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Chapter 8 - Prayer

    I.  Muslim Questions

* How do you pray? Where and when do you pray? How many times daily?
* Do you wash yourselves ritually before praying?
* Do women also pray?
* Do you pray at all times, or only on particular occasions?
* Do you have particular prayers for the major religious festivals?
* In what language do you pray?
* What are the main physical positions adopted in prayer? What does the sign of the cross mean?
* Why do you pray? Because God has commanded you to? Out of respect for religious rules? To gain entry to Heaven? Because it makes you feel better?
* What do you say in your prayers? What texts do you use? The Bible?
* Whom do you pray for? Can you pray for us?
* Can we take part in your prayers? Can we pray together? If so, what texts should we use?
* Is it permissible for Muslim prayers to be said in a Christian place of worship?
* Is it possible to organize a Muslim prayer-room within a Christian building?

    II. Muslim Perspectives

    General

The words prayer and pray have a wide range of meanings and do not express quite the same ideas as their Islamic equivalents. The key Islamic concept to grasp here is ibāda, suggesting both worship and servanthood; prayer, as an act of ibāda, expresses the essential attitude of humble service of the servant before his or her Lord. Islam distinguishes further between salāt, the daily ritual prayers to be performed at certain prescribed times, and various forms of free, personal or private prayer. Examples of the latter include: dua (invocation, petition), munājāt (intimate dialogue with God) and dhikr (recollection of God in prayer). There is therefore a distinction between performing the prayers and praying. When a Muslim asks questions about prayer, he or she instinctively thinks of the prescribed canonical prayers (salāt), which are public, often communal and are performed according to quite specific prescriptions. Every other form of prayer is of much less significance.

In contrast, Christians think of prayer primarily in terms of an attitude of spirit and heart; in their minds prayer is not tied to a particular ritual form. Thus, when Muslims say I do not pray, they mean I do not regularly perform the prescribed ritual prayers. It can nevertheless certainly be the case that God is often in the thoughts of such Muslims and frequently comes to the surface in their conversations. When Christians pray according to traditional monastic patterns (praying the hours) this resembles Muslim prayer (salāt) in its observance of a prescribed liturgy at set times. In Islam it is in the devotional life of mysticism and in the ways of prayer of the religious brotherhoods that one finds deeper prayer, meditation and wider understandings of prayer as spiritual, inward and wordless.

Christians do not practice regular ritual prayer in the same way as Muslims practise salāt. It therefore seems clear that people in the West do not pray, because their attitudes are materialistic. In contrast, Muslims pray regularly, in public, and without any fear of what people will say, thus demonstrating that they belong to the Muslim community. Muslim consciousness of the transcendence of God brings to ritual prayer in Islam a sense of awe before the sacred. Vital importance is thus attached to the precise observance of the detailed ritual prescriptions concerning matters such as washing, bodily postures and ways of speaking (aloud, quietly or inwardly). In Christianity the feeling that God lives among us has led to a certain familiarity in relationship to God, and to a freedom of style which goes so far that it can be interpreted as lacking in reverence for God.

To summarize, one can say that while Islam ascribes great significance to the outward form of prayer, Christianity puts great emphasis on the inward practice of prayer.

    Detailed

In Islam the word prayer indicates specific religious practices:

1. The canonical ritual prayer (salāt)

Salāt, the second pillar of Islam, means ritual prayer and is an essential component of Muslim worship. When praying, the Muslim is in solidarity with fellow-believers around the world, across continents and cultures and also across the ages, and through ritual prayer experiences fellowship with other Muslims, despite possible differences of opinion. Prayer brings together many different aspects of devotion to God such as recitation, listening, meditation and attentiveness to Gods presence. Prayer consists firstly of praise and thanksgiving, then also the seeking of forgiveness and of Gods blessing, and, as the occasion demands, mourning, intercession and so on. To ensure that ritual prayer, wherever and whenever it is performed, contains all these elements, its rite has been prescribed in detail. It is derived from the Quran and Hadith, and from the legal regulations which the schools of Law worked out on the basis of the Quran and Hadith.

Ritual prayer is performed five times every day, at prescribed times. Many Muslim calendars also contain minutely detailed timetables for the prayers, the times for which can, however, be adjusted as necessity demands. The times for prayer are: at break of day (subh); at noon (zuhr); in the afternoon (asr); at sunset (maghrib); during the night (isha). The primary function of the call to prayer (ādhān), which the muadhdhin proclaims from the minaret, is to make people aware of the exact time for prayer. The ādhān gives a distinct rhythm to the life of Muslim towns.

When possible, prayer is performed communally. The ideal place for prayer is the mosque. Those praying stand in rows behind the imam, who decides the rhythm of the prayer. Prayer can also be performed on ones own or in small groups outside the mosque, and in principle anywhere, so long as the place is ritually clean. The place of prayer can be indicated by a carpet, a cloth, clean paper on the floor or a circle of stones. In any case, when performing the ritual prayer one must face towards Mecca, as long as the direction can be established. The direction for prayer (qibla) is indicated in mosques by the mihrāb, the prayer niche pointing towards Mecca. The fact that all who are performing the prayer are facing towards the Kaaba in Mecca underlines the worldwide unity of the Muslim community. Before beginning ritual prayer one must carry out the prescribed ablutions (ritual acts of washing). Normally water is used, but if this is not to hand or available for use a symbolic act of cleansing with sand is performed. The Law distinguishes between the requirements to wash the whole of ones body (ghusl) and part of it (wudū). Ghusl is necessary if a person is in a condition of greater impurity (janaba). This is the case after sexual intercourse, including within marriage, or after contact with a corpse. Wudū is necessary in the case of lesser impurity (hadath), which applies after any excretion from the body (faeces, urine, pus and so on). In this case it is necessary to wash ones hands, mouth, nose, face, forearms, head, ears, throat and feet. Ones clothes must also be clean, but most important of all is purity of heart. It is instructive to compare the Islamic regulations with similar regulations in the Old Testament (Exodus 30; Leviticus 18; Deuteronomy 21; 23).

After the ablutions the worshipper declares his or her intention (niyya) to pray. The prayer opens with the takbīr, the formula Allāhu akbar (God is greater). This is followed by the recitation of the opening sura of the Quran, the Fātiha.48 Every ritual act of prayer consists of 2 to 4 liturgical units, each called a raka. This consists of a time standing upright (wuqūf), bowing (rukū), prostration (sujūd) and sitting on ones heels (julūs); each of these bodily postures is accompanied by a specific and suitable prayer. The prayer at break of day includes 2 raka-s, the prayer at sunset includes 3, while the noon, afternoon and night prayers each consists of 4 raka-s. Ritual prayer includes the recitation of some short suras from the Quran, followed by greetings addressed to God (tahiyyāt), the Prophet and all Muslim believers. These are followed by the confession of faith (shahāda) and prayers for blessing on Muhammad and Abraham. The whole ritual usually lasts no longer than 5 to 10 minutes, unless longer Quranic texts or intercessions are added.

Every week congregational prayers (salāt al-juma) take place on Friday at noon. The ritual is the same as for the daily prayers, expanded by fuller tahiyyāt and particularly by the sermon, delivered either by the imam or by another Muslim with the necessary ability. On the occasion of major festivals there are further special rituals, particularly at the two most important festivals: the festival of sacrifice, also known as the Great Festival (Īdul adha or Īdul kabir), and the festival of breaking the fast at the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting (Īdul fitr). Special rituals also mark the festival of the birth of the Prophet (al-mawlid al-nabawī), Ashūra and the nights of Ramadan. Mention should also be made of the impressive prayers used in the course of the major and minor pilgrimages.

Salāt is above all an act of adoration, praise and gratitude towards God. It is performed out of obedience towards Gods command. Spiritual writers such as Muhammad al-Ghazāli (1058-1111) emphasize the following attitudes as essential in approaching salāt: purity of heart, attentiveness to Gods presence, reverent fear of God (taqwā), hope, modesty and the honest desire to amend ones life.

There are also ritual prayers for particular occasions, such as prayers for rain, at the time of natural disasters and at the time of bereavement. Voluntary ritual prayers (nawāfil) are performed during Ramadan and at night (Quran 17:79).

2. Other prayers

Sufism and the Sufi brotherhoods (tarīqa, pl. turuq) have developed the practice of dhikr (the recollection of God), which essentially consists of mentioning and celebrating the name of God (cf. Quran 2:152; 3:41). The constant repetition of Gods name, whether this is done alone or with others, essentially aims to achieve the total permeation of the believers heart and mind with recollection of Gods name. Traditionally, there are three stages to dhikr: the dhikr of the tongue (the simple oral recitation of Gods name); the dhikr of the heart (as the heart is taken up into the rhythm of the recitation); and the dhikr of intimacy (sirr), in which the believers whole body and soul vibrate with the recitation of Gods name. Sufis and brotherhoods also engage regularly in meditation (fikr and taammul), daily silent prayer (wird) and responsive litanies (hizb).

These forms of prayer are, likewise, all strictly regulated in terms of ritual and text. The texts are often very striking. Nothing, however, is left to personal initiative. The Sufi disciple (murād) is asked to perform these rituals with great care under the direction of a Sufi guide (shaikh, pīr).

The recitation of the 99 most beautiful names of God (Quran 20:8; 17:100) should also be mentioned. These names are recited meditatively by pious Muslims with the use of prayer-beads (subha, tasbiha).

It is also significant that in various contexts and in situations of distress Muslims meditate on Quranic texts and find strength through doing so.

Finally, there are countless spontaneous prayers, not least the many invocations which Muslims – especially simple believers – utter on all possible occasions: praise (al-hamdu lillāh – God be praised); surprise (mā shā Allāh – whatever God wills or as long as God wills); prayers for forgiveness (astaghfir Allāh – I ask for Gods forgiveness); prayers for healing (Allāh yashfī – may God heal); expressions of disapproval or indignation (lā hawla wa lā quwwata illā bi-llāh al-azīm – there is no power or strength other than with God).

Muslim theologians have at times engaged in intense discussions about whether petitionary prayer is compatible with Islamic Law and what value should be ascribed to it. Since God knows everything, no prayer can alter his almighty will. Nevertheless, there is agreement among Muslims that dua is pleasing to God and therefore desirable. Has not God himself invited believers to address prayers of petition to him (cf. Quran 2:186; 22:12; 13:14) and has he not promised to hear them (2:186; 40:60)? God, mainstream Islam teaches, foresees all things from eternity and in his sovereign goodness he grants requests generously. The Mutazilites, with their tendency towards rationalism, were of the opinion that although petitionary prayer has no effect it is profitable as it forms in people an appropriate attitude towards God, the attitude of a poor servant (abd faqīr). Petitionary prayer does not change God, but it does change people.

3. Prayer and action

The genuineness of prayer is demonstrated in ones relations with ones neighbour, especially in striving for righteousness and in care for the poor:

    It is not righteousness that you turn your faces towards East or West; but it is righteousness to believe in Allah and the Last Day, and the angels and the Book and the messengers; to spend of your substance out of love for him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves; to be steadfast in prayer and practise regular charity . . . (Quran 2:177)

    III.  Christian Perspectives

Prayer means turning to God in response to his giving himself to humanity. This turning to God can happen and be expressed in many and various ways: oral prayer; meditation; music, with or without an accompanying text; physical movement, including dance; the arts, including paintings, altar-pieces, images of saints, the icons of the Orthodox Church,49 stained glass windows and statues. One could also mention here appeals to the senses, for example through the use of incense, especially in Catholic and Orthodox churches, and the interior layout of churches. In what follows, however, the emphasis lies on prayers that make use of words, whether these are spoken aloud, quietly or inwardly.

The origins of Christian prayer lie in the prayer-life of Jesus, with its Jewish roots, and also in what he said about prayer.

1. Jesus prayed and taught us to pray

The Gospels often portray Jesus at prayer. Jesus loved to withdraw to pray alone. He sometimes spent the whole night in prayer, especially before major decisions or turning-points in his life. For example, at the beginning of his public ministry he withdrew into the desert to pray and fast; he also prayed before his Passion. He lived in continual unity with God the Father, inspired by the desire to be at one with his will. The roots of Jesus life of prayer were deep in Judaism and in its Scriptures. He quotes from the Psalms, the prayer-book of the Scriptures, either directly or re-phrasing freely. He taught his disciples how to pray. Private prayer should be uncomplicated and unadorned and should always avoid empty words and phrases (cf. Matthew 6:5-7). In response to an explicit request from his disciples, Jesus gives them the prayer beginning Our Father. Father because God loves us as his children; our because every prayer, even private prayer, is prayed in communion with others. The invocation Our Father is followed by three petitions concerning God and three petitions at the human level.

Before his sufferings, Jesus celebrated a last meal out of which, after Easter, there evolved the memorial of that meal in the Lords Supper or Eucharist. This is the sacrament of the total self-offering of Jesus to the Father for the worlds salvation and of the real presence – albeit invisible and immaterial – of the risen Christ among us. So Christian prayer, as it has been taught and shaped by Jesus, is above all adoration of the Father, praise, thanksgiving, self-offering, request for forgiveness, help and hope.

As with Islamic prayer, as Christians we distinguish between liturgical and private prayer. Very great importance is attached to private prayer. Prayer is a matter as much for women as for men. In the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, however, only men are ordained to preside at the Eucharist.

2. Liturgical prayer

Liturgical prayer is communal prayer with prescribed rituals and texts. The Eucharist (also known as the Holy Mass by Catholics) stands at the centre of Christian life and prayer. In the Catholic Church a priest always presides at the Eucharist. It can be celebrated every day and at whatever time is chosen. On Sunday, the day when Christians particularly call to mind the risen Lord, the Eucharist is conducted with special solemnity. In the Catholic Church the Sunday liturgy can also be celebrated on Saturday evening.

The Eucharist begins with the ministry of the word, i.e. readings from the Scriptures, which always include a passage from one of the four Gospels, followed by a sermon or homily and prayers of intercession. Then follow the preparation of the bread and wine; the Eucharistic Prayer, which includes the words of institution (the words of Jesus at the Last Supper); the Our Father; and the giving of communion, when believers receive Jesus Christ himself in the forms of bread and wine.

The Eucharist is thus the great prayer of thanksgiving (hence the term Eucharist, from the Greek for to give thanks), the Christian congregations great prayer of adoration and praise; the Eucharist also involves sharing in Gods word and being united with Jesus Christ, who gives his real presence in bread and wine and so strengthens believers for their journey through life.

Liturgical prayer according to traditional monastic patterns (praying the hours) is of great importance for monastic communities and for priests, but less common among lay people. This involves a sequence of prayers and readings from the Bible and the Church Fathers and includes recitation of the Psalms, hymns, responses and intercessions. In monastic communities it is recited or sung seven times daily: in the morning, at noon, in the evening and during the night. It can also be prayed by individuals. Prayer is also of central importance in Protestant churches.

For Catholics the sacraments include confirmation, penance, marriage, holy orders (ordination to the Churchs ministry) and the anointing of the sick, as well as baptism and Eucharist; these are administered in the context of liturgical ceremonies. In many places, and following local traditions, there are also liturgical prayers during pilgrimages, liturgical prayers for rain, for a good harvest, for a successful birth, etc.

3. Private prayer

Private prayer refers to the prayer of a person alone or of a group of people, such as, for example, family prayers in the evening. In terms of form it is free; indeed flexibility in terms of style is generally an essential characteristic of Christian prayer. Private and public prayer complement each other and are not in competition. Both are in accordance with the call of Jesus to pray without ceasing (Mark 13:33; Luke 18:1-8; 21:36; cf. Colossians 1:9; 1 Thessalonians 5:17; 2 Thessalonians 1:11).

In the context of private prayer, alongside prayers expressed in an entirely free style, use is also made of prayers of the Church such as the Our Father, the Psalms, the Ave Maria (among Catholics) and other prayers, aloud or in silence. This is the practice of many Christians, especially in the morning and evening, or when they visit a church or chapel. Many Catholics also pray the rosary, reciting the Our Father and the Ave Maria alternately, with the recitation of one of the mysteries of the life of Jesus in the middle of the sequence. Many recite the rosary at least once a day.

Christians who wish to deepen their life of prayer give time every day, if possible, to meditation and contemplation. Standing, kneeling, sitting or lying down, in a holy place or at home, they concentrate in silence on God to become conscious of his presence and to hear his word. The constant practice of this kind of regular attentiveness and listening to the words of Scripture, which can be helped by certain methods of meditation, is an effective way to grow closer to God. According to Catholic belief this can, by Gods grace, lead to the attainment of mystical gifts, whether in monastic seclusion or in the midst of everyday life. In addition, Christians who wish to follow Jesus with great devotion undertake spiritual exercises from time to time, in silence and in prayer, whether on one day every month or for one week every year.

4. To whom is prayer addressed?

Prayer is directed to God. We pray to him through the mediation of Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. The discussion in chapter 5 (God the Three in One) is relevant here. We pray in and with Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to God alone.

In the Catholic Church, the practice of asking the saints to pray for us is based on the assumption that they are intercessors for us with God.50 The fundamental orientation of prayer towards God, who alone is worthy of worship, is maintained.

5. The meaning of prayer

The essential attitude underlying prayer is worship, thanksgiving and petition for help for oneself and for others. Through prayer we are guided to seek the will of God at every moment. It is a source of strength, of peace, of joy and of fruitfulness.

It is helpful to have set times of prayer. These times of prayer will unconsciously make other areas of life fruitful, until finally the whole of life becomes prayer. Conversely, a life of genuine self-giving will enrich our prayer. Prayer will thus permeate our joys and our cares. Prayer is not a way of escaping from life. Prayer enables a person to search for the signs of the presence of God in individual and communal experience of life and to seek Gods will when faced with decisions. Prayer is strength for living; it influences our relationship both to ourself and to our neighbour, permeating our heart (cf. 1 Corinthians 13).

6. The many forms of Christian prayer

Over the centuries, Christian prayer has changed and has assumed very varied forms at different times and places, in keeping with the prevailing cultures of countless peoples. Adaptation to contemporary culture can cause tensions but is a necessary process, which can also lead to new forms of prayer. This is especially the case in Muslim countries, where Christians attempt to integrate the richness of spiritual experience of these people and to translate this into the language of prayer.

    IV. Christian Responses

1. It is worth emphasizing again the point made above (in section II) that the words prayer and pray have different meanings in Christian and Islamic contexts.

2. One should only compare like with like. Thus, for example, it is appropriate to compare salāt (Muslim liturgical prayer) with Christian liturgical prayer such as the Eucharist and praying the hours, giving consideration to their formal characteristics, positions for prayer and melodic chanting, as well as the daily and weekly cycles for prayer. Muslim petitionary prayer corresponds to Christian private prayer, especially prayers of supplication, while dhikr (recollection of God in prayer) corresponds to forms of Christian contemplation.

3. One should note the elements shared by Christian and Muslim prayer, such as:
- the same aims and meaning in prayer, such as worship and thanksgiving;
- similar daily and weekly patterns of prayer;
- similarity between texts; the Psalms, for example, are relatively accessible for Muslims;
- certain bodily positions.

4. One should avoid simplistic contrasts between the formality of Muslim prayer and the inwardness of Christian prayer. Naturally there are differences of emphasis, but it is of the essence of both traditions of prayer that they have inward as well as outward dimensions. Outward liturgical form is important for Christians as well as for Muslims.

5. As regards the absence of ritual ablutions in Christian prayer, it should be noted that before the time of Jesus legal and cultic purity was as strictly prescribed in Jewish religion as it is in Islam today. In the tradition of the great prophets, Jesus opposed formalism and spoke of the link between genuine prayer and healthy human relationships: Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile. (Matthew 15:17-20; cf. Mark 7:14-23)

It is especially notable that for Jesus, and so for Christianity, sexuality is one of Gods good gifts; neither for men nor for women is it a cause of impurity. Christians are, however, called to use this gift humanely and responsibly.

6. Christians have a duty to show the proper respect due to God. It is, for example, the custom in the Catholic Church to sign oneself with holy water on entering a church or chapel, or for the priest to wash his hands during the celebration of the Eucharist, as a symbol of purity of heart. The emphasis is on purity of heart, rather than physical purity, as is made clear by the prayers of penitence at the beginning of the celebration of the Eucharist.

7. Christians pray for the Church, for political leaders, for all people and also for themselves. They pray for those close to them and for those for whom they are responsible. They should learn to pray frequently and wholeheartedly for their Muslim neighbours, and should also ask their Muslim friends to pray for them; Christians and Muslims can thus express the relationship before God in which they stand together.

8. As regards shared prayer between Christians and Muslims, there are various possibilities:

(i) Public church services. There should be no objection to Muslims coming to churches and other places of prayer for a visit and a time of silent prayer, or even, if they wish, to attend official services of Christian prayer as silent guests. However, active and explicit participation in the liturgical prayers of the Church, such as the monastic cycle of prayer or the Eucharist, assumes membership in the Church as a believing community; such participation in liturgical prayer is in itself a confession of committed belief in the Christian faith. It is a quite different matter respectfully to invite Muslims to take part in our prayers as silent guests, in the spirit of the fellowship created by faith in the One God. Muslims will naturally understand the need to respect the dignity of the place and its local customs.

(ii) When a public Christian church service concerns a Muslim directly – as for example in the case of a funeral, an interreligious wedding or a baptism in the family of Christian relatives, neighbours or friends – they will understand that such ceremonies have a distinctively Christian character. This applies equally to rituals and texts. At the same time, however, the Churchs liturgical guidelines regarding the selection of readings and the sermon provide for some adaptation in view of the different participants and the relevant circumstances. Significant modifications of the rituals can be considered, especially when a particular ritual might be offensive to adherents of other religions. It is also quite possible to use certain Muslim spiritual texts, preferably unofficial texts, such as the prayers of Muslim mystics. In contrast, the use of Quranic or Muslim liturgical texts is usually inadvisable. At funerals, Muslims have occasionally been asked to recite the Fātiha (the opening sura of the Quran)51 over the deceased person – and they have been grateful for this. It is important, however, to work within the guidelines of the local church and to avoid actions which would endanger good relations between the different communities.

(iii) At public interreligious events – such as prayer-meetings, conferences and lectures – each religious group, one after another, might be expected to read a text from its own tradition (from the Bible or Quran, for example) with quiet sensitivity to the others present. It should be noted that on such occasions Muslims are normally unwilling to say the first two words of the Our Father; they are also likely to feel that the Fātiha, which is a key text within Islamic prayer, should only be recited by Muslims.

(iv) Greater flexibility is possible for small groups of Muslims and Christians who know each other well and are conscious of the danger of syncretism. Here it is possible to say together unofficial texts of the kind mentioned above in paragraph (b), possibly from the mystics of both traditions, or indeed texts written by members of the group itself. Spontaneous prayer is also possible here. Basic prayers of both faiths, such as the Our Father or the Fātiha, can be recited together, provided that everybody present has agreed to this and that nobody present feels spiritually pressurized.52 Much will depend on the atmosphere of the group in question.

(v) If a group of Muslims, children or adults, ask for a prayer room within a Christian institution, for example in a Christian school, this request should be granted. There is a range of opinions in Europe on whether it is prudent and appropriate for churches and chapels no longer used by Christians to be made available, either for rent or to be purchased, to be used for Islamic worship or for other activities of the Muslim community.

Please send your questions about the book or Christiantiy to:
questions@answers-to-muslims.com 

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