March 21st, 2011
01:00 AM ET
Editor's Note: CNN’s Soledad O’Brien chronicles the fight over a mosque’s construction in the heart of the Bible Belt. “Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door” airs at 8 p.m. ET March 27 on CNN.
Text by Soraya Salam, for CNN, photos by Angie Lovelace, CNN
ATLANTA, Georgia - It’s 6:00 a.m. The sun isn’t up yet, but Wahaaj Mohammed is.
He’s performing a ritual washing in preparation for his first prayer of the day. He’ll go on to pray four more times before the day is through, a practice called “salat” that many of the estimated 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide perform daily.
It’s a practice that Mohammed, a 21-year old recent graduate from the Georgia Institute of Technology, can’t imagine life without.
“It reminds you about God throughout your day,” he says. “At fixed intervals, no matter how busy you are, all of a sudden you have to take out a few minutes and you’re remembering, OK, why am I really here?”
“And while I was doing whatever I was doing, was I doing it in a manner pleasing to God?”
Praying five times a day is considered the second most important of Islam’s five pillars, after professing that there is no god worthy of worship but God and that the Prophet Mohammed is God’s messenger.
Each prayer includes a series of movements, supplications, and recitations from the Quran, Islam’s holy book, in its original Arabic.
Muslims consider prayer to be a spiritual and physical act, with various standing, bending, and prostrating postures symbolizing devotion to God.
“When you’re at your lowest point, your head is on the ground, you’re saying ‘Oh, praise to my God, the most high,’” says Mohammed, who was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. “It’s very humbling.”
Imam Zaid Shakir, co-founder of Zaytuna College - which is aiming to be the first accredited Muslim college in the United States - says salat symbolizes what Islam considers the purpose of creation: to worship God.
“As a human being, I have a physical body, I have an intellect, and I have a spirit, and the ritual prayer involves all three of those aspects,” says Shakir, who is also a professor of Islamic theology at Zaytuna.
“My entire being is involved in my prayer, and that symbolizes the dedication of my entire being to the service of my creator,” he says.
The first prayer, called “Fajr” is performed before sunrise; the second prayer, “Thuhr” comes just after noon; the third prayer, “Asr,” arrives during mid-afternoon; the fourth prayer, “Maghrib,” is just after sunset; and the last prayer, “Isha,” is performed at night.
These prayers are considered an obligation for every Muslim by the time he or she reaches puberty. Mohammed says he has rarely missed a prayer.
Before each prayer, Mohammed performs a ritual ablution, called “wudu.” The process involves washing the hands, face, arms and feet. Wudu symbolizes a state of physical and spiritual purity required to stand before God.
“There’s a saying (in Islam) that our external form impacts our internal state, just as our internal state has an impact on our external form,” says Shakir.
When Mohammed is away from home for a prayer, he washes up in a public restroom.
“You do feel kind of awkward,” he says. “And it usually happens, for whatever reason, that someone always walks in and your feet are in the sink and they’re thinking, ‘What’s this person doing?’”
Afterward, Mohammed finds a quiet, clean place to perform his prayer, during which he will face northeast towards the holiest site in Islam, the Kaaba. The cube-shaped building is located in Mecca, Saudi Arabia and, according to Islamic tradition, was built by the prophet Abraham and his son Ishmael.
“(Muslims) all pray in the same uniform way, wherever they are, whether they’re in India or Indonesia or Saudi Arabia or America or Japan,” Mohammed says. “They all pray in the same manner, facing the same direction.”
Mohammed raises his hands to shoulder level while reciting, “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is the greatest,” signaling the start of the prayer.
Mohammed often gets questioned about how he finds the time to pray so many times a day.
“I think it’s just where you put your priorities,” he says. “If you put (prayer) at a high level, then it’s not hard.”
As a college student, Mohammed would schedule his classes and social events around the prayers. He says they mostly take five to ten minutes to complete and that technology has made it easy for him to remember when to pray.
“When the prayer time starts, (my phone) sends me a text message,” he says. “I know a lot of people that have the iPhone app that gives a little alarm or a text or something. And some people even have the iPhone app that shows them the direction of the prayer.”
Zaytuna’s Shakir says the intervals between prayer demarcate transitions within the day that necessitate the remembrance of God.
“In the morning we’re getting up from our sleep, so we’re beginning that day by praying to our Lord and our creator,” he says. “And then at noon… just as we take our lunch break to replenish our physical body, we take time to reaffirm our commitment to our creator and thereby replenish our spirit.”
“At night, before we turn in and go to sleep to regroup, we don’t know if we’re going to see the new day,” he says. “Once again, (we) take time to acknowledge our creator and the rights he has over us.”
When Mohammed is at his mosque in Atlanta, Georgia, he has the “adhan” to alert him that a particular prayer time has begun. The adhan is the Islamic call to prayer that consists of a series of phrases recited melodiously, including, “God is the greatest,” “Come to prayer,” and “Come to success.”
In Muslim-majority countries, the adhan is called from an outdoor loudspeaker. For Muslims in America, it is recited in the mosque or in the privacy of one’s home. Mohammed compares it to the ringing of a church bell to signify the start of a service.
Mohammed says that in addition to adding structure to his day, salat helps keep him accountable for his daily actions and lets him have a personal relationship with God.
Striving for spiritual success
In the glow of a recent coming dawn, Mohammed and his family complete their first prayer of the day with a phrase in Arabic that means, “May the peace and mercy of God be upon you.”
He notes that the call to prayer before sunrise has an extra phrase added in: “Prayer is greater than sleep.”
“So, no matter what you’re doing in your life, it’s always, ‘God is greater than that’ - whether it’s sleep, whether it’s work, whatever it is, God is the greatest,” Mohammed says, pausing to rub his eyes.
“Behind any type of success,” he says, “there’s always a sacrifice.”
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.