Eighteen years among Somali Muslims in the Horn of Africa have taught an American Christian that Islam’s five pillars apply to Christianity as well. In this excerpt from a Plough book, Pillars, she describes what she has learned about one of these five pillars, prayer.
Call to Prayer
I had expected mornings in Borama to be quiet. No traffic noise, no refrigerator humming, no fans whirring, no airplanes overhead. But sounds of Somalian village life swept in through our screened windows before the sun even peeked over the mountains. A rooster crowed, and next door a woman chanted and sang. I went out on the veranda and, over the walls surrounding our house, watched the singing neighbor gather brown eggs. A cart dripping water rattled past, pulled by a weary-looking donkey guided by a man slapping its hind legs. A fight broke out between stray dogs among the cacti and thorn bushes across the dirt road. With a high-pitched yelp, a female limped away from the pack.
These were not sounds of machines or mass productivity but of life: water, animals, singing. Over the cacophony came the deep, clear song of the muezzin, reminding faithful Muslims that prayer is better than sleep.
“Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!” God is great!
An American living in Pakistan said once that when she heard this call to prayer, the adhan, she would rush to cover her infant’s ears so the devil wouldn’t get inside the baby, or turn on loud Christian praise and worship music to drown the sound of evil. Another woman told me the Islamic call to prayer terrified her and led her to pray against the enemy. I think she meant Muslims.
This is how some Christians respond to Islam: it can contain nothing good and should be feared or defeated. This is also, I would learn, how some Muslims respond to Christianity: ready to argue, quick to believe misconceptions, primed for violence. Thomas Merton said people are “cutting themselves off from other people and building a barrier of contrast and distinction.” I cannot shake one of his next sentences: “And thus I spend my life admiring the distance between you and me.”
I wasn’t afraid, hearing the adhan that morning. I felt no blanket of darkness settle over me and felt no urge to cover my twin toddlers’ ears or pray about “enemies.” Rather than admiring the distance between Muslims and myself, or building a barrier of contrast, I felt compelled to step toward God – and in doing so, step toward my new Muslim neighbors. There was an immediate hunger for participation. The sense that I wasn’t part of Islam, that this call to prayer was not calling me, only increased that hunger.
Salat, the second of Islam’s five pillars, governs Muslims’ daily lives. Five times a day, men gather at the mosque and women pull prayer rugs from closets. Why? I wondered. What was the man behind the speaker saying? How many of my neighbors responded to his call? Did it feel like a joy or a burden? Or both? How did they experience God in those moments? Was that the only way Muslims prayed?
Maybe interfaith dialogue starts with curiosity.
I loved watching Somalis pray. I still do, though it can feel awkward to stare into the bubble of holy space they create any and everywhere – airports, market stalls, hospital corridors, beaches, track and field competitions. I’ve learned not to walk in front of someone praying, but all other motion and conversation continues around them.
Muslim men are encouraged to pray at the mosque, but other than on Fridays, women most often pray at home. They time the prayer around a pot of rice, around playdates and birthday parties. Toddlers crawl over their mothers’ prostrated backs; older children bounce babies. Human life and spiritual life, tangled up together.
After washing, Muslims turn toward the Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, and silently declare niyyah, their intention to focus on God.
I watched as women whispered the prayers under their breath. They tucked their toes into the material of their long dresses and pulled scarves over their heads like clouds, like Moses hidden in the cleft of the rock so the presence of God could pass by. They sat back on their heels and ran one finger along each knuckle, reciting the names of God.
Then, finished, they would abruptly return to whatever task they’d set aside.
Pray Without Ceasing
I spent all my free time studying Somali, even though another American told me that every foreigner she knew who spoke Somali got killed. She also told me every foreigner who wore Somali clothes got killed. Later, I recognized her warnings as concern stemming from trauma, from losing people she loved while working in southern Somalia – but the message wasn’t very encouraging.
The afternoon call to prayer became my signal to cover my head and go outside. It meant the indoor morning work – washing clothes by hand, preparing rice and goat for lunch, dusting floors – was over, for me and for my neighbors. It meant the afternoon siesta was over too, and the sun would set in less than three hours. It was time for shirshir, visiting.
I loved that afternoon call to prayer, because it released me from my morning isolation, from being cooped up with the twins and Somali language textbooks. Afternoons became my opportunity to humiliate myself as I stumbled through conversations and tried to develop relationships with the women on our street, tried to find or create common ground.
I remember one such conversation with a neighbor. We were in the dirt road between our houses, and our children played with stones and thorn bushes nearby. The sun was setting and the maghrib call to prayer sounded from the mosque across the street, ending the social visiting. She called her children to go into the house so she could pray.
“Do you pray?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“When do you pray?”
She looked at me like I was either a child or an alien. I knew I had said the words correctly. She sighed and went into the house. At the time I felt a sense of victory. I’d had a conversation! In Somali!
Now I know why she looked at me that way. I was both a child and an alien. Infantile in my understanding of prayer, Islam, my own faith, and the Somali language. And a foreigner – with a culture so completely other, I may as well have landed in a UFO and sprouted a tail.
She had used the word salat, ritual prayer. It would be physically impossible to pray the salat all day. Spontaneous prayer, du’a, carries less value than the required salat among most Muslims. Du’a was more like what I did when I prayed for a parking spot.
When I told my neighbor I prayed all day, I was clearly a liar. I wasn’t bowing and kneeling that moment in the street. She saw me in the market, buying watermelon by the slice and meat from fly-ridden slabs, not bowing or kneeling. When she asked if I prayed, I not only gave an answer that made no sense in her worldview, it wasn’t true in mine; I certainly didn’t pray all day.
I initially felt proud about this short conversation. I thought I had, in just a few words, explained something meaningful about Christians, and prayer, and how we’re so devoted that we don’t limit it to five times a day – about an intimate and ongoing relationship with God. Again with the competition and pride. I had desired to set myself not alongside but apart, even above.
I watched my neighbor pick up a water bucket from her courtyard for her washing, then turned to call the twins home. She would pray. She would beat a fresh batch of laxoox, spongy fermented flatbread, for the next day’s breakfast. She would turn on the radio and listen to BBC Somali.
At my house, we would spread jelly on baguettes and sing songs, to the background whine of mosquitoes. The twins would be asleep in an hour, and I would burn popcorn and watch a movie with Tom, our nightly ritual. There was nothing else to do after dark, since we weren’t supposed to leave the house.
But I couldn’t let go of the conversation. All these years later, I puzzle over it. What was I trying to communicate? What did she understand? I was quick to proclaim a depth of spirituality I lacked, and I didn’t see it as deceit but as conviction, as rightness. Now that I speak Somali better, I wish I could go back to that Somaliland neighbor. I’d like to hear her articulate what prayer means to her beyond the little I could understand in those first months. I’d like to know what she experiences when she prays. I’d like to ask if she feels God’s presence, if she finds rest on her knees, or how she overcomes apathy when it flattens her spiritual life. I’d like to tell her how I recognized God in our long-ago conversation, because she was willing to put up with the strange foreigner who spoke like an infant and tripped over her own dress and didn’t belong there, in the dirt street between our houses.
Call to Bread
The call to prayer woke me my first morning in Somaliland, and the call to bread woke me the first morning in Djibouti, less than a year later. I didn’t know it was a call to bread. I thought it was a bird dying and making an awful spectacle of it.
Insistent honking echoed through our home again at noon, four, six, and eight o’clock. For a full week I thought birds died in Djibouti at regular intervals every day, until I discovered not belly-up bird carcasses, but the bread man.
Every neighborhood had several bread men, and every bread man pushed a wooden cart with a horn strapped to the handle. The honking horns announced the arrival of fresh baguettes. The bread man strode up and down each street. He paused on corners, or outside houses with predictable bread needs, and honked. A single delicious baguette, crusty on the outside with a center of spongy fluff, cost twenty-five Djiboutian francs. Thirteen cents.
At the sound of the horn, children scurried from behind curtained doorways or towers of discarded tires, clutching precious coins in tight fists. Guards outside gated middle-class homes stepped over makeshift beds of flattened cardboard to purchase baguettes – for their parents, for their employers, for their own bellies, which grumbled on cue when the bread man appeared around the corner.
I’d expected the adhan to dictate the rhythm of life in this, my second Muslim country; I had not been prepared for the bread man. The call to prayer was at once unifying and divisive. Muslims around the globe bowed the knee and brushed their foreheads against the ground. For me, on lonely days, it was a reminder five times a day that I was an outsider, that I didn’t belong, that sometimes I wasn’t wanted. But the call to bread reached all our ears with the same demand. Come, eat, bite into a toasty baguette, and be satisfied. It reminded me of our shared humanity, inspiring me to consider how I might reinterpret the call to prayer for myself.
The Quran teaches that God scattered ayat, or signs, everywhere throughout the earth, to point to God, to turn humans toward worship. “And in your creation, and what he scattered through the earth of moving creatures, are signs for people who have faith with certainty” (45:4). I started to see the call to prayer and the call to bread as two of these signs, turning me toward God and toward neighbor.
Prayer times, roughly corresponding to bread times, occur at sunrise, midday, mid-afternoon, sunset, and between sunset and midnight. Each crackling buzz over the neighborhood speakers was a sign. Even before the muezzin began his call, the community knew it was time. For me, time to seek out more sacred signs of God. For Muslims, time to remember God, time to wash, wudu.
Washing the body, for my Muslim friends, wasn’t an empty ritual, though some confessed it felt that way at times (turns out Christians aren’t the only ones to struggle with feelings of dullness). But the forced pause in activity provided opportunity to focus single-mindedly on Allah.
Could I, a Christian, view wudu as another sign of God at work? Humans, taking an extra moment from a busy day to remind themselves of their distance from holiness, to embody faith by washing dirt from the flesh.
None of my Somali friends believed the water washed away their sins. Washing is done in obedience, in a moment of vulnerable spirituality – with damp sleeves and beads of water dripping from the chin. Their focus was on earning God’s favor and forgiveness by meticulously following the rules, though there is no guarantee. Muslims are in a liminal state, on the threshold between the physical and spiritual. They hope their prayers will be accepted, that God will pour out mercy.
The water dripping from foreheads and staining knees, the bruises, the timing, the call, are not only about obedience. They designate people of faith. The call to prayer is a loud (sometimes fuzzy or crackling) interruption of the day. I needed to be interrupted, disturbed. It is too easy to go about daily life ignoring the signs, without taking a moment to stop and turn to God.
In the evenings, I strained to hear the bread man’s horn before he turned up our street, so I would have time to find twenty-five francs. Night falls fast this close to the equator, and darkness had swallowed up shadows, long and narrow, by the time the bread man arrived. This was a ritual I could enter, joining my neighbors on the street.
Tomorrow, these rituals would begin again. Call to prayer, honking bread delivery. Come, pray. Come, eat.