When I first entered the children’s class room at the mosque, Fatima’s co-instructor seemed unpleased with my presence. She wore a dark caftan and even darker expression. Then Fatima welcomed me with an embrace and a kiss on both cheeks, and the other lady’s attitude appeared to soften. She opened a folder and handed me a photocopied sheet as if it were a peace offering. Single spaced and printed on both sides, it was labeled “Steps of Prayer.” It spelled out the precise movements and words to utter. It was exactly what I needed. “Thank you,” I said as if she were giving me a precious gem stone.
As we waited for more kids to arrive, I read the instructions carefully. It explained how to do a “rakah,” which is one cycle of standing/bowing/prostrating/sitting—the building blocks of a prayer. Depending on the time of day, every prayer has two to four rakahs. Start, it read, by facing in the direction of Mecca. Declare your intention to perform the payer. (For example, “I intend to offer fajr prayer for Allah.”) Then cup your hands to your ears and say, “Allah Akbar,” which translates as “God is the greatest.”
So far so good, I thought with confidence.
Next, the instructions continued, place your left hand over your stomach and then grasp the wrist of that hand with your right hand. Say, “Glory be to You oh Allah, and praise be to You. Blessed be Your Name, exalted be Your Majesty and Glory. There is no God but You.” But really I was supposed to say this in Arabic and, luckily, a transliteration was provided: Subhanaka Allahummah wa bihamdika, wa tabarakasmuka, wa ta’ala jadduka, wala ilaha.
I tried to form those sounds. I got half way through and began to worry.
I skimmed ahead.
I had a few more phrases to say in the standing position. Then I needed to recite the first chapter, or sura, of the Quran, which is very short and, ideally, another short sura or section of a longer sura—prayer’s choice.
Now came the bowing part I knew from the night before. A quick “Allah Akbar” and bend at the waist. In this position, I was to say three times: “Glorified my Lord, the Great.” In Arabic it sounds like, “Subhana rabbiyal Ajhim.” I got excited. I thought this was something I could probably master.
Stand. Say, “Allah Akbar.” Then come swiftly to my knees. With palms and forehead to the ground, I am to say three times, “Subhana rabbiyal A’ala,” which means “Glory be to Allah, the Exalted.” Awesome, I thought, this part I could do.
With an “Allah Akbar,” come out of the prostration and sit with posterior on the heels of feet, which is like a crouch with knees on the floor. This position has a special name: jalsa. From here, repeat “Rabbi-ghfir li wa arhamni” three times. This looks really hard to say, but simply means, “Oh my Lord, forgive me and have mercy on me.” I suppose, if one must, this is a good phrase to butcher.
After this and another “Allah Akbar,” one’s forehead returns to the floor for another three repetitions of the phrase, “Subhana rabbiyal A’ala.”
Now do it all over again—once, twice, or three times depending on the location of the sun.
At the end of the series of rakahs, regardless of how many and while still seated in jalsa, one recites something called the Tashahod. This appears, for the most part, to be a summation of the compliments and requests given to or asked of Allah throughout the other parts of the prayers. It is customary to point one’s index finger toward Mecca while saying it.
Finally, you turn your head to the right and say, “Assalamu alaikum warahmatullah.” Then you turn left and repeat this phrase, which translates as, “Peace and mercy of Allah be on you.”