The Posture of Prayer: A Look at How Muslims Pray

We were in the middle of a visit when my friend got up and left me sitting alone. She pulled a long skirt over her slacks and grabbed a headscarf as she stepped away to perform her ritual Islamic prayers: a set series of postures and recitations performed while facing toward Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Left to wait for her to finish, I felt awkward in that moment and had so many questions about Muslim prayer and what my appropriate response should be.

The Importance of Prayer in Islam

Her prayer ritual—so abruptly interrupting our visit—was in accordance to the dictates of Islam, which outline five pillars to be followed in submission to Allah. A good Muslim performs the ritual prayers—the pillar of salat—five times a day: before sunrise, around noon, late afternoon, after sunset, and in the late evening.

Around the world, men called muezzins summon the faithful to prayer from the local mosque or over the radio or television. Millions of Muslims around the world hear one unifying message: “Allah is great. I testify that there is no god but Allah. I testify that Muhammad is the Prophet of Allah. Hasten to prayer. Hasten to success. Allah is great. There is no god but Allah.”

Listen to the Call to Prayer in Doha, Qatar

In Islam, this call to prayer should be the first words a newborn hears whispered in their ear. Although children are not required to perform ritual prayers until they come of age, salat is encouraged after the age of seven.

Preparing to Pray

Prayer at mosques is encouraged but not required. In my experience living overseas, I’ve seen Muslims perform their ritual prayers in homes, public parks, and airport gates. When not at a mosque for prayers, Muslims sometimes use a prayer rug to create a clean space for prayer.

A Muslim Uighur man pauses for prayer on his prayer rug amidst a bustling alley of shoppers in the morning market. Photo from the IMB Photo Library.

Muslims must perform ritual cleansing before praying. They wash their faces, hands up to their elbows, heads, and feet up to their ankles (surah 5:6). Some Muslims also rinse their mouths and inside their nostrils. A full bath is required after activities like intercourse. A menstruating woman cannot perform salat until her period is over and she has fully cleansed.

A Muslim performs his ablutions—or ritual washing—before saying his prayers at the Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque in Erzurum. Photo from the IMB Photo Library.

Women should remove anything like nail polish that inhibits full cleansing. It is important to maintain purity throughout the prayer. Even passing gas or laughing during salat renders one’s prayer ineffective.

Men and women must be appropriately dressed to approach Allah in prayer. Women cover everything except for their faces and hands, and men cover the area between their navel and knees. If a woman chooses to attend a mosque for prayer, she prays separately from the men in a private women’s area.

Women gather in a designated section for Friday prayers at Masjid Istiqlal, the largest mosque in southeast Asia, located in Jakarta. Photo from the IMB Photo Library.

As a Muslim starts their prayer ritual, they face the direction toward the sacred structure called the Kaaba in Saudi Arabia, a symbol of Islam’s monotheism that unites Muslims around the world as they pray. Then they make a nonverbal intention called a niyyah, which is supposed to focus the heart in sincere worship instead of meaningless outward actions.

After cleansing and focusing their intention, a Muslim is finally ready to pray. Although the majority of the global Muslim population lives outside the Middle East and doesn’t speak Arabic, the ritual prayers and recitations of salat must be performed in Arabic. This means that millions of people around the world pray to Allah in a language they do not know.

During salat, a Muslim recites prayers and completes movements in a series of cycles called rak’a. The cycles vary slightly throughout the day but always include standing, bowing, and prostrating oneself. A variety of statements and prayers are recited throughout the movements, with “Allah is great” recited before each new movement.

The Qu’ran describes some of these postures in surah 48:49, “Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah; and those with him are forceful against the disbelievers, merciful among themselves. You see them bowing and prostrating [in prayer], seeking bounty from Allah and [His] pleasure. Their mark is on their faces from the trace of prostration.”

Muslims in Ghana stand to prepare for their prayers. The marks on their foreheads are intended to demonstrate the regularity of their prayer practice. Photo from the IMB Photo Library.

The Postures of Prayer in Islam

Standing

Everything in the prayer ritual is to be conducted with reverence and respect. Standing with respect and stillness commences the ritual. Some sects dictate that you cross your hands over your chest or navel while standing.

Egyptian men participate in the midday prayer at the Amr ibn Al-Aas Mosque in Old Cairo, Egypt. The designs on the carpet point to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, toward which Muslims pray. Photo from IMB Photo Library.

Bowing

Ruku is the action of bowing forward with your hands on your knees and your head jutting out from a straight back. This shows humility, reverence, and repentance to Allah. It is said that Muhammad kept his back so straight during bowing that a drop of water would not roll off his back.

Muslims pray in the Great Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha at the Citadel of Cairo, Egypt. Photo by IMB Photo Library.

Prostrating

The Qu’ran instructs, “Prostrate and draw near [to Allah].” Prostration is when you place your face on the ground from a kneeling position. Islamic International Publications says in their prayer guide that “prostration is a posture of utmost humility, submission, and helplessness in which a supplicant pours his heart before Allah Almighty and asks for His forgiveness.”

Kurdish men pray inside Erbil’s Great Mosque. Photo from IMB Photo Library.

As with every step of ritual prayer, this should be done thoughtfully and in accordance with the prescribed form. Muhammed would prostrate his “seven limbs:” palms, knees, feet, and the face. Muslims believe they join all creation in prostrating before Allah. Muslims believe that the correct performance of bowing and prostrating earns a great spiritual reward from Allah.

Sitting

As a transitional posture between prostrating again, the worshiper sits up on their knees while reciting further prayers. Finally, requests for forgiveness and statements of peace are offered upon Muhammad, Abraham, and the angels as the worshiper looks to the right and left.

A young Ghanaian girl resumes a sitting posture during her prayers. Photo by IMB Photo Library.

Prayer Postures in the Bible

It’s important to remember that the Bible records a variety of ways God’s people approach him in prayer, including bowing (Ex. 34:8; Ps. 5:7), kneeling (2 Chron. 6:13; Phil. 2:10), lying prostrate (Matt. 26:39; Rev. 1:17), and with lifted hands (Ps. 141:2; 1 Tim. 2:8), lifted eyes (John 11:41; Luke 9:16), and lifted voices (Ps. 77:1). Using a variety of physical postures to express our hearts to the Lord has been used by God’s people since the beginning.

While these physical postures are not inherently wrong as physical expressions of worship, most Muslim-background Christians, like my friend Hasan,* wisely reject the structure of the salat when they believe in Jesus. For Hasan, the set of movements are an empty shell symbolizing Islam and their former spiritual death.

“Christian prayer is an expression of a confident, intimate relationship with God.”

Now, instead of praying in a language Hasan doesn’t know, he brings whatever is in his heart to the Lord. Instead of putting his face on the ground, he lifts his face to the heavens. He raises his arms, with palms toward heaven in praise and thanks for his salvation.

How to Engage with Muslims Who Pray

It can be unnerving to witness a Muslim performing their ritual prayers. How can a Christian think about and respond to these prayer postures?

According to the Muslim Prayer Book, the purposes of Islamic prayer are to receive forgiveness of sins, draw near to Allah, express submission to Allah, and commune with Allah.

Believers in Jesus Christ are already forgiven because of Christ’s work on the cross. Prayer is not a compulsory act of prescribed worship. Christian prayer is an expression of a confident, intimate relationship with God. Believers approach God through Jesus Christ, who took the punishment for sin and made a way for all who trust in him for salvation to enter God’s presence with confidence (Heb. 4:14–16).

Certainty in these truths makes a way for us to lovingly and patiently interact with our Muslim friends. Here are some tips for you in interacting with Muslim friends.

  1. Dialogue openly about prayer.
    Ask questions about their prayers. The information in this article is a broad overview of Muslim prayer, but each person will express their own thoughts, beliefs, and day-to-day practices.
  2. Pray in front of, and for, your friends in Jesus’s name.
    Most Muslims respect the prayers of their Christian friends and would be agreeable to have you pray in front of them. They need to hear the way you talk to God boldly through Christ. God may use your prayers to open their eyes to see the truth of Jesus.
  3. Don’t hide the key to the throne room.
    You have the good news of eternal life. Jesus Christ opens the door and gives access to the very throne room of God. Share the gospel with your Muslim friends and let them know they too can be fully forgiven of sin and come boldly to God as his child.

Hasan recommends clearly sharing about the person and work of Jesus: his sinless life, divinity, life, death, and resurrection. Be prepared for these truths to turn many Muslims away. But also be prepared for those like Hasan who are genuinely searching for God to recognize their search has ended. They have found God through Jesus Christ.

*Name changed


Madeline Arthington is a writer with the IMB. She lives in Central Asia.