Welcome back brother Noman.
You wrote: “does establishing Salaat unambiguously mean and equate to performing prayer? Is it safe to assume that you agree that Namaaz is not what the Qur'an was referring to when it said to "establish Salaat"?”
I combined two of your observations above because these revolve around one thing, i.e. “Establish Salat” and does it equate to Praying. The confusion stems when we translate Arabic words to English, because some English words have different connotations than the original Arabic words. The word in Arabic is “Qaim” which is translated as “establish” in some verses.
The word ‘Qaim” comes from root letters qāf wāw mīm, occurring a total of 660 times in 22 derived forms in Quran. Its fundamental meanings are: standing up; standing still; balancing; straight and even; to erect something; to stay at a place; etc. Which of the meanings are suitable depends upon the context and other words used next to this word. Some examples from Lane Supplement, pp. 2995.
Qama Al-da’batu = the beast stopped from journeying, or fatigue, or being jaded; Qama Bil-layl = he rose during the night to pray; Qama Al-salatu = people rose to prayer; Qama tisa’atu = the resurrection, or time thereof, came to pass; Qama bil-Amar = he undertook the affairs; Qama Alayie = he tended, or took care of it or him; Qama BilYateem = He maintained the orphan; Qama BilQist = He maintained justice, so on and so forth.
Therefore, when this word is used with Salat, it simply means stand, rise to pray with care and solemness it deserves, for you are about to pledge with God. When it is stated Aqeemusalata, it simply means “You (all-plural) stand to pray.” See, how God explains this with reference to prophet Zacharia:
[3:38-9]: “At that (right there and then), Zechariah called upon his Lord, saying, "My Lord, grant me from Yourself a good offspring. Indeed, You are the Hearer of supplication. So the angels called him while he was standing in prayer (Qaimun Yusalli) in the chamber, …
Thus, undoubtedly, Salat = prayers.
You wrote: “…If so, then my question to you is, what is an ideal prayer for you? In other words, realistic or not, how would you describe your most idealistic understanding of what Salaat being established looks like provided it was done so by a group of agreeably enlightened individuals? For example, is it the reading, discussion, and encouragement for following of the Qur'an in a communal setting?”
As per my understanding, three physical elements of Salat are mentioned in Quran, namely, Qiam (standing), Ruku (bowing ), and Sujood (prostrating). These physical aspects of Salat are completely intact even today and has been for 1400 years without any break. For many, perhaps missing is the purpose “why one should pray or stand to pray?”
As per Quran the purpose of Salat is “God’s remembrance = Dhikr Allah.” The very first chapter of Quran is recited in every unit of Salat. If you carefully look at this chapter, it has three interconnected parts. First part is God introducing Himself as most merciful, gracious, worthy of all praise, and the ultimate inheritor/controller of this worldly and universal order. Second part in the middle is our pledge, we only worship/serve You, and seek Your help for our guidance. The third part is our prayer, our supplication to Him for guiding us on the path that is straight, the path of those who God favored, etc. And of course, this supplication of ours is immediately responded to in the form of the Book, Quran from Chapter 2 onward.
Thus, God is the central element in all of this. If we remember this, when we go out and do our day to day business, ideally, we seek God’s pleasure through following His commandments and to stay true to our pledge. It can so happen that we may start forgetting God and His commands as we do day to day business and our interests may override God’s commands. Thus, the renewal of this pledge so often in the form of salat. In order to find God’s commandments, we need to study and ponder over God’s verses. Some verses related to such commands are recited in the second part of Salat, others in another salat or while sitting, reading, discussing, or whatever is convenient to do so.
You wrote: “Do you see sujud as a physical component of said prayer? If so, how do you account for the clearly allegorical uses of sujud throughout the Qur'an, such as our shadows bowing (13:15), angels bowing (16:49), pretty much everything bowing (22:18) before God? And if all these things can bow, then why can't all these things also know their Salaat when that is the clearest reading of 24:41?”
It is an established fact that Quran has two types of verses, muhkamaat (verses with orders, injunctions, etc., with well-established meanings), and mutashabihaat, allegorical verses, with not so established meanings. Was it or Will it be ever appropriate to bring in “allegorical verses” to ride on “muhkamaat verses”? Of course NOT. But this is what some are doing. What are we supposed to do when we read allegorical verses? This is answered in the same verse:
[3:7]: It is He who has sent down to you, [O Muhammad], the Book; in it are verses [that are] precise - they are the foundation of the Book - and others unspecific. As for those in whose hearts is deviation, they will follow that of it which is unspecific (allegorical), seeking discord (Fitna) and seeking an interpretation [suitable to them]. And no one knows its [true] interpretation except Allah. But those firm in knowledge say, "We believe in it. All [of it] is from our Lord." And no one will be reminded except those of understanding.
You see in the above the dire warning for those who bring in allegorical verses to seek discord and interpretation that is suitable to them. They don’t stop here, rather they bring these new meanings to suppress and ride on the established muhkamaat verses. Many of the so called Quran-only folks are doing exactly this. This is horribly detestable practice and I seek refuge in God from such deviations.
For me, the verse in question 24:41 is absolutely clear based on my analysis of this verse. Yet, if you still consider that “birds in flight” are doing Salat, it does not give you or anyone the license to bring in whatever meanings you assign to it from the Salat of birds in flight (and mind you it is not just birds, rather in flight, it is significant for those who think without bias) and override the Salat of humans, despite the fact the salat of humans is a command well established, practiced for 1400 years. Exactly, the same analysis apply to other terms such as Sujood. In fact, human sujood is so well established in Quran that it leaves no doubt as to what it is.
I hope this answers some of your concerns or raises some more?