himself, and later sources forged a transmission line to take it back to the Prophet.
Another Hadith contradicts this first Hadith and says only that Gabriel taught the Prophet the 5 prayers after he returned from his Mi'raj. Scholars have found that this second Hadith dates to 150 years after the Prophet, i.e. middle 2nd century of Islam (source: Stijn Aerts, "Ascension, Descension, and Prayer-Times in the Sīra and the Ḥadīth: Notes on Dating and Chronology," Der Islam 2017; 94(2): 385–422).
Even after all of this, Sunni Muslims disagree on how the 5 prayer times can be established --- sometimes ignoring the Hadiths and claiming they are in the Qur'an and other times, admitting the Qur'an contains no 5 prayers and using the above Hadiths. Unlike all of this contradiction, the Ismā‘īlī Muslims follow the guidance of Mawlana Hazar Imam who, as the legitimate bearer of the Prophet's authority and interpreter of the Qur’ān, has specified the number of prayers for his community to perform in the current times and contexts.