You are on page 1of 2

I fear that Dr Brown is being rather disingenuous in this posting!

He must know in his heart of hearts that the reason he and I disagree as to the
likely origin of the 5 daily prayers owes less to my allegedly perfidious
qualities of hypocrisy and arrogance, and more to the fact that we come to the
question from radically opposed starting points. Dr Brown is a Muslim, and
as such and please do forgive me if I am assuming too much here believes
that the instruction to pray 5 times a day comes ultimately from God. To point
out that he is parti pris is not, of course, to pretend that I am not similarly so
myself. I also bring my ideological prejudices to the party. As a non-Muslim, I
do not believe that the origins of the 5 prayers are to be explained with
reference to a supernatural entity, and so naturally I look to situate them in the
cultural context that may have inspired them.
Granted, it is not necessary to believe that Muhammad was authentically a
prophet of God to accept that the 5 prayers may have originated with him. The
reason I tend to think they didnt, though, is very simple: that there is no
mention of them in the Quran. On one reading, it seems to enjoin three
prayers a day; on another, four. What makes the lack of any reference to 5
prayers a day all the more striking is that instructions on how and when to
pray are part of the very fabric of the quranic text: salat was clearly of huge
importance to the author(s) of the Quran, and it seems odd, if indeed the
practice of praying 5 times a day did begin with Muhammad, that there
should have been no mention of it at all.
So where, then, might it have originated? Zoroastrianism seems to me the
likeliest source, simply because the obligation to pray 5 times a day was
fundamental to it in a way that it was not for other faiths and because
Persian influence on proto-Islam in the 8th century was so profound. That is
not to say, though, that there might not have been different inspirations as
well. It is evident that there were numerous varying opinions in the early
years of Islam as to how many prayers there should be. As Dr Brown himself
points out, the Hanafis argued that there should be six, not five, daily prayers,
while a hadith in Bukhari implies that originally there had been no less than
fifty! Over time, though, the preference for praying five times a day seems to
have ended up attaining critical mass and I am certainly not alone in
wondering whether the sheer volume of Zoroastrian converts to proto-Islam
might not have been the decisive factor.
As for the citation from Rav Yehudai that Dr Brown dismisses so forthrightly,
it is true that we do depend for it upon a late source as, alas, is the case with
so much of the evidence for Zoroastrian history. Nevertheless, there is an

obvious reason for accepting its essential reliability namely, that it is hard to
see why anyone would have had a reason to make it up. Its context is so
patently specific to early Islamic Iraq that it would assume a very specialised
knowledge on the part of rabbis living elsewhere and in other periods to
argue credibly that they might have fabricated it. I first had my attention
brought to the passage at a seminar on conversion in early Islamic Iraq and
certainly, the scholars who attended the conference, all of them with a highly
specialised knowledge of the field, had no doubts as to its authenticity. The
reason why I would trust it as a historical source over, say, Ibn Ishaq, is not
because I am islamophobic or anything ridiculous like that, but because
when Ibn Ishaq writes about Muhammad, he believes that he is touching on
the entire destiny of the universe, whereas a rabbi in 12th century France who
quotes Rav Yehudai does not.
Naturally, the question of cultural cross-pollination has always been a
sensitive one when profoundly held beliefs and ideals come into play. Dr
Browns indignation at the idea that the 5 prayers might have derived from
anywhere other than the depths of Arabia reminds me of the horror on the
part of certain Western scholars when confronted by the thesis of Near
Eastern influence on classical Greece. That most classicists now would
unhesitatingly accept the likelihood of, say, Hittite influence on Hesiod leads
me to think that in time scholars like Dr Brown will come round to
acknowledging that there might indeed be reasons for thinking as I and
many, many scholars infinitely my superiors in learning do that Islam was
not entirely autochthonous. He has been immersed in the study of the topic
long enough, I should have thought, to know that his implication that what he
terms revisionism is bred of arrogance and hypocrisy is unworthy of him.
Lets disagree, by all means but please, let us do it politely.