The second pillar of Islam is prayer (Salat). Prayer, for Muslims, is experienced with the whole body and practiced in the same prescribed manner all over the world.
There are specific steps, instructions, and actions. It is another aspect of Muslim life that unifies hundreds of millions of people from thousands of different backgrounds. The pillar includes the ritual daily prayers (salat) as well as personal prayer (du’a).
Muslims perform salat five times a day: just before dawn, mid-day, just before the sun sets, after the sun sets, and at night. Other special prayers are associated with the two main annual Muslim holidays (Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha), rites of passage (birth, weddings, death), and when travelling, to name a few.
In the Quran, Muslims are encouraged to be steadfast in prayer (chapter 2, verse 43); to seek Allah’s help through prayer (2:45); to prepare properly (5:6); to be diligent in the obligatory prayers; and to have a devout attitude when approaching Allah (2:238). In 5:91, Muslims are warned that Satan will always want to distract them from prayer.
In addition to the Quran, Muslims rely on the “sayings and doings” of Muhammad, known as the sunna, to guide them not only in the practice of prayer, but in every detail of life. One interesting event recorded in the sunna (al Bukhari, Volume 1, Book 8, Number 345) describes a journey Muhammad took to the first level of heaven – there are several in Islam – with the angel Gabriel. There Muhammad encountered Adam, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.
When Moses asked Muhammad how many times Allah had commanded his followers to pray, Muhammad responded, “Fifty.” Moses told Muhammad this would be too burdensome; he should appeal to Allah to reduce this number.
The first time Muhammad implored Allah, it was reduced by half. Moses thought that was still too much. Muhammad went back a second time, and it was reduced by half again. Still too difficult, according to Moses. Muhammad returned to Allah a third time, and the five daily prayers were settled.
At the mosque, men and women pray in exactly the same way, though in different sections of the building. Even when women pray at home, which they often do, the process is the same. The only exception is when a woman is menstruating, because then she is considered impure and her prayers invalid.
After the ritual of washing with water – rinsing the hands, mouth, nose, face, arms, ears and feet – worshipers line up in orderly rows, barefoot and shoulder to shoulder. Standing facing toward Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the prayers begin. While reciting the various prayers in Arabic, they will repeat a variety of physical positions: standing, raising their hands to their ears, crossing their arms in front, bowing, kneeling, and bending prostrate with their forehead to the floor.
A Muslim who keeps the five daily prayers prostrates before Allah a total of 34 times and recites phrases such as “Praise be to Allah,” “Allah is the greatest,” and “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of God” dozens of times each day.