Characteristics of Islamic Daily Life

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Characteristics of Islamic Daily Life


The Pillars of Islam . The act of accepting Islam was simple. In the presence of two witnesses, the person, male or female, recited the shahadah, a testimony of faith in the One God and His Messengers (Muhammad being the seal of the prophethood), with the Arabic formula la ilaha ilia Allah wa Muhammadun rasulullah (There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God). Having fulfilled the first pillar of Islam, an act repeated daily throughout life, one committed oneself to the other four obligatory acts of worship, or pillars. They were the five daily prayers (salat), purification of wealth through charity (zakat), observing the fast during Ramadan if one was healthy and residing at home (siyam), and performing the hajj or pilgrimage to Makkah, once in a lifetime if means and health permitted. Acceptance of Islam thus brought immediate changes in the daily life of an individual, and the spread of Islam within a village or town soon introduced institutions that made these changes a permanent part of community life.

Prayer . The first obligation after speaking the shahadah was to perform the five daily prayers. The times for prayer were stated in the Qur’an and exactly fixed by the Prophet Muhammad on the basis of direct instruction by the angel Gabriel (Jibril in Arabic). The first was the dawn prayer, or fajr, performed at the first light of dawn or up to the beginning of sunrise. The noon prayer, or zuhr, was called just after noon and could be performed up to midafternoon. The afternoon prayer, or asr, was called at that time, and could be performed any time before the beginning of sunset, though Muslims were instructed not to delay it. The maghrib prayer took place immediately after sunset, with isha, the last obligatory prayer, called between the end of twilight and the passing of the first third of the night. In the Sunan of Abu Dawud, Hadith 393, Abdullah ibn Abbas says:

The Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) said: Gabriel (peace be upon him) led me in prayer at the House (i.e. the Ka’bah). He prayed the noon prayer with me when the sun had passed the meridian to the extent of the thong of a sandal; he prayed the afternoon prayer with me when the shadow of everything was as long as itself; he prayed the sunset prayer with me when one who is fasting breaks the fast; he prayed the night prayer with me when the twilight had ended; and he prayed the dawn prayer with me when food and drink become forbidden to one who is keeping the fast. On the following day he prayed the noon prayer with me when his shadow was as long as himself; he prayed the afternoon prayer with me when his shadow was twice as long as himself; he prayed the sunset prayer at the time when one who is fasting breaks the fast; he prayed the night prayer with me when about the third of the night had passed; and he prayed the dawn prayer with me when there was a fair amount of light. Then turning to me he said: Muhammad, this is the time observed by the prophets before you, and the time is anywhere between two times.

In addition to the obligatory prayers, additional voluntary prayers could be performed, as established by the Prophet Muhammad. Among these was voluntary prayer during the small hours of the night.

Mind and Body . Prayer was a simple act that engaged body and mind. It consisted of movement and recitation called a rak’a, performed identically by men, women, and children. All recitation was in Arabic, no matter what language people spoke in their daily lives. Standing, and after beginning the prayer with a recitation similar to the call for prayer, a Muslim recited al-fatihah (the opening chapter) of the Qur’an, followed by at least three other Qur’an verses. Next he or she bowed from the waist, called ruku, and recited praises to God, standing again, then kneeling with forehead, hands, knees, and toes touching the ground, called sujud. Sujud has often been incorrectly translated as “prostration,” literally, lying face down rather than kneeling. The word sujud was the origin for the term masjid (mosque), meaning “place of kneeling in prayer.” Each pair of rak’a was followed by the tashahhud (testimony), words of praise recited in a sitting position. The number of rak’a in various prayers ranged from two to four.

Telling Time . In any Muslim community the adhan, or call to prayer, could be heard at established times. The adhan was called in any place where Muslims gathered for prayer, by an elder such as the head of household, or a boy of sufficient knowledge, or a woman or girl among women. From the Prophet’s time, a man with a strong, sonorous voice was chosen to make the call. Later, the office of muezzin or muathin became an honorable occupation in every masjid. The five prayers measured out life in the family and the community into universally understood, exact increments by which one paced daily activities. Appointments between Muslims are still set according to the completion of the noon, afternoon, or maghrib prayer. The times for calling the adhan may be determined by simple observation of the sun and shadows or calculated with sophisticated mathematical and astronomical precision. Each local muezzin might calculate time on his own, but large cities had access to well-calibrated sundials or water clocks, for which persons of means bore collective responsibility. So life in homes, villages, and cities followed the rhythm of the prayers.

The Masjid . As a place for communal performance of the five daily prayers, the masjid was the first Islamic insti-

tution to appear in a community. A masjid might be a low earthen wall or line of stones marking out the musalla (place of prayer) or an elaborate architectural creation. Adhan was called from the roof or a wall of the masjid or from a tower called a minaret. Villages might have a single masjid, while towns and cities had lesser masjids in their various quarters but a central masjid for the obligatory Friday prayer. Performing the prayer in the company of others was preferred, and men were encouraged to perform it at the masjid. Men and older boys were obligated to attend jum’ah, Friday communal prayer. Women and girls were permitted but not required to attend. Pre-Islamic custom in some places discouraged or excluded females from entering the masjid. It is difficult to determine just where and when such practical prohibition was in force, but at the time of the Prophet and for some time after, women could and did attend communal prayer in masjids—a fact that is documented in oral, written, and later pictorial evidence. It is backed up by several hadiths, including: “Ibn ’Jmar reports that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said: ‘Do not prevent the women from going to the mosques, of Allah’” (Hadith Al-Muwatta, 14:12). Women gathered in the masjid for instruction by the Prophet, spoke during public gatherings in the masjid after the Prophet’s death, and served as teachers in the masjid. Indoors or out, women prayed separately from men, arranged in rows behind the men or occasionally alongside them but separate. This separation was later reinforced in masjids by the erection of physical barriers such as curtains, partitions, or special sections.

Gathering Places . The masjid was a central part of Muslim life. As with the cathedrals in Europe, patronage and donations, as well as the work of local or imported artisans, made certain that a masjid was a showpiece for an area. Privately funded smaller masjids were adorned according to the wealth of the donors. Maintenance of an earthen masjid was a communal effort carried out after the annual rainy seasons, earthquakes, or floods. The masjid was a place of education for adults through weekly sermons and recitation, and for children, who learned to recite the Qur’an in the kuttab (primary school). Each year the entire Qur’an was recited at the masjid during the nearly thirty nights of Ramadan. The masjid was a classroom, a place where the homeless or travelers could sleep and expect to receive charity, and a sanctuary. Along with congregational prayer, educational, social, business, and political affairs were conducted in and around the masjid. Judges sometimes heard cases in a masjid.

Purification for Prayer . Purifying the body, clothing, and surroundings was a part of Islamic belief, and seeking forgiveness from God for sins was equated with cleansing. Islam prescribed guidelines for bodily cleanliness that begin with purification for prayer, called wudu’, done with water collected from a pure source. A Muslim first washed the hands three times, then cleansed the face, rinsing the mouth and nostrils three times, then washed the forearms thrice (right first), then wiped the head and ears, and finally washed the right foot and the left foot to the ankle. If no water could be found, a Muslim could strike his or her hands on pure earth, sand, or dust, shake it off, and symbolically cleanse the hands and face. The symbolic act of washing for prayer was a metaphor for the benefits of prayer in this hadith: “When a servant of Allah—a Muslim or a believer—washes his face (in course of ablution), every sin he contemplated with his eyes will be washed away from his face along with water, or with the last drop of water; when he washes his hands, every sin they wrought will be effaced from his hands with the water, or with the last drop of water; and when he washes his feet, every sin towards which his feet have walked will be washed away with the water, or with the last drop of water, with the result that he comes out pure from all sins” (Sahih Muslim, hadith 475). The place for prayer had to be free of any filth, and it occupied an established location in many homes. Away from home, prayer was to be performed in any clean place, at a distance from latrines or graves. The masjid was to be kept clean and pure, either informally or by hired custodians. According to the Sunan of Abu-Dawood, “The Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) commanded us to build mosques in different localities (that is, in the locality of each tribe separately) and that they should be kept clean and be perfumed” (Hadith 455).

Hygiene and Cleanliness . Keeping the home and the streets clean of filth was required of Muslims. Removing a dangerous object or obstacle from the road was considered an act of charity. A part of the belief in emulating the Prophet, personal cleanliness, or taharah, included frequent bathing, combing one’s hair, using perfume, and wearing clean clothing free of impure substances. The Prophet taught prayers and supplications to accompany these and many other daily acts. Weekly baths before Friday prayer, bathing after sexual relations and menstrual periods, and washing private parts with water after using the toilet were universally recognized Islamic requirements for personal hygiene. The Prophet Muhammad practiced frequent cleaning of his teeth, using a fibrous twig called a siwak that was chewed to make a brush-like ending. Such natural toothbrushes are still widely used among Muslims. According to Sahih al-Eukhari, “Allah’s Apostle said, ’If I had not found it hard for my followers or the people, I would have ordered them to clean their teeth with siwak for every prayer’” (Hadith 2.12). Other matters of personal grooming were also attributed to the Prophet’s recommendations, such as keeping nails clipped and removing some body hair. In a widely recorded hadith, the Prophet’s wife Hafsah reported, “The Messenger of Allah, upon whom be peace, reserved his right hand for eating, drinking, putting on his clothes, taking and giving. He used his left hand for other actions” (Sunan of Alan Dawood, hadith 321). Dressing and washing began on the right. One stepped into a masjid with the right foot and out with the left. Even left-handed Muslims followed this pattern based on the Sunnah, such as entering a latrine with the left foot and exiting with the right. A Muslim should not show himself or herself to others, talk, stand up, or face in the direction of prayer or its opposite while answering the call of nature. For the sake of public hygiene, urination in elevated places, into a source of water, or in any place that would defile public space or resources was forbidden. Such teachings established a lowest common denominator in terms of standards of living in seventh-century Arabia, and these customs were far ahead of their time considering that nothing was known about disease microorganisms and that cholera and dysentery epidemics were frequently caused by sewage entering sources of public drinking water. These basic principles of hygiene could be applied in undeveloped surroundings or more advanced circumstances. In later periods, the need to maintain these practices encouraged development of hydraulic technologies and public-health measures that led to urban plumbing systems, influenced the design of houses and public latrines, and guided their placement in the urban or rural landscape.


Richard W. Bulliet, Islam: The View from the Edge (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

Timothy Insoll, The Archaeology of Islam (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999).

Martin Lings, Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources, revised edition (London: Islamic Texts Society, 1991).

Francis Robinson, “Religious Life,” in his Atlas of the Islamic World Since 1500 (New York: Facts on File, 1982).