(See David Pinault's feature, “The Story of Islam,” here.)
At regular intervals throughout the day, Muslims are required to perform salat (canonical prayer entailing Qur’an-recitation and a prescribed series of ritual movements involving standing, bowing, and prostration). This is distinct from du‘a’ (“supplication” or personal petitionary prayer). Sunnis perform salat five times daily; Shias combine the five sets of prayer into three prayer-times during the day.
Salat is typically performed individually or in a small-group setting, with one’s family at home or during intervals of work during the day. But once a week, at midday on Friday, Muslims are required to assemble for jum‘ah (congregational prayer). The site where they gather is called a masjid (“place of prostration”), from which is derived “mosque” in English.
Visitors observing Friday prayer will note that within each mosque, set within a wall, is a mihrab or prayer-niche indicating the qiblah (direction of prayer: Muslims are required to face Mecca when they do salat). Before jum‘ah begins, some worshipers arrive early, to undertake what are known as sunnah-prayers (these are optional, supplemental prayers—regarded as mustahabb, “meritorious but not mandatory”—which, according to Islamic tradition, the prophet Muhammad used to perform; the term sunnah describes Muhammad’s pious lifestyle—his sayings and doings—which believers are expected to imitate to the extent they can).
Between sunnah-prayer and jum‘ah, a khatib (preacher) will recite briefly from the Qur’an and then offer a sermon in the local vernacular language. The sermon usually concludes with an invocation and more Qur’an-recitation. Thereafter the imam (prayer-leader) takes his place at the head of the congregation, and worshipers get to their feet and stand in rows. They are required to stand together closely enough so that their shoulders touch. Also required is that all the congregants perform the ritual actions of jum‘ah—prostration, kneeling, bowing, standing—in unison. This is one of the most important meanings of jum‘ah—the heart of Friday-prayer—namely, that it’s both an evocation and demonstration of communal solidarity.
An example of a religious duty shared equally by women and men is sawm Ramadan (fasting during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar). From sunrise till sunset, one is required not only to abstain from eating, drinking, and sexual relations but also to refrain from indulging appetites such as anger and malevolent thoughts. This points to the underlying ideal of the month of fasting: to develop one’s spiritual discipline.
Paradoxically, Muslim friends have occasionally lamented to me that Ramadan is the month when they gain weight, because this is a time of night-long feasting and celebrations. I have good Ramadan memories of wandering the streets of cities ranging from Egypt to East Java, at twilight just as the sun sets, and seeing families pull out tables and chairs as they assemble in alleys and courtyards and pile plates high with food. Many a time I’ve been invited on the spot to such gatherings for iftar (fast-breaking). It made no difference that I was a stranger and a Christian: Ramadan nights are a time of hospitality for all.