Muslim Spirituality

Muslim Spirituality

(This post comes from the writings of Vivienne Stacey. Vivienne was a pioneer thinker, researcher and writer who spent many years working in Pakistan and was a mentor to many women, and men, who are involved journeying with our Muslim friends. This paper is used in its original form.)


The Glorious Qur’an

It is always helpful to take a careful look at what so many people hold in such high honour.  We therefore begin by quoting an Arabic prayer that Muslims themselves sometimes use in approaching what to them is an eternal book. The following prayer in English translation is included in Constance Padwick’s famous book Muslim Devotions. A Study of Prayer- Manuals in Common Use. It helps us to see the depth of devotion and reverence for the Qur’an.

A prayer for Readers of the Qur’an

(from a prayer book by Ali Muhammad al-Qari,  bought in Cairo):

“Increase our longing for it {the Word of God in the Qur’an}; multiply our delight in it, to the number of raindrops and the leaves on the trees. Through it, perfect our confidence in the guidance of the good and the glad tidings of men of spiritual experience.  Bring to our minds what we have forgotten of it.  Teach us what we do not know of its radiant truths and secret touches of meaning.  Make it for us an imam (normally a religious guide) and light and guidance and mercy in the abode below and the abode everlasting.  And grant us the reading of it in the hours of night and the seasons of the day”.

Christian prayers for use before reading the Holy Bible:

If you are studying the Bible with a Muslim friend it is acceptable to suggest praying aloud before starting the study, especially if one quotes one of the prayers in the Bible. 

“ Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law.”  This prayer is taken from Psalm 119 verse 18. The Qur’an confirms the previous scriptures including the Psalms called zabur in Arabic, so the Muslim will not feel that he is on totally strange territory. 

An old Anglican prayer or collect found in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer can be used: “Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: help us so to hear them, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them that, through patience, and the comfort of your holy word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the hope of eternal life, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.”

MUSLIMS read the BIBLE the way they read the QUR’AN unless we suggest other ways.

1. How groups of Muslims sometimes read the Qur’an together.

First we can enquire how Muslims read the Qur’an when they meet together. Sometimes groups of university students meet together for a ‘Qur’an reading’. Their purpose is to read the whole Qur’an in one sitting. The Qur’an has been divided into 30, 60 or 120 sections to make for easy division of the Arabic text so that each participant can have a portion to read. The whole text is read with each person reading his assigned portion aloud at the same time. When someone has finished his section he will then help someone else finish his particular section. In this way the whole Qur’an can be read in about two hours. (The Qur’an is about the size of the New Testament). Everyone one present will consider himself blessed because the whole Arabic Qur’an has been read aloud in his presence. Not everyone would necessarily have understood the Arabic. These particular students were Pakistani, able to read Arabic because of its similarity to Urdu but not necessarily all understanding it. The groups meeting will consist of either men or women. There will be no mixed groups.

2. How individual Muslims sometimes read the Qur’an.

Some Muslims have memorized the whole Qur’an in Arabic so they recite some of it. Those whose mother tongue is not Arabic may not understand some of what they recite. Once when I was in India staying in a Muslim home my host asked his nephew to show me around a famous museum. During the fifth and last hour of our viewing the reading of the Qur’an became a natural part of our conversation so I asked him about his own Qur’an reading. He told me he read the Qur’an in Urdu, his mother tongue. When I asked why he read it in a paraphrase and not in Arabic, he said it was because he wanted to understand its meaning. In this he was an exception. For him meaning was the most important element.   

3. How a Christian reads the Bible.

Christians adopt different ways of daily personal Bible study. From your own experience as a Christian you can describe one or two ways. If you have given your Muslim friend the gospel of Matthew you could suggest he read it through slowly and carefully over four or five days and then examining it in suitable consecutive sections day by day considering what the passage says about God and man, and what it teaches about spiritual life. You could also share how the Bible helps you in your daily life. Show your friend what you read today or yesterday and how it helped you. If you do not give some instruction your Muslim friend might take the gospel and read it through as fast as possible and expect to be blessed because he has read the gospel, called the injil in the Qur’an.

4. How to teach illiterate Muslims Bible verses e.g. Romans 5:8, John 17:3 & 1  Timothy 2:5-6a.

 In many Muslim countries the literacy level is very low especially among Muslim women. I have found that some Muslim women are very happy to memorize verses. I sometimes ask a Muslim woman what it is that she is wearing around her neck. She will generally say it is a charm (to ward off evil). I enquire what is inside it. She will say some words of the Glorious Qur’an. Then I ask her whether she thinks God prefers his words to be around her neck or in her heart, she says in the heart so I offer to teach her some of the words of God from the injil to hide in her heart. We may be on a three-hour bus journey or I may be visiting her in her home. So I will offer a card with Romans 5 verse 8 written on it in beautiful calligraphy. One woman put the card in her Qur’an and taught the verse to her children. She later became a believer and as a midwife visited different homes and was able to teach this verse to other women. John 17 verse 3 is another very clear and acceptable verse, as is 1 Timothy 2 verses 5-6a with its mention of the one God.    


Piety and devotion are part of everyday Muslim life. One is always aware of the daily ritual. The dawn call to prayer before the noise of the city has properly started will linger as a memory with anyone who has lived in a Muslim land. It is chanted in Arabic by the muezzin (the one who gives the azzan or call to prayer). The text varies a little according to the rite or school of Islamic law prevalent in the area. Here is one translation of the early morning call to prayer:

God is most great (Allahu Akbar), (four times)

I testify there is no god but God (twice)

I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of God (twice)

Come to prayer (twice)

Come to success (twice)

God is most great (once)

There is no god but God (once)

Prayer is better than sleep (at dawn only).

Whenever we who are Christians hear the call to prayer let us hear it as a call to ourselves to pray for Muslims.


Salat is the second of the five pillars of Islam. From puberty on, after the prescribed ablutions, all Muslims are required to offer the five daily prayers. Ritual prayers can be said in private or in a mosque or in a special prayer area. Usually women say their prayers at home. If we have Muslim guests we should make provision for them to pray if they wish. This is part of hospitality. We can also indicate that we too will spend the same time  in praying. 

The first Surah is recited in Arabic as part of the daily ritual prayer all over the world.

‘Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds,

The Beneficent, the Merciful.

Owner of the Day of Judgment,

Thee (alone) we worship: Thee (alone) we ask for help.

Show us the straight path,

The path of those whom Thou hast favoured:

Not (the path) of those who earn Thine anger nor of those who go astray.’ 

As Christians we can share how and when we use the Lord’s prayer and how it is similar and dissimilar from this opening surah of the Qur’an.

Pilgrims recite the following invocation in Arabic thousands of times during the first days of the pilgrimage in Arabia and before going to Mount Arafat.

‘You call us, we are here, O God! We are here!

We are here, there is none beside You. We are here!

Praise and good deeds belong to you, and the empire!

There is none but You!’


It is important to distinguish between ritual prayer or salat, and du‘a or informal, personal prayer. Du‘a consists of invocations, requests, intercessions, memorized and extempore prayer. The literal meaning of du‘a is a cry or call. Many of these prayers are written down in prayer manuals and books of devotions. At bus-stops and at the railway bookshops the traveller can buy little devotional books containing such prayers. Individuals will also supplement these with their own personal prayers in their own words and language. One of my Muslim friends, telling me of her family problems, said: ‘If it were not for prayer (du‘a) I don’t know how I could have coped’.

SUFIS and PRAYER with especial reference to Rabi‘a  and her followers  

The Sufis are the mystics of Islam. They are found among Sunnis as well as Shias. Sufis seek union with God through the mystic path. Women are included among them both as guides and followers. Sufis often follow a spiritual guide either individually or in small groups. There are also larger groups called Brotherhoods. For example, Baha  al-Din Naqshbandi, (d. AD 791), founded Sufi groups in Iran, and in Bukhara. They practised the recollection of God in the act of inhaling and exhaling of breath. Geoffrey Parrinder, in his book on Mysticism in the World’s Religions (pp.130, 131), writes of the Sufi emphasis on mystical exercises and retreats as means to spiritual progress.  “Repetitions of litanies (dhikr), especially on the Ninety-nine Beautiful Names of God, aided by prayer beads, helped both to concentrate the mind and produce an emotional state by swaying and chanting. Music, banned from the mosque, came into its own in mystical devotions.”

One of the greatest Sufis, Rabi‘a al-Adawiya (d. AD 801) wrote:

“My Lord, eyes are at rest, the stars are setting, hushed are the movements of the birds, of the monsters in the deep. And Thou art the Just who knoweth no change, the Equity that swerveth not, the Everlasting that passeth not away. The doors of kings are locked and guarded by their henchmen. But Thy door is open to whoso calleth on Thee My Lord, each lover is now alone with his beloved. And I am alone with Thee”.

I well remember a chorus sung with deep personal devotion by a Sufi neighbour as he walked along the street and suddenly turned the corner to where I was walking. Through the previous night his fraternity had been chanting and repeating the name of Allah as they often did. One special day in honour of their saint they processed through the village, over and over again repeating Allahu, Allahu, Allahu. They were remembering God by calling on his name.


In Rabi‘a’s experience we see love of God replacing fear. The Indian  Bishop, John Subhan, who was himself a Sufi before he became a Christian, said of Rabi‘a: “It is to her that Sufism owes the conception of prayer as free and intimate intercourse with God”. She did not regard prayer or any religious observances as meritorious acts. For her prayer was a way of access to God and an experience of communion with him. One of her famous prayers is as follows: “O my Lord, if I worship Thee from fear of Hell, burn me in Hell. If I worship Thee from hope of Paradise, exclude me from thence, but if I worship Thee for Thine own sake then withhold not from me Thine Eternal Beauty.”  

Christians like Muslims should be seen to be people of prayer. 

One Christian family, friends of mine, deliberately chose to live in a densely Muslim section of a large Asian city. They welcomed all who visited them and the children played in each other’s home. The family continued their daily family prayers changing the time when necessary to a time when they had no neighbourhood visitors. One day a Muslim woman who lived nearby asked: “When do you Christians pray?”  They realized that they were giving a wrong impression and decided that they would have their daily family prayers straight after the evening meal, inviting any visitors to join with them. 

In the hospital complex where I lived for fifteen years in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, it was well-known that a small group of us had evening prayers together in our home. Local people, some Muslim neighbours or patients, would sometimes call with requests for prayers. Each morning the Hospital staff would meet for prayer in the small church near-by. Some Muslim patients from the Hospital would attend. Prayer was offered to God before every operation in the hospital. People realized that Christians prayed. We were seen to be what we were – people of prayer. It is wise in visiting patients in hospital and praying for them to use postures of prayer familiar to Muslims, for example, standing with one’s hands extended with the palms up.  

How might we better prepare the prayers we use with Muslims?

Most Muslims will be grateful if we tell them we are praying for them and will also nearly always welcome an offer for us to pray for them in their presence e.g. in illness, family crisis, help in examinations etc. Let us pray for them in this way more often. Though we might be used to impromptu prayer it is wise to have some principles in mind when praying in the presence of and for Muslims. Muslims generally start their prayers by praising God we can do the same. We need to watch our vocabulary to make sure we are using words familiar to those were are praying for. Christians and Muslims have quite a lot of religious vocabulary in common.  I generally like to mention the love of God for us individually and to mention by name the person or family for whom I am praying. Perhaps no one has ever mentioned them by name before in the presence of God. I generally conclude such a prayer in the name of Jesus the Messiah, the son of Mary as these are also Quranic names and titles. Before hand I will have offered to pray for them and explain that I would like to do so in this name. Muslims and Christians recognize each other as people of prayer and there is generally no embarrassment for the Muslim in these matters. Sometimes Muslim friends want to know more about hymns, prayers and liturgies – about what happens at a wedding service or at a funeral or at Christian festivals. These are all wonderful opportunities to share. We can also take the opportunity to learn about Muslim rites and festivals.   

Recommended books

Cragg, Kenneth (Ed.) Common Prayer. A Muslim-Christian Spiritual Anthology.

Oxford, Oneworld, 1999. ISBN 1-85168-181-7.

Padwick, Constance E. Muslim Devotions. A Study of Prayer- Manuals in Common Use.

London, SPCK, 1961.

Renard, John Seven Doors to Islam. Spirituality and the Religious Life of Muslims

Berkeley Los Angeles London, University of California Press, 1996, ISBN 0-520-20417-4. 

Smith, Margaret with a new introduction by Annemarie Schimmel Rabi’a the Mystic and her Fellow-Saints Facsimile Reprint 1994, Llanerch Publishers, Felinfach. ISBN 1 897853 45 9. 

Vivienne Stacey  © 2003


When Women Speak… August 2018

259 194 When Women Speak

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