Growing up in Texas, we often joked that, in any Texas town, one would find a church of one sort or another on every corner – with a corresponding bar on the opposite corner. There are no bars here in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but there are mosques on every corner. Not quite every corner, but it is near impossible to travel more than five blocks and not pass by another mosque.
One of the primary reasons for the presence of so many mosques is so it is possible to participate in community prayer. Adherents to Islam are obligated to pray five times per day. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com/) has an excellent breakdown regarding Islamic prayer. Most of my information comes from an American Muslim friend and a Syrian Muslim friend.
The first call to prayer occurs in the very early morning hours, perhaps two to three hours prior to sunup. Most people pray about sunrise, however. The second prayer comes near the noon hour, when many people are at work or shopping. The third prayer happens between three and three-thirty, the fourth between six and six-thirty. The final prayer of the day is observed around eight-thirty. These times change on a daily basis because they are calculated based on the relationship of the sun to the horizon. Therefore, prayer time in Riyadh is different from prayer time in either Dammam or Jeddah. Prayer time in June is very different from prayer time in December.
While it is perfectly fine to pray at home, the duty of prayer earns particular favor if performed at the mosque whenever possible. Sometimes it is not possible, and there is a period of time during which prayers may occur after the prayer time. There is even some controversy within the Muslim community whether it is possible to make up more than one missed prayer at one time at the end of the day, or whether the prayer must be performed within the grace period prior to the next prayer time. At my office, prayer occurs twice during the workday, and the adherents gather in a specially closed off prayer sanctuary, spread their prayer rugs and perform their prayers together. A span of about thirty minutes occurs between the call to prayer and the end of prayer time. This allows Muslims to pray at any point during that half-hour, thus enabling them to finish the task at hand or to come to a good stopping point. The truly pious often use this time to say prayers that are considered optional.
At some point prior to attending prayer, a Muslim is expected to conduct the ritual of Wudu, or ritual cleansing. Before one may approach Allah in prayer, one is expected to be clean. That means washing one’s feet – prayer is conducted in bare feet (thus nearly all individuals wear sandals with no socks), the face, behind the ears, et cetera. In fact, if one has eaten onions or garlic, or anything that causes a strong odor, it is necessary to perform Wudu, as with flatulence. This ritual is taken very seriously. There are water spigots outside of each mosque for this purpose.
All Muslims are expected to attend mosque on Fridays, with their families, pray and receive instruction in the Honorable Q’uran (Koran). Most mosques have a place for families to prayer together. Some only have a space set aside for men. Therefore, Friday is a day off for nearly everyone who does not run a shop. Shops remain closed until about 4:30pm, when they open and remain open until near midnight. Some large box stores (yes, they have those here, too) are open all the time, but this is the exception. Everyone else takes the day as one of prayer, instruction, and leisure.
Prayer times rule everything here. Please understand that I am NOT overstating the fact. Shops close prior to prayer time. They do not open up until after prayer time. This is true of EVERY business in the Kingdom. While some stores and restaurants will allow shoppers and diners to remain within the business during prayer time, others force everyone to leave. No one can checkout of a store, or pay a dinner tab, during prayer time. No one leaves until prayer is completed. Business is not conducted during prayer time. We schedule our meetings so that only non-Muslim Westerners are required during prayer time, if at all possible. I check the prayer times each day just so I have a general idea when they will occur. It’s much easier to remain in the comfort of my apartment or office than to sit in the car, running the air conditioner against the 100-plus degree heat for twenty minutes.
Prayer remains a key aspect of each Muslim’s life, even today, nearly 1500 years after the advent of their religion. Coming from the West, where convenience commands, this may seem an odd way to conduct life. But, it is life here in Saudi Arabia.
Copyright, Greg Hubbard, 2006.