He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Fair Questions: What did I learn from praying with Muslims?

Some time ago, I was invited to a mosque by a friend.  He and I have known each other for a number of years, and we have had the occasional fruitful dialogue on matters of religion.  While in a dining/recreational area adjacent to the mosque, he showed me the miniature library with copies of the Quran, the Sunnah, and various Islamic commentaries on the message delivered by he whom Muslims call The Prophet.

I had read an English translation of the Quran when I was getting my first degree, prompted by the various claims circulating about Islam after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.  I had wanted to read for myself the authoritative text for Muslims rather than relying on anyone else, whether on the political left or the political right of the American political spectrum, to give me an accurate assessment of Islam.

This was something we discussed as I enjoyed the traditional tea he shared with me and tried small pieces of the desserts called by names unfamiliar to me.  I noticed that children roamed freely around the area as we sat and talked, both girls and boys.  The adult women were conspicuously absent, however, which was not surprising to me given how common it is to separate men and women outside the home in Islamic cultures.  Despite that, the social interaction felt very natural and healthy, the men not needing the women around to keep them well-behaved.

I'm sure the reverse was true as well; no doubt the women were able to have a delightful time without the men being by their side.  As the time came for the evening prayer, there was a call for the men to come to pray.  I can fairly safely assume that the women were praying as well, albeit in a different area.  The prayer times are fairly set throughout the day regardless of gender.  Men and women might be separated by space, but they are united in the submission to God to be found in sincere prayer.

At the call to prayer, I asked if I could join the men in prayer.  I hadn't planned to join them in prayer, but for some reason felt moved to do so.  My friend and the other men kindly welcomed me to pray with them.  I followed them in and took a place in the middle of the line they formed, a line facing Mecca.  As a Catholic, I appreciated the unity of praying in the same direction; it reminded me of traditional Catholic and Orthodox liturgies in which we all face east or face the altar.  I understand the rightness of praying with both bodies and hearts oriented in the same direction: toward holiness and He who grants it.

My Catholic religious practice also prepared me for the rhythms of the prayers.  There was standing, kneeling, full prostration, kneeling again, and so on.  Having spent plenty of time at Catholic and Orthodox services, both the kneeling and the standing were very familiar to me.  The prostration, however, is not something I have done very often.  It's normal for priests to prostrate themselves fully before the altar during the Mass for their ordination, but not a normal part of the Mass otherwise.

Having followed my Muslim friends in their prostrations, I found that it had an important psychological effect; the lowering of my body to the floor for the sake of honoring God's greatness lowering my ego from the heights of pride along with my body as I prostrated myself fully.  I suspect that there is a perfectly cogent explanation for this in grounded in evolutionary psychology, but it doesn't detract from the spiritual benefit.  And for the first time, I understood why my father chose to be prostrate during his personal prayer.

The prostration was not only humbling, but also strangely peaceful.  During the prayers, there was a brief sign of peace exchanged between the men with the man on their left and the man on their right, which didn't interrupt the flow of the prayers at all, but still served the purpose of reminding us that God invites us to treat our neighbors with love.  The sign of peace was just a brief turning to the other man and wishing the peace of God upon him, which is fortunately one of the few phrases I know in Arabic.

The other phrase used through the prayers is: "God is great".  This too happened to be a phrase I knew in Arabic, which turned out to be extremely helpful to know that evening.  All in all, the time of prayer was mostly silent, broken only occasionally by the men's voices.  There was no music, no series of images, no flickering of candles, no grand gestures, and no choreographed procession.  The beauty of the prayer was in its simplicity and purity.

This is of course one of the benefits Muslims will often mention to potential converts, that Islam is simple and pure, a restoration of the true monotheism which reaches back to Adam and Abraham.  And there certainly is appeal in the simplicity; there is minimal theology to learn to become a Muslim (though you can certainly read Islamic mystics and philosophers if you are so inclined), no formal religious hierarchy to submit to, no initiation into the mysteries, and no lengthy creed.

To become a Muslim requires only the brief profession of faith in the presence of witnesses known as the shahada with a sincere intention to live out the five pillars of Islam as defined by the Prophet Muhammed.  This reminds me of my Protestant roots; I was raised in a church that was part of the restorationist movement in Christianity, a church which favored simple worship as opposed to the grand Roman Catholic liturgy.  Simplicity in a religion does have real value, as any Catholic monk or Franciscan friar can happily explain.

But the beauty of Islamic prayer's simplicity is that it is even more starkly simple than even the most simple Protestant worship service and takes far less time.  It is certainly no 2-hour worship service, and there are definitely no praise and worship bands.  But the shorter time period is offset by the fact that the prayer is done five times daily, that throughout the day the Muslim is called out of daily life and into sacred time with God.

This is a wonderful and very healthy spiritual practice which can suffuse our day with an experience of the divine and reorder our priorities toward loving service to God and to our neighbors.  It reminds me of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions in which the Liturgy of the Hours serves the same purpose.  I'm not sure how much the prayer traditions of Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews influenced Islamic prayer, but some of the parallels are fascinating, and Islam did arise in reaction to Judaism and Christianity, so there are definitely some influences from Christianity and Judaism.

Along with the practices of almsgiving, fasting, the shahada, and the pilgrimage to Mecca, Islamic prayer is part of what makes Islam distinct as a religion with its own character and its own way of shaping the human heart.

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