Why do Muslims pray? And what is the point of prayer in Islam?
Lots of young Muslims connect with me through Facebook. They may have heard me lecture and track me down online. One of them, a young lady by the name of Widad, posts on her page that she has no need for a man who does not know the appointed prayer times. She states her reason: “If he’s not committed to his appointments with God, how will he ever be committed to me?” Widad, who is approaching the age of marriage, is looking for a man to trust. In her eyes, commitment to prayer marks a man as trustworthy. It’s not the most theologically rich take on prayer, but it does show how attitudes about prayer impact relations. If he prays, you can trust him. I’ve heard the same from others. “I do business with him because he fears God.” And prayer-based business relations do snowball. The party now governing in Turkey came to power in 2002 behind networks of pragmatic pious businessmen. In that case prayer challenged the supremacy of a secular ruling elite who had brought the country to ruin after years of corruption and cronyism. They didn’t fear God.
But prayer in Islam is a lot more than a mark of a man’s trustworthiness.
Fundamentally, it is about commitment to God. There is a scene in the Book of Daniel that captures the image of Muslims at prayer. Daniel hears that King Darius has forbidden all prayer except to the King of Persia. State-ordered idolatry! Despite the decree, Daniel the Prophet continues to pray at home in quiet defiance of the king, prostrating on his knees three times a day in the direction of Jerusalem. This image is refracted across the globe today in the ritual activity of Muslims. They pray in mosques and in streets, bowing down towards the House of God in Mecca. The point is not to defy earthly rule. The point is that God is sovereign over all, and that needs to be acknowledged. It’s not easy. Muslims repeat the same acts of prostration over and over every day. Some are steadfast, others less so. Prayer is a trial, God’s way of testing a person’s righteousness. Are you committed to God or not? Here, too, prayer is a signal of a man’s credibility. Has he submitted to God? If he prays, that shows he’s obedient to God.
This echoes the statement in the Qur’an that humans were created to worship God. Prayer forms the crux of the covenant in Islam. If you pray, you are doing the minimum of what it takes to fulfill one’s part of the bargain with God. He created you and is your Lord. If you are obedient, you will be rewarded sooner or later. But if you abandon prayer, you run the risk of cutting yourself off from God’s favor. One is to be steadfast in prayer, however tedious it gets, because it shows that you’re serious about God. But it’s worth noting that for many Muslims, prayer is not a trial. It’s actually a delight. Taking satisfaction in prayer is a sign that the devil no longer has power over you. You know God as your end goal, and that gives you joy.
There is a well-‐known report about Muhammad that speaks to this idea. God comes to him and asks him whether he knows of the dispute that is taking place in the heavenly court. Muhammad insists he doesn’t know. He then says, “I saw God place His hand between my shoulders and I felt its soothing coolness in my breast, and so I knew what takes place in heaven and on earth.” In other words, this divine gesture that Muhammad experienced brought satisfaction and provided insight into God’s ways. The report then goes on to describe the significance of steadfast commitment to prayer. It works to elevate one’s rank in heaven and to expiate for past sin. In other words, one can always return to God and grow in one’s faith. The report explains that one rises in heavenly rank by spreading peace, feeding the poor, and praying while others sleep. God then directs Muhammad on what to say when praying. Muhammad should ask God to help him to do what is good and refrain from doing what is prohibited, to love the poor and downtrodden. He should ask God to forgive him, grant him mercy, and keep him from worldly temptation before death.
This combination of prayer and good works is at the heart of Islam. Worship God and make the world a better place. It’s what gives Muslims greatest satisfaction. This can be seen in the Feast of the Sacrifice, which is considered one of the two principle feasts in Islam. The other is the Feast of the Breaking of the Fast at the end of Ramadan. The Feast of the Sacrifice memorializes the obedience of Abraham whom God told to sacrifice his son. (Muslims see the son as Ishmael not Isaac.) Prayer is a big part of this feast along with animal sacrifice. In imitation of Muhammad, who sought to revive the legacy of Abraham among the Arabs, Muslims today sacrifice some kind of animal such as a sheep and distribute the meat to the poor. It is also common to visit relatives and neighbors to strengthen the bonds of family and community. Prayer, then, is not simply about going through rituals. It is not simply about pleasing God even if that is part of it. Prayer in Islam is about living for God, but it is also about doing works of sacrifice that build up the world in which we live.
The question of prayer in Islam raises theological conundrums about the relation of faith and works. Is it enough to be a Muslim if one simply testifies that there is no god but the God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of the God? Or does one also have to pray and fast and give alms and go on pilgrimage to Mecca? What is faith, after all, if it’s just a nice idea? What’s it worth if it does not translate into a way of life? The bulk of Muslims believe that the testimony of faith alone is enough to get you into paradise. You’re headed in the right direction if you believe that God is God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God. God is merciful, and despite your shortcomings, if you truly believe, God will be merciful to you. But the Qur’an is quite insistent that righteous works go along with faith. In other words, righteous works enhance the faith. You’re a Muslim if you believe in Islam, but your faith grows strong with righteous works, weak without them. The more steadfast one is in prayer, the more alive one’s faith becomes. The point of prayer, then, is for God to enliven the hearts of believers. Muslims who are committed to prayer find that God gradually enlivens their hearts. It is in this sense that some find sweetness in prayer.
Prayer in Islam is thus both a duty and a healing for the heart. Prayer allows one to step out of the hubbub and remind oneself of the one thing that matters, namely, obedience to God. But there are different types of prayer. There are prescribed prayers, five appointed times daily, which can be done individually or collectively at the mosque or at home. But there are also daily invocations. The believer might spontaneously call upon God for forgiveness and assistance. One might request something specific or general, but one is to praise God despite life’s circumstances. Being steadfast in prayer may not make you rich, but it will earn you divine favor. In my experience, Muslims are not inclined to invoke God for the sake of material gain. They sometimes ask me to pray for a sick relative or for God to be merciful to the soul of a dearly departed. On Facebook, I see Muslims asking God to help them to live righteously. Along with the invocations, I also see, very rarely, imprecations. Muslims on occasion call down God’s curse upon others who in their view have done something wrong or unjust.
In the end one’s entire day can become a prayer. One way Muslims do that is by reciting the name of God at every breath, making every moment a recollection of God as ultimate sovereign and singular source of all that is and will be. In this way, a believer comes to see that his or her life is entirely dependent on the will of God.
Christians can find solidarity with Muslims around the idea of prayer. This is not to overlook differences. The fruit of prayer for Christians comes through orientation to and identification with the Body of Christ. For Muslims it is about submission to the God who directed Muhammad to revive the legacy of Abraham among the Arabs with a special focus on the House of God in Mecca. It’s not the same, but there is a shared history that stretches back to Abraham, and this makes for a certain Christian-Muslim affinity when it comes to prayer. Lumen Gentium (Vatican II’s statement on the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church) notes that Muslims along with the Church adore the one and merciful God. But there are differences, including the manner of prayer, which for Muslims requires ritual ablution. This can puzzle non‐Muslims. It’s not about washing a dirty body. It’s a way to show with one’s body that one is spiritually ready to step out of the ordinary world for a moment and focus on God in humble submission. But the rituals are nothing if they don’t bring about a moral transformation. This is true for Christians and Muslims alike. God transfers a blessing to believers through prayer, reviving them with His mercy so that they might respond in kind to their fellow creatures.
It’s a good time to think about prayer. Even science is catching up. It’s now clear that a species can’t evolve without cooperation. It’s no longer about survival of the fittest, a recipe for conflict in nature, as scientists now acknowledge. How does prayer enable cooperation in society? Even apart from new scientific insight, Christians and Muslims along with Jews, despite their differences, can find solidarity in the idea of prayer as a way to encounter God and to be moved to serve others as the fruit of that encounter. A verse from the Qur’an speaks to this very idea. When Muhammad was deciding whether to continue praying towards Jerusalem or to turn instead towards the Ka‘ba in Mecca, the following verse was revealed (Q 2:148):
Each community has a prayer direction towards which it faces, so race to do good works wherever you may be. God will come to you all. God has power over all things.
There is no reason why Christians and Muslims should not say to one another, “Persevere in prayer. The world needs it. It’s for God… and it’s also for others.”