As you may be aware, prayers have an esteemed position in our religion, and are considered as one of the best deeds. Its importance is to the extent that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH&HP) introduces prayers as the weapon of the faithful, the basis of religion, and the light of the heavens and the earth. (1) Thus, Allah (SWT) has referred to prayer in various verses of the Holy Quran, and Ahl al-Bayt (PBUT) who are the true interpreters of the Holy Quran have elaborated further on this issue.
In the course of this answer, we will touch upon the two main requirements necessary for our prayers to be granted, the barriers that prevent our prayers from being granted, how to resolve these barriers, and finally the reason that some of our prayers are not granted.
Granting, a divine promise
As certain verses in Quran present, Allah (SWT) has promised to grant prayers: "And when My servants ask you concerning Me, then (say) surely I am very near; I answer the prayer of the suppliant when he calls on Me, so they should answer My call and believe in Me that they may walk in the right way (and reach the target)."(2) In another verse (3), He clearly commands us to call Him so that He would answer us.
However, in browsing our daily lives, we may come to certain cases in which our request from Allah (SWT) has not been granted. What may be the reasons? Do these cases contradict the aforementioned verses of the Holy Quran?
The Two Main Requirements
The former verse mentioned above (And your Lord says: "Call upon Me, I will answer you "…) can be divided into two parts. In the first, Allah (SWT) commands us to call him and pray; in the second, He immediately says:" Those who scorn My worship shall soon enter the hell, in humiliation."(4) By following one part after the other, one can conclude that a request from Allah (SWT) is actually a kind of worship and obedience towards Allah (SWT). In fact according to a saying of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH&HP), prayer is known as the reality and the core of worship. (5) Thus just as all deeds and worship have certain procedures and requirements; the same rule applies to prayers.
The two main requirements for a prayer to be granted can be extracted from the Holy Quran and the various narrations of the Ahl al-Bayt (PBUT). The first condition, as the Quran puts it, is to call upon Allah (SWT) without having the slightest hope from others. The second requirement is to make sure our prayer involves a true request.
Only Allah (SWT), a true prayer…
Sometimes when we call upon Allah (SWT) and request something, a slight hope from the people prevents us from purely asking Allah (SWT). We believe that they too can grant our requests. In these cases, it is obvious that our prayer will not be effective, because we have hope in things that have no influence. Even while having recourse (Tawassul) to the Ahl al-Bayt (PBUT), we have to be conscious that our true hope must be solely in Allah (SWT), for it was Him who introduced the Ahl al-Bayt (PBUT) as means of proximity towards Himself.
On the other hand, we may have experienced situations in which we have had hope solely in Allah (SWT), believing that everything is in His hands. By practicing this situation we can make sure to reach the first condition for granting a prayer.
In addition to the fact that we must have our hopes only in Allah (SWT), our prayer should involve a true request and our words should be consistent with our inner feelings. In other words, we should not ask for something verbally, without really wanting it from the heart. Therefore, it is clear that one's intention plays the most important role in granting a prayer. That is why Amir al-Mu'minin (PBUH), in a letter addressing Imam Hassan (PBUH), states that: "the grant of prayers rests with the true purpose and intention of the implorer" (6)
Sins, the Major Barrier
Having fulfilled the two requirements discussed above, we must now try to resolve the barriers that prevent our requests from being granted. As the Infallible Imams (PBUT) have cautioned us, some of the sins are major barriers that prevent our prayers from being granted. In the supplication of Kumayl, Amir al-Mu'minin (PBUH) has taught us to supplicate to Allah (SWT) through the following phrase: "O Allah! Forgive me for those sins that would hinder my supplication."
According to the teachings of Ahl al-Bayt (PBUT), there are several sins which prevent our prayers from being granted. Of these sins include hurting one's parents resulting in their immense dissatisfaction (7), oppressing people (8), eating food that was provided illegally (i.e through stealing, etc.)(9), delaying the offering of prayers till its prescribed time passes (it becomes Qada)(10)…
How can we resolve these barriers?
The good news is that Ahl al-Bayt (PBUT) have also taught us how to resolve these barriers, so that our requests are granted. If we remember to call our Lord humbly and meekly, earnestly request from Him, maintain our hope, remain humble and insist on our request, and finally remember to pray for others before our own, then our prayer is more likely to be granted.
Another thing that helps us in this way is to send Salawat - salutations to Prophet Muhammad and to his Progeny (PBUT) - before and after our request. According to several narrations, Salawat is a granted prayer. Certainly Allah (SWT) is far more generous than to grant the former and latter prayer, but neglect the request in between. (11)
Special times and places
Certain time intervals are more blessed than the rest, and thus praying in those times can have more impact than the rest. Times like the final part of night, the moments before dawn, Thursday nights, after performing each Salat (daily prayer), while reciting the Holy Quran, when breaking fast in the evening, and many more are also useful for removing the barriers that prevent the granting of our prayers. In addition to that, praying in specific places like in Masjid al-Haram of Mecca, shrine of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH&HP) in Medina, in the shrines the Ahl al-Bayt (PBUT), and in general all mosques are effective in removing the barriers.
Therefore, provided that we resolve the barriers and fulfill the two basic requirements, our prayer will certainly be granted and our Lord will pay us attention.
As we have explained above sometimes our prayers are not granted due to the fact that one of our sins has become a barrier, however, at other times we may feel that we have accomplished all requirements, but our request has still not been granted. It is necessary to know that sometimes what we may have requested is not to our best. In better words, granting that request, as we desire, will lead to our detriment, either corporeally or spiritually. According to several narrations, instead of granting our prayer in the fashion that we asked for, Allah (SWT) will recompense in another respect, such as elevate our position in the hereafter, and forgive our sins.
Even in some cases, when Allah (SWT) has just granted our prayer in delay, He however will also recompense for this delay on the resurrection day, and treat us with blessing and kindness. On this basis Imam Sadiq (PBUH) has said: "When a servant encounters such blessings on the resurrection day, he wishes that none of his prayers had been granted in this world."(12)