15. THE CONCEPT OF PRAYER IN ISLAM AND THE CHRISTIAN FAITH
One very hot afternoon two of my Muslim friends and I noticed a man praying under a tree besides the road. We watched as he faithfully went through the postures of the Salat, the Muslim prayer ritual. As I admired his devotion, I was surprised by the indignant reaction of my friends. “What makes you so angry with this man?” I asked them. Their response burst forth like a torrent: “He is not clean to pray! Look, he does not have a mat and has not even removed his shoes. His prayers are null and void.” This brought up many interesting issues about prayer in Islam and the Christian faith. Could it be that Muslims have quite a different concept of prayer from us Christians?
Prayer (Salat) is the second pillar of the Islamic faith and considered to be the very foundation of their religion. It is to be repeated five times daily. Each full daily cycle of the obligatory prayer consists of seventeen Raka’ts which are accompanied by a carefully prescribed set of prostrations. Muslims recite the Salat in Arabic whether they understand the meaning of their prayers or not. Obviously only a few of the millions of Muslims in India, China and Indonesia understand Arabic, yet they still have to use this language as they pray.
There are conditions to be met before performing the prayer ritual such as:
- The ablutions have to be done as prescribed.
- The place of prayer must be free from dirt.
- The body and cloths should be clean and tidy.
- The face should be directed towards the Ka ‘aba in Mecca.
- Praying must take place in a disciplined manner. Talking laughing, playing or eating is strictly forbidden.
- The body posture has to conform precisely to the prescribed forms.
That man we had watched praying, devoted as he was, had not met all of the above conditions and so drew the scorn of his (somewhat rather hypocritical) fellow Muslims. Obligatory prayer to a Muslim is the best way to cultivate closeness to God, the highest goal one should aspire for.
Muslims believe that prayer helps them to
- strengthen their belief in Allah and their willingness to submit to him,
- focus on the good elements in life,
- attain cleanliness and purity,
- bring out the good qualities (patience, hope, confidence, gratitude, good manners) in people,
- prove the unity of the Islamic brotherhood.
With so much emphasis on the importance of prayer in Islam one wonders whether Muslims receive answers to their prayers. Have you ever asked a Muslim friend this question? When I did, my friend could only tell me “I am not sure. This is up to Allah.” A Muslim has no assurance that he will enter paradise or receive forgiveness of sins. Surprisingly he is even permitted to skip prayer while travelling, as Sura 4:101 states: “And when ye go forth in the [and, it is no sin for you to curtail (your) worship, if ye fear those who disbelieve may attack you. In truth the disbelievers are an open enemy to you.”
Did you know that there are certain times when Muslims are not allowed to pray? Their five daily prayer times were programmed in such a way that Muslims would not pray when the infidels were prostrating before the sun! According to Mishkat Al-Masabih Muhammad said: “observe the Morning Prayer, then stop praying when the sun is rising till it is fully up, for when it rises it comes up between the horns of the devil, and the infidels prostrate themselves to it at that time.”
Prayers offered corporately are considered 27 times more meritorious than prayers said in private, according to one Hadith. So Muslims are encouraged to attend mosque at the time of prayer, especially for the Friday congregational prayers. A tradition attributed to Muhammad affirms this: “To perform the evening prayer in congregation is equivalent to spending half the night in vigil, while to perform the dawn prayer in congregation is like keeping vigil throughout the night.”
Many Christians would assume that Muslims pray in the same way Christians pray, but that is not true. At times Muslims would honestly admit that the prescribed form of prayer and the ritualistic approach in a language that is foreign to them can never help achieve the lofty goals that Islam claims to offer mankind. The practice quickly degenerates into merely performing a religious duty. On the other hand Muslims also offer prayers besides the five-times-a-day salat called Dua. These are the private prayers made by a person when he implores God personally. During dua a Muslim would raise his hands while in a sitting position after the normal salat, and would humbly pray to God either in Arabic or in any other language he chooses to use. For the salat Muslims don’t expect any response from God but they do expect answers to the dua prayers they make.
Christians pray with the assurance of receiving what they ask. “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Luke 11:13) There are so many promises in the Bible encouraging us to ask and receive. Prayer is the expression of the relationship a Christian has with his Father in heaven. We do not come to Him with a shopping list of needs in a language strange to us. He knows what we need even before we ask Him. What a joy and privilege for us Christians to approach God without bothering ourselves about ablutions or other good works.
As Christians we have received full forgiveness of our sins and can freely talk to our heavenly Father at any time anywhere. We are truly privileged people and our hearts should be full of compassion for our Muslim brothers who so zealously pray without any assurance. Let us not treat them as inferior for their way of prayer. Let us not despise them. Our love and sincere prayer will show our Muslim neighbors that we have a living relationship with our heavenly Father and will eventually draw them to the living God.