The Muslim’s prayer
While browsing in a second-hand book shop, I came across the following extract from the novel Palace walk.¹
‘He washed in cold water, as he did every morning, summer and winter. Then he returned to his room with renewed vitality and energy. He took the prayer rug … and spread it out to perform the morning prayer. When he prayed, his face was humble, not the smiling, merry face his friends encountered or the stern, resolute one his family knew. This was a responsive face. Piety, love, and hope shone from its relaxed features, which were moulded by a wish to ingratiate, cajole, and seek forgiveness.
‘He did not pray in a mechanical way limited to recitation, standing, and prostration. His prayer was based on affection, emotion, and feelings. He performed it with the same enthusiasm he invested in every aspect of life, pouring himself into each … He was earnest and sincere in everything. Thus for him the mandatory prayer became a spiritual pilgrimage in which he traversed the expansive realms of the Master … he would sit cross-legged with palms outstretched and implore God to watch over him carefully, forgive him, and bless his offspring and business’.
Most Christians see Muslim prayer life as a formal legalistic shell. Certain physical postures are adopted while memorised prayers are recited at fixed times towards Mecca. To Christian eyes this is mindlessly robotic – no heart, no life, no relationship, and no reality. How unlike the prayer life of the Christian!
Yet the above account – though fictional – reveals that heartfelt prayer is a daily reality for many Muslims. However, it is prayer to the ‘unknown God’ – to a unitarian god, who is not the God of the Bible. This should motivate Christians to pray all the more for the Islamic world to come to a saving knowledge of Christ.
Nevertheless, I suggest that we can learn from Naguib Mahfouz’s account of Muslim prayer. There is, of course, still legalism and manipulation in that prayer. But I want to look beyond the legalism and ask, ‘How do our Christian prayer lives compare with that of a devout Muslim?
Thank God we do not have to face a particular direction, or use prayer rugs, or take off our shoes, or perform special ablutions before communing with our Lord. We are blessedly free from such ‘rules of prayer’.
But do we prepare ourselves mentally, emotionally and spiritually in readiness for entering the presence of our God? Or do we just roll out of bed, eyes and mind clogged with sleep, and yawn our way through our prayer time with a mind only partially focussed upon our Lord?
Or perhaps evening is the time we set aside for communion with God. Waking up is not our problem – staying awake is!
It’s been another busy day. After the evening meal we relax with the papers, watch the news, and tune in to our favourite TV programme. The evening wears on and our eyes and minds become weary. Thus with a nodding head and dullness of thought, we turn to our Bibles and end our day with mumbled prayer before tumbling thankfully into bed!
Some of us do need something ‘physical’ to prepare us for our time of Bible reading and prayer. I am not suggesting ‘bathing in cold water’ but perhaps a cold (OK, tepid!) shower or a brisk walk in the cool of the evening might sharpen our thoughts and prepare our minds for prayer.
Once we begin Bible study and prayer, we need to spend a little time pondering who God is, and our relationship with him. Such consideration will prevent pride and presumption in prayer.
Palace walk says, ‘his face was humble’. Humility is a grace severely lacking among Western Christians. We have absorbed the world’s idea of self-assertiveness, and this may show up even in our prayers.
We have mistaken the exhortation to ‘come boldly to the throne of grace’ to mean ‘demanding’ or ‘claiming the promises’. We have misunderstood ‘knock and it shall be opened’ as implying ‘my will be done’ – an invitation to promote our own plans, purposes and desires.
Coming to God in humility of spirit does not mean mentally wringing our hands and proclaiming how unworthy we are. Rather, Christian humility comes from knowing that we are ‘unprofitable servants’, saved and adopted by God’s electing grace alone. We thus come in reverential fear, respect and thankfulness. Humbleness in prayer should be the natural outflow of our gratitude to our Lord and God.
Responsiveness and love
‘This was a responsive face’, says Palace walk. So, too, should responsiveness be a hallmark of our prayers. Coming to our Lord in a humble frame of mind will prepare us to respond to his Word. Responsive prayer is not just working through a prayer list but being alert to what God lays upon our hearts as we prayerfully read his Word. Responsiveness is being ready to subjugate our needs and prayers to the Spirit’s leading.
Our Muslim loved a god with whom he could not commune – one who offered no assurance of answered prayer but demanded total obedience without any guarantee of life ‘in a heavenly paradise’.
If Muslims pour out their love to such a god, how much more should we express our love to the God of our salvation? How can we not love him who ‘chose us in [Christ] from before the foundation of the world that we should be holy and without blame before him in love’?
Feelings and emotions can lead us astray, but filial affection for our Lord is different. It is a warm, loving expression of a grateful heart to the eternal God for all that he is and has done for us in Christ.
Paul commends Epaphras for ‘always labouring [wrestling] earnestly for you in his prayers’ (Colossians 4:12). Do we ‘pour ourselves’ into our times of prayer? Are we in earnest when we pray, either in private or in the company of the brethren – or are we merely going through the motions, or even praying to impress others?
Dear reader, have you ever ‘wrestled’ in prayer? Lukewarmness in prayer, as in our Christian lives, will cause the Saviour to turn from our petitions (Revelation 3:16). It is not that God won’t listen unless we pray enthusiastically – for we are heard for Christ’s sake – but simply that lukewarmness in prayer betrays the state of our hearts.
The reality for many Christians is that they do not expect God to hear, let alone respond to their prayers! Prayer has become a superstitious activity with which they begin and end their day.
Earnestness in prayer stems from the fact that we are communing with the God who stimulates, hears and answers prayer – who is also ‘our Father in heaven’! We pour out our hearts not to a distant deity but to one who is transcendent yet immanent and involved in every aspect of our lives.
Prayer for the Muslim was a ‘spiritual pilgrimage in which he traversed the expansive realms of the Master’. Is our time in God’s presence one of ‘spiritual pilgrimage’?
Do we use our time in prayer and in God’s Word to develop a relationship through the Holy Spirit that draws us closer to our Lord? Is it a time when we grow in knowledge, wisdom and understanding of our God?
And are we pressing on in obedience to his revealed will? Do practical consequences spring from our time alone with God? If not, then our ‘pilgrimage’ in grace is bogged down somewhere!
Unlike the Muslim, the Christian’s pilgrimage does not involve travelling to some Holy Land or to ‘holy shrines’. Our pilgrimage is spiritual. We are ‘strangers and pilgrims’ on earth, on our way to the heavenly land. Are we pressing on by means of the obedient study of God’s Word and heartfelt prayer?
Recognising our privileges
Although the Muslim’s prayer is a challenge to us, it has aspects that should ‘chill us to the bone’!
As Christians we have no need to ‘ingratiate’ ourselves with God, for he loves us and sent Christ to die for us while we were still sinners, hostile and rebellious towards him.
Nor do we have to ‘cajole’ our Lord into doing things for us, because he commands, ‘Call upon me and I will show you great and mighty things that you do not know’ (Jeremiah 33:3) – and again, ‘Be anxious for nothing but in everything by prayer and supplication let your requests be made known to God’ (Philippians 4:6-7).
Nor do we have to beg for forgiveness. God’s elect have been cleansed by Jesus’ blood, and in spite of our frequent failure we have the promise in 1 John 1:9 of continual forgiveness and cleansing in Christ’s name.
So let us recognise and use our privileges!
1. Palace walk by Naguib Mahfouz (Black Swan, 1995), p.17.