Performing the Prayers
Once a Muslim has purified his or her mind and body, the prayer begins. Wherever they are in the world, worshipers first stand upright, facing the direction of the Ka'aba in Mecca.
The direction that Muslims face during prayer is called the qiblah. In the early years of Islam, the qiblah of Muslim prayer was north to the city of Jerusalem. More than a decade into his mission, Muhammad received revelation to change the direction from Jerusalem to Mecca (Qur'an 2:142–144).
Formal Muslim prayers are always said in Arabic. This allows Muslims of any nationality to join in worship, no matter where they may travel or live. Praying together in the original language of the Qur'an is thus a unifying force within the diverse Muslim community.
Worshiping in Congregation
If there is more than one person praying in congregation, the people stand in rows, side by side, with shoulders and feet touching each other. In a mixed-gender group, the men form separate rows from the women to avoid distractions during the movements of prayer. Some mosques offer a separate balcony or room for women to pray so that they may have privacy during the prayer.
In a group of worshipers, an imam is chosen to lead the prayer. The imam recites the verses and words of prayer, and the people follow his movements. During the service, he stands facing away from the worshipers, toward the direction of Mecca.
Each formal prayer is made up of cycles, called raka'at. Each one of the five prayers is assigned a number of cycles, anywhere from two to four raka'ats in length. For each cycle, the worshiper performs certain symbolic movements while reciting the words of prayer.
The following steps outline how a worshiper would perform a typical daily prayer. All words are given here in English translation, although the prayers are actually recited in Arabic:
While standing, raises his or her hands and says, “God is Great.”
Continues standing, with hands crossed over the chest.
Recites the first chapter of the Qur'an, and then any other small chapter or collection of verses. The choice of a particular chapter might vary according to a particular occasion or personal preference.
Repeats “God is Great,” then lowers into a bowing position, reciting words of praise to Allah.
Says, “Allah hears those who praise Him; Our Lord, You deserve our praise,” and rises to a standing position.
Repeats “God is Great,” then lowers into a position of prostration, forehead to the ground, reciting words of praise to Allah.
Repeats “God is Great,” then rises to a sitting position.
Repeats “God is Great,” then prostrates, again reciting words of praise to Allah.
Rises to a standing position again for another cycle of prayer.
When the prayers are performed in a congregation, the faithful follow the imam in prayer. They listen as he recites from the Qur'an and perform the movements after he does so. He makes all the necessary choices, such as deciding which verses from the Qur'an to recite in that particular prayer.
The first chapter of the Qur'an, which is repeated several times during each prayer, is called Al-Fatihah (the Opening Chapter). It is sometimes called the “Lord's Prayer” of Islam, due to its concise summing-up of the Islamic faith, offering praise and seeking guidance of God.
When two cycles of prayer are complete, the worshiper remains sitting for a moment. During this time, he or she recites the tashahhud, a short passage in which one praises God, asks for His blessings, and recites the declaration of faith (“There is no god worthy to be worshiped except Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah”).
If the prayer is longer than two cycles, the worshiper stands up again to complete the rest of the cycles of prayer, and then sits down again. After repeating the first tashahhud, the worshiper then recites the second tashahhud, a passage in which Muslims ask God to send blessings on the Prophet Muhammad and his family.
Throughout the prayer, Muslims are free to add personal supplications to seek God's forgiveness, guidance, and mercy. When finished, the worshiper does the salutation of peace (tasleem) by turning to the right and proclaiming (in Arabic), “Peace and God's mercy be with you.” Then he or she turns to the left and repeats the salutation, formally concluding the prayer service.