What do people do when they pray?

What do people do when they pray?

What does it mean to pray? How do you pray? How would you describe Christian prayer?

I have heard western Christians describe Christian prayer as spontaneous, in contrast to set prayers at regular times of the day. But culture can shape our understanding more deeply than we realize. Christians and Muslims in the same area may share characteristics in the cultural expression of their faith.[i]

Here I look at some attributes of prayer in the Middle East. Some of the practices shared by both Christians and Muslims include prayer as Verbalized (aloud, including set words): Embodied (oriented in time and space, physically expressed and including considerations of purity), Corporate and Formative.  What does this look like? And what questions might these characteristics raise for our own habits of prayer?

  1. Verbalized prayer

a). Prayer is often murmured aloud. Whether using the Coptic prayer book, or Christians or Muslims gathered together, prayer is vocalized, both in community and as individuals pray in their own homes, or murmur Scriptures. Psalm 1:2 describes the righteous man who ‘murmurs (God’s teaching) day and night: and Robert Altar comments that the verb (hagah) in that psalm “means to make a low muttering sound, which is what one does with a text in a culture where there is no silent reading. By extension … it has the sense of ‘to meditate’.”[ii] Physically articulating, speaking or singing / chanting prayer and Scripture aloud, can help to impress the meaning into us, even when we don’t feel faith-full. We can ask:

How does speaking / singing God’s truths strengthen our faith?

b). In prayer people follow set words, liturgies. The Lord’s Prayer is as foundational to Christian prayer as the Fatihah (first chapter of the Qur’an) is for Muslim prayer. These prayers take their part in the wider liturgy of the set words of salah for Muslims, or the Agbiya (Coptic prayer book) or other Orthodox liturgies. Jesus himself would have recited the set Jewish prayers three times daily. These liturgies and also more spontaneous prayer by ME Christians, are built on and deeply imbued with the words of Scripture. The Psalms, through offering each of us words to respond individually to God and our circumstances, have become the prayer book for Jewish and Christian communities. Repeating set words causes them to deepen rather than diminish in meaning: just as saying ‘I love you’ grows in meaning each time we say it to the beloved.

What words are we praying that ground us in God’s historical revelation in Scripture, and deepen its role in our lives?

  1. Embodied prayer

a). Prayer is oriented in particular time and space. Muslims around the world face Mecca as they pray: many Orthodox Christians face towards the east as they pray, where the direction of the rising sun points us towards our focus on the risen Son. For Jewish, early Christian and monastic communities, and Muslims, the day is structured around prayer times, with the intervals between prayer times extending and contracting as the daylight hours extend and contract through the seasons of the year. When prayer times mark the passing of the hours, prayer is allowed to interrupt the passage of daily life. So we ask:

What can prayer interrupt in my life? Can we pause conversations to pray, or other work?

What in my life interrupts prayer? Do we let sleep, business, the needs of children, the telephone, … interrupt our commitment to prayer?

 b). Prayer is expressed in the physical position of the prayer-ers. I have stood among Orthodox Christians during the Easter vigil as they stand and bow, stand then bow, repeatedly expressing their worship of Jesus, and all he went through for us, through their bodies as well as their words. During the Night of Power in Ramadan, Muslims engage in hours of arduous standing, bowing, kneeling and prostrating, with recitation of the Qur’an in between. In his book on discipleship, C.S.Lewis famously had the senior demon write to the junior demon, “At the very least, (Christians) can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.”[iii] Young western Christians, seeking to live out the reality of their relationship in prayer to God among their Muslim friends, began to use kneeling and prostrating as part of their prayers, and found themselves encountering God as sovereign, almighty, in a way they had not experienced before. We can ask:

How do / can I use my body to serve my prayer?

How does my prayer posture express my relationship with Christ?

c). Prayer is safeguarded by purity. Like Jewish regulations for ritual purity in worship in Leviticus, Muslims can only engage in salah prayer or fasting if they are ritually clean. [iv] The same considerations mean that many ME Christian women will not take communion when they are menstruating. As Christians we are purified in our baptism into the death of Jesus Messiah. The focus on ritual purity mirrors the concern for moral purity. We can ask:

What place does confession have as I come to God in prayer? (For example, looking back at the end of each day, or confessing to God straight away when we have fallen short.)

  1. Corporate prayer

We pray, not just as individuals, but as members of a community of faith. The famous painting of The Angelus shows two peasants pausing in the field to pray the prayer of the Angelus, marked by the ringing of the church’s bell for prayer and the end of the day’s work. Both Orthodox Christians and Muslims join with others to pray if they are together: and if they are at home, the common time and words unite them with the wider community. Each time we pray ‘Our Father’ we are reminded that we pray as part of a wider community, not just on our own. We ask:

How does my prayer express my belonging / participation in the body / community of Christ?

  1. Formative prayer

As prayer is verbalized, embodied and corporate, it is also effective, not merely expressive.[v] Athletes exercise even when they are tired or disinclined, and the exercise makes them into stronger athletes. So as we pray when we don’t feel like it, when we pray words that are bigger than our own faith, we grow in our faith and relationship with God. As we pray as part of a community, we are strengthened and upheld by the wider community when we might falter on our own. As we spend time consciously in God’s presence, we ourselves are transformed. We can ask:

How does my prayer grow / form me as a Christian?

The primary characteristic of Christian prayer is that it is our response to God’s initiative (it is not to gain merit, nor is it manipulative), and it is in the name of Jesus. As we join in prayer with others from different cultures, our own practice and understanding can be enlarged to respond more fully to what God has done for us in Jesus Messiah.


[i] See Shifting Allegiances, Moyra Dale, chapter 5, for discussion of how culture shapes the expression of our doctrinally different religious beliefs.

[ii] The Hebrew Bible, Vol. 3. The Writings. Robert Altar. 2019, p.27.

[iii] Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis, Letter IV.

[iv] For further discussion of the importance of Purity in Islam and a Christian response, see https://whenwomenspeak.net/issue/vol-2-no-1-april-2018/

[v] See Saba Mahmood’s book, Politics of Piety, for how devout Muslims draw on the formative impact of pious practices.


Featured image credits: https://unsplash.com/photos/iQWvVYMtv1k, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Angelus_(painting)#/media/File:JEAN-FRANÇOIS_MILLET_-_El_Ángelus_(Museo_de_Orsay,_1857-1859._Óleo_sobre_lienzo,_55.5_x_66_cm).jpg.


(c) When Women Speak… May 2019

Moyra Dale spent over two decades in the Middle East (particularly Egypt, Jordan, and Syria) with her family working in education, specializing in Adult Literacy (Arabic) and teacher training. She is an ethnographer whose research has included exploring adult literacy in Egypt and the women’s mosque movement in Syria through women’s accounts and understanding of their own lives and realities. Currently based in Melbourne, Australia, she writes, teaches, trains, and supervises students in Islam and cross-cultural understanding, with a focus on Muslim women.

Moyra holds a PhD in Education (La Trobe University) and DTh (Melbourne School of Theology).

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