Christianity and Islam are two very different but still similarly composed forms of religion. Both religions have a core basis of belief that stretches back to encompass the teachings and characters of the Old Testament before forever branching and evolving away from each other. Two prime examples of the differences and similarities between the two religions can be seen by examining two very basic characteristics of each of these religions. Namely worship as experienced through prayer concentrating on the physical manifestations of prayer and a look at the literary meaning of common prayers. Also examined are each religion’s basic moral codes in the forms of the Ten Commandments and the Five Pillars of Islam and how they effect follower’s daily lives.
Christian and Islamic prayer have been popularized through mass culture and media, movies and television, so that the stereotypical picture of a Christian praying is that of a person hands folded, head bowed, silently or quietly offering praise or seeking guidance from God and that of a Muslim is the individual laying prostrate on the ground with arms stretched toward Mecca. These images are not far off the mark and are the most physical obvious differences between the manifestations of prayer.
Muslims are far more ritualized and strict in their tenets of prayers than Christians. The volume alone of daily prayer causes them to stand out among the major religions, as they are told as part of the 5 pillars of Islamic faith that adherents are required to pray five times a day with each prayer lasting 5 to 10 minutes (Ahmed 33). Prayers are spread throughout the day from dawn to night. While men are encouraged to pray in the mosque they can make due with any clean area, of which many Muslim societies make provisions in the forms of designated areas to pray in businesses, airports, and other public places (Ahmed 33). This acceptance and special effort put forth by largely Muslim countries and cities is telling in the exceptional role prayer holds in the daily lives of followers.
I spoke with 25 year old, male, Arab-American friend Amil who says while it is difficult in the U.S., where Islam has been tainted by the actions of extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda, to pray in public he is still able to perform his obligated prayers 5 times a day. “I remember watching my father each morning before school, laying out his prayer rug and just feeling the peace and centeredness it gave him. I couldn’t wait until I could pray beside him and feel the same connection with God.” When I asked him if he experienced the same feeling in his daily prayers, he smiled. “When I pray to Allah, I feel not only a closeness to God but also to my father and all the other Muslim’s laying down their prayer rugs. Even when I’m not in the mosque, simply knowing that there are other people at that same moment, praying the same prayers, is reassuring. I never feel alone when I pray.” Having grown up a first generation immigrant, both parents hailing from Pakistan, my friend admitted that he has struggled with adhering to the strict guidelines of Islam at times but prayer has always been a foundation for him. “My mother in particular always worries that I will marry a non-Muslim woman and that my children will not be Muslim. I tell her she has nothing to worry about. Even if I do marry a non-Muslim, I won’t deny my children the joy and belonging I’ve received from my belief in Islam. Like my father, I will let them watch me pray and when they are old enough they will pray beside me.”
Daily ritual prayer is called a Salaat. There is a certain degree of preparation required to perform the Salaat accurately and faithfully. All prayers must be toward Qibla, the direction of Mecca with the individual standing erect with their head down, hands at their sides and feet evenly spaced. The prayer itself exceeds ten steps from start to finish. The completion of the prayer is accompanied by looks over the left and right shoulders (right is toward the angel recording good deeds and left is toward the angel recording bad. None of this process encompasses personal prayer, these are completed after the salaat with palms cupped against their chest (“How to Perform”).
Modern Christianity has no strict guidelines as to actions accompanying prayers, whether it be bowing or standing with raised hands or limp. At times these prayers are structured as in the case of the Lord’s Prayer or another such led within worship services but individual prayer does not require any such structure. Personal prayer for a Christian is an entirely private practice. “When I pray to God, I feel as though there is a single thread connecting me to him,” explained my 52 year old aunt who is a Christian. An elementary school teacher who has been a member of the same Presbyterian church since childhood. She attends church each Sunday and prays throughout the day, regularly reading passages from the Bible, and is a firm believer in the power of prayer. She adamantly believes that it was prayer which helped her to beat breast cancer, “There is no surer way to connect with the divine than through prayer. Church is different in that I feel that we are all connecting to God through the same thread, it gives me a sense of community.” When I asked her if she felt a connection to the rest of her fellow Christians in her private prayers, she did not have a ready answer. “To be honest, I’d never really thought about it. My own personal belief in Jesus as my personal savior has always been my basis. Church is for connecting with others who feel the same way.” Not every Christian feels the same. In some cases, Christians have attempted to unify prayer along denominational lines, as in the case of the worldwide Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, a ecumenical gathering of varying Christian faiths which promotes worship across denominational lines (Heller 299).
Though for Christians there seem to be no structure in the physical manifestations of prayer, the theological structure is sound and has been developed over centuries from the first Christian liturgies to the Book of Common Prayer. In his 1910 examination of The Book of Common Prayer, J.H. Benton identifies four types of liturgies which spawned the Book of Common Prayer and to that extension modern prayer itself but notes that each type was similar to the other in such a way as to denote their relationships to one another (Benton). When I asked my aunt if she kneeled or performed any physical activity with each prayer, she looked at me as though I’d grown another head. “Well, I usually bow my head and sometimes I fold my hands but as long as my prayers are directed from my heart to God what difference does it make what I do with my body?”
It is helpful viewing the similarities in comparing prayer worship between the two religions to compare examples of prayers. When viewed from the perspective of the words directed toward God, these religions do not differ in their basic views of their relationships to God. Of the most recited and widely known Christian prayers, with little variation is the Lord’s Prayer. The Muslim equivalent would be the Fatiha which is a prayer traditionally performed as part of the Salaat. The opening lines for both prayers are similar in meaning, “Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name” (Lord’s Prayer) and “In the name of God, the infinitely Compassionate and Merciful/ Praise be to God, Lord of all the world (“How to Perform”). Both exalt a single, all powerful God to be respected and obeyed. The final lines of the prayers are also quite similar in their statement on the path of righteousness and belief in judgment. In the Fatiha, Allah is requested to “Guide us on the straight path, the path of those who have received your grace; not the path of those who have brought down wrath, nor of those who wander astray.” Similarly, in The Lord’s Prayer, God is called on “Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” For both religions God is the hand that guides them throughout the day and to whom which they and the world ultimately answer. Both prayers end with a simple “Amen,” traditionally thought to have origin in the Jewish Torah and meaning “so be it” or “so it is.” Though questions have been raised as the actual origin of the word (Kelley-Goss), regardless of its roots it remains a standing point in both Christian and Muslim prayers alike. Similar also are both Muslim and Christian views in relation to individual responsibility to God, both interpreted through numbered lists passed down through prophets. Understanding the religions’ moral codes and the similarities and differences requires a look at their varying views on prophets. In the case of Islam, this prophet is Muhammad and for Christians this figure is that of Moses. While Moses played an integral part in the development of Christianity, Muhammad was the catalyst from which Islam sprung. His role was far more similar to that of Jesus in the creation of Islam as a religion separate from that of Christianity and Judaism but he was more like Moses in that he was a simple man and messenger for God. Islam teaches that God himself is the creator of religion and that Adam was the first Muslim (Ahmed 24). The Quran teaches that Islam is a continuation and the final product of Judaism and Christianity. As writer Akbar Ahmed explains, “Muslim believe that over time these religious systems wandered from the straight path and eventually needed further divine instruction. Islam came at the end, filling in the gaps, correcting all the errors, dotting the is and crossing the ts” (25).
For Christians, the catalyst which forever separated them from Judaism and all other monotheistic religions was the assignment of the title messiah to Jesus Christ. Their belief that Jesus Christ was the son of God, sent to earth to atone for the sins of man was in direct conflict of Jewish belief that carried over into the Muslim faith who acknowledge Jesus as a prophet of God but no more. To Christians this may seem a demotion of Jesus but to Muslims who place a high value on the role of prophets this is as close to the equivalent of the son of God that a mere man can come, “Although for Muslims the Prophet is insane-I-kamil, the perfect person, he is not divine” (Ahmed 25). To Muslims man cannot ever attain divinity, only carry God’s message and live according to God’s will.
The will of God is expressed differently between the two religions. For Muslim they must follow the Five Pillars of Islam which were outlined by Muhammad in his final address at Arafat (Ahmed 32). Akbar Ahmed notes that “the edifice of Islamic religious belief and social practices thus rests on these five pillars” (32). The five pillars are shahada, salat, zakat, sawm, and haj. Each are basic instructions to be applied directly to daily and religious life. The first, shahada, entails a declaration of belief in one God and the acceptance of Muhammad as the prophet (33). This simple acceptance of God and Muhammad allows the individual to enter into Islam. The second pillar, is prayer. As noted above in the discussion of prayer and its role in Muslims lives, it is a structured and ritualized practice meant to help Muslims connect with God on a daily basis (33). That connection is key to living a good, Muslim existence. Without regular connection with God, a believer could stray from the path. The facing of Mecca each prayer time is a unifying factor, one of many in Islam, which allows for a concrete daily connection not only with God but with each other.
The third pillar of Islam, zakat, means alms. It is charity towards others. Since Muslims believe ultimately that everything sprung from God it should be used in a way in which he would want it used whether it be money, food, clothing, etc. It is the most economically based pillar, being understood as a sort of tax which each able Muslim has the duty to pay. Amount varies by the ability of the individual to pay without placing themselves in a role of need as they are based on percentages: at least 2.5 percent of money/assets for individuals, 5 percent of crops and number of animals for farmers, and 2.5 percent of the value of their goods for traders (Ahmed 34). In light of the role religious doctrine can sometimes take in Arabic countries, such as Iran or even Pakistan who turned the zakat into a government mandate in the 1980s, it is easy to see the role of governance of morality the pillars can take in daily Muslim lives.
The fourth pillar is fasting, known as sawm. It takes place during the month of Ramadan, the ninth month o the Islamic calendar, and lasts for 29 to 30 days depending on the phases of the moon (Ahmed 34). Fasting is not optional for a good Muslim since they believe that they are required to give up things such as food, sleep, rest, or even sex in their obedience to God. Fasting helps them to remember and realize this idea. It also teaches them humility, allowing them to feel the suffering of the less fortunate, and provides training in self-discipline. Fasting entails eating and drinking nothing from sunrise to sunset, as well as abstaining from tobacco, alcohol, sex, uncharitable behavior, etc. The very old and sick, as well as menstruating women and pre-pubescent children are exempted from the fast. It is not an easy month, “after the first few days of a somber determination descends on those who are fasting. The old and the weak begin to show signs of wear and tear. But few o f the devout will even think of giving up” (Ahmed 35). This abstinence from all luxury and vice, is meant to invigorate the spirit, and allows for devotion to prayer, need ideas and good deeds (36).
The final pillar of Islam is the haj or pilgrimage to Mecca. At least once in their lifetime, every Muslim both male and female is expected to make to journey to Mecca. It is required that each individual must pay for it themselves without borrowing money and they must be able to afford it. A pilgrimage to Mecca should not and must not come before their basic survival. Before entering Mecca they must change into sheets of plain white cloth, in the case of men, and head to ankle covering for women, with no signs of rank or association. The idea behind this is equality, since all men are equal in the eyes of God so must they be in the eyes of each other. The white sheets the men wear symbolize death shrouds and the equality of death, which places no value on material possessions or status (Ahmed 37).
In all the haj lasts for five days in which Muslims perform a series of journeys and rituals. The first day Muslims walk seven times are the Kabah, they then go to two small hills where God tested Abraham by ordering him to leave his wife and son Ismail (Ahmed 37). After this pilgrims spend the night at Mina and the next day make the journey to Arafat. After sunset they will travel to Muzdalifah to spend the night. They then return to Mina and stone the three stone pillars believed to mark the place where the devil attempted to persuade Ismail to disobey Abraham. The final part of the pilgrimage is a festival with the sacrificing of an animal symbolizing the Islamic belief in Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Ismail. In Christianity and Judaism, the belief is that Abraham attempted to sacrifice his son Isaac to God but God spared Isaac. In Islamic belief, the son was Ismail and when God spared Ismail, Abraham sacrificed a ram (Ahmed 38). After the haj, a Muslim is now considered to be a haji which is traditionally seen as a reason for respect, as they are now models of Islamic belief (Ahmed 38).
Muslim’s address their moral behavior through they’re daily actions and a recognition of God. The five pillars outline specific commands to adhering to Islam; belief, prayer, charity, fasting to realize humility and self-control, and a pilgrimage to unify and reassert their beliefs. To simplify it, one could look at it as a kind of religious to-do list from which morality will emerge and permeate. “I know that as a good Muslim, I have to follow the pillars but I think that understanding what the pillars represent are most important,” my friend Amil explained. “When I was younger I didn’t understand why adults could eat or drink during Ramadan mainly because I’d never experienced it. When I was 18, I went with my mother to Pakistan to visit my grandmother for the month of Ramadan. It was an eye-opening experience for me. Partly, I think it was seeing some of the poverty the rest of the world lives in compared to us Americans. I’d been participating in Ramadan since I was a teenager but we lived in a suburb with maybe 2 other Muslim families near by that we had relationships with at that time. To experience Ramadan in a large community where almost everyone is Muslim is just mind-boggling. It tears down the walls between everyone at least for the hours between the sun rising and the sun setting. Everywhere you look throughout the day, you know whether it is a business man or a shop clerk that they are fasting too. Poverty and need are really put into perspective when you are sharing the sensation, you know.”
I asked him if he felt the other five pillars had the same merit and learning through experience, “Without a doubt. I can’t speak from the perspective of a pilgrim just yet as I still have student loans to pay off before I can afford that but the others I practice as closely as I can. When I see a person asking for loose change on a street corner, I try not to judge them but instead see their need instead. It’s hard to talk about being a good Muslim with all the bad press out there about fundamentalists and their version of being a good Muslim but I think that if people were to look closely at Islam they can see the same goodness and faith that should define any religion and its follower actions.”
Christian moral code, as based off of the Ten Commandments, is similar in the basis of its message though far different in its approach. Unlike the five pillars it reads more like a not to-do list. For this interview, I asked a Christian friend who seemed to have more of an opened mind than that of my traditionally minded aunt. This friend, who I will simply address as Michael, is a 34 year old man and a preacher in his own congregation. Michael turned to preaching Christianity after obtaining his masters degree in psychology and realizing he was far more interested in a map of the soul than the mind. Like many clergymen he has attempted through sermons and personal consultation to address the ideas expressed in the Ten Commandments and provide some perspective. “You have to keep in mind that the Ten Commandments were never meant to be a code for daily life. The Jewish Torah and the laws of Moses include specific rules for dietary and social customs. Christianity really simplified this with the Ten Commandments and I think it allows for much more freedom in discovering ourselves and God. Some are spiritual in direction, some moral, and some simply common sense.”
The first commandment is very similar to that of the first pillar as it asserts the singular presence of one God, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me (Exodus 20:2).” Following in this line of thought is the second commandment, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4) requiring a spiritual worship of God. Muslims have a similar restriction on the worship of anything but God (Ahmed 37) though it is not directly addressed in the five pillars. The third commandment further asserts the dominance of God, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” (Exodus 20:7).
With the fourth commandment, Christian moral code, most closely resemble the five pillars of Islam. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8) is a direction on living daily life and the requirement of worship. “Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates” (Exodus 20:8-11) which was later included to expand the first line description (Robinson), is as close to detailed description of day to day action which Christians are given direction in the Ten Commandments. The fifth commandment, “Honor thy father and thy mother; that thy days may be long”(Exodus 20:12) also has some similarities in that it branches beyond the corporeal of the first 3 commandments and asserts a respect for elders which will provide a moral standing for longevity. It addresses day to day habits and behaviors, though perhaps vaguely.
The final five commandments expressly forbid certain behavior while not addressing any of the daily underlying causes of each. The sixth commandment, “thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13) is a primary moral code but is blunt and while could be taken as meaning a respect for life it could also be literally interpreted to encompass only which it explicitly prohibits. The lack of specificity can and has led to a questioning of what exactly “kill” entails. Is it simply murder? Is there such a thing as justification for killing someone? The full law of Moses, which Jews follow as the complete list from which the Ten Commandments came, provides exceptions in which killing is acceptable (Robinson). The seventh, and eighth commandments “Thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14) and “Thou shalt not steal” (Exodus 20:15) are far simpler to decipher. Again, like the sixth commandment it covers only the particular behavior in which it prohibits.
The ninth commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” (Exodus 20:16) seems to some, my friend Michael explained as too particular. “I’ve always advised my congregation to look at the deeper meaning of the commandments. Bearing false witness against your neighbor can be, I think, rightly looked at as an obligation to be truthful. All men are each others neighbors. When people try to look at too narrow a definition, I think that is where they get into the most confusion with the Ten Commandments.” The final commandment, can be similarly evaluated, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s” (Exodus 20:17). The Ten Commandments are partly actions not to be committed to lead a religious life, the basis of which is established by faith. “These are moral directives,” Michael explained. “particularly the last five commandments show that part of leading a moral life is living it with respect to the people around you.”
Both the five pillars and the Ten Commandments provide mores than mere governance of behavior needed to live a moral life, initially they set a frame work from which positive actions are meant to spring. If a Muslim follows the five pillars of Islam and a belief and adherence to the Quran then they will be in little danger of committing those behaviors which the Ten Commandments expressly prohibits. With a deeper look into the meanings behind the Ten Commandments teamed with scripture Christians will also not fall prey to the dangers of sin. If a person is truthful, honest, charitable, respects life and their fellow man, while keeping in mind all the while that they are God’s children. This is the underlying message to both Islam and Christianity. Though they may differ in their approaches and in some of their core beliefs, the role of prayer and moral code in both are at times overlapping foundations of the religions themselves. Muslims place such a high importance on prayer that it has become part of the code which govern the very basics of Muslim belief and action. While prayer is not expressly noted in the Ten Commandments, a connection with God is a necessity to Christianity and Islam alike.
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