Answering the Call, Five Times a Day

Five times a day, millions of Muslims turn to face the holy city of Mecca.

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As the sun races across the globe to light Islamic communities each morning, the rhythmic call to prayer breaks at the same moment. From the minarets of countless mosques, the words of Muhammad rouse believers to profess their faith. "Allahu Akbar," chant the muezzins. "God is most great, I witness that there is no god but God [Allah]; I witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God."

Five times a day, millions of Muslims turn to face the holy city of Mecca, worshiping before dawn, at noon, at midafternoon, at sunset, and between an hour past sunset and midnight. Salat, which literally means "to connect," may be performed virtually anywhere, and when the call to prayer is sounded, the faithful immediately drop to the ground. In Saudi Arabia, shops and businesses close at prayer time, while in the United States and other western countries there can be conflict in the integration of faith and work.

Worshipers pray in various positions known as rak'atin, or bendings. They stand, bend with hands on knees, kneel with palms on thighs, and kneel with forehead on floor. The movements reflect the custom of honoring kings and other rulers—raising hands in greeting, bowing, and finally prostrating oneself before the great power. Prayer rugs are commonly used, but a piece of cardboard or newspaper can serve the same purpose. After years of salat, a worshiper's forehead may bear a mark of repeated devotions.

Before Muslims pray, they must be ritually pure. That means they must remove their shoes and wash their hands, face, and feet, usually in a fountain set aside for that purpose. They must shower before prayer if they have had sexual relations or, in the case of women, if they have just finished menstruating. Except in the Great Mosque in Mecca, men and women usually worship in different rooms. In some countries, including Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, women are prohibited from praying in a mosque and must perform their prayers at home.

After declaring "Allahu Akbar," worshipers recite opening verses of the Koran and a declaration of faith known as shahada. With these choreographed movements, the worshiper expresses submission, humility, and adoration of God. "Each part of the prayer...is designed to combine meditation, devotion, moral elevation, and physical exercise," writes John Esposito in What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam.

Congregational prayer is required only on Fridays at midday and on two holidays. But Islam considers it more virtuous to pray in a group than alone. Tradition holds that praying in a group gives 27 times as many blessings than praying alone—another example of strengthening the community through Islam. "It's...part of the fundamental right of Islam to know the welfare of one's brothers and sisters," says Ibrahim Syed, president of the Islamic Research Foundation International.

Prayer ends with an invocation of peace (salaam). Worshipers turn their heads right and left and say, "May the peace, mercy, and blessings of Allah be upon you.'' The gesture addresses not only fellow believers but also their guardian angels, who they believe are watching over them as they pray.