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17. Understanding Islam

4.2. PILLAR 2: Salat (prayer)

Prayers in Islam aren’t what we Christians think of as prayers. In Islam, prayer is a ritual set of prescribed actions, movements, and words with very little freedom as to how it is performed. There are many rules for what must be done before, during and after prayers, the time of day that they must be performed, and even times that they are not allowed (for example Muslims aren’t allowed to pray during sunrise or sunset). The basic rules are given either in the Qur’an or Sunnah; however, where they lack sufficient details for actual practice, Muslims follow the specific interpretation of one of the four major schools of Islamic thought which were established around 300 years after Mohammed’s death.

Before praying, Muslims must perform a ritual washing of their hands, face, head, and feet. This washing is called ablution. If there is no clean water available, they can follow the same ritual using dry dust or sand. Ablution is prescribed in the Qur’an, but it is not described and so there is variation in interpretation of how it should be performed. In fact, not only do each of the four main schools of Sunni Islam disagree on how ablution should specifically be performed, but their sub-schools also differ in their interpretations and so there are quite a lot of different methods!

It is generally agreed, based on records of Mohammed’s actions, that one ablution can last until the next prayer, or indeed for a number of prayers, unless a Muslim passes wind or goes to the toilet, or bleeds from an injury in which case they have to wash again. Some schools of Islam also say that eating or drinking anything other than water also nullifies ablution, and that a Muslim must wash again if they eat or drink between prayers. After sexual contact, ablution isn’t enough before praying but Muslims must have a ritual bath for purification before they can pray.

After washing – depending on whichever school they belong to – they pray towards Mecca. Once they start they aren’t allowed to talk or look around; if they do, this invalidates the prayer and they have to start over. If their ablution has been invalidated, they also have to wash again before redoing the prayer.

There are five prescribed prayers every day (dawn, noon, afternoon, dusk, and nighttime). They may be performed alone or in a group, and may be prayed anywhere (not just in a mosque or designated prayer room) as long as they face Mecca. They consist of memorised and repeated texts and actions, with the additional recitation of a segment of the Qur’an (long or short) of their choosing.

In addition, there are other kinds of prayers in Islam such as those for the “day of gathering” (Friday), Islamic festivals or Eids (two every year), funerals, a drought (praying for rain), solar and lunar eclipses, war, fear, etc. Again, there are prescribed words and actions for each of these, but there are differences between them. For example, a funeral prayer has no prostration. As for Friday prayer, it has additional requirements; it must be performed in a group of minimum 15 – or 40 according to some schools of jurisprudence – and it takes place at the time of the noon prayers on Friday. It must also include a sermon. In some Islamic countries, these Friday sermons are unified and pre-written, usually by the ministry of religious affairs or the religious institute in the country, though this is a recent practice in an attempt to curb the spread of extremism.

For free females, clothing during prayers must cover all their body including the head during prayer, but they can leave the face and hands uncovered. Males (both free and slave) and female slaves can wear any clothing that covers the naval to the knees. That said, actual practice among Muslims differs significantly from what is prescribed; although there is theoretically no problem whatsoever for a Muslim male to pray shirtless as long as he is covered from navel to knee, this would be scandalous in any Muslim society today! And the fact that female Muslim slaves can quite acceptably pray topless is an almost unknown fact to the majority of Muslims, including some very well-educated ones. Let us take another example: in Islam it is not only allowed to pray wearing one’s shoes, but it is actually commanded by Mohammed who said:

“Be different from the Jews, pray wearing your slippers or shoes.” (Sunan Abi Dawud)

However today it is universally unacceptable to Muslims to pray wearing shoes and they are always taken off before praying.

All of this makes Christian prayer almost incomprehensible to Muslims. The idea of using our own words, praying anywhere anytime, singing hymns of worship – all of this seems strange to Muslims. We would do well to remember this as it will mean that Muslims won’t understand what we mean when we say we pray to God. We may assume that as we are using the same words, we are communicating the same facts when in actual fact we are talking about something radically different which is quite foreign to a Muslim who will not engage in personal communication with Allah in what we call prayer.

Although not a pillar of Islam, there is a form of prayer called Duʽâ’ which is not as prescriptive in form and which may be undertaken individually. This may seem closer to the Christian concept of prayer, but is still very impersonal and general in scope in contrast to the very personal communication with God that we understand prayer to be.

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