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Muslim Devotion: Prayers Five Times A Day

The Muslim Prayer Call

The call to prayer... heard five times a day through the streets of Bamako.

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Imagine you're on a bus. A hot, crowded bus filled with people who don't speak your language. The roads are dusty, and you are unbearably thirsty. You've been on the bus all day now, and you are wondering when the long journey will end. It's late afternoon, and you were told you would reach the capital by around 5 PM, but there is still no sign of a city in sight. The bus pulls over and everyone piles off. What's going on? This deserted dirt road in the middle of nowhere surely can't be the bus station. But why is everyone getting off? We just had a pee-break 15 minutes ago, everyone can't shouldn't need a rest stop this soon. You watch in wonder as everyone bows down on the ground facing the same direction. Within minutes everyone piles back on the bus and we're off. Hmmmmmm.........

Map of Mali
It's Friday, noon, and you've been running errands through the hot city streets of the capital all morning. The midday sun is beating down so hard, you are starting to feel faint. All that keeps you going is the image of the air-conditioned cafe you're supposed to meet your friends at and the tall, cold glass of lemonade waiting with your name on it. It's so close you can taste it. There's an unusually large amount of people walking in the same direction as you, mostly men, dressed in traditional clothes. The cafe is right across the street from you. You try to move through the crowd to the curbside to cross, but a guard stops you. You see the whole road blocked off, but the guard is letting all the men through. Why can't I get through too? Something major must be going on to block off the main road of the capital city. The men don't cross the street though, they stop in the street and roll out their mats, one right next to another, and all sit facing the same direction. The road is blocked for as far as you can see... you can't even walk around the blockade to get to your friends, to the air conditioning, to the drink you so desperately need! Hmmmmm.....

Click image for larger view
The Grand Mosque of Bamako, Mali
You're sleeping in a bed... finally... after two days and nights on a bus. You're finally getting the rest you've been longing for. You intended on sleeping in... until 11 AM or maybe even noon! You're in the middle of a good dream, when all of a sudden something wakes you up. There's a loud voice, singing something in a foreign language over a loud speaker. It's loud enough for the entire city to hear it. Maybe it's time to get up, you shake your head in confusion. No, it's only 4 AM. What in the world could be going on to broadcast a call to wake up the city at 4 AM? Maybe there's some kind of emergency. You rush to the window, but there is no commotion in the streets. Within minutes, the man finishes his song and the microphone is turned off. Hmmmmmm...........

These are just some of the strange circumstances we have found ourselves in since the world trek team arrived in Mali. Mali is the first primarily Muslim country we have traveled through so far on the Odyssey, and these things that seemed so confusing to us are, in actuality, Islamic traditions. It has been fascinating for all of us to learn more about this religion.

These are the five pillars of Islam which are the basic tenets that guide Muslims in their everyday life. Islam is in fact the Arabic word for submission. As you can see from the five pillars, Muslims live with a duty to submit themselves to Allah (God). Islam was founded in the 7th century in Mecca when Mohammed received the word of Allah in the form of the Koran-the holy book of Islam. Mohammed called on people to turn away from pagan worship and to submit to the one supreme God. Within two decades Islam had spread through Arabia, and by the 14th century the great empires of West Africa were also converted.

You see, the reasons why the bus stopped in the afternoon, the road was blocked off at noon, the man's song woke us up at 4 AM were one and the same - these are all prayer times. As outlined in the second Pillar of Islam, Muslims pray 5 times a day: at dawn, midday, mid-afternoon, sunset, and nightfall. They always pray in the direction of Mecca, thus they always face the same way. Friday is an especially holy day, when the community gathers together for the midday prayer and to have a discourse-exchanging ideas and sharing news about the community.

Dabel, our friend whose family we've been staying with in Bamako, prays five times a day even when she is back at school at California-State. Her family has been kind enough to explain to us some of the Islamic customs; I wouldn't want to offend anyone while I was staying in this country that is over 75% Muslim.

All over town I've seen people holding bead necklaces in their hands. They are beautiful, and I've been wondering why I haven't seen anyone actually wearing them. I saw Dabel's cousin Moctar holding one this morning, so I asked him. "This is what we call a chapelet in French," he laughed at the thought of wearing it like a necklace. "We use it to count out our prayers on." I remember seeing Tibetan monks doing something similar, reciting Buddhist mantras for each bead on the necklace. Moctar has a shorter one that he takes to work with him. "The Koran outlines which invocations need to be said and how many times they should be said depending on what you are praying for. We use the beads to count out the invocations."

Moctar holding his beads
I've noticed there are a lot of separations between men and women in Islamic culture. Mostly men go to the mosques or do their prayers on the streets. Dabel told me that although she prays every day, she has never been to the mosque. "There is very much respect for women in Islam," explained Dabel's nephew, Tidiane, when I asked him about the separation. "The first convert to Islam and the first martyr to die in the name of Islam were both women." He seemed to be a bit defensive when my question came up. I think he realized that my western mind ingrained with notions of women's equality was a bit skeptical of the differences. "The reason you don't see the women praying is because it is outlined in the Koran that women should rest at home. It is better than going out and going to the mosque. In Islam, we guard and respect the women." It seems only older women could be seen going to mosque, where they have a separate section just for women.

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People entering the mosque for Friday mid-afternoon prayer
The most traditional women wear long robes that cover their arms and legs and a shawl to cover their heads. It's so hot that we've been wanting to wear nothing but tank tops and shorts, but it seems inappropriate here. However, Dabel and her friends dress like we do in America, summer dresses, short skirts and all. Dabel is a practicing Muslim, yet she doesn't cover up. So I guess like in all religions, there are varying degrees of people's interpretations of what a person must do to keep within the faith. The only time I've ever seen Dabel in traditional clothes was when she went to a Muslim wedding ceremony one day.

Mali is our first visit to a Muslim country. From here we will be traveling through the Middle East and will be visiting a number of other Islamic countries. I am excited to learn more about this religion, and am glad that now we will know better than to be startled when the call to prayer wakes us up at 4 AM!


Monica - English, French, or Bambara: Which language do we speak today?
Monica - A Visit to UNICEF Mali
Jasmine - Rain, Rain, Go Away
Making a Difference - Cracking Down on Population Growth

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