EAGLE: Beyond the Book #4 – Prayer in the Middle Ages, De-Mystifying the Salat

One of the most distinctive features of Islam is salat, the prayer ritual, which all Muslims are expected to perform five times each day.  Movies and news broadcasts have made us familiar with muezzins chanting the call to prayer from minarets and with Muslim worshipers kneeling and prostrating themselves as they pray.  But most of us do not know much about Islamic prayer beyond that.  Nor, for that matter, do we know an awful lot about the origins and practice of early Christian prayer.  As a result, Islamic prayer seems more exotic and strange to us than it really is.

Let’s take a closer look at salat.  Starting at age ten, faithful Muslims are expected to pray five times a day: at dawn (fajr), noon (dhuhr), in the afternoon (asr), at sunset (maghrib), and at nightfall (isha’a).  They are called to pray by the muezzin, who chants the adhan, which translates from Arabic as:

God is great.  God is great.  God is great.  God is great.
I bear witness that there is no God but Allah.
I bear witness that there is no God but Allah.
I bear witness that Mohammed is the Messenger of God.
I bear witness that Mohammed is the Messenger of God.
Make haste towards worship.  Make haste towards worship.
Rise up for salvation.  Rise up for salvation.
Prayer is better than sleep.  Prayer is better than sleep.
God is great.  God is great.
There is no God but Allah.

Before praying, Muslims perform a ritual ablution, washing the hands, mouth, nose, arms, face, ears, forehead, hair and feet three times each, in that order.  They then locate qibla, the direction of Mecca, which is the direction in which they must pray.  Prayer itself is performed in units called rak’ah, which include a series of motions and accompanying words, to be spoken in Arabic.  Each individual begins the rak’ah standing.  After pronouncing that “God is great,” the worshiper pronounces the opening of the Koran, which translates as:

In the name of the single God, most Gracious, most Merciful,
Praise be to the one God, the Cherisher and Sustainer of worlds,
Most Gracious, most Merciful,
Master of the day of judgment,
You alone we worship and You alone we ask for aid,
Show us the straight way,
The way of those upon whom you have bestowed your grace, those who do not feel your wrath and who do not go astray.

The worshiper next moves to the bowing position, with palms on his or her knees, and says in Arabic, “Glory to the Lord, the most Magnificent, the most Praiseworthy.”  Then, standing again: “Allah listen to him who praises him.”  At this point, the worshiper prostrates his or herself, with hands and knees on the ground and bare forehead touching the earth.  The worshiper sits back on his or her heals and says, “Oh Allah forgive me; have mercy upon me.”  Another prostration.  Then, sitting again: “Greeting to you, O Prophet, and the mercy and blessings of Allah.  Peace be unto us, and unto the righteous servants of Allah.  And I bear witness that there is none worthy of worship except Allah.  And I bear witness that Mohammed is His servant and messenger.”  Then, the worshiper stands.  That is a rak’ah, the basic unit of Islamic prayer.  Depending on the time of day, prayer consists of from two to four rak’ah.  After the final rak’ah, before standing, the worshiper looks right and says, “Peace be upon you.”  He or she looks left and repeats the phrase.  Prayer is then over.

Much about this might seem strange, even superstitious: having to pray five times a day; the muezzin’s ululating call; the ritual washing; facing Mecca; the requirement to pray in Arabic; and the bowing and prostration during prayer.  However, when we compare the way Muslims and Christians prayed in the Middle Ages (and today), we see that there is no aspect of Muslim prayer that does not have its corollary in Christian practice.

Five prayers a day may seem like a lot, but according to the canonical hours, which had been established by the fourth century and which were codified by Saint Benedict in his famous Rule, monks and regular canons were expected to pray at least seven times a day: matins or nocturnes, which took place between midnight and dawn and which were sometimes divided into two or three separate prayer sessions; lauds and prime, both in the early morning hours; terce, sext, and none, around 9am, noon, and 3pm, respectively; vespers at sunset; and compline just before bed.  Rather than a muezzin, Christians used bells to call the faithful to pray.  In these prayers, the chanting and reading – combined with standing, sitting, or kneeling at the appropriate times – was similar to, if slightly more complex than, the Islamic rak’ah.  And while the burden of prayer was lighter for the laity, every faithful Christian was supposed to say morning and evening prayers.  Each morning and evening, the faithful repeated the Confession of Faith and the Lord’s Prayer in Latin, while making the sign of the cross.  Like Muslims, Christians too were expected to face a particular direction: east.  And at mass, priests, monks, and laypeople alike came together to take part in a ceremony whose opening was and is not so different from that of Muslim prayer:

I will go to the altar of God.
To God, the joy of my youth.
Do me justice, O God, and fight my fight against an unholy people, rescue me from the wicked and deceitful man.
For Thou, O God, art my strength, why hast Thou forsaken me?  And why do I go
about in sadness, while the enemy harasses me.
Send forth Thy light and Thy truth: for they have led me and brought me to Thy holy hll and They dwelling place.
And I will go to the altar of God, to God, the joy of my youth.
I shall yet praise Thee upon the harp, O God, my God.  Why are thou sad, my soul, and why art thou downcast?
Trust in God, for I shall yet praise Him, my Savior, and my God.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.  Amen.
I will go to the altar of God.
To God, the joy of my youth.
Our help is in the Name of the Lord.
Who made heaven and earth.

Even the ritual ablution before Islamic prayer has its echoes in Christianity.  Priests washed their hands just before and after communion.  (They still do after the offertory.)  In monasteries, Saint Benedict’s Rule held that each Saturday, the cook for the previous week was to wash the entire community’s feet before worship.  And, of course, immersion or anointing with water was and is a fundamental part of the ceremony of baptism.

Thus, medieval Christians – and many Christians still today – prayed in ways very similar to Muslims.  The five daily prayers of faithful Muslims had their mirror in the canonical hours.  The muezzin and bells served and still serve the same purpose.  Muslims prayed in Arabic and faced Mecca; Christians prayed in Latin and faced east.  Both involved ritual washing in their rituals.  And the prayer rituals of both involved liturgies combined with particular motions: just as Muslims stood, bowed, and prostrated themselves, Christians stood, sat, kneeled, and occasionally also prostrated themselves.  It is odd, then, that Islamic prayer has come to seem so strange to people in the West, since it is basically a mirror image of medieval Christian practices, most of which are still with us today.  To a medieval Christian, accustomed to praying in a specific direction in a language he did not understand, Islamic prayer would have not seemed so odd.  Our hypothetical Christian might have thought it wrong that Muslims faced Mecca instead of facing east, but he certainly would have understood the necessity of facing a particular direction.  He might have initially though the muezzin’s chant odd, but in a Europe where time was regulated by bells, its necessity would not have been lost upon him.

So the next time you see footage of Muslim’s praying, do not think of it as a sign of radicalism or some exotic ritual.  Instead, look past the differences and remember: Islamic prayer and Christian prayer are mirrors of one another.




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