As mentioned in my previous blog entry, a recent Pew Forum survey finds that 78.4% of the U.S. population self-identifies as Christian — clearly an overwhelming majority. By contrast, Jews account for only 1.7% and Muslims a mere 0.6% of the U.S. population.
(From a planetary perspective, things look very different. The Pew Forum also reports that Christians account for only 32% and Muslims for some 23% of the total world population. And on the global stage, Jews comprise less than 1% of our combined human populace.)
In any case, a lot of Christians — U.S. Christians in particular, who comprise the vast majority of the American populace — remain relatively uninformed about the basics of both Judaism and Islam. We now continue, therefore, with our ongoing list of similarities and commonalities shared between Jews and Muslims, at least some of which many non-Jews and non-Muslims might find somewhat surprising:
7. Jews and Muslims both require male circumcision. In the Bible, Abraham was commanded by God to undergo circumcision, as a sign of the divine covenant established between them. This requirement was subsequently inherited by all of Abraham’s male descendants; accordingly, it has since remained an established practice throughout the long history of Judaism.
According to the Torah (the first section of the Hebrew Bible), male Jewish newborns are to be circumcised on the eighth day after their birth. This occasion is commonly known as a bris (short for “covenant of circumcision”), and has the status of a religious ceremony. The actual procedure is performed by a trained Jewish specialist known as a mohel (“circumciser”), and a celebratory meal follows the ritual.
Although it is not commanded by the Quran, male circumcision is mentioned approvingly in hadith collections (compiled sayings or deeds of the prophet Muhammad, looked up to by faithful Muslims as a reliable guide to understanding and behavior). Muhammad himself was circumcised, as were previous prophets going all the way back to Abraham.
Consequently, male circumcision (known as khitan or tahara) has been a common standard practice — a virtual requirement — in Islam since its earliest days. Most Muslims consider the rite obligatory, and even those who may not still regard the practice as religiously meritorious and highly recommended.
Specific timing and associated customs regarding the rite of circumcision vary from Islamic culture to Islamic culture. In some area, boys traditionally undergo it as a puberty rite, or similar youthful rite of passage (for example, upon memorizing the Quran in its entirety); elsewhere, it may be performed shortly after birth, by a doctor in a modern hospital. While no particular age is specified for the rite, somewhere around the age of seven is a common and widespread practice.
In contrast with their Judaic and Islamic cousins (all three being regarded as Abrahamic faiths), most Christians do not regard circumcision as a religious obligation.
8. Jews and Muslims both pray a set number of times each day. Of course, individuals may pray any time they want, as often as they want, and as many times as they want. But in both Judaism and Islam, there is also a fixed number of set times each day that the faithful are religiously required to engage in formal prayers. Any additional prayers beyond that essential baseline is optional, but this bare minimum is mandatory.
Many with only a smattering of knowledge about Islam may at least be aware of the relatively well-known Muslim practice of praying five times each day. This prayer practice is one of the so-called “Five Pillars of Islam,” the observance of each of which is mandatory for all Muslims.
Five times a day, every day, Muslims stop whatever else they may be doing in order to participate in their formal prayers. Wherever they may happen to be at the designated prayer times, they must find a suitable location (if nearby, a mosque is ideal, but not necessary). These five daily prayer times are obligatory; if one of them is missed due to unavoidable circumstances, it must be made up later.
Wherever on the face of the earth that they may currently find themselves, Muslims worldwide are required at these five daily periods to face the direction of Mecca (in Saudi Arabia), and then perform the prescribed ritual prayers. Whatever language they may otherwise speak in their daily lives, these formal prayers are memorized and uttered in Arabic, the language of the Quran.
These five prayer times are set, and specific: at dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset, and nightfall. Traditionally, a muezzin (a sort of Islamic town crier) would announce the call to prayer for the local community from atop a mosque’s high minaret (a tall tower or spire) at the onset of each appointed prayer time. Today, such modern conveniences as P.A. systems, automatic timers, and even online websites have supplemented or replaced the traditional muezzin‘s prayer call in many places around the globe.
Likewise, Jews also traditionally pray a fixed set of times each day. However, rather than numbering five, these Jewish formal daily prayers occur at only three times each day — at morning, afternoon, and evening. (A fourth daily prayer is added on sabbaths and holidays, and a fifth one for Yom Kippur, Judaism’s most sacred holy day.)
Daily synagogue services are held corresponding to each of these three daily Jewish prayers. Of the four major contemporary branches of the Jewish faith, both Orthodox Judaism as well as Conservative Judaism regard the three daily prayers as mandatory; Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism both consider them optional, a matter of personal choice.
(To be continued, in Part Five.)