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A response to Dr Jonathan Brown on the five daily prayers

This article is in response to Dr Jonathan Brown’s article, which can be read here.


I fear that Dr Brown is being rather disingenuous in this posting!


He must know in his heart of hearts that the reason he and I disagree as to the likely origin of the 5 daily prayers owes less to my allegedly perfidious qualities of hypocrisy and arrogance, and more to the fact that we come to the question from radically opposed starting points. Dr Brown is a Muslim, and as such – and please do forgive me if I am assuming too much here – believes that the instruction to pray 5 times a day comes ultimately from God. To point out that he is parti pris is not, of course, to pretend that I am not similarly so myself. I also bring my ideological prejudices to the party. As a non-Muslim, I do not believe that the origins of the 5 prayers are to be explained with reference to a supernatural entity, and so naturally I look to situate them in the cultural context that may have inspired them.


Granted, it is not necessary to believe that Muhammad was authentically a prophet of God to accept that the 5 prayers may have originated with him. The reason I tend to think they didn’t, though, is very simple: that there is no mention of them in the Qur’an. On one reading, it seems to enjoin three prayers a day; on another, four. What makes the lack of any reference to 5 prayers a day all the more striking is that instructions on how and when to pray are part of the very fabric of the qur’anic text: salat was clearly of huge importance to the author(s) of the Qur’an, and it seems odd, if indeed the practice of praying 5 times a day did begin with Muhammad, that there should have been no mention of it at all.


So where, then, might it have originated? Zoroastrianism seems to me the likeliest source, simply because the obligation to pray 5 times a day was fundamental to it in a way that it was not for other faiths – and because Persian influence on proto-Islam in the 8th century, when the Sunna first seems to have developed, was so profound. That is not to say, though, that there might not have been different inspirations as well. It is evident that there were numerous varying opinions in the early years of Islam as to how many prayers there should be. As Dr Brown himself points out, the Hanafis argued that there should be six, not five, daily prayers, while a hadith in Bukhari implies that originally there had been no less than fifty! Over time, though, the preference for praying five times a day seems to have ended up attaining critical mass – and I am certainly not alone in wondering whether the sheer volume of Zoroastrian converts to proto-Islam might not have been the decisive factor.


As for the citation from Rav Yehudai that Dr Brown dismisses so forthrightly, it is true that we do depend for it upon a late source – as, alas, is the case with so much of the evidence for Zoroastrian history. Nevertheless, there is an obvious reason for accepting its essential reliability – namely, that it is hard to see why anyone would have had a reason to make it up. Its context is so patently specific to early Islamic Iraq that it would assume a very specialised knowledge on the part of rabbis living elsewhere and in other periods to argue credibly that they might have fabricated it. I first had my attention brought to the passage at a seminar on conversion in early Islamic Iraq – and certainly, the scholars who attended the conference, all of them with a highly specialised knowledge of the field, had no doubts as to its essential reliability. The reason why I would trust it as a historical source over, say, Ibn Ishaq, is not because I am ‘islamophobic’ or anything ridiculous like that, but because when Ibn Ishaq writes about Muhammad, he believes that he is touching on the entire destiny of the universe, whereas a rabbi in 12th century France who quotes Rav Yehudai does not. In other words, he has no particular dog in the fight.


Naturally, the question of cultural cross-pollination has always been a sensitive one when profoundly held beliefs and ideals come into play. Dr Brown’s indignation at the idea that the 5 prayers might have derived from anywhere other than the depths of Arabia reminds me of the horror on the part of certain Western scholars in the early 20th century when confronted by the thesis of Near Eastern influence on classical Greece. That most classicists now would unhesitatingly accept the likelihood of, say, Hittite influence on Hesiod leads me to think that in time scholars like Dr Brown will come round to acknowledging that there might indeed be reasons for thinking – as I and many, many scholars infinitely my superiors in learning do – that Islam was not entirely autochthonous. He has been immersed in the study of the topic long enough, I should have thought, to know that his implication that what he terms ‘revisionism’ is bred of arrogance and hypocrisy is unworthy of him.