A Brief History Of Islamic Prostration
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A Brief History Of Islamic Prostration

Prayer in Islam

A Brief History Of Islamic Prostration

Prayer is the life-blood of relationship with God. The Global Church, both protestant and Catholic, venerate prayer in their traditions. If can be forgiven of their sins, if they confess to God, done through prayer. Ideally prayer is meant to connect people with God, in addition to serving as an avenue for thoughtful reflection of and submission to God. Unfortunately, in modern day church’s prayer becomes more often than naught a medium for the promotion of one’s own agendas and more about the individual praying than those prayed for. Rather than seek out God’s will, people often assume their feelings dictate what God wants them to pray for. In this way people are enabled to push forth their own individual agenda’s without intentionally first connecting to God. The Muslim practice of Sujud, or prostration, is built into their liturgy. This posture both reflects humility and thanksgiving to the Muslim. Sujud practically affects people in many ways. The modern American Church needs to reclaim the humble origins of the practice of prayer. I posit that the Islamic practice of Sujud is commensurable with Christian thought and practice.

Islamic Sujud is practiced consistently throughout the global Muslim community, both during times of ritual prayer (salat) and as an act of person devotion. According to Muslim tradition, when the angel Gabriel told the Prophet Mohammed of “a particular favour which God had bestowed on him, the prophet prostrated himself in thanks” (Totillo, 1988, p. 309). Mohammed is also have said to prostrated himself before God in thanks, on the road to Medina in act of intercession, after encountering a dwarf, and after coming into contact with a disfigured man, and after learning of military success. Additionally, Mohammed’s wife, Zaynab, is said to have “fell…prostrate to thank God” for “permitting her to marry [him]” (Totillo, 1988, p. 310). Considering the circumstances surrounding ancient Sujud, it is often referred to as Sujud-al-shukr, “literally, the thanksgiving prostration” (Totillo, 1988, p. 309). This is practiced as a “voluntary act of devotion consisting of a prostration performed by the believer when he wants to thank God for some blessing” (Totillo, 1988, p. 309). Although Sujud-shukr is practiced during salat in Islam, it itself is cemented throughout history as an act of personal devotion to God. In imitation of Mohammed a nd the prophets, Muslims practice Sujud during salat.

In the Quran, certain verse highlight the importance of Sujud, and even claim that “everything…directly or by means of their shadows…performs Sujuds to God” (Totillo, 1988, p. 20-21). “Mohammed states clearly that the nearest a believer comes to God is when he is prostrated himself” (Totillo, 1988, p. 21). It is believed that “for every prostration performed by the believer, God raises [them] one degree higher in Paradise, ascribes him a good action, and erases one of his sins” (Totillo, 1988, p. 21). Sujud is a part of salat, for the Muslim. Consequently, this practice is followed by every practicing Muslim in some form or another. More specifically, this practice can be practiced anywhere, though it is most likely at least in a western context to be done in a mosque. Sujud can be practiced anywhere as a form of thanksgiving to God or as a part of salat. The global Muslim community is extremely unified in adherence to this discipline. Just as Muslims worldwide observe salat so to do they necessarily practice Sujud.

Unity is a recurrent theme within Islamic thought and belief. Muslims are exceptionally proud of the Quran; namely, that the original Arabic text is said to have remain entirely unchanged from the time of its writing. They view Christian Bible translations with suspicion and doubt that they accurately communicate what was originally intended. For the Muslim, there is one Quran that all Muslims around the globe read. Any English versions of this text are widely viewed either as skewed interpretations of the Arabic text or as commentaries to it. Additionally, they proud of the unified liturgic Islamic salat. Traditional mosques have a carpet of some sort and are set up in such a way that they prayer area is pointed towards Mecca. This is done in a spirit of unity that penetrates far beyond normal religious fervor. In this same spirit, Muslims practice Sujud both as a way of standing in solidarity with their worldwide brethren and as a way of earning the favor of God, through thankfulness. As mentioned above it is believed that with every prostration one is blessed by God and forgiven of their sins. In this picture, Sujud becomes a tool to achieve absolution and move higher in paradise. Islamic Sujud then seems to be a practice primarily concerned with one’s own deliverance, disguised as a practice of thanksgiving.

Similar to many modern day Christian prayers, sujud presents an appealing face, while hiding the true motivations and intentions of its practitioners behind a façade of religious fervor. Although this is not ideal, it mirrors the behavior of the Church, and just as Christian prayer is capable of redemption, so too is sujud. The primary issue that separates Christianity and Islam is how humanity is redeemed before God. Islam holds that people are capable of acting in such a way to earn God’s favor and move upward in paradise while, conversely, Christianity clearly states that all men are inherently corrupt and incapable of earning God’s favor apart from his divine interference, aka Jesus. Sujud, as explored above, is a way in Islam of earning God’s favor. Though certainly in Christianity this practice would make no sense in its traditional role, I posit that it could be re-contextualized for a Christian audience as a means of humbling oneself before God to acknowledge his sovereignty and lordship.

Islamic salat mimics the liturgical structure of Catholicism and many monastic orders within the Church. Benedictine monks ritually pray eight times a day, not as way of earning favor with God, but as a way of seeking him out and making space for divine intimacy. In the same sense, sujud could be re-appropriated as a means of making space for God. The simple act of lying prostrate in prayer does remind one of their weakness and frailty. Although Christian sujud could certainly not end here, I believe it a useful realization in focusing more fully on the strength of God. I think that in order to fight against a works righteousness, sujud would need to be ascribed the same status as Christian spiritual disciplines like Lectio Divina, which are recommended but not required. Spiritual disciplines serve as pathways to intimacy with God, not as ways of earning his favor. This distinction is incredibly to make, considering the religious background that sujud brings with it.

Aside from possibly leading to a works righteousness, a form of Christian sujud has the potential to cause rifts between Muslims and Christians and/or lead to syncretism. Although surely the Church could benefit from a form of Christian sujud, to Muslims this would very likely be offensive. The adoption of a practice specifically modeled after their most revered prophet, surely would seem culturally insensitive or merely plain wrong to an Islamic community, who holds their rituals and beliefs to be sacred. Though not for certain, the divisive possibility of the Church adopting sujud should at least warrant careful consideration from the Church. Additionally, the syncretistic sentiment in popular American culture today, might view the Church adopting an Islamic practice as validation for their view. Many Christians, themselves, might find great benefit in sujud and not be able to reconcile it with their beliefs. They might opt instead to hold both Islam and Christianity as peers trying to reach something beyond either of their conceptions. Syncretism posits that all religions are essentially saying the same thing and aiming towards a higher ethos, that they are incapable of seeing. Although this theory of religion is clearly illogical and false, since all major religions at some point or another have conflicting beliefs, many are swayed by the simplicity of the thought that everyone in any religion is striving towards the same goal. People naturally assume that others share the same basic desires, goals, and beliefs which they do. This assumption leads people many to believe that syncretism is true.

In addition to causing offense or lending credence to systems of religious thought that clash with Christianity, the church adopting a form of sujud could affect those within the faith. Traditional Christian disciplines have the potential to make their adherents quite prideful of their religiosity. This worry certainly maps onto any new practices adopted by those within Christianity. The practice of lying prostrate in prayer seems a way of humbling oneself before God, but could easily boost one’s ego instead. All spiritual disciplines must be practiced out of humility, lest they become a way for people to try and earn salvation. The contextualization of sujud would be infinitely easier, if there were a functional equivalent of sujud, within Christianity already.

Unfortunately, it seems to me that there is no ‘functional equivalent’ to sujud within the Christian church. Possibly meditative prayer, but even this practice is less extreme than literally bowing prostrate to the floor with one’s head to the ground. Christian meditation is a way for the Christian to make space for God to speak. Conversely, Islamic sujud is a way for people to express thanksgiving and by doing so earn the mercy of God. The inherent nature of this practice makes it impossible to imagine a functional equivalent in Christianity. Although there are certainly practices of thanksgiving, Christianity firmly holds that one cannot earn God’s mercy. In this way, functionally, sujud is miles away from the heart of Christian theology and practice.

Interestingly, however, in my firsthand experience observing the practice of sujud and even practicing towards the Christian God, it does not seem to inherently clash with Christian thought. Men merely bow prostrate lying their heads to the ground; nothing is sinister in its practice. It even seems to reminiscent of the humility encouraged in popular Christian discourse. Before researching this practice’s background, sujud seemed to be a practice more of humility and submission before God, than of thanksgiving. In fact, it seems completely counter-cultural to practice thanksgiving solemnly, without laughter or visible joy. There is a strong assumption that one will be visibly happy when thankful. Granted that it is impossible to understand people’s motivations, most men lying prostrate in the mosque, seemed to do so in a kind of ritual preparation for the liturgy to follow.

I was felt awkward or like some demonic presence was present when I observed their liturgy and sujud. I was surprised to learn that sujud is traditionally understood as a practice of thanksgiving, in the light of its practitioner’s solemnity. It is hard for me to imagine a Muslim spontaneously practicing sujud in an act of personal devotional thanksgiving. All the Muslim services I have attended are extremely liturgical and provide little room for personal expression. Personally, it seemed like at times these men were going through a process of shameful penance, in their service. I did not pick up on any explicit thankfulness, present in their practice. The last time I was at the mosque, I was allowed sit on the prayer rug and follow in the traditional motions of their prayer. I followed the motions of those around me with my mind firmly fixed on Jesus throughout the process. I even went as far explicitly focus on the differences between the Christian God and Allah.

This was not an entirely unfamiliar experience, since I had done a similar practice during Foundations of Global Studies. It felt a bit weird at first, since I was the only one of my group on the prayer rug engaging in the traditional motions. Fortunately, after only a short while of focusing more on Jesus, than on the Arabic recitations being spoken, I felt more at ease. The Muslim men were extremely welcoming and invited me and those I was with to move in line with them during the standing/bowing portion of the service. Me and my friends were invited several visits beforehand to join them during prayer on the rug, if we had so wanted. We had never truly felt like we had built enough relationship and established ourselves as a re-occurring entity of the mosque, up until this past visit. Although it’s impossible to tell how people perceived our actions, generally I feel that we built trust by even sitting on the rug during the service, instead of speculatively watching from the back.

Through this paper, I have learned that the true goals of people and practices are far more complicated than we are willing to readily admit. The assumption that everyone generally has the same motivations and beliefs, as oneself, makes it difficult to imagine how different one’s own beliefs are from another’s. If this past election cycle has proved anything, it is that people are generally unaware of other’s intentions, hopes, and beliefs. It is easier to function throughout life believing that everybody wants the same things as I do, then it is to live in the tension of disagreement with others. This fact is why syncretism is appealing to so many.

In my ignorance, I felt entirely comfortable and in some semblance of agreement with the Muslims I practiced sujud with. After examining the historical and religious background of the practice, I realize that although not incommensurable with Christianity, its core goal is based on a principle (that one can earn divine mercy), that is diametrically opposed to Christian belief. In my future mosque visits, in light of this newfound awareness, I will undoubtedly specifically use the time lying on my forehead to reflect on God’s grace, which is freely given, not earned.

The mosque visits this past semester, in conjunction with this paper have made me realize in a new experiential way, the ‘messy-ness’ of cross-cultural engagement. Mistakes are necessary to learn. Cross-cultural engagement must necessarily be in tension lest we try to impose our values on those we are seeking to love. Love, more specifically mutual respect, means wanting the best for and seeing value in the cultural differences of others. This tension is a sign that one is genuinely trying to understand another’s culture. Either a person will ignore cultural differences and be culture-blind, they will try to impose their cultural values on others, or they will live in the tension of realizing those areas where cultures conflict. Entering the mosque, I tried my best to live in this tension. In writing this paper, I have realized certain areas where I have been unknowingly culture-blind. This realization prompts a question in my mind?

To what extent should a person be aware of cultural differences, before they enter a certain context? Would this help dialogue, or would it merely reinforce ethnocentrism? Certainly, knowing a culture well, including its similarities to and differences from one’s own, is an invaluable process in cross cultural work. I wonder, though, if slightly more attention should be paid to unfamiliar/foreign elements. It seems in my limited experience, that it is far easier to intuit the culturally familiar, than foreign. Unfortunately, fear of pride, often prevents people from actively examining cultural differences. People often are afraid that merely by judging another’s culture as different, will make them spontaneously racist and ethnocentric. Although there is credence to this worry, it should make people take care when examining culture differences, not make people stop examining these altogether.

Works Cited

Totillo, R. (1988). Muslim Attitudes Towards Prostration (Sujud), Studia Islamica, no. 88, pp. 5-34. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/1595695.pdf.

Totillo, R. (1988). The Thanksgiving Prostration (Sujud Al-shukr) in Muslim Traditions, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 61, no. 2, pp. 309-313. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/3107655.pdf.

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