Sometimes I have heard people criticize Islam for being maybe "too ritual" or focused on the ritual aspect of worship in preference to the spiritual. I really don't think that is the case at all, but that actually Islam has a nice balance between the both.
As a Christian, something I longed for (before I even heard of Islam) was a form for the prayer. It troubled me from an early age that I didn't know how to approach God for help. This might seem like something that one needn't worry about--just call on God, right? But for me, it did not some appropriate to simply make demands of God or to fill my prayers with a wish list, i.e., "please give me this, and this, and that, and the other thing..." The focus just seemed all wrong. And I don't mean to belittle anyone, or the importance of making du'a and supplicating to God, but prayers like that for me felt devoid of all spiritual content.
So when I hear a Christian, for example, say that he can pray anytime he wants, as if a Muslim is somehow restricted in his prayers by the motion of the sun, I understand that he cannot grasp the true beauty of the salaat. Because for someone not familiar with it, the salaat might look like an "empty ritual." Recite this, stand like this, bow and say this, prostrate and say that--and so on. Because it is scripted, and because it is a ritual, it might seem devoid of spiritual connection. But what is so beautiful about the salaat is not it's ritual aspect, but its spiritual content. I do think that bowing and prostrating before our Creator is humbling and has a powerful effect on the heart, but when a person focuses on the meaning and content of the prayer it means so much more than just a ritual.
And recently I heard someone give the analogy that the prayer itself is like a skeleton. And she did not flesh out (pardon the pun) this analogy but as I reflected on it, it seemed even more profound. And it applies to all the pillars of Islam actually, but here I'll focus on the prayer. The ritual of the prayer is like a skeleton--and a skeleton is not alive. But without bones, the other tissues of the body have no structure, and no support. Even if there are muscles and skin, organs and so forth, without the skeletal structure the body would just lie limp in a pile, unable to do anything.
I broke my arm when I was a kid and had to wear a cast on it for several weeks--but even if I ignore the pain of the event, I remember that my entire arm was almost useless. I couldn't do anything with it (especially for the first few weeks) and just because the bone was broken.
While bones alone don't make up the entire body, they are essential to its function. If there are only bones, then there is just a skeleton--essentially dead! If a person maintains the prayer in form alone, the analogy is like a dry skeleton: dead. Spiritually the prayer is dead.
But what if there is muscle and skin, without bones? This is how I kind of see prayer in some other religions, namely Christianity. There is spiritual content for sure--love for God and awe at His creation--but there is no form. So the prayer might be alive, but it's almost useless. It can't do anything, go anywhere.
So in Islam we have the form--the skeleton. But if we don't flesh it out, it's just dead, empty bones. So we need to focus on caring for the spiritual components of the prayer, analogous to flesh. This means in the prayer we should be concentrating on our love for Allah, His Greatness and His Mercy.
So I guess in this month of Ramadan, here is something to think about--don't let your salaat be dead bones, just the skeleton, but bring it to life.