On Saturday evening, I had the privilege of breaking fast with Imam Yaseen and a few of the leaders of his congregation at a private home. Yaseen was entertaining an imam from overseas for a series of Ramadan lectures, and wanted to host him in a more intimate setting.
After we broke the fast with a date, fruit and some appetizers, the men stood up to go upstairs. Yaseen said, “We’re going up for prayers and after that, we’ll eat dinner. You can stay here and finish your appetizers, or you can join us.”
I wolfed down the food in my hand and followed them upstairs. I asked Yaseen if it was alright for me to participate in the prayers.
He said, “Sure! Just follow me.”
And so I prayed like a Muslim for the first time in my life, as I attempted to imitate Yaseen’s every move.
I did not know the words that Yaseen prayed aloud, of course. Instead, I let the sound and experience simply wash over me. I let it happen to me.
In the silent moments, I quietly repeated the words of the Lord’s Prayer, and let that be my own guide to prayer.
In my faith tradition, prayer is viewed simply as an attitude of the heart. We generally eschew different postures of prayer, though at times, we will kneel. Most of the time, however, we pray while sitting or standing. It is a mental exercise.
But Muslim prayers are an exciting blend of mind, spirit, AND body. Every move, bow, prostration is itself a prayer – a prayer of muscles, nerves, ligaments, joints. The cumulative effect is that one is wholly immersed in the event. There is no way you can compartmentalize your prayer, or try to multitask while praying – it is what you are doing with your whole self. You have to be completely absorbed in the moment.
I am perfectly aware, of course, that it is possible to simply “go through the motions” of Islamic prayer, but I think it must be more difficult, because the body is engaged.
And when my forehead touched the carpet on the ground, I found myself deeply awed. I was struck by my vulnerability. I was kneeling forward, head down, neck bared. There is no more vulnerable position than that.
It is a symbol of the supreme Islamic value of “submission” to God. When you are bowing in that position, you are acting the role of slave to God, the Master.
I must admit that, in some ways, this posture makes me uncomfortable. I do not like being “in submission.” It makes me think of African slaves in Southern plantations, and of women cowering under the blows of their husbands. I don’t like to picture God as someone who towers over me, threatening me with his fist at every moment.
But that is not what is meant by “submission.” Instead, something much closer to “reverence” is meant.
When we come to realize that God is above and beyond our every conception of God, and is utterly transcendent, then we, in awe, recognize that we do not even begin to comprehend who God really is. Our best response is to bow down in awe at the wonder and glory of God’s mysterious and baffling grace.
When we come to realize that God is our loving parent, full of compassion and mercy toward us, then we, in profound gratitude, fall down on our faces and let God’s love wash over us.
What I experienced in that posture was “the fear of the Lord,” which is a Jewish phrase that doesn’t mean “fear” in the sense of the human emotion of horror or dread, but an overwhelming feeling of awe, the kind that takes your breath and speech away.
I love that the Islamic posture of prayer embodies these aspects of our relationship to God. I doubt that I will ever be able to convince my fellow Methodists to prostrate themselves on the floor of our church, but it never hurts to try!