A few weeks ago I was standing at the men's bathroom sink in my office building. The bathroom was empty when I came in and after a few minutes the door opened and I heard a sudden gasp. A middle-aged woman had accidentally walked into the men's room and not only had to deal with the embarrassment of being there, but also the awkwardness of find me with my foot in the sink. I tried to explain what I was doing, but before I could, she quickly stammered an apology and ran out.
So why was my foot in the sink?
Each adult Muslim man and woman is required to pray five times a day and a prerequisite to our prayer is being in a state of ritual purity. This is attained by washing one's hands, rinsing out one's mouth and nose, washing one's face and arms up to the elbows, wiping over one's hair and the nape of one's neck, and finally, washing one's feet up until the ankle. This process is called wudu in Arabic.
It's not necessary for one to perform wudu before each prayer, but only in those instances where the state of ritual purity has been broken. Things that break it include falling asleep while lying down or leaning against something, urinating, defecating or passing gas, excessive blood flowing from any part of the body, vomiting more than a mouthful, or fainting.
The Arabic word for our five daily prayers is salah. Each salah has a window of time in which it can be prayed (performed), but it must be prayed within that specific time frame and takes anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes from start to finish. The timing of each salah is based off of a cyclical pattern of the sun. We have a prayer at dawn called Fajr, immediately after noon called Zuhr, in the mid-afternoon called Asr, at sunset called Maghrib and at night called Isha. These timings are not the same each day because the length of the day and night changes daily throughout the year.
Aside from performing wudu, one has to find a clean place to pray and face in the direction of Mecca. After doing so, the salah can begin. There is a consistent set of mechanics to salah. Each consists of four main elements: standing, bowing, kneeling and prostrating. While standing, one recites from memory the opening chapter of the Quran and additional verses of one's choosing, and while bowing, kneeling and prostrating one recites different supplications. All of this is to be done in Arabic.
A Muslim house of worship is called a masjid or mosque. It is recommended for each prayer to be done in congregation and, if possible, done in the mosque. Many Muslims try to complete prayers in congregation at a mosque at least on Friday afternoons for the Jummah prayer. The Jummah prayer is observed during the time the Zuhr prayer would normally be observed, and the main distinction of Jummah prayer is that it is accompanied by a sermon that takes place prior to the prayer.
In retrospect, it probably would have been hard for me to explain all this to the woman who caught me with my foot in the sink. But for the rest of you, next time you catch someone like that, don't think they are taking a shower in your office bathroom. They are just getting ready to pray.