Wednesday, December 30, 2009
The Inception of Prayer in Islam
(book printed and published in 2009 by The University Press Limited, 61 Motijheel C/A. Dhaka 1000, www.uplbooks.com)
At the time of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), the people in and around Makka were either polytheists or Bedouins. While the nomad Bedouins had little regard for idols, the polytheists usually belonged to one of the two categories, i.e., those who were devoted to a number of idols and those who believed in a God (Allah) of Ka’ba, the holy sanctuary in Makka, and other idols subservient to Allah. Amongst the polytheists, the ritual of worship did not specifically involve a formal prayer although some from of prostration, chanting, circumambulation, etc. are believed to have been practiced. There were, however, a limited number of Christians in Makka, e.g., Waraqah bin Nawfal, cousin of the Prophet’s wife Khadija. In Yathrib, the name by which the oasis town of Madina was known, there existed a Jewish community belonging mainly to the three tribes of Banu Nadir, Banu Qurayza and Banu Qaynuka, whose “number has been estimated at between 36,000 and 42,000”. Further north of Syria, the Arabs usually belonged to the Ghassanid tribe who were Monophysite Christians supported by the Byzantine in the west.
In the earliest period narrated in the Old Testament (the Patriarchal Period), ‘prayer’ is shown as an act of calling upon the name of the Lord and is closely connected with sacrifice. In the following Biblical period the main emphasis of prayer was in intercession although the prayer of intercession seems to have been confined to the priests or prophets, who had the power assigned by God to mediate on behalf of the ordinary people. To the later prophets of the pre-exilic period the prayer may have been essential for receiving tha revelatory words from God. In Daniel/9:20-23 it is seen that Daniel attained the prophethood when Gabriel came to him while he was in prayer. In another reference to his prayer in Old Testament some knowledge of the prayer at the time is available: “he (Daniel) went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened towards Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just he has done before” (Daniel/6:10). The Book of Psalms provide with 150 sacred passages that may be called prayers which include personal prayers for pardon, communion, protection, healing, vindication and prayers full of praise of God. During the Babylonian exile a style of Jewish prayer was developed that included the recitation from the ‘basic prayer’ composed in the 5th c. BC covering 18 blessings and performed three times a day.
Among the modern day Jewish people, the prayer is usually a part of the services in a synagogue on the weekly Sabath day, i.e. Saturdays, other holy days and days of festivals. It usually takes the form of praise of God, thanksgiving and petition for various types of favours. The modern Jewish prayer is usually performed in a standing position and may also involve some minor movements of the body parts. However, “at the time of Christ, there appears the prayer par excellence, the tefilla or amida (standing prayer), also called shemone esre (“18 benedictions”), which every Israelite recites two or three time a day”. It may therefore be concluded that at about 600 years before the advent of Islam, the Jewish prayer was performed in a standing position, possibly twice a day- in the morning and at night- with recitations from the Torah, especially from the books of Deuteronomy and Numbers. The ‘standing position’ is corroborated in the New Testament gospel of Matthew, “And when you pray, do not be like hypocrities, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men (Matthew/6:5) and in Luke/17:11, "The Pharisee stood up and prayed...” The Jews od Medina in the early 7th century AD were the immigrants from Syria following the persecution campaign of the Byzantines and the Assyrians. According to one historian: “Religiously, they showed no zeal, their most obvious religious commodity was fortune telling, witchcraft and the secret arts (blowing the knots), for which they used to attach to themselves advantages of science and spiritual superiority”. However, their prayer at the time is likely to have involved the recitation from the Torah and of the psalms of the Old Testament in ‘standing prayer’ performed two or three times a day.
In the New Testament, the teaching of prayer is mentioned in several places although the primary instruction for prayer comes from Jesus Christ’s own practice and coctrine. “But when you pray, go to your room and close the door and pray to your Father who is unseen” (Matheww/6:7). Early Christians continued with the Jewish custom of praying three times a day reciting reciting the Lord’s Prayer narrated in Matthew/6:9-13 and for them, the special times for prayer were in the morning and in the evening. In the early 3rd century AD Hippolytus (c. AD 170-236), an important leader of the Church of Rome, encouraged the Christians to practice private prayers in the church in the morning and in the evening. The Christian prayer is offered to God in the name of Christ through whom there is access and so the prayer to the Father is offered in the way the Son himself prayed. In the 1st century AD Saint Paul made the significant contribution to the understanding of the Christian prayer by establishing its connection with the Holy Spirit, i.e., the prayer is presented to the Father in the name of the Son through the Holy Spirit.
As for the manner of performing the prayer, it has been suggested that the earliest Christians used to do it in the ‘orant’ position, which is a gesture in which the hands are raised or outstretched with elbows bent or at the sides and the palms facing forward. According to some, this significant posture, which was a mode of prayer common to many ancient religions, was adopted to reflect the attitude of Jesus Christ on the cross and is considered as a gesture of supplication and pleading. This practice was replaced by more submissive gesture for prayer amongst the laity. The posture of kneeling for prayer has been mentioned in the New Testament on several occasions. Jesus Christ “knelt down and prayed” (Luke/22:41) and his disciples also did so, e.g., “Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed” (Acts/9:40) and Paul “kneel before the Father” and prayed for the Ephesians (Ephesians/3:14). However since the 4th century AD, i.e., after the meeting of the ecumenical council of Christian Church in Nicaea in 325 AD, the Christians may have been using the standing position for prayer in the churches and the kneeling posture for their practice of prayer at home. The kneeling down for prayer in a Christian church was introduced much later in the medieval period with the introduction of pews for the use of all members of a congregation. So, it is unlikely that during the time of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in the 7th century AD the Arabs Christians were using either the ‘orant’ position or kneeling down for their prayer in the churches.
A Muslim’s prayer has been described in the Qur’an as an exercise of “call on your Lord with humility and in private” (5:55) “for You are He Who hears prayer!” (3:38). It is one of the ‘five pillars’ on which the fundamental tenets of the religion of Islam are based; other four being, i) the shahadah or testifying the belief that “there is no god but God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God”, ii) the sawm, which is the day-long fasting in the month of Ramadan, iii) the zakat, i.e., the giving of alms at a stipulated scale and iv) the hajj or pilgrimage to Makka. The canonical prayer is performed at five appointed times everyday and is considered to be the first obligatory practice of a Muslim. In its performance, the basic unit of a prayer is known as the rak’a which is made up of a sequence of standing, bowing (ruku), prostrating (sajda) and other movements along with recitations of passages from the Qu’ran and other sacred phrases. The five daily prayers, called Fajr, Zuhr, Asr, Magrib and Isha, vary in their length based on the prescribed number of rak’at for each. The basic manner of performing the prayer and the format for each of the five was established within the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) (570-632 AD), and remained unchanged among the Muslims all over the world since then.
About the Author:
Muhammad Anwarul Islam is a retired engineer, architect and academic with some publications emanating from his personal research. He is one of the first five architects qualified in Bangladesh (BArch/1966) who also obtained BScEng(1957) and MSc (1974) degrees from the Bangladesh University of Engineering & Technology. Having worked in engineering design and architecture for 18 years he left for England where he was awarded the degree of PhD by the University of Warwick in 1978. He then began a teaching career that continued until he retired from Manchester School of Architecture in 2006. This included supervision of the research work of a number of PhD students of the University of Manchester and the Manchester Metropolitan University in various aspects of Islamic Architecture.
Posted by Ershad Ahmed at 11:13 PM