Geographies of Islamic Prayers

Get to know a bit more about your Muslim students. Prayer is important to Muslims around the world and it begins with Fajr in the morning before sunrise.

Written by Iram Sammar

Date: Dhul Hijjah 4, 1443 AH (July 4, 2022)

Image by Iram Sammar via Salaam Geographia

Fajr prayer

Have you ever encountered people in school or out and about, place a mat or cloth on the floor and recite ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is Great)? If you teach students who identify as a Muslim, they will know what Salah is and what it means to a devout Muslim. Perhaps next time, you can ask them to tell you a little bit more about the Islamic prayer – only if they are comfortable to talk to you. Alternatively, keep reading and perhaps you can share your knowledge about Salah. Some may call this prayer or Namaaz, which is Persian for Salah, other languages have their own names. So, what are the geographies connected to this act of worship?

Fajr is the very first prayer of the day and it sets the tone for the rest of they day. Most of your students who choose to pray, will do so before school begins. Those who offer Fajr early in the morning, will be familiar with the condition of the atmosphere at this time, as it is a time referred to as day break (see photo above, it was taken at the time of Fajr). For this reason knowing when sunrise will occur is essential.

Morning time is a very peaceful time, other than birds chirping, it is very rare to hear the urban sounds of intense traffic or lively conversations on the streets. I often spend this time in the garden or going for a short walk around the block. It is overwhelmingly quiet and there is a sense of being, where it almost feels like time has stopped for you to enjoy. If you have not experienced this transitionary time, I urge you to – it will open your senses and give you a sense of freedom. As the urban sounds start flooding in, so does your busy life.

Yusuf Islam released a single which I recall singing as a child in the different Christian schools I attended as a child:

Morning has broken like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken like the first bird
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning
Praise for them springing fresh from the world

Sweet the rains new fall, sunlit from Heaven
Like the first dewfall on the first grass
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden
Sprung in completeness where His feet pass

Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning
Born of the one light, Eden saw play
Praise with elation, praise every morning
God’s recreation of the new day

Morning has broken like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken like the first bird
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning
Praise for them springing fresh from the world

The original piece was written by Eleanor Farjeon who was known for writing English children’s stories and plays, poetry, amongst other things. This hymn was the only one that did not conflict with my own Islamic beliefs at school. I didn’t like singing, but my teachers were adamant that children should sing. In Islam, Muslims believe that nothing or no one is associated in partnership with the oneness of Allah (ﷻ), or God in English. I often wished for teachers to just let me have my own beliefs as they prided over theirs. Growing up, it was very difficult explaining this to teachers and friends who were not Muslim. Often I would just keep my beliefs in my heart and only speak about Islam at home, as home was a safe space for me to explore and indulge in my faith and develop my spirituality. The beauty of faith is that it comes from the heart – no one can enter the heart as it is yours. When you sleep at night, the moment you close your eyes, no one but you, yourself can know what is in your heart. Faithful Muslims do believe this is the time to remember Allah (ﷻ), as the following verse of the Qur’an reveals:

‏قُلْ إِن تُخْفُوا۟ مَا فِى صُدُورِكُمْ أَوْ تُبْدُوهُ يَعْلَمْهُ ٱللَّهُ ۗ وَيَعْلَمُ مَا فِى ٱلسَّمَوَتِ وَمَا فِى ٱلْأَرْضِ ۗ وَٱللَّهُ عَلَىٰ كُلِّ شَىْءٍۢ قَدِيرٌۭ

Transliteration: qul in tukh’fū mā fī ṣudūrikum aw tub’dūhu yaʿlamhu l-lahu wayaʿlamu mā fī l-samāwāti wamā fī l-arḍi wal-lahu ʿalā kulli shayin qadīru

Translation: Say, “Whether you conceal what (is) in your breasts or you disclose it – knows, it is Allah. And He knows what (is) in the heavens and what (is) in the earth. And Allah (is) on every thing All-Powerful.” (Qur’an, Ayah al-Imran 3: 29, translation by Muhammad Asad)

As you would have noticed, the Qur’an is recited in Arabic and has its origins in the Arabian Peninsula.

Where is the Arabian Peninsula?

Take a look at the image below. Write down three observations or ask three questions, or ask your students to.

Here are my questions:

  1. Why is there a brown/beige colour?
  2. Why are the edges a darker shade?
  3. What are those white areas?

Start by asking yourself the most simplest questions, as these are the easiest to build on. One of the easiest ways to understand the topography of a place is to study a satellite image of it. Satellite images like the one above are captured through remote sensing – these are images taken by sensors on spacecrafts. An example would be Landsat, where land is detected and measured using the radiation from the earth’s surface. Some serious interpretation and analysis makes it possible to determine important information about all the oceans, landcover and atmosphere. With an actual topographic map, it is easy to identify physical and political aspects of a location – where you can identify boundaries determined politically.

Why is Saudi Arabia important to Muslims around the world? Earlier on, we were introduced to one of the five daily prayers, Fajr – so, which direction do people offer their prayers in? The direction of this spiritual act of worship links Muslims to the Ka’ba (see image below). The Ka’ba is a cube – shaped construction, ancient in time situated in the magnificent city of Makkah.

In 2012, I observed my own Hajj pilgrimage and was able to visit Makka and Medina, both are located in Saudi Arabia. In agreement with El-Hajj Malik El-Shabbazz (Malcolm X) as he wrote in his monumental letter, it was an eye opening experience for me. I had the privilege to see the global majority together in one city – for the first time, I was not the ‘other’, we were all from different countries and races/ethnicities. Whiteness as the ruling force faded into mythology – all races were united as one during the day of Arafat, as people in the evening, all one million of us lay under the stars in Muzdalifa, awaiting for the Fajr Salah – of course sleep takes over first. It was quite an overwhelming feeling. Islamic historical records (1400 years ago) indicate that Allah (ﷻ) directed Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ), during the second year of the Hijrah (the great Hijrat, or migration of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ from Makkah to Madinah), to redirect all prayers from Jerusalem, now to Makkah – this instruction is evident in the Islamic Holy Qur’an (chapter 1, verse 150). So, since this redirection, all Muslims face the Ka’ba when offering Salah.

In order to calculate the direction from one location to another, scholars have determined two main factors:

  1. The location of each point must be known, this is taken to mean the latitude and longitude.
  2. The type of path between the two points must be established; this is normally a choice between a great circle (or geodesic) and a rhumb line.

The direction of the Salah is called the Qibla. The Mercator map and its calculations within the flat projections are quite problematic when determining the Qibla, as the world looks very different on a flat map we see in an Atlas, therefore it is calculated with a compass so there is a more accurate ellipsoid.  Geographical technology has provided Muslims with accurate tools to establish the precise location of the Qibla. You can now just find the direction on your iphone through google, such as the Qibla Finder. If you are anyone like me, the traditional compass is just as accurate.

It is important to get to know each other so we can eradicate racist comments, feelings and prejudices. Islamophobia is a form of racism. Arun Kundnani in his book The Muslims are Coming describes it as a term which has been used more recently in the modern world, more specifically a product of the modern world, the scientific world, the world of capitalism – therefore a fairly recent phenomena. It has emerged from the 1970s onwards. Strongly, its emergence was after the Cold War in the early 1990s. Therefore, it is important for teachers and educators to explore reading lists that helps them decolonise and become anti-racist in the classroom. When a child from any racial or religious background/heritage is made to feel isolated, as I have in the past, it becomes a safe guarding issue.

I wrote this piece to raise awareness of how delicate relationships are and to show you how a little effort in educating yourself about a different culture or religious belief can help build a powerful resistance against racism or prejudice.

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