One of the most impressive rites of Islam is the daily prayer ritual. It has elicited the admiration of many who have observed it, and ignorant of the real character and content of Muslim prayer interpreted it entirely from the Christian standpoint. What is understood by prayer, however, in Christianity, and what the Muslim calls by the same name are to a degree distinct conceptions. In the punctilious regard of position, prostration, ablution and the peculiar gestures and movements of the hand, the head and the body it is clear that prayer is more than a spiritual exercise. Muslims themselves are at a loss to explain the reason for many of the details which they have learned from their youth. The various sects in orthodox Islam can be distinguished by the casual observer most easily in the method of ablution and in the prostration of the prayer ritual.
In the preparation of the five daily prayers, especially in the process of ablution the object of the Muslim as taught by Muhammad to his disciples, was originally not intended to remove physical uncleanness but was a ceremonial precaution against spiritual evil, of demons, etc. The Dutch scholar Prof. A.J. Wensinck tells us that these beliefs have little or nothing to do with bodily purity as such, but are intended to free the worshipper from the presence or influence of evil spirits. In two traditions from Muslim we read, “Said the Prophet: ‘If any of you wakens up from sleep then let him blow his nose three times. For the devil spends the night in a man’s nostrils.’” And again: “Said Omar ibn el-Khitab (may God have mercy on him): ’A certain man performed ablution but left a dry spot on his foot.’ When the Prophet of God saw it he said: ’Go back and wash better,’ then he returned and came back to prayer. Said the Prophet of God: ’If a Muslim servant of God performs the ablution when he washes his face every sin which his face has committed is taken away by it with the water or with the last drop of water. And when he washes his feet all the sins which his feet have committed are taken away with the water or with the last drop of water until he becomes pure from sin altogether.’”
According to al-Bukhari the washings before prayer should always begin on the right side of the body and not on the left. Another gives the value of the hairs of the Prophet when they fell in the washing-vessel. The Prophet used to wash his feet when he wore sandals by simply passing his hands over the outside of the sandals; the object therefore, cannot have been to cleanse impurity but to ward off demons. Another tradition is given as follows: According to ’Abd-el-Rahman, a man came to Omar ibn el-Khattab and said,” I am in a state of impurity and cannot find water.” Ammar ibn Yasir said to Omar ibn el-Khattab, “Do you remember the day that you and I travelled together. You did not make your prayers, but I rolled myself in the sand and prayed. When I told the Prophet of this, he said, ’ That was enough,’ and so saying he took some earth in his hands, blew on it and then rubbed his face and hands with it.”
Head-covering when in prayer
The Muslim when he prays is required, according to tradition to cover his head, especially the back part of the skull. This according to Wensick is also due to animistic belief; for the evil spirits enter the body by this way. Goldziher has shown that the name given to this part of the body (al qafa) has a close relation to the kind of poetry called Qafiya, which originally meant a poem to wound the skull, or in other words an imprecatory poem. It is therefore for the dread of evil powers which might enter the mind that the head must be covered during prayer.
N ot only the preparations for prayer itself but the times of prayer have a distinct connection with the animistic belief. The noon-day prayer is never held at high noon but a short time after the sun reaches the meridian. Wensinck points out that this is due to the belief that the sun-god is really a demon and must not be worshipped by the monotheist. According to al-Bukhari the Prophet postponed the noon-day prayer until after high noon for “the greatest heat of the day belongs to the heat of hell.” Nor is it permitted to pray shortly after sunrise for “the sun rises between the horns of the devil.” According to Abu Huraira and Abdallah ibn ’Omar, the prophet of God said: “When it is excessively hot wait until it is cool to make your prayers, for intense heat comes from hell.” Abu-Dzarr said: The Muezzin of the Prophet had called for the noon-prayer. “Wait until it is cooler, wait until it is cooler, or wait……” said the Prophet. Then he added: “Great heat is of hell: so when it is excessively hot wait until it is cool then make your prayers. “ Abu-Dzarr adds: “And we waited until we saw the shadow declining.”
> In prayer there should be no gaps in the ranks of the worshippers lest Satan come between. Volume 1 p.131
> One should blow the nostrils three times when awakening so as to drive away the devil. Volume 1 p.27
> The Prophet forbade sleep in bath-rooms because they are the abode of devils. Volume 1 p.15
> The Prophet forbade facing the Qibla when fulfilling a call of nature for fear of Satan. Volume 1 P. 15
>Turning the head around during prayer is caused by the devil. Volume 1 .p 177.
The niche in a mosque that shows the direction to which prayer is made is called the Mihrab, i.e., “the place of fighting,” There are many traditions concerning Muhammad’s struggle with afrits and Jinn in a mosque. The most interesting one is given in Muslim Volume 1, p. 204. “Said the Apostle of God (on him be prayers and peace): ’a certain demon of the Jinn attacked me yesterday in order to stop my prayers, but, God verily gave me victory over him. I was about to tie him to the side of a pillar of the pillars of the mosque so that ye might get up in the morning and behold him, all of you, when I remembered the prayer of my brother Solomon: “O Lord, forgive me and give me a dominion such as no one ever had,” and after that God set the demon free!’”.
The forming of ranks in Muslim prayers as they face the Mihrab is most important and therefore they are extremely careful of it. There are many traditions in this respect which can only have relation to belief in Jinn. For example, not only must worshippers stand in a row, but in a mosque it is considered most important to stand so close together that nothing can possibly pass between. They stand like soldiers in massed-formation. Here is the tradition cited from al Nasai Volume 1, pp 173 and 186-187 and also Houdas‘ Al Bukhari (French translation) p. 243:
Anas states that the Prophet said:” Observe your ranks, for I can see you from behind my back.” “Each one of us put his shoulder in touch with his neighbour’s and his foot with that of his neighbour.”
And “In prayer there should be no gaps in the ranks of the worshippers lest Satan come between.” Al Nasai Volume 1 p.131.
The content of Muslim prayers
In conclusion we may give here four of the short final chapters of the Quran that are used at the time of the five daily prayers and which contain allusions to animistic and pagan practices current in Arabia before Islam. It is true that the beautiful opening chapter of the Quran with its lofty theism and the chapter of the Forenoon with its pathetic reference to Muhammad’s childhood are frequently on Muslim lips. So also is the chapter of Unity (112). But what thoughts a Muslim has when he repeats the following chapters, if he understands the words, we may learn from the commentaries. After reading what they tell us there remains little doubt that paganism entered Islam by the door of the Quran.
> We have indeed revealed this (Message) in the Night of Power: And what will explain to thee what the night of power is? The Night of Power is better than a thousand months. Therein come down the angels and the Spirit by Allah’s permission, on every errand: Peace!…This until the rise of morn! (Al-Qadr 97)
> Say: I seek refuge with the Lord of the Dawn From the mischief of created things; From the mischief of Darkness as it overspreads; From the mischief of those who practise secret arts; And from the mischief of the envious one as he practises envy. (Al Falaq 113)
< Say: I seek refuge with the Lord and Cherisher of Mankind, The King (or Ruler) of Mankind, The god (or judge) of Mankind, From the mischief of the Whisperer (of Evil), who withdraws (after his whisper), (The same) who whispers into the hearts of Mankind, Among Jinns and among men. (An Nas 114)