One aspect of our connection to God that illuminates how we approach Him is that of prayer. Both Christians and Muslims pray, so on the surface, one might assume both religions are fairly similar. Sure, there are some differences in procedure and body posture, but is there something more telling about the act of prayer within Christianity and Islam that would lend some insight into their differences?
In Islam, one aspect of prayer that is of paramount importance is the qiblah. The qiblah is the direction of prayer. All Muslims pray facing The Ka’aba in Mecca, the holiest site in Islam. Many mosques are built such that the entire structure aligns with the qiblah. Here in the United States, streets often run straight north-south and east-west. When a mosque is not squared to Mecca, the floor will be striped at an angle so that the lines of prayer can be formed in the correct direction.
As it happens, the direction of prayer in Islam has not always been toward Mecca. For a short time, the qiblah was toward Jerusalem. This was changed during the second year after the hijra. The following Hadith gives the details of this change of direction from Jerusalem to Mecca.
Narrated Al-Bara: We prayed along with the Prophet facing Jerusalem for sixteen or seventeen months. Then Allah ordered him to turn his face towards the Qibla (in Mecca):– “And from whence-so-ever you start forth (for prayers) turn your face in the direction of (the Sacred Mosque of Mecca) Al-Masjid-ul Haram..” (2.149) [i]
It was at this time that the following verse of the Qur’an was recited,
[2.144] Indeed We see the turning of your face to heaven, so We shall surely turn you to a qiblah which you shall like; turn then your face towards the Sacred Mosque, and wherever you are, turn your face towards it, and those who have been given the Book most surely know that it is the truth from their Lord; and Allah is not at all heedless of what they do.
Skeptics of Islam point out that the direction was changed because the Jews were making fun of Muhammad for praying toward Jerusalem, and then the revelation above was conveniently given. The Islamic view is that the qiblah was changed in order to test the loyalty of Muslims. Truly obedient Muslims would immediately follow this newly revealed command. Various arguments occur as to the reasons behind the change, but that the change occurred is not under dispute.
So what does the Bible teach about the direction of prayer? As it happens, no specific instructions are given. In one case, we find Daniel praying toward Jerusalem (Daniel 6:10). Most other times, we find direction irrelevant. In fact, the prophet Jonah prayed from inside the great fish while it swam around in any number of directions (Jonah 2:1). Direction of prayer isn’t mentioned in various Biblical passages on prayer such as Psalm 32:6 or Matthew 26:39. But even more to the point, Jesus Himself gives instructions for prayer, and direction is never mentioned. Jesus only mentions location in that He tells us to find a place of seclusion (Matthew 6:6). Jesus Himself finds a place of privacy for prayer (Matthew 14:23). Through the rest of His teachings, never once is direction of prayer of any significance. In fact, He specifically points out the place of worship is of no consequence (John 4:21). Does it matter? Is direction of prayer just a difference in the details or is there something bigger here that is being missed?
One thing Jesus tells us is that He will make His abode within us (John 14:23). Jesus tells us He will send the Holy Spirit to us. It is this Holy Spirit who helps us to pray when words escape us (Romans 8:26). Jesus tells us specifically that we when we gather in His name, He is there (Matthew 18:20). In fact, He makes sure we know that His presence is always with us (Matthew 28:20). Those who pray earnestly know personally how the LORD meets them wherever they are, in whatever place and time we come to Him in prayer. The reason our direction of prayer is of no consequence is because Jesus is right there with us when we pray!
In Islam, prayer requires a certain formality, including its direction. In Christianity, we are to pray reverently, but since Jesus is always in our midst when we pray, details such as direction and form fade into insignificance. In Islam, a Muslim faces toward Mecca because that is the holiest religious structure. In Christianity, everyone who confesses Jesus is himself the temple of God (2 Corinthians 6:16).
God’s presence during prayer transforms everything. Nothing could be more significant and life-changing.