Like many active Christians living in a pluralistic world, I have taken advantage of several opportunities by which I can grow in understanding of other religious systems, particularly, in the last few years, about Islam. I sat in on a six-week continuing education course we offer on “Introduction to Islam”, and have visited our neighbourhood mosque for several events as well as part of the above-mentioned course. I also know that part of my reflections on being at the mosque for prayers are coloured by the luxury of learning from presentations on liturgical history at different academic conferences. Increasingly, new scholars are drawn to late antique liturgical history in the Middle East, where distinctive forms of Christian liturgy, particularly monastic practices, helped shaped early Islamic practices. The reverse was also true, in which Islamic ritual prayer preserved or re-influenced Christian prayer in the crucial seventh to ninth centuries.
This background shapes my response to one element of Islamic prayer that captures my imagination every time I see it – the physical solidarity of prayer posture in the mosque. Divided by gender, but following the same physical and verbal structures, the Muslim faithful pray in lines facing ‘the direction’ (the Qibla), toward the Kaaba in Mecca. They pray literally shoulder to shoulder, standing, bowing, and kneeling – forehead to the floor – in unity. The effect of watching this from the back of the room is a vision of one body praying throughout the room. These prayers are šalāt, ritual prayers, rooted linguistically in šilat, meaning “connection” or “contact”. Ibn Rushd describes this as saying that “it connects the servant with his Creator, meaning that the prayer brings him near His Mercy and connects him to His Generosity and His Heavenly Paradise.” These prayers are ritual, with “formal requirements and manners, which are essential to its correct observance,” as opposed to the supplicatory prayers, which can occur at any time or place, and represent more of “an open-ended conversation with Allah.”
I think before my more conscious entry into learning about Islam through comparative theology, I had in my mind an aggregate of individuals in Islam praying individually, not corporately, unlike my assumptions about Christian liturgy where the primary prayers are corporate – we pray these prayers as one body, whether voiced out-loud by every individual or spoken by a presider voicing the prayer on behalf of all Christians in the room (and beyond the room). From observation and conversations with faithful Muslims, as well as ongoing study, the corporate sense of prayer has a lot of ritual overlap between Christians and Muslims. Islamic reflection says that prayer “requires the full conscious participation of the one praying, with will, intellect, body and soul.” The current General Instruction on the Roman Missal not only reiterates the classic description that the gathered community be fully engaged so that the liturgy expresses and fosters “the full [and active] participation of the faithful” (1:36) from Sacrosanctum Concilium, but also highlights a common physical participation in corporate prayer: “A common bodily posture, to be observed by all those taking part, is a sign of the unity of the members of the Christian community gathered together for the sacred liturgy, for it expresses the intentions and spiritual attitude of the participants and also fosters them.” (1:42).
The reality in most parishes I’ve been in recently is that an individualistic approach to prayer posture reigns – those who want to kneel, kneel, those who want to stand, stand, those who sit, sit. I was almost startled to be at a Sunday morning mass last week where the posture of standing in solidarity until all have received communion was back in place. I had not seen this in the past 15 years, and the kinesthetic, emotional, and the theological solidarity expressed by the common ritual posture was palpable. Going back to a 1994 book, it was useful to read John Baldovin’s introduction to The Postures of the Assembly during the Eucharistic Prayer (John K. Leonard & Nathan D. Mitchell):
One of the many functions that rituals (and therefore liturgy) perform is to help a group of people experience solidarity, identity and common purpose. And the very reason they need ritual is to express that identity bodily and communally. My point…is to argue that what we do communally with our bodies at worship makes a great deal of difference when it comes to one of the main reasons for public worship in the first place – namely, to express who we are as a community in the presence of the living God. (3)
More recently, James Farwell has written on developing etic descriptions of ritual, searching for a general or universal theory that can cross over religious differences (but always with emic accounts sustaining the uniqueness of each tradition). Farwell says, in the broad sense, ritual functions “as the evocation, through performance, of a universe to inhabit. Those who participate in this performance construct and enter into an “as if” world, a kind of “subjunctive” reality taken to be normative and true…the ritual world is the real world, the actual world that is or will be…” (“Theorizing Ritual for Interreligious Practice”, in Ritual Participation and Interreligious Dialogue, 2015, page 167)
In this blog post, I am not attempting to erase differences between Christianity and Islam or even advocate for interreligious prayer, but I find it helpful to reflect on how a visual and kinesthetic practice embodying an Islamic lex orandi lex credendi may function as a call to reflection on Christian liturgy and the importance of solidarity in body as well as spirit. Tim Winter recounts the contemporary practices of an Anglican nun in Oxford who engages with salat as a “gesture of solidarity and respect, ‘to the extent of learning of God from another tradition.’” She says “a threefold declaration of ‘Glory be to God’ with my body was a real blessing, giving the whole of my body a chance to express itself prayerfully and with movement.” (“Receiving the Stranger” A Muslim Theology of Shared Worship”, also in Ritual Participation, page 84). As Christians, “as aliens and exiles” we enter into an “as if” world, exercising in ritual what will be in the fullness of time. What can we learn from the prayer practices of our Muslim brothers and sisters, who also long for the heavenly paradise of God? How might we be shaped into a greater understanding of the unity of the body of Christ through common posture and prayer? We might even ask first, what might happen if we actually stood next to each other in corporate prayer?