23 February 2014

When is prayer time?

To be honest, I didn't know that much about Islam before I moved over here--what I did learn about it in World Geography and Cultures class in junior high is long forgotten!  And I still don't know a lot, but I've learned a little more about it in an effort to understand the culture over here.

So, some of the things I've learned . . . . The foundation of Muslim life is the Five Pillars of Islam, which are the five basic acts in Islam and are considered mandatory by believers.  The five pillars are 1. Shahadah--a declaration of faith concerning God and Muhammad  2. Salat--ritual prayer 5 times a day  3. Sawm--fasting and self-control during the month of Ramadan  4. Zakat--giving 2.5% of savings to the poor and needy  5. Hajj--pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in your life.

The pillar that affects daily life the most, not only for the Muslims but also for us living here, is salat or the prayer/worship times.  There are 5 daily prayers, and the specific times of the prayers are based on movements of the sun.

1.  Fajer--first light of dawn (approx 1 1/2 hours before sunrise)
2.  Dhuhr--after mid-day has passed and the sun is starting its downward movement
3.  Asr--in the late afternoon (traditionally determined based on shadow lengths)
4.  Maghrib--just after sunset
5.  Ishaa--night prayer (1 1/2 hours after sunset when it is dark)

Before praying, a Muslim mush perform a ritual washing--called wudu or 'purification'.  (HERE is a link that explains the process.)  The salat (prayer/worship) is done while facing the direction of Kaaba in Mecca, and the prayer consists of the repetition of prescribed actions (see picture below) and words.  The number of obligatory repetitions varies based on time of day and other circumstances.

Although a Muslim may perform their prayer anywhere (for example outside at the park or in their office) it is preferable to pray in the mosque because the mosque allows for fellowship.  You don't need to go to a particular mosque for salat; there are mosques everywhere making it easy to go to one no matter where you are in the city.  Most are small and simple, although some are large and ornate.  Prayer is obligatory for Muslims unless they are disabled, prepubescent, ill, pregnant, lactating, menstruating, elderly or traveling on a long journey. (**See the first comment below for some clarification on this point.**)

Below is a picture of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque that we were able to visit in Abu Dhabi.   If you use a magnifying glass, you can see Ben and the kids at the top of the stairs (slightly off-center to the right).

So, what does all of this mean for us as non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia?  Although we don't observe the prayer times by going to the mosque to pray, we do still need to be aware of the prayer times since basically everything closes down during prayer time (banks, hospitals and airports excluded).  A few other exceptions. . . Although 'sit-down' restaurants lock their doors during prayer time, as long as you are in the doors before they lock them most restaurants in our area (liberal by Saudi standards) will serve you during prayer (ie you can order and they will bring you food).  And yes, they will unlock the doors and let you leave if you finish during prayer time.  :-)  Fast food restaurants and food courts don't allow you to order food during prayer time, but you can stay and eat if you already have food before they close for prayer.  Some grocery stores allow you to stay inside if you are in before they close the doors, although you have to wait until prayer ends before the registers open and you can pay for your food and leave.

Whenever we are talking about going anywhere, the first question is always "when is prayer time?"  Because the prayers are based on sun movements, they change by a little bit everyday.  So right now (during winter when the days are shorter) the last 4 prayers of the day come pretty close together. . . right now roughly noon, 3pm, 5pm and 7pm).  The stores lock their doors to people coming in and start clearing people out approximately 20 mins before prayer starts, and then it lasts for approximately 30 mins, so the stores can be closed for 45 mins to an hour per prayer.

So you have to make sure you time your errands appropriately and it is hard to do lots of errands at once since inevitably you will run into a prayer time and be stuck outside somewhere!  Fortunately in the modern day we have apps that can help make planning easier.  :-)  I think a prayer app that tells you the times for the day based on your location is one of the first things everyone puts on their phone once they get over here.

Trying to go anywhere between those afternoon/evening prayers is crazy since there are a lot of people all trying sneak a little shopping or eating in between prayers.  On Fridays (the Muslim holy day), most stores do not open until 4pm, and on Saturdays stores are often closed from noon to 4pm.  (Some stores actually close everyday from noon to 4pm.)  This helps avoid some of the open/close madness.  Restaurants seem to get very busy about 25 to 30 mins before prayer starts since people often like to sit and eat during prayer time.
Other than using your phone, Muslims know to go to a mosque for prayer when they hear the adhan or prayer call.  The person doing the prayer call--traditionally from the minaret--is called the muezzin.  The prayer call seems to happen about 10 minutes before the prayer time.  Then a second called the iqama summons the Muslims to line up for the beginning of the prayers.

Traveling in United Arab Emirates and Oman we only ever noticed hearing the first call to prayer, not the second one.  Also, we didn't ever notice any stores, restaurants, museums or attractions closing for prayers.  Although if they were closed, it was generally from noon to 4pm and not based on specific prayer times.

Since it is hard to describe what salat sounds like, check out the video (less than a min) to get a small taste of what it is like.  The prayer call actually lasts for several minutes.  This video was taken from the roof (of our old house) facing east at the maghrib (sunset) prayer time.  In the video, the main prayer call you hear is from the mosque closest to us, but you can also hear the calls from other nearby mosques competing a little bit.  

The prayer call definitely has a little bit of an eerie sound to it, but it has grown on me over time.  There really are mosques everywhere though, (you can spot 5 minarets from the roof) and I don't know that it is possible to be outside somewhere in the city and NOT hear the call to prayer. . . although that's the idea so I guess they are effective.  :-)