To achieve my goal of worshipping with Muslims, I needed to understand the prayers. When Muslims gather at mosques, their primary undertaking is prayer. The group activities one might recognize from services of other faiths—like singing or chanting or listening to a reading from a holy book—are, for Muslims, contained within the act of prayer. A service at a mosque will usually include a speech roughly equivalent to a sermon or Torah lesson or dharma talk in which an imam or elder addresses the congregation and imparts bits of wisdom. Other than that, it’s all about the praying.
In general, praying is one of the most important acts in the life of any Muslim. Of the five pillars, or deeds, to which a Muslim is expected to remain faithful, praying is the only one that must be done every day. Two other pillars—fasting during Ramadan and a donation to charity called “zakat”—are annual (though a Muslim may opt to fast or give more frequently). The remaining pillars need only happen once a lifetime. The first is the confession of faith or “shahadah” when a person officially embraces Muhammad’s message of the unifying one-God of monotheism by saying, “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger.” It’s the same point made by others who Muhammad himself recognized as messengers and prophets—Moses and Jesus and Buddha among other notables. Finally, every Muslim is expected to make a special trip to Mecca, located in present-day Saudi Arabia, before he or she dies, but only if health and finances allow it.
Prayers, on the other hand, are required a minimum of five times from sun up to sun down. Some historians say the number may have originally been three during Muhammad’s time and increased after the prophet’s death. Either way, Muhammad is said to have personally negotiated with Allah to have the number reduced from 50. Each of the five daily prayers has a designated time slot according to the position of the sun. “Fajr,” the first prayer of the day, is set for dawn. The noon prayer, called “zuhr,” is timed for just after the sun passes its highest position in the sky. After these comes a prayer in the afternoon (“asr”), at sunset (“maghrib”), and around nightfall (“isha”). While each prayer has a precise start, which moves by a minute or so as the days shorten or lengthen, you actually have until before the beginning of the next time slot to do the prayer, so the times really provide more of a window than a strict on-the-dot engagement.
Before the internet, most Muslims probably relied on old-fashioned means to meet daily prayer deadlines: word of mouth, the sun’s trajectory or, for those living within earshot of a mosque, the call to prayer. Now we have high-tech options. I was able to download a free app that displays the day’s prayer times for my precise location based on the GPS in my smartphone. For a small fee, I had the option to set a chime in advance of each prayer. While most prayers are conducted privately either at home or wherever a person happens to be when the time comes, Muslims are encouraged to complete a slightly shorter version of the noon prayers as a group at the mosque on Fridays. On this day only, the congregational “jummah” prayer takes the place of the zuhr prayer.
The next afternoon, I was sitting in the same basement room of the mosque where the women and I had eaten the night before. Now it was a classroom. A bunch of kids were sitting around a long table. I sat at another table all by myself. When Fatima told me classes are held for women and children she may have overdone it on the plurals—it was just one class and I think “woman” would have been more accurate. If you didn’t count Fatima and the other instructor, I was the only person older than ten. I thought back to the very beginning of my explorations into Christianity, when my sophisticated tome about Protestant reformer Martin Luther arrived in my mailbox as an illustrated children’s book. God may have been going by Allah here, but the sense of humor was unchanged.