This is a low-level internet polemic which really involves ignorance or a complete shut-down of any desire to accurately represent the Muslim faith on the part of the person making such an argument.
The polemicist isolates one statement in a part of the Muslim prayer called the tashahhud: “al-salaamu ‘alayka ayyhu’l-nabiyyu (peace be upon you, O Prophet)”.
The polemicist then proceeds to make a song and dance about it claiming it means Muslims pray to Muhammad. Yep, that’s their argument!
A few thoughts on this:
1. The Muslim prays to God alone. In fact, the Salah is commenced with the recitation of Surah Al Fatihaha. Verse 5 is rendered in English: “You [God] we worship, and You [God] we ask for help”.
Thus from the very beginning of the prayer it is evident the prayer is to Allah. Why would Muslims later on in the prayer decide to, all of a sudden, start praying to Prophet Muhammad especially given the fact the Quran teaches against this action?
The Quran teaches us not to invoke another with Allah. Only Allah should be invoked. “So invoke not with Allah another ilah (god) lest you be among those who receive punishment” [Quran 26: 213]
And we are taught only the Creator and not the creation should be invoked in Quran chapter 16:
20. Those whom they (Al-Mushrikun ) invoke besides Allah have not created anything, but are themselves created. 21. (They are) dead, lifeless, and they know not when they will be raised up. 22. Your Ilah (God) is One Ilah (God Allah, none has the right to be worshipped but He). But for those who believe not in the Hereafter, their hearts deny (the faith in the Oneness of Allah), and they are proud.
2. If the polemicist is consistent with this argument then they will also say we worship ourselves and other Muslims at the congregational prayers too as the sentence after in the tashahhuud goes “peace be upon us...”! Obviously we aren’t worshipping ourselves and those in the congregation with us! We don't believe those in the congregation can hear our prayers!
3. The polemicist doesn’t even understand the statement “al-salaamu ‘alayka (peace be upon you)” – it’s obviously not a prayer to Prophet Muhammad. Shaykh Uthameen explained this very simply – to be honest you really don’t need a shaykh to tell you that statement is NOT a prayer to Prophet Muhammad p but rather a supplication to Allah to bless the Prophet:
Are the words “al-salaamu ‘alayka (peace be upon you)” a statement or a supplication? I.e., are you stating that the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) is in a state of peace or are you asking Allaah to grant him peace? The answer is that it is a du’aa’ (supplication) in which you are praying to Allaah to send peace upon him. This is a statement which is serving as a supplication. [Source]
4. Muslims don’t believe the Prophet is even listening to the prayer so how can Muslims be trying to pray to Prophet Muhammad? When Muslims ask Allah to bless the Prophet it gets conveyed via the angels. Shaykh ibn al-Uthaymeen rahimahullah beautifully states,
We say: if you send salaam upon him from the farthest ends of the earth, your salaam will reach him, because Allah has appointed angels who travel about the earth, and if anyone sends salaams upon the Messenger (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him), they convey that salaam to the Messenger (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). So if we say now, “O Allah, send blessings and peace upon the Messenger of Allah,” our salaam will be transmitted to him. In prayer we say, “Al-salaamu 'alayka ayyuha'l-nabiyyu wa rahmat-Allahi wa barakatuhu (Peace be upon you, O Prophet, and the mercy of Allah and His blessings),” and the salaam is transmitted to him…
For the hadith he refers to concerning the angels transmitting the salaam to the Prophet:
The Messenger of Allah sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam said: “Allah has angels who go around on earth, conveying to me the salaam of my ummah.” [Sunan Nasaa'i, Saheeh Al-Albani] [Source]
5. The polemicist again doesn’t show a familiarity with the prayer as after two sentences after the statement in question the Muslim asks Allah to send blessings upon the Prophet in a similar way Prophet Abraham was blessed:
`Allahumma salli `ala Muhammadin, wa `ala aali Muhammadin, kama sallaita `ala Ibrahima wa ala aali ibrahim...[O Allah, send your graces, honour and mercy on Muhammad and the family of Muhammad as you did with Ibrahim and his family...]
Now think about it, if the Salah involves "praying" to Muhammad then why does it after two statements go to a supplication beginning with "O Allah" to bless the Prophet? It’s obvious the prayer is to Allah!
On a side point, the asking of blessings to be sent to Prophet Muhammad p is in accordance with the divine command in the Quran (ref. 33:56). It actually benefits us to ask as we receive blessings for it! It’s very interesting to note the Bible talks about those who bless Abraham in a positive way, according to the Bible, God says this, whilst addressing Abram (Abraham):
I will bless those who bless you,and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you. (Genesis 12:3 NIV)
The fact that our Prophet taught us to mention "like Abraham" when asking Allah to send blessings on our Prophet maybe in reference to this special status Abraham had as parsed from Genesis 12:3.
[May Allah send more peace and blessings upon Abraham and Muhammad pbut]
5. Lastly, any academic and fair minded person will acknowledge Islam forbids praying to the creation and that Islam is based on the principle of monotheism. Everybody who knows something about Islam knows this right? I don't need to pull out a quote from an academic. Let’s go to our Jewish brothers. Rabbi Tovia Singer states Islam is definitely not idolatry – Muslims worship one God.
“Believers! Send your Blessings on him” – Resource for Salawat on the Prophet
Do we say say Al Salamu Alaika in /tashahhud?