Praying as a Muslim in the United States

Living as a Muslim in the United States presents unique challenges and opportunities. Islam teaches Muslims to pray five times a day. I suppose this might strike some as excessive, but it’s a matter of perspective. The one who develops the habit of connecting with Allah throughout the day receives so many benefits from it that he or she does not want to live any other way.

The Quran mandates that Muslims pray multiple times in a day, every day:  “And perform the Salat, between the two ends of the day and in some hours of the night. Verily, the good deeds efface the evil deeds (i.e., minor sins).” (Quran 11:114) Muslims believe that prayers, being positive actions, cancel out sins, being negative actions. A good prayer feels cleansing.

In his sayings, Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, likened offering prayer to bathing in a river:

Narrated Abu Huraira: I heard Allah’s Prophet (p.b.u.h.) saying, “If there was a river at the door of anyone of you and he took a bath in it five times a day would you notice any dirt on him?” They said, “Not a trace of dirt would be left.” The Prophet added, “That is the example of the five prayers … with which Allah blots out (annuls) evil deeds.”

He asked his noble companions, Allah be pleased with them, if a person could bathe five times a day and still have filth on his body. They replied that the person would not be dirty. Bathing five times a day may seem like OCD, but it’s hard to argue against it if the goal is to be clean. Similarly, prayer throughout the day renews the spirit and refreshes the mind. Think of all the things a person sees and hears in a day that have a negative influence. Prayer undoes the damage. There is a sense of return from prayer. Our world can be dark and disappointing, but prayer is a light and a comfort.

Yet offering regular prayer when one has a hectic schedule takes considerable effort. When a student has classes from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., praying might require taking breaks in the middle of a lecture, or even more problematic, a test. In the workplace, evening meetings can stand in the way of communing with Allah.

Inherent in the Muslim perspective is the idea that diseases have cures, that problems have solutions. Solutions abound for those with the creativity to envision them. Some Muslims create space in their offices for prayer. Muslim students lobby schools for prayer rooms. Muslims with dedication to their prayer will perform salat wherever they can. Allah permits prayer in any place that is clean, that provides enough space for movement, and that allows one to face Mecca. Comedian Azhar Usman has a joke about this. He quotes an uncle who has lived in the U.S. for many years. Asked about his early days in America, the uncle says, “When I first came to this country, we used to pray [Friday prayer] in a closet.” Of course this is satire, but my father, who immigrated to the U.S. in the early 70’s, says it is not far from the truth.

What lessons can Christians draw from the example of Islamic prayer, or salat? I do not propose that every Christian ought to pray five times a day, as beneficial as I think it might be. It entails a significant commitment and unless one feels one must do it, one will likely not do it. Also I disagree with the practice of treating religion like a salad bar, taking pieces from disparate traditions and avoiding what feels uncomfortable. Yet Christians can take a step toward better relationships with God by asking a series of questions. Do I pray as soon as I wake up? Do I thank God every time I eat food or take a drink? Do I say “God bless you,” when someone sneezes? (Muslims do this too, in their fashion, saying, “Alhamdulillah,” or “Praise Allah.”) When I commit a sin, do I turn immediately back to God? When I feel stressed, is my first response to seek the help of God? Do I end my day with prayer?

Religion should seek to elevate a man or a woman regardless of his or her present state. So whoever does not pray at all should resolve to pray at least once a day. The Muslim who only prays twice a day ought to strive to pray five times a day. Even the person who prays five times a day has farther to go. The servant of God strives for greater focus and presence in his or her prayer. At its lowest form, prayer is a perfunctory ritual. At its highest form, prayer is spiritual ascension, communion with God and mastery of the pure soul over the base desires of the body.

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