Islam 101: Muslim Prayer
Last week, many of us celebrated the National Day of Reason. I’ve found out through certain sources that, in some sectors of the Internet, reason was not being venerated; instead, it was prayer that was being promoted that fair third of May. The prayer in question was, based on my highly scientific research (i.e. Googling) on the matter, generally understood to mean Christian prayer. Even the atheist Muslim communist president decided to only mention churches in his declaration on the matter.
This strikes me as an egregious oversight, as even on that Christian holiday for prayer, the average American Muslim would have dedicated far more time out of his or her Thursday to praying than the average Christian.
Praying five times is a day is one of the Five Pillars, or five basic requirements, of Islam. However, the prayer in question is not very simple, so adhering to this requirement is often a challenge for Muslims. It’s not as simple as clasping your hands together and talking to Allah.
There are two types of prayer in Islam: dua, or supplication, and salah (sometimes transliterated as “salat”), the ritualized standing, kneeling, and bowing that is an inherent part of a practicing Muslim’s daily life. The “Muslims pray five times a day” thing applies to the latter rather than to the former. Muslims don’t just step aside and thank Allah for things and/or ask Allah for things five times a day, there’s an incredibly elaborate set of steps that they have to take.
First of all, Muslims are required to be in a state of ritual purity. The purity requirements in Islam are worthy of their own write-up, but long story short, a Muslim must ensure that if he or she has, ahem, secreted anything from the nether regions (sexual fluid, gas, urine, or stool) since the last washing, that he or she wash again. The ritualized washing, called wudhu, includes, at minimum, washing the hands, face, arms, and feet three times each.
The prayer itself is highly formalized, with standing, kneeling, and bowing part of each unit of prayer, called raka. Each raka also includes the recitation of parts of the Quran as well as prayers. Different numbers of raka are required depending on the prayer being offered.
In addition to being required to wash and pray in a specific manner, Muslims are constrained by time. Praying five times a day doesn’t mean praying whenever you want five times, it means praying within the allotted time window for the prayer in question. Each of the five daily prayers has its own name, requirements, and time window. Missing a prayer, while an understandably common occurrence, is highly frowned upon and requires offering make-up prayers.
As you can imagine, adhering to a prayer schedule means living one’s life at the mercy of the clock as well as the availability of water and a clean, dry spot. A lot of Muslims don’t pray as much as their religion says they should for practical reasons. When I was a Muslim, that bothered me, since it meant that I did more work than those people and yet they were allowed the same title of Muslim as I was. Now? I see it as a triumph of reason over religion.