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What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam What is This? A guide to a wide variety of general questions asked by those looking to learn more about Muslim culture and the Islamic world.

Faith >
How do Muslims pray?

Prayer, one of the Five Pillars of Islam, is central in the life of a Muslim. Here are some highlights:

Five times each day, hundreds of millions of Muslims face Mecca (holiest city of Islam, birthplace of Muhammad, and site of the Kaaba, or House of God) to pray—at daybreak, noontime, midafternoon, sunset, and evening. These five obligatory prayers have to be performed in Arabic, regardless of the native tongue of the worshipper. Each part of the prayer has its function within this daily ritual and is designed to combine meditation, devotion, moral elevation, and physical exercise. Prayers can be performed individually or in congregation.

The actions and words a Muslim uses during the prayer demonstrate his or her ultimate submission to God. This process combines faith and practice, putting into action what is expressed in the First Pillar of Islam, in which Muslims proclaim their belief in the one God and in Muhammad as God's messenger.

Preparing to meet and address the Lord, Muslims perform a ritual ablution, or cleansing, to ensure that they are in a state of spiritual and physical purity. First, they cleanse their minds and hearts from worldly thoughts and concerns, concentrating on God and the blessings he has given them. Second, they wash hands and face, arms up to the elbow, and feet, then say, “I bear witness that there is no god but God; He has no partner; and I bear witness that Muhammad is His servant and messenger.” This purification process is as spiritual as it is physical, as can be seen in the fact that sand can be used if water is not available. The objective is for the mind and body to be clean as Muslims approach or put themselves in the presence of God.

The movements Muslims perform while praying, individually or in groups, reflect past customs used when entering the presence of great kings or rulers: raising our hands in greeting, bowing, and finally prostrating ourselves before this great power. Worshippers begin by raising their hands and proclaiming God's greatness (“Allahu Akbar”—God is most great). Then, folding their hands over stomach or chest or leaving them at their sides, they stand upright and recite what has been described as the essential message of the Quran, the opening discourse:

Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds; the Beneficent, the Merciful; Master of the Day of Judgment. You alone do we worship and from you alone do we seek aid. Show us the Straight Way, the way of those upon whom You have bestowed Your grace, not of those who have earned Your wrath or who go astray. (Quran 1:2–6)

After reciting another (this time self-selected) verse from the Quran, Muslims bow and proclaim, “Glory to God in the Highest,” three times. Returning to an upright position, they say, “God hears the one who praises Him” and “Our Lord, all praise belongs to you!”

The next phase of worship involves what is commonly called “prostration” in English, although it does not involve lying down at full length. The position Muslims take represents an expression of ultimate submission. Before beginning the act of prostration, Muslims first repeat, “Allahu Akbar” (God is most great). Then they fall to their knees, placing hands flat on the ground and bringing their foreheads down between their hands to touch the ground. While in this bowing position, Muslims recite three times, “Glory to the Lord Most High!” After this, they stand up and repeat the entire cycle of prayer.

Prayer includes sitting on the heels and reciting a formula known as “the witnessing” because it contains the declaration of Muslim faith. The witnessing is followed by asking God's blessings for the first and last of God's Prophets, Abraham and Muhammad.

Finally, prayer is ended with an invocation of peace (salam). Worshippers turn their heads right and left and say, “May the peace, mercy, and blessings of Allah be upon you.” Although this invocation is addressed to fellow believers on the right and left, some Muslims also believe they are addressing their guardian angels, who remain over their shoulders as they pray. After completing the obligatory prayers, Muslims can privately petition (dua) God regarding their individual needs. There are recommended prayer texts in Arabic for such individual needs and problems, but in these prayers the worshipper can also address God in his or her own native language and own words.

When Islam first appeared in the Middle East, it was common practice in the Byzantine and Sasanian empires to prostrate oneself before the Byzantine emperor (a Christian) and the Shah of Persia (a Zoroastrian), since these rulers were both king and high priest. However, Muslims historically were especially adamant in refusing to prostrate themselves before anyone or anything but Allah. In the mid-seventh century the T′ang Dynasty of China recorded that a delegation of Arab and Persian visitors refused to prostrate themselves in front of the emperor, whom the Chinese believed to be the “Son of Heaven.”

In modern times we can still find examples of prostration in other religions. To the present day Anglican and Catholic clergy prostrate themselves before the altar at the beginning of the Good Friday liturgy, and so do the ordinands in the rite of ordination. Members of some Catholic monastic orders regularly prostrate themselves instead of genuflecting before the Eucharist on the altar.

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