If you want to pray with Muslims, the first thing you must do is complete wudu.
Notice, this is not the same thing as “voodoo,” which is definitely what I heard the first time Atun, the pesantren’s english teacher and my new friend, explained to me the ritual.
Rather, wudu is a purification ritual that all Muslims must perform before saying their daily prayers. This way you go before God religiously clean and ready for contact with the divine.
First, you must wash your hands, three times each, beginning with the right. Then, you wash your face three times, each time taking water into your mouth as well, swishing it around, and spitting it out.
Next come your arms. You must wash them all the way up to the elbow, again starting with the right. Three times for each one (noticing a theme with the 3x repeats?).
Then you wash your feet, going halfway up your calves. Again, starting with the right. Again, washing each one three times.
Finally, you wash your ears, making sure to go inside of them as well with the water. These you do three times, and then move onto the top of your head. No sprinkling involved here; you take cupped handfuls of water and dump them over your hair three times.
If you are performing wudu outside near the mosque rather than in the comfort of your own home, you must loosen your hijab so as to wet the hair underneath it; there must be full contact with the water and your skin.
At the end of this ritual, you are pretty wet. However, when I observed Atun and Fatika (both teachers and also my roommates while at the pesantren), they never reached for a towel to dry their dripping faces. When I asked them about this, they said they let themselves air dry. But I am still not sure if this is traditional Islamic custom, or simply a practice they had taken on.
Regardless, I followed suit: rolling my leggings down over wet legs, my jacket sleeves back down over soaked arms.
After wudu, we would put on not our traditional hijabs, but rather a special garment specifically for use during prayers. It consisted of two pieces – the first was like a hijab, except with much more fabric. It fanned out around me, fully covering down my arms. The second piece was an overly long, loose, skirt. This part we would carry with us to the mosque, so as not to dirty it (or trip over it), on the walk there.
This special outfit was worn by all the women there, whether young or old, during prayers. Atun explained that this is because when a woman prays to God, the only parts of her that can be shown are her face and her hands. And, because praying involves a lot of various movements up and down, this overly-long hijab and skirt, worn over your normal clothes, ensures that no piece of skin will accidentally show through.
Once we arrived at the mosque, we would put on the long prayer skirt. I often would trip while doing this, accidentally stepping on the fabric of it when trying to pull it on over my legs. Wearing it made me feel kind of like a mermaid – my two legs turned into just one long flipper.
With skirts in place, we would then line up along the rugs placed on the floor, all facing East, towards Mecca. Muslims face this direction because Mecca is the holiest site in Islam. It is regarded as both Muhammad’s birthplace, as well as the place where he received the first revelation of the Quran. Therefore, it makes sense for them to direct their prayers towards this holy site.
To prepare yourself for prayer, you are supposed to focus on a spot on the floor in front of you. Atun reminded me several times of this, as I would often get distracted, looking over the low partition toward the men’s prayer side.
Then, we would begin by praying a salah. It took me awhile to fully understand this, but essentially a salah is one unit of prayer. There is a set pattern of movement from start to finish that serves as one complete salah. Depending upon the time of day you are praying, you may compete two salahs in a row, or four.
One salah consists of the following movements:
- Stand up, fix your gaze on a spot in front of you on the floor.
- Raise your hands up to shoulder level, fingers together and palms facing forward.
- Cross your arms, with your right hand over your left; remain standing.
- Raise your hands again, shoulder height, palms facing outwards.
- Lower your hands, and bow forward, resting your hands lightly on your knees with your back bent.
- Stand again, and raise your hands up like before.
- Go to the ground in a kneeling position, and then bow forward, prostrating yourself with your palms, forehead, and nose all touching the floor in front of you.
- Lift up into a somewhat sitting position; your body weight shifts to the left as you rest on your bottom, with your right shin still parallel and touching the floor.
- Prostrate yourself again, head/nose/palms going forward to rest on the floor.
- Sit again, in the same way as before. Point your right index finger forward, towards Mecca.
- Stand, and repeat if more salahs are needed.
Here is a video which probably explains it better, though it isn’t a full salah. This is when Atun was first teaching me the motions, not during a regular prayer time. That is why I am not wearing the appropriate attire.
As I’ve mentioned before, Muslims pray five times a day: at dawn, around noon, in the mid-afternoon, at sunset, and in the evening. The exact times change based upon the location of the sun, and therefore can be slightly different day-to-day. Most mosques have a clock in the corner that displays the exact times for each of the 5 prayers for that day.
This is also why the adhan, or call to prayer, is so important for Muslims. When you hear the Imam singing over the speakers, echoing through the neighborhood, you know it is time to begin performing wudu and preparing yourself for prayers.
Much more can be said about the intricacies of these acts of prayer that combine physical, mental, and spiritual all in one. There are several verbal prayers and passages from the Quran that are said at various times, but these were lost on me since I cannot speak Arabic. It was challenging enough for me to learn and follow just the physical motions of everything – especially during the first prayers of the day, which often occurred before 4:00am.
Eventually though, the motions came more smoothly to me, and performing salah began to feel more natural. It still surprised me how much time this took out of each day, though. Especially when you added in the time it took to perform wudu. I felt like I was always either getting ready to pray, praying, or coming back from prayer.
Atun explained to me that this is intentional, though. That the idea is to have all of life intertwined with one’s belief and faith in God – that you cannot go more than a few hours without being reminded of his presence and importance in all things.
It was a fascinating experience for me, being able to join with this community in their daily prayer life. Seeing their dedication amazed me, learning about their faithfulness inspired me. I will forever be grateful for their willingness to take me in as a stranger, and let me leave as a friend.