Negotiating with God the number of daily prayers

Muslims pray five times a day. If a Muslim is sincere in his or her faith, it is prescribed that he or she is obligated to perform a prayer ritual five times a day.

The Qurʾan speaks specifically about prayer in a few places. For example, in the 19th sura, entitled Maryam, and verse 31, Jesus is quoted as saying “…and [He: Allah] has enjoined on me prayer and charity as long as I live." In sura 17, entitled al-Isrāʾ, meaning the Night Journey, verse 78 it says, “Perform the prayer at the decline of the sun, until the darkness of the night; and the Qurʾan at dawn. The Qurʾan at dawn is witnessed.”

From these descriptions in the Qurʾan it is clearly understood that Muslims are instructed to pray. However, it is not clear from the quranic text how often that should be. In another source of Islamic law, ḥadīth, it is understood that Muslims are charged to pray five times a day. Ḥadīth are traditions of what Muhammad is reported to have said or done. These were passed on for several generations and then written down. One ḥadīth describes how it was determined what the prescribed number of times Muslims must pray. This event took place during a journey Muhammad is recorded to have taken with the angel Gabriel.

Gabriel takes Muhammad to heaven acting as an escort, and as they pass through the gates the gatekeeper confirms that Muhammad was called to heaven. Upon being admitted to heaven, they enter what is explained as the nearest heaven, at which point Muhammad begins to see other people.

What takes place next in the narrative can be described as a negotiation between God and Muhammad with ongoing intervention by the prophet Muhammad. Although to those unfamiliar with Islamic history, the episode may seem rather fanciful, it is reminiscent of the biblical record of Abraham’s plea for the people of Sodom, another instance where a human being is recorded as participating in negotiations with God. [For that biblical narrative, please see Genesis 18:16-33.] The tradition goes on to say that Allah enjoined upon Muhammad and his followers fifty prayers, meaning, it appears, that the followers of Muhammad would be required to pray fifty times a day. When Muhammad returns from his discussion with God, Abraham appears to provide a reality check for Muhammad by stating that he should go back to God to ask for a reduction in the requirement, noting that the followers would not be able to bear this obligation. God then reduced the requirement by one-half. Another similar cycle of negotiation plays out and the previous half is further reduced by half again. One more round takes place and the final outcome required by God on Muhammad’s followers is five prayers a day, although Muhammad is recorded as admitting that shyness on his part discouraged him from returning one more time to try to get this reduced yet one more time.

Muslim practice, to this day, is that those desiring to follow the religious guidelines to the best of their ability, will pray five times a day. The prayer ritual, and the times of prayer, will be followed up in another blog post. For anyone desiring a reference, this hadith can be found in Ṣaḥīḥ Bukhārī, Vol 1, Book 8, Number 345. If you'd like a copy of it in English (or Arabic for that matter), simply note that in the comments along with a way to contact you.

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