It is important that we understand the difference between Salat (Ritual Prayer) and du’a (supplications). Salat refers to the obligatory act of worship, which is incumbent upon every mature, sane Muslim; to be performed at specifically designated times daily.
Du’a on the other hand refers to supplication in the form of a request or petition for a favour from Allah (r). Salat cannot be performed except with ablution and all the recitation done while performing it must be in Arabic language, but these two conditions do not necessarily apply to Du’a.
The Holy Qur’an chapter 14 (Ibrahim) verse 40 clearly distinguishes the difference between Salat and Du’a when it states:
“O my Lord! Make me one who establishes regular prayer (Salat) and also (raise such) among my offspring; O our Lord! And accept thou my Prayer (Du’a).“
As far as efficacy of Du’a is concerned, Allah states in the Qur’an chapter 2 (Al-Baqarah) verse 186 thus:
“When My servants ask thee concerning Me, I am indeed close (to them): I respond to the prayer (Du’a) of the supplicant when he called on Me: Let them also with a will, listen to My call, and believe in Me: that they may walk in the right way.“
Also, in Qur’an 40:60 Allah says:
“Call on Me (in Du’a) and I will answer your prayer“.
There are a number of Prophetic ahadith which enjoin Muslims to petition Allah for their needs. One such hadith says that Allah is ashamed not to answer the prayer of a sincere supplicant who raises his hands up.
Other states that Allah is angry with one who does not ask Him for anything (through Du’a). If the verses and prophetic traditions quoted above are true, as they are, then how do we answer the question of a believer who asks:
“Why are my sincere du’a for good not answered?”
First and foremost, it is important that we should never take Allah’s attributes in isolation from other attributes: i.e. His willingness to answer prayers should not be taken in isolation from His other attributes like Mercy, Justice, Knowledge, Wisdom, etc. Refer to Qur’an 10:11 for more explanation.
To give a few examples, sometimes you may ask Allah for something and He gives you what you asked for exactly as you requested for it. At other times you may ask Allah for something, but He may give you what you want only when He feels it is the best for you; i.e. He may delay granting your request.
This is because Allah is the Musabbib-al-Asbab: meaning that He is the Creator of Opportunities who knows when best to answer the request of a believer.
A Muslim sister who has been supplicating to Allah to give her a good and loving husband may meet someone she feels is the right person; then something happens as a result of which the marriage is not possible.
The tendency is for her to get frustrated and feel that Allah is wasting her time, but it is possible that Allah, the Creator of opportunities is testing her patience and making sure she gets to wait until the person Allah has chosen for her comes.
One who misses a plane, train, or bus he so much prayed to be able to catch falls into this category. He wouldn’t know that his Creator intends his missing the plane to be the response to his du’a until he comes to hear that that very plane has crashed during that particular flight.
Let us therefore allow Allah to choose what is best for us; let us not give Him an ultimatum (see Qur’an 42:27).
Also, sometimes you may ask Allah for something and He gives you something different and even better than what you requested for.
For example, you may be praying Allah to make you wealthy with the intention that you will use the wealth to help the needy. However, Allah being your Creator knows your nature better than yourself.
Instead of granting your request as you made it, He may opt to give you a good and virtuous wife/husband who helps you bring up good children together with whom you will live in this world peacefully and reach the hereafter safely; that is different but better than what you asked for.
Perhaps if He had made you wealthy, instead of redeeming your pledge to help the poor and needy, you would have become ungrateful, arrogant and probably end up in Hell.
He therefore knows better what you need. A child who asks his mother to give him a razor blade because he saw her using it to cut something will not be granted his request.
Since the mother knows that the razor will be harmful to him she will definitely deny him the use of it even if he cries about it. Refer to Qur’an 2:216 17:11 for more explanation.
Believers often lose sight of the virtue of Allah’s divine goodness through which He sometimes gives His servants what they need even before they asked for it.
For instance some are not given sight while some are given, some knowledge, some wisdom, some longer life, some physical strength, etc. Most of the good things we have are things we didn’t pray for before we were given. This is how Allah shows us how Merciful and Cherishing He is to us.
It is also part of Allah’s love for us that He sometimes withholds what we supplicate to him for, but converts it to rewards to be kept for the supplicant till the Hereafter.
The Prophet (r) said that on the Day of Judgement there are those who Allah will call and tell them: You prayed for such and such on earth but your prayer was not answered there, here is the reward for that prayer.
The Prophet (r) said that such reward will be of so much value that some would have preferred that none of their prayers on earth were answered. Therefore whenever you supplicate to Allah for something it may be even reasonable for you to be happier when your Du’a seems not to have been answered in this world.
One should also advise youth that they should not behave like one who is an angel whenever inside a Mosque and a devil outside it.
That is to say it is not enough that you supplicate. You must also abide by what Allah states in Qur’an 2:186 (quoted earlier on under this topic). You must not only believe in Allah, but also practice good deeds as they are prescribed by Allah. In another verse (Qur’an 2:153) Allah says:
“O ye who believe! Seek help with patient perseverance and prayer: for Allah is with those who patiently persevere.”