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What is salat? Daily prayer in Islam

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Jaamel Montgomery prays during midday prayers.
Jaamel Montgomery prays during Dhuhr, or midday prayers, at the Masjid An-Nur mosque in Minneapolis. Midday prayers are done shortly after the sun has reached its zenith.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

The role of ritual prayer in Islam made plenty of headlines in Minnesota last year. 

In the fall, a comment disparaging Muslims appeared on the Facebook account of then-Columbia Heights school board member Grant Nichols. It alluded to the act of ablution, or washing parts of the body before prayer, and referred to the bathroom habits of Muslims as "unsanitary." Nichols, who maintains he was not the person who made the post, later resigned. 

At the end of 2015, Wayzata, Minn.-based Cargill fired about 150 Muslim workers from a Colorado meat packing plant after they walked off the job during a dispute over workplace prayer. 

Some employees said the company changed the policy that had allowed for short breaks throughout the work day. Cargill disputes that claim, saying the firings "appear to be based on a misunderstanding, or misinformation, about a perceived change in our religious accommodation policy that did not occur. Allegations that we were not going to allow prayer any longer are false." 

Prayer throughout the day, during which Muslims take time to remember God, is a hallmark of Islam. 

"It cleanses you, keeps you mindful, keeps you grateful and keeps you humble," said Aida Al-Kadi. "It makes you a better person. It has a lot of emotional and psychological benefits." 

How many times must Muslims pray each day?

Muslim pilgrims
Tens of thousands of Muslim pilgrims pray outside and inside the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in 2011. The annual Islamic pilgrimage draws three million visitors each year, making it the largest yearly gathering of people in the world.
Hassan Ammar | AP file 2011

Five times every day, all Muslims pray at the same time, facing the same direction. 

"It's a sense of unity," said Wafiq Fannoun, executive director of the online Islamic school Mishkah University.

Salat is the second of the Five Pillars of Islam. It requires all Muslims who have reached puberty to worship five times daily, facing the holy city of Mecca. (Women who are menstruating or women who have recently given birth are excluded from the requirement.) 

It's preferred that Muslims offer their prayers in a mosque, but if they are unable to, they can pray anywhere as long as it's clean. 

When do Muslims pray?

Women pray
Girls and young women pray at the Abubakar As-Saddique mosque in Minneapolis in March 2009.
Laura Yuen | MPR News file 2009

The specific times can change daily, depending on the position of the sun. Many Muslims use smartphone apps that list prayer times each day. Many of those apps even include compasses that point toward Mecca. 

• Fajr: Dawn, before sunrise

• Dhuhr: Midday, after the sun has reached its zenith

• Asr: Afternoon

• Maghrib: Sunset

• Isha: Night

In addition, Muslims hold a congregational prayer, called Jum'ah, at the mosque on Fridays. When Muslims pray Jum'ah, they are not required to pray Dhuhr afterwards. 

Omid Safi, director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center, elaborated on the timing of the prayers: 

"We tend to get distracted, lost in the busyness of life and work. Prayers are an opportunity to come back to God, come back to who and what we are truly made to be. That's why the prayers are spaced out. 

They are also a chance to be re-attuned to the natural cosmos, which is the prayer times are based on the apparent movement of the sun. So think of the prayers as a chance to connect with our own heart and souls, with community, with nature, and with God."

While there is a small amount of wiggle room in the timing of each prayer — start time for each prayer doesn't have to be exact — "it isn't something that you can really delay if you're really being observant," said professor William O. Beeman, chair of the anthropology department at the University of Minnesota and an expert on the Islamic world.

Al-Kadi said praying on time "shows respect for our creator." 

"Imagine you were going to see your boss at noon, would you miss that time? Or say you had to go to a doctor's appointment, would you arrive late?" she said. "No, you would be on time." 

Where do Muslims go to pray if they're at work or school?

Muslims need a clean space to pray — bathrooms are considered unsanitary for prayer — that will allow them room to kneel and prostrate. Some worship in their cubicles or offices at work, or in empty classrooms. 

Washing feet before prayer
Mohamed Ukash performs an ablution before praying at the Islamic Center of St. Cloud Thursday in June 2010.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News file 2010

Some places that serve or employ large Muslim populations around the state offer quiet spaces that can be used for prayer, including Dakota County Technical College, Inver Hills Community College and the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. At the University of Minnesota, the Al-Madinah Cultural Center has space for prayer at Coffman Memorial Union. 

How do Muslims pray?

A call to prayer, the adhan, precedes worship. In Muslim countries, the call, sung by a muezzin, is broadcast on outdoor loudspeakers. In Minnesota, the adhan is played inside mosques. 

Before prayer, Muslims also wash their hands, mouth, nose, face, arms and feet to purify themselves. 

The prayer itself can be done in as little as five minutes, and can be performed solo or with a group. 

It involves rakats — a sequence of movements and postures such as standing, bowing, kneeling and touching the ground with the forehead while reciting specific verses from the Quran. 

"Bowing, touching our forehead to the ground is showing humility to God," Fannoun said. 

Each daily prayer has a different number of required rakats, ranging from two to four. 

Many also worship on a prayer mat, though it's not required.

What does the law say about religious accommodation at work?

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: 

The law requires an employer or other covered entity to reasonably accommodate an employee's religious beliefs or practices, unless doing so would cause more than a minimal burden on the operations of the employer's business. This means an employer may be required to make reasonable adjustments to the work environment that will allow an employee to practice his or her religion.

Examples of some common religious accommodations include flexible scheduling, voluntary shift substitutions or swaps, job reassignments, and modifications to workplace policies or practices.

But in certain circumstances, employers don't have to make accommodations if they would cause "undue hardship" for the business. Several companies have said having multiple workers gone at the same time disrupts production.

More resources

• 5 books to read to better understand Islam

• Why Islam is on the rise worldwide