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Exchange of experience

21 November 2014

Simon Ross Valentine on Christian-Muslim talks about prayer

Prayer: Christian and Muslim perspectives
D. Marshall and L. Mosher, editors
Georgetown University Press £19.50
Church Times Bookshop £17.65 (Use code CT318 )

IT IS always uplifting for me as a Christian to join with other worshippers in reciting together the Lord's Prayer in a communion or other church service. Con-versely, during my time in Saudi Arabia, occasionally sitting respectfully at the back of the Jufalli Mosque in Jeddah, I witnessed the fervour of Muslims, as row upon row of devout (male) worshippers prostrated themselves in ritual acts of prayer. Both activities remind me how prayer is an important element of both the Christian and the Muslim faiths.

Containing papers given at a conference on prayer organised by Georgetown University, in Qatar in 2010, and convened by Lord Williams when he was Archbishop of Canterbury, this book considers the commonalities and differences in prayer between Islam and Christianity.

Following the structure of the conference, the book considers three overlapping themes: scripture and prayer; learning to pray; and growing in prayer.

Beginning with examples of Christians who have "lived prayer", such as Thomas Merton and the Russian St Seraphim of Sarov, different forms of Christian prayer are discussed, including formal, structured prayer; freer conversational prayer; meditative prayer; the lectio divina and prayer within monasticism; breathing and uttering the name of Jesus, as in the Eastern practice of hesychasm; and spontaneous Charismatic prayer characterised by glossolalia (speaking in tongues). A challenging appraisal is given of praying in the Spirit, as taught by Paul in Romans 8.

Prayer in Islam is considered, particularly salat (obligatory prayer), du'a (extra, personal prayer), and dhikr (remembrance), the esoteric prayer of Sufi mysticism. The prayer lives of awliya, holy men, are used to describe the Sufi belief that prayer is "the chief means by which the ascent of the heart to paradise is accomplished while still alive".

In a devotional and expository style, different contributors, Muslim and Christian, consider key themes in the best-known prayers in the Bible and the Qur'an, namely the Lord's Prayer and al-Fatiha, the opening sec- tion of the Qur'an, a passage re- cited by Muslims before any salat.

This book highlights many important truths, particularly the fact that prayer is the means by which followers of both faiths can talk, argue, supplicate, plead, and even wrestle with God. Above everything else, it reminds us that prayer is essentially an aspect of the love affair between the believer and God.

Some readers might feel frustrated that the book touches on little that is controversial, such as the compulsory nature of prayer within Islam and the belief held by Muslims (and by some Christians) that prayer is undertaken, not because we want to do it, but because it gains merit. Nevertheless, presented in convenient bite-size sections, fully referenced, and written in lucid and not recondite language, this book is unquestionably an interesting read.

Dr Simon Ross Valentine is a lecturer and writer on Islam, and a Methodist local preacher.

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