This post is an extension of the previous post “How to Start Your Prayers.” Please note that I did not write this section myself – it is written by a member of ummah.com who calls herself “dhakiyya.” She gives good advice as to how to start the prayers as a new muslim.
Establishing five daily prayers
Establishing five daily prayers is no mean feat. If you have converted from an irreligious or nominally religious background, you may never have done any kind of regular worship before. Even if you have, Islam requires considerably more devotion than a good many religions. Praying five times a day means a lot more remembering to pray and organising your day than going to church every Sunday morning. Then you have to pray at the right times too. Its not just five prayers at any random convenient times. You can download prayer timetables from http://www.islamicfinder.org/ and the best advice would be to print out a copy month by month and keep one stuck to your noticeboard, in your handbag or anywhere convenient so you can refer to it as necessary.
It is not advisable to attempt to do all five daily prayers right from the time you take your shahada. Islam was revealed to the first generation of Muslims gradually over a period of 23 years. The first Muslims became Muslims when they stated their belief in One God and the revelation of Muhammad – for much of those 23 years they still drank alcohol (Allah had not yet revealed the verse forbidding it) and did not yet pray five times a day (that came with Muhammad’s night journey.) Allah revealed the Qur’an gradually to give the new Muslims a chance to adjust to the new lifestyle. New Muslims of today are given the same leeway. Practicing Islam is a huge change, and its far better to take it step by step and keep practicing than to try it all in one go, get totally overwhelmed and then upset with yourself because you failed to keep it up, and end up giving up altogether. To quote one scholar: Islam is a medicine that cures mankind. But to take it all in one go is to overdose and that can be fatal.
It is hard to balance taking things slowly with the common human inclination towards laziness. I have outlined a system by which you can gradually introduce your five daily prayers with minimum room for laziness. (Though if an inclination towards laziness is something the shaytaan is whispering into your heart, its still possible to succumb even with the best system so you’ll have to stay on your guard.)
Start by looking at the times for the five daily fard (compulsory) prayers and picking one (or two if you are feeling confident) that you think will be the easiest to stick to. If you have already shown your boss your nice shiny new Islam certificate and s/he has already found you a prayer room, it might be an idea to start with the Dhur (early afternoon) prayer. (If the idea of showing your Islam certificate and asking for a prayer room fills you with horror, Dhur might be the last prayer you decide to establish.)
Once you have picked your easiest prayer time, establish that prayer. Endeavour to never forget to pray that prayer, and try to make sure you always pray it on time. If you slip up, don’t worry, pray it late. Better late than never! (even if its over 24 hours late.) I have found out from personal experience that it is far better to pick a specific prayer than to simply state you will pray once a day and pray the prayer that is most convenient on that day, because as well as building up the number of prayers you do each day, you are also developing the self discipline to remember to pray on time and reject any whisperings of shaytaan telling you that you can do your prayer a bit later.
Once you have fully established the one or two prayers you picked to start with, so that you rarely, if ever, forget to do them, pick another prayer time and establish it in the same way. Don’t increase the number until you are regularly praying the ones you have picked already and feel they are a part of your daily routine. Gradually work your way up to five in this way. Don’t start adding Sunnah (extra) rakats (units of prayer) to your prayer unless you are confident that you can cope with them. Doing the Sunnah rakats is the next step after you have established the five fard prayers. It is important to do the Sunnah rakats as well as the fard prayers – but don’t try to run before you can walk.
Don’t get the impression that you have to be perfect in one prayer before you add new prayers to your schedule, you will never be perfect. When you are praying each prayer on time most of the time and you feel it is part of your daily routine, that is when you add the next prayer. Don’t wait until you never forget. For some of us, that could be forever.
As you increase the number of prayers, you will find that you may have to adjust your daily schedule to fit your prayers in. This is a good thing to do. The prayer times are reasonably flexible as to not require too much rescheduling, but it is far easier to remember to pray if you have built prayer times into your daily schedule than if you are just trying to remember that you have to pray between particular times. Remembering to pray will always be more difficult when things happen that disrupt your daily schedule, just remember – better late than never.
If you are physically handicapped or have medical problems (e.g. a back injury) that makes praying standing up very hard, you can pray sitting down, or even lying down. The same applies for temporary illness as well as long term conditions.
Women who are menstruating don’t pray, similarly women who are experiencing bleeding following childbirth. This is a concession to women, and I’m sure you’ll appreciate this concession most when you are recovering from childbirth.
Learning how to pray
Prayer in Islam is not simply a matter of putting your hands together and talking to Allah. You can talk to Allah any time you like, this is called “making du’aa” (supplication) and you don’t have to put your hands together or do any other ritual to do so. You can make du’aa anytime, anywhere and you don’t have to be in a state of ritual purity to do so. However, it is strongly advised to be as respectful as possible to Allah as the situation allows. If you are making du’aa whilst you are halfway through falling off a cliff, Allah will understand if you are not able to be in the appropriate state of purity or put much thought into what you are asking, for example.
Salat, the ritual prayer, requires following a specific ritual which includes different positions, different supplications to Allah and reciting part of the Qur’an in Arabic. For someone who knows no Arabic, this is understandably a very daunting thing to have to learn to do. You should not delay attempting to establish regular prayers until you have learned the full prayer, you should simply do the best you are able at the time. As you start to establish your first prayer, you should try to improve your prayer a little at the time (as much as you can manage) from day to day. Whilst you are learning to pray, it is perfectly acceptable to recite some or even all of the supplications in English, until such time as you can memorise the Arabic. There is actually quite a lot of Arabic you have to memorise before you can pray correctly. Another way to go about this, if you want to recite the Arabic right from the start, is to write out the Arabic transliteration and stick it on the end of your prayer mat, so you read it whilst you are praying. You can also do the same with instructions to remind you what to do at any point in the prayer. This is better than learning part of the prayer in English because reading the Arabic helps you to memorise it, but the most important thing is that you are doing the best you can to pray as well are you are able. If saying bits of the prayer in English helps you to do this, then that’s what you should do.
Knowing how to pronounce the Arabic, even with transliteration in front of you, is a big challenge. Arabic has ten consonants that don’t exist in standard English, and no matter how well a book describes how to make those sounds, the only way to learn them properly is to learn from someone who speaks Arabic extremely well (especially if they are a speech therapist), or even better is an expert in Tajweed (the science of correct recitation of the Qur’an.) If your local mosque runs Tajweed lessons for beginners, sign up as soon as you can; as well as learning the correct pronunciation of the Arabic you need to learn, you will meet Muslims who can help, support and encourage you and you will be able to learn much more Qur’an much more quickly.
If you don’t know anyone who would be able to help you, the next best thing is to get a CD or other recording of the Qur’an being recited. This won’t help you so much with the supplications, but at least it gives you a very good idea of how the Qur’an should be recited. It won’t give you feedback as to whether you are pronouncing all the sounds correctly, but it will tune your ear in to what it is supposed to sound like. Failing all that, you will have to rely on transliteration but again, so long as you are doing the best you can do, it is okay.
As well as learning how to recite correctly, it is important to know the meaning of what you are reciting. As you learn to recite each new bit of Arabic, try to remember the meaning of what you are reciting. You are not an Arabic parrot, you are a human showing your devotion to your creator.
It is preferable to get a Muslim friend to teach you how to pray. They will be able to show you so you can copy, hear you recite and correct you as necessary and generally encourage and help you to learn. If you don’t have such a friend, there are a few websites that have good illustrated sections on how to pray. here is one for starters I’m sure other good ones will be posted in due course inshaAllah.