Jewish and Muslim Prayer Traditions

Written by | Judaism, Prayer

While prayer is, unfortunately, becoming a lost art in many parts of the world, it is as essential to human nature as the quest for God Himself. It is therefore not surprising that prayer is a fundamental practice of all religions – and that includes Judaism and Islam. What may be surprising to readers is the many similarities that the two great world religions share regarding prayer traditions, e.g., the how, what, when, and why of prayer.

Before we begin our comparison, it is important to note our reference point. Since Islam is a younger religion, it is logical it would reference back to Judaism versus the other way around. Said another way, if you are a younger sister, you were probably compared with your older sister more than the other way around, because your older sister existed and was known before you came to be.

In the case of Islam, the question would be whether Islam accepts the same God, same Holy Book, and same Prophets as Judaism, and the answer, surprising to many, is yes. Islam believes there is Only One God and He is the Creator and Sustainer of the whole universe and every human being within it. Further, it is a requirement of faith that every Muslim believe in all revealed Books and all true Prophets including Prophet Adam, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Noah, and Moses (peace be on all of them).

It is important to understand that during the prayer, both Jews and Muslims, are praying to the same God, thus placing their deepest hopes, fears, and desires in the same Divine Being. While perhaps we know this intuitively, it is quite profound. For example, if I discover that you have the same very good friend and benefactor as I do, it immediately becomes a point of bonding and connection. So too, Jews and Muslims should recognize that the One they are orienting their lives towards every day is the same One!

Commune with God

Now let us turn to the first and most important question; why do Jews and Muslims pray? While this is both a simple and profound question, it starts with understanding what the objective of God’s creation of human beings in the first place. In the Torah, we read that mankind will be successful if they observe the command “to love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul.”(1) Therefore prayer is considered to be a Tefillah or service of one’s heart in submission to God. Similarly, the Quran states that man’s purpose for being created is “to worship God Alone.”(2)

Both the service that Judaism speaks of and the worship that Islam speaks of are two branches of the same tree. In both cases, the worshiper is attracted to the attributes of God, seeks to become closer to Him, and ultimately become imbued in His love. Hadrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as), the founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, writes in his book Blessings of Prayer:

“Prayer, in essence, means a relationship of mutual attraction between a righteous person and his Lord. This means that God’s grace first draws a person towards Himself, and then, through the magnetism of the person’s sincerity, God draws closer to him. In the state of prayer, this relationship reaches a point where it manifests wonderful qualities.”(3)

Ari Goldman, a Jew and the author of The Search for God at Harvard, describes his prayer experience as follows:

“I know it makes an impression on me. I feel fortified by prayer. I am in a relationship with God. I praise, I acknowledge, thank, request, express my love, and sometimes even get angry. My connection with the rest of the world – with my children, my wife, my students, my colleagues – flows out of my daily encounter with God.”(4)

Pray Every Day

When one considers the essential quality of prayer, it’s importance in communing with God and then reflecting His attributes in one’s human relationships; it is no wonder that Judaism and Islam both prescribe prayer multiple times each day. The offering of prayer multiple times a day is reflected in Ari’s words above “daily encounter with God.”

In general, Jewish men are obligated to conduct Tefillah (prayer) three times a day within specific time ranges. According to some Jewish legal authorities, women are only required to engage in Tefillah once a day, with others saying at least twice a day.

Traditionally, there are three daily prayer services:

  • Morning prayer: Shacharit or Shaharit
  • Afternoon prayer: Mincha or Minha
  • Additional prayer: Arvit (“of the evening”) or Maariv (“bringing on night”)

The Talmud Bavli gives two reasons why there are three basic prayers: to recall the daily sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem, and because each of the Patriarchs instituted one prayer: Abraham the morning, Isaac the afternoon and Jacob the evening prayer.(5)

The Holy Book of Muslims, the Holy Qur’an, instructs them about daily prayers in these words:

“So glorify Allah (God) when you enter the evening and when you enter the morning, And to Him belongs all praise in the heavens and the earth, and glorify Him in the afternoon and when you enter upon the time of the decline of the sun.”(6)

Five obligatory daily prayers are prescribed for Muslims:

  1. Morning Prayer: Fajr begins with dawn and ends just before sunrise.
  2. Midday Prayer: Dhuhr begins after the sun has crossed the zenith point and has begun to decline.
  3. Late Afternoon Prayer: ‘Asr when the sun has further advanced in decline and reaches a point nearly half way between the beginning of decline and sunset.
  4. Evening Prayer: Maghrib begins immediately after the sun has set and lasts till dusk.
  5. Night Prayer: Ishaa begins when dusk has disappeared, giving way to the darkness of night.

As stated before, the shared practice between Judaism and Islam of daily prayers is losing favor among general society throughout the world. Today many Jews and Muslims might view multiple formal prayers per day as burdensome. However, had a stream outside his door, and he bathed in it five times a day, do you think he would have any filth left on him?” The people also said, “No filth would remain on him whatsoever.”

The Prophet then said:

“That is like the five daily prayers: Allah (God) wipes away the sins and purifies by them.”(7)

Similarly, the Talmud Yerushalmi states that the Anshei Knesset HaGedola (“The Men of the Great Assembly”) understood the benefit of regular daily prayer from the personal habits of their forefathers and the prophets Abraham (as), Isaac (as), and Jacob (as).(8)

Pray in Congregation

Both Judaism and Islam also make a distinction between congregational prayer and individual prayer, emphasizing the special benefits of the former. In Judaism, individual prayer is considered acceptable, but prayer with a quorum of adults, a “minyan” is the most highly recommended form and is required for some prayers. The quorum required is ten mature adults (at least 12 or 13 years of age) and traditionally could only count men, although most congregations count women now as well.

In Islam, congregational prayer is also preferred and can be held with as little as two individuals. A Muslim is exhorted to try to go to a Mosque (Muslim place of worship), but congregational prayer can be performed at home or any clean place. According to the Holy Prophet (sa), congregational prayers rewards a believer 27 times more than a prayer offered alone. Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as) stated:

“The rationale behind putting more reward in congregational prayers is that it creates unity.”(9)

Body and Soul

How do Jews and Muslims pray? In Judaism, the idea that body movement can express devotion to God appears in the Book of Psalms: “All my limbs shall say ‘Who is like You, O Lord?’” (35:10) In Midrash Tehillim, an 11th-century exegetical text, the rabbis interpret “all my limbs” quite literally:

“With my head, I bend my head and bow down in prayer … and I also wear tefillin (a small leather box containing Hebrew texts on vellum, worn as a reminder to keep the law) on my head. With my neck, I fulfill the precept of wrapping oneself infringes (tzitzit). With my mouth, I praise You, as it says: ‘My mouth shall speak the praise of the Lord’ (10). With my face, I prostrate myself, as it says: ‘He fell down on his face to the earth’(11) With my nose, I smell spices with it (during the Havdalah blessing) at the outgoing of Shabbat. With my ears, I listen to the singing of the Torah.”(12)

The motion plays a critical role in Islamic prayer through a set of prescribed physical movements that make up raka’ats as well.

The motion plays a critical role in Islamic prayer through a set of prescribed physical movements that make up raka’ats as well. These motions include standing, bending, kneeling, bowing, and prostrating. Specifc prayers accompany each of these movements. For example, while in prostration, the most humble and submissive position, a Muslim prays: “Holy is my Lord, the Most High.”

Both faiths have established a unifying set of prayers in an original language: Jews pray in Hebrew and Aramaic, Muslims in Arabic. However, both religions strongly encourage worshipers to make additional prayers in one’s native tongue. According to halakha (the collective body of Jewish religious laws derived from the Written and Oral Torah), all individual prayers and virtually all communal prayers may be said in any language that the person praying understands. In Islam, after saying the prescribed prayers, a person can pray as much as they like in their language and are encouraged to do so.

This combination of learning and saying revealed prayers in their original language together with the empowerment to pray for anything of one’s desire in their language is a beautiful and inspiring aspect of one’s desire to commune with God. In fact, it is the personal prayers of prophets of God that have often been preserved by God Himself as powerful and effective words that worshipers can use today.

We end with some beautiful examples from Judaism and Islam that will hopefully inspire readers to discover and employ more of these prophet’s prayers in their daily worship.

“But now, I pray, let the power of the Lord be great, just as You have declared. The Lord is slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but He will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generations. Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of Your loving kindness …”(13)

“My Lord, make me observe Prayer, and my children too. Our Lord! Bestow Thy grace on me and accept my prayer. Our Lord, grant forgiveness to me and my parents and to the believers on the day when the reckoning will take place.”(14)

“O Allah, instill in our hearts a fear which becomes a barrier between us and disobedience towards You. Grant us such capacity of submission which enables us to enter Heaven. Bestow upon us such certainty of belief which eases the afflictions of this world. Enable us to benefit from our eyes, ears and other faculties as long as You keep us alive.” (15)

{Appears in the Fall 2018 print edition}

References

  1. Deuteronomy 6:5
  2. Holy Quran 51:57
  3. Blessings of Prayer, Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, 2006 English Edition.
  4. Being Jewish, Ari Goldman, used by permission on MyJewishLearning.com
  5. Tractate Berachoth 26b
  6. Holy Quran 30:18-19
  7. Quoted in Friday sermon of Hadhrat Khalifatul Masih V on 1/20/17
  8. “Anshei Knesset HaGedolah.” www.ou.org/judaism-101/. Orthodox Union – February 7, 2014
  9. Quoted in Friday sermon of Hadhrat Khalifatul Masih V on 1/20/17
  10. Psalms 145:21
  11. Genesis 48:12
  12. As cited on https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/physical-movement-in-jewish-prayer/
  13. Prophet Moses (sa) in the Old Testament, Numbers 14:14-19
  14. Prophet Abraham (as) in the Holy Quran (41:42)
  15. Prophet Muhammad (sa) reported by Hadhrat ‘Abdullah bin ‘Umarra in… [reference incomplete]

Last modified: January 7, 2019

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