Home > background > A lot can happen in 20 years – Part 7

A lot can happen in 20 years – Part 7

27 January 2009

This follows on from Part 6.

As mentioned in Part 1, I realised that it’s exactly 20 years since I entered the full-time workforce, and a lot can happen in that time, so thought I’d share my road to reason. This is a continuation.

Muslims are taught to pray 5 times per day — always facing towards the Ka’aba, the ornate black cube-shaped structure (satellite map) in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in which is contained the fabled Black Stone — at various offsets of the rising and setting sun. The times vary based upon the seasons and latitude, but typically take place before sunrise, around noon, mid-afternoon, early-evening and late-evening. The higher the latitude, the more these times vary: for example, in London these times are (shows the variation for each prayer over the year):

  • 02:30-06:00 – Fajr
  • 11:45-13:00 – Dhuhr
  • 13:30-17:30 – Asr
  • 15:45-21:30 – Maghrib
  • 17:45-23:30 – Isha

This is because the sun rises and sets at quite a varied range of times throughout the year (ignoring the different ways used to calculate sunrise and sunset, which itself is controversial in Islam), again using London as an example:

  • 04:45-08:00 – sunrise
  • 15:54-21:30 – sunset

It gets worse at even more polar latitudes, at its extreme resulting in the midnight sun, which makes literal adherence to any schedule based on sunrise and sunset an impossibility. The prayer system does not seem to have been designed with all of the world in mind, apparently favouring more equatorial locations.

Praying at the required time and in the correct direction (the Qibla) is a relatively simple task in some locations on earth (both in terms of latitude and culture), but in some locations at some times of the year it can mean waking up twice in the night to pray. This is aside from the day’s normal tasks (such as commuting, working, classes, recreation time, etc) during which Muslims are expected to stop to pray — which you see in many Muslim countries, with even bus and lorry drivers pulling over on the roadside to pray. Various Islamic societies and groups have different ways of dealing with this problem: some do them all exactly when required, some have a window of time, others skip one or two (sometimes “making them up” later in the day), and some groups “stack” their prayers and do them all at the beginning or end of the day. I have met Muslims from all over the world for whom each of these is permitted in their culture, though the ruling used in the mosque I was visiting was the window method: if a prayer was meant for 13:00, you could pray that prayer from something like 12:00-14:00 and it would still be “valid”.

There is a strong concept of valid/invalid in Muslim actions, suggesting that an act of devotion to god would either be accepted or rejected by god based upon the validity of your actions, the way you did it and in what circumstances. One example is that it is forbidden to pray in any room that has a toilet in it (e.g. large bathroom, jail cell), and some groups think prayer is invalid if there is a toilet between you and the Ka’aba (e.g. if you are facing Mecca and the toilet is in an adjacent room in front of you) — to do this would make that prayer invalid. This, and the black-and-white concepts of haram (forbidden) and halal (permitted) have meant that Islamic jurisprudence is a big deal, with these scholars issuing fatawa (non-binding religious opinions, though often treated as a requirement if it suits — the 1988 fatwa against Salman Rushdie, for example) on whether an action is permitted or forbidden. It is effectively deciding whether god considers it a sin or not, in much the same way that the Catholic Pope has done throughout history. Since the end of the last Caliphate in the 1920’s there are now many such scholars in Islam, though this cannot be a unique criticism, as this is comparable to Protestantism — also without a central authority or head — where each church’s leader (minister, pastor, father, priest, etc) acts in the same capacity, declaring this or that a sin under god. Probably because of this, both have the same problems of fragmentation, isolationism, and a easier tendency to extremes of belief, interpretation and opinion. The religious component of American politics is one such example.

All Abrahamic religions have a holy day each week, and Islam is no different. While attendance at mosque for prayers is preferred/ideal whenever possible, and in practice many even devout Muslims are lucky to manage two visits a day, attendance at Friday’s midday prayer, Jumu’ah, is considered almost compulsory (it is mandatory in some places). Jumu’ah is similar to the other mosque attendance throughout the week, except it includes a story or lesson from the Qur’an by the prayer leader, and is the closest thing to a sermon in Islam. This communal prayer is also a way to ensure that the Ummah are together at least once a week, and furthers the bonds of friendship and brotherhood.

While I can fully appreciate why Muslims value their community so highly, as it really does provide a sense of belonging that is more universal than other religions I’ve seen and experienced, it suffers from a number of problems — some of which are shared with other religions and others that may be unique to Islam. The absence of a central authority — the Caliph — is a new problem for Islam as it has always had one in the past to unify and prevent splinter groups forming, but since the Caliphate’s demise I think it is unlikely to ever be replaced as in the presence of any power vacuum, many self-appointed authorities have now stepped up in its place often with vastly different agendas, interpretations and priorities, and I can’t see how they will all voluntarily bow down to one leader, regardless of how regular and orthodox his election might be. Also, a large portion of the Islamic world lives in areas of strife and war that, whether or not the strife is religious in origin or not, has polarised its inhabitants into believing it is a religious struggle — and the Qur’an speaks quite a bit about religi
ous struggles, and the call to and justifications of jihad. This fallacy provides an opportunity for agenda-driven self-appointed leaders to steer people to suit their own ends.

There are other issues on which I could elaborate, but the final, undeniable stumbling block is again the beliefs and dogmas. As with Christianity, this too has its requirement of belief in a god and its attendant dogmas and practices, along with quite extreme punishments should any member decide to enact them, with only its text and adherents as proof of its truth. For many that is more than enough.

Continued in Part 8.

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