At the annual commemoration of Isra and Mi’raj (March 22 this year) many Muslims will remind themselves of the well-known Hadith about why Muslims pray five times daily. The Qur’an itself does not explicitly state that there should be five distinct daily prayer times; although it hints at five because the command أقِمِ الصلاة  ‘establish prayer’ (singular) appears five times in the Quran.

The Qur’an simply says:

“Maintain with care the prayers and (in particular) the middle prayer; standing before Allah, devoutly obedient.” (Surah Al-Baqarah, 2:238)

and

“Establish prayer at the two ends of the day and at the approach of the night. Indeed, good deeds do away with misdeeds. That is a reminder for those who remember.” (Surah Hûd, 11:114)

It was only during his night journey to Jerusalem and his assent into the heavens (Isra and Mi’raj) that Prophet Muhammad was told to observe the five prayer times as a result of a dialogue with Moses.

“Then the prayers were enjoined on me: They were fifty prayers a day. When I returned, I passed by Moses who asked, ‘What have you been ordered to do?’ I replied, ‘I have been ordered to offer fifty prayers a day.’ Moses said, ‘Your followers cannot bear fifty prayers a day, by Allah I have tested people before you, and I have tried my level best with Banu Israel (in vain). Go back to your Lord and ask for a reduction to lessen your followers’ burden.’ 

“So I went back, and Allah reduced ten prayers for me [to 40]. Again I came to Moses, but he repeated what he had said before. Then again I went back to Allah and He reduced ten more prayers [to 30]. When I came back to Moses he said the same, I went back to Allah and He ordered me to observe ten prayers a day. When I came back to Moses, he repeated the same advice, so I went back to Allah and was ordered to observe five prayers a day. 

“When I came back to Moses, he said, ‘What have you been ordered?’ I replied, ‘I have been ordered to observe five prayers a day.’ He said, ‘Your followers cannot bear five prayers a day, I have experience of the people before you, and I have tried my level best with Banu Israel, so go back to your Lord and ask for a reduction to lessen your follower’s burden.’ I said, ‘I have requested so much of my Lord that I feel ashamed, but I am satisfied now and surrender to Allah’s Order.’ When I left, I heard a voice saying, ‘I have conveyed My Order and have (also) lessened the burden of My Worshipers.” (Bukhari 5.227)

In truth, although Orthodox Jews pray three daily services, they join the afternoon service with the (early) evening service so in effect they pray only twice a day. But Jewish services are much longer than Muslim services; especially when one compares Friday al-Jumuah (30-50 minutes, depending on how long the khutbah/sermon is) to a Saturday morning Shabbat service (3-4 hours for Orthodox and Conservative services and half of that —90-120 minutes— for a Reform service).

Between the second and the seventeenth centuries Jewish Shabbat and High Holy Days services more than doubled in length. Many meaningful poems and beautiful songs were added to the daily service, and especially to the Shabbat and Holy Day morning services. The number of prayers praising God for His many gifts and readings from the Zabur-Psalms of David also grew.

Meanwhile very little was pruned because Orthodox Rabbis loved praying to God and loved all the traditions and customs of their ancestors. As Conservative Rabbi Bradley Artson has written:

“The words of the prayer book (very) often are framed in the plural: grant us, forgive us, show us. I love the way our tradition keeps pushing me out of the center of my own focus. No longer a solitary me, I am part of a worldwide, multigenerational us. An identity that is communal is one that repels loneliness and keeps me connected in a network of love and loyalty.”

Also, for reasons that are not clear, many prayers and Psalms were repeated over again in different parts of the same worship service The Orthodox Rabbinic view with regard to prayers was usually: more is better. For example, in the Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) service the Al hait prayer originally had 6 verses and still does in Sephardic (Middle Eastern) and Yemenite rites. It then grew to 22 verses in the Italian, and 44 in Ashkenazi (European) rites. The Al hait prayer was originally recited once in each of the 5 services of the 24 hour fast Day of Yom Kippur, and later doubled to 10 holy day repetitions. Nothing like this happened in the Muslim worship service.

The Torah (Deuteronomy 4:2 and Deuteronomy 13:1) says, “Do not add to and do not subtract from” God’s commandments. This  is a very wise commandment. Since over many generations circumstances are always changing, some change is always needed, but Jews are commanded to maintain the original balance. Each addition only added a few minutes to the service; but over fifteen centuries these pious and loving additions, added two or more hours to the Shabbat and Holy Day services.

Thus, the Torah’s “Do not add to…” unless you also subtract from, and “Do not subtract from…” unless you also add to, is the wisest answer. In the view of Reform Judaism Rabbis a longer service is not better than a shorter service; just as eating or drinking more is not better than eating or drinking less. This is the message that Prophet Muhammad brought to the Orthodox Jews of his era.

Narrated Abu Huraira that the Prophet said,

“Religion is very easy and whoever overburdens himself in his religion will not be able to continue in that way.  So you should not be extremists, but try to be near to perfection and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded.  (Bukhari, Volume 1, Book 2, Number 38)

Unlike Christianity, both Islam and Judaism teach the importance of sacred slaughter of meat, and the avoidance of certain animals for food. In Islam the rules are simpler and fewer than in Orthodox Judaism.

Reform Rabbis would regard the increasingly restrictive developments in the laws of kosher diet, especially for Passover, as a counterproductive, overburdening of the people.  The expansion of restrictions on Shabbat activities is also seen by Reform Rabbis as a counterproductive, overburdening of the joy of Shabbat.

Muhammad wisely differentiates between extremism and striving to be near perfect (no one is perfect) which involves a rejection of extremism. Just trying to do well will be rewarded. Religion should not be hard. Making religion easier does not mean making religion soft or impious. This is a very important Hadith because all religions have believers that think more is better, and harder is still better.

Narrated Abu Said that the Prophet said:

“You will follow the wrong ways of your predecessors so completely and literally that if they should go into the hole of an animal, you too will go there.”  We said, “O God’s Apostle! Do you mean the Jews and the Christians?” He replied, “Whom else?” (Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 56, Number 662)

Muhammed criticized the failings of many people in the Jewish and Christian communities (as did the prophets of Israel) but he realized that people are human, and most do not seem to learn from the failings of others. He hoped that Muslims would retain their original purity, but he foresaw that decay and falsification were inevitable.  God’s apostle would certainly attack female genital mutilation in Africa and Indonesia today as sharply as he attacked female infanticide in Arabia in his day.

It is a shame that many Muslim leaders in Africa today do not condemn it. Reform Rabbis, who have now been part of a modern democratic society for several generations are openly critical of those Orthodox practices and ideas that we think betray the spirit of Judaism in today’s world.

I am a Reform Rabbi who first became interested in Islam when I studied it at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem 61 years ago. I have continued my study of Islam off and on for many years, and for some time I have considered myself to be a Reform Rabbi and an “Islamic” Jew. Actually I am an “Islamic” Jew i.e. a faithful Jew submitting to the will of the one God, because I am a Reform Rabbi.

As a Rabbi I am faithful to the covenant that God made with Prophet Abraham – the first “Islamic” Hanif Jew, and I submit to the commandments that God made with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai.

As a Reform Rabbi I believe that Jewish spiritual leaders should modify Jewish tradition as social and historical circumstances change and develop. I also believe we should not violate the instruction in the Torah not to make religion difficult for people to practice.

These are lessons that prophet Muhammad taught 12 centuries before the rise of Reform Judaism in the early 19th century. In many ways statements in the Qur’an about Orthodox Jewish beliefs and Ahadith relating Muhammad’s comments about Orthodox Judaism, and religion in general, prefigure the thinking of Reform Rabbis some 12-13 centuries later.

Rabbi Allen S Maller

Allen S. Maller was the rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, California for 39 years, from 1967 to 2006. Rabbi Maller edited the Tikun series of High Holy Days prayerbooks, used at Temple Akiba and at seven other congregations in California, Nevada and Arizona. Read Full Bio

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