If you ever come across someone with their head on the floor, don’t be offended if they don’t answer you when you ask them if they dropped something. There’s a good chance they’re simply praying.
On average, Muslims pray five times a day. It is less of a ritual and more an exercise of mind, body and soul. Through physical movements and mental awareness, a state of spiritual tranquility is reached. A connection, between the one praying and the One prayed to—God.
Learning to pray
I learned to pray in the back room of an electronics store.
It was shortly after I had said my shahada and became a Muslim. I’d seen people pray, but it was beyond me to learn how to do it at the time. Instead, I prayed simply by asking God for help in whatever I was dealing with. But I still felt like something was missing. Almost as if I wasn’t doing something right. And so I approached my manager—the one who taught me about Islam—one day when I was off work. I went into the store and asked him if he could show me how to pray. It was in the afternoon, and there were several customers in the store. Despite that, he left the customers to the second person there, led me to the back room, and taught me how to pray.
I thought it would be as simple as kneeling down and asking God what you wanted—to me, that’s all prayer ever was. I only prayed if I was in a bind, when it was convenient for me. But now there came with it motions and words I didn’t understand and certain timings and everything that, to most born-Muslims, is just second nature. And with praying at set times a day, prayer no longer became something I resorted to when I was depressed or upset, but a part of my daily life.
It took a while for me to get it right. For weeks, maybe even months, I prayed holding a piece of paper that outlined the motions and the number of times I had to do each motion. Each prayer has a set number of units, known as raka, which includes certain motions and recitations in Arabic.
At first I prayed in English. Then eventually I memorized some short chapters (surahs) of the Qur’an in Arabic. I would end my prayers with what is known as the prostration of forgetfulness—typically reserved for making a mistake in prayer. I figured I should do so just in case I messed up. That is, until I was kindly told it wasn’t necessary (as it turns out, I wasn’t the only Muslim convert to do so, as a couple I spoke to also did the same).
As these foreign motions and words became more natural to me, I found in prayer a kind of spiritual haven. When I raise my hands up and say Allahu akbar, it’s as though I’m pushing the entire world behind me with the back of my hands, and announcing that God (Allah) is Greater (akbar) than whatever worldly matter I’ve left the prayer for. And when I place my forehead on the ground, I know that, as Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, I am closest to God. Each time I pray it’s as though I’m checking in with God, asking for help with my day, forgiveness for my mistakes and what is best for me both now and later.
That’s not to say every prayer is a rapturous spiritual event; ask any Muslim and, if they’re honest, they’ll admit that there have been times where they were more concerned about what was for supper, or where they’d be going that night, or any other sort of distraction that would rob their concentration. And it’s no secret: the moment you start to pray, suddenly the patterns in the carpet become intensely fascinating, or you remember where you left your keys. Concentration in prayer is such a struggle that every Muslim, from scholar to student, find their own method of learning how to concentrate. Me, I try and take a moment to clear my head; then I imagine I’m in a box—my own personal prayer hall; and then I imagine that, no, the rest of the world is in a box, and in my own space I’m closer to heaven than earth.
These check-ins occur at 5 times throughout the day. Basically, in the morning, noon, afternoon, sunset and evening. Many people struggle with the timings of prayer—especially since it fluctuates throughout the year as the days grow or shrink depending on the season. For me, I live and die by the schedule. So prayers just became another thing to add to my list of things to do in a day. The best advice I heard is to structure your day around the prayers, rather than the prayers around your day. So if you’re someone who plans ahead a lot, visualize where you’ll be when prayer comes in and think of places to pray.
And, yes, sometimes that means praying in public.