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.

Heina Dadabhoy

Heina Dadabhoy [hee-na dad-uh-boy] spent her childhood as a practicing Muslim who never in her right mind would have believed that she would grow up to be an atheist feminist secular humanist, or, in other words, a Skepchick. She has been an active participant in atheist organizations and events in and around Orange County, CA since 2007. She is currently writing A Skeptic's Guide to Islam. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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  1. I was rather taken by my friends translation; he is Arabic, and we met in the Sinai Peninsula: saying, La ilaha ilallah
    Mohammed rus ul Allah.
    He saying.. “There is no god ..there is, (spreading his arms wide to take in all he sees) Allah
    Mohammed is his prophet.”
    I agreed with the first part, saying “There is no god, there is all this…..”

  2. I’d say not praying five times a day is more a triumph of simple practicality. Jews are required to do a pretty elaborate set of prayers on the Sabbath, and in fact there are a number of daily washing/prayer rituals that in a modern context are pretty hard to adhere to. (What these all are will differ depending on your particular sect).

    For instance, generally, most Jewish families — among those that do it at all- truncate the Sabbath prayer/washing a bit at dinner unless you are really orthodox.

    (If you ever go to a Shabbos dinner at an orthodox house with loads of people to feed and get their hands washed you will see why).

    Curious: how did rural Muslims who couldn’t hear the Muezzin deal with this on cloudy days, when telling tie by the sun is less easy to do? I mean, before clocks were invented or common.

    Christian prayers were also once pretty involved. Vespers, Matins, noon Mass… no way could a lay Catholic keep up.

  3. I looked up the prayer times for my area and my concern would be when the heck do you get to sleep?! It looks like ideally you’d go to sleep after dawn prayers and get up before noon prayers, so you could get a solid night’s sleep. Not practical for most people though!

    1. You can usually sleep after the late evening prayer and get up for the dawn prayer. Some people sleep after the dawn prayer until it’s time to get up for work and school. I never had issues with sleeping directly due to being Muslim (though the religious guilt triggered my lifelong struggles with insomnia).

  4. I have long felt that a standard identifier of an oppressive religion was extensive ritualistic requirements – in other words: oppression! In the case of islam, bucketloads of it!

  5. The Islamic prayer rituals sound like a recipe for obsessive compulsive disorder…I imagine there’s a lot of anxiety for someone who wants to adhere rigorously but cannot complete all the intricate steps on occasion. I grew up in a Jewish setting and there’s a massive amount of ritual there, as well…and again easily setting someone up, IMHO, for OCD!! I was never fond of of all the rituals I grew up with and don’t especially miss them.

  6. For a little while, I was related by marriage to a Muslim family that would “wash” symbolically before prayer. They had this weird little motion of passing one hand over the other, repeat on the other hand, and then brush their hands over the faces – just as you would do if you were washing with water, but they would just do it dry. They didn’t do feet. I never asked if any of them had pooped or not, lol…

    At one point, one of their daughters started getting really serious about religion and she would actually change her clothes for prayer, putting on this full white covering that had a tight hood, making her look like a giant condomed penis. As soon as her praying was over, she’d go change back into her normal clothes and hijab.

    1. The symbolic washing is called Tayyamum. There’s no real logic to it; it’s religious practice.

      Those prayer outfits make it easy for women who don’t want to always be fully covered to cover before they pray. Also, I somehow doubt comparing people’s outfit choices to condoms is productive, but hey.

  7. I Muslim girl I knew said there were iPhone apps for prayer, telling you when to pray and helping you face Mecca to do it. From what she said, and what I learned from a good Muslim friend in high school, the rituals of Islam are pretty rigorous, but there is also a lot of tolerance for circumstances getting in the way of the rituals. The iphone girl said that prayers should not inconvenience non-Muslims. She was always really apologetic about praying if it meant leaving a meal early (we were doing research at a field station). My good friend said that there are lots of situations where you shouldn’t fast for Ramadan, you just need to make up for it with charity. In fact, it was Ramadan during our field season. Iphone girl would probably be excused for not fasting, since we had early morning, energetic field days. And it was summer, in Canada.

    1. There’s tolerance and wiggle room, alright, but that comes from certain types of Muslims, not from the religion itself.

      There are dispensations in Islam from rites such as prayer or fasting, but none are related to accommodating employment or non-Muslims. In fact, many verses of the Quran are essentially rants about how Muslims shouldn’t accommodate non-Muslims.

      The only excuse for not praying after having reached the age of puberty is genuinely forgetting (in which case the prayer is to be made up), being ill or otherwise physically incapacitated, and menstruating. As for fasting, the excuses are for the same reasons, plus old age, pregnancy, and breastfeeding. The people you know are going outside of Islam for their waivers.

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