The significance of prayer mats
In June 1325, a 21-year-old man known as Ibn Battuta set out on a journey of a lifetime that would last more than 30 years and span the globe. He had little money and just a few cherished possessions, among them a prayer rug. He carried this wherever he went; it was his companion.
“I set out alone, having neither fellow-traveller in whose companionship I might find cheer, nor caravan whose party I might join, but swayed by an overmastering impulse within me and a desire long cherished in my bosom to visit these illustrious sanctuaries [Mecca and Medina].”
To believers around the world and through the ages, a prayer rug or mat – known as sajjadat salat, a term borne out of the acts of prostration done during Islamic prayers (sujood) – is found in every Muslim home and is often a constant travel companion that goes with the worshipper.
From different designs, textures and colours, and from the earliest ones made of palm fronds and reeds to the finest threads and textiles – their weaving a reflection of the mastery of different Islamic dynasties – a single prayer mat can tell many stories.
It all began with the Prophet Mohammed, who prayed on a “khumrah”, a mat made of palm fronds. The five daily prayers must be conducted on a clean surface, and so the prayer mat serves that purpose and must be always kept clean itself.
Appearing early in Islamic history, the most common and basic design almost looks like a door to heaven. The rug is in the shape of a vertical rectangle, with a woven arched doorway, a “mihrab”, an ornamental niche in the wall of a mosque, which marks the direction of the qibla, which is the Kaaba in Mecca. Muslims pray in the direction of the qibla. From a pointed arch supported by columns on either side to a variation of a stylised “tree of life” design, there have been many creative improvisations added over the decades by different artisans and weavers.
Today, it is easy and affordable to buy a prayer mat. The mass-produced ones come in various colours from yellow, green, purple and red to a combination of shades with the most basic mihrab design on it. They start at Dh30 and can be bought at local Co-Op supermarkets and almost all souqs. Sizes differ, averaging 70 centimetres by 120cm for the individual rug, and most are long enough to allow someone to kneel above the fringe on one end and bend down and place the head on the other.
But the more effort put into a rug, the more expensive it can be.
By looking at their patterns, the older prayer mats can tell you their origin, which tribe or village they were woven by, what message they tried to embody and whether they were regularly used or not from the wear and tear.
A simple yet significant piece of cloth, the prayer mat started to intrigue influential Muslim leaders early on; they would commission their court’s greatest artists to create mats fit for rulers and to be given out as gifts to other leaders.
Under the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal dynasties, the industry flourished and carpets came to be considered as national treasures. They were traded to Europe and the Far East, often considered too precious to be prayed on and would end up being hung like a painting in a home or palace.
One example of the gentlest of prayer rug designs, but with great detail, is a 100-year-old Ottoman prayer rug, which has a traditional Ramadan fanous, a glass lantern or lamp, at the niche. This hangs surrounded by Quranic calligraphy along the borders of the 90cm-by-60cm rug.
Made from sheep’s kurk wool (the softer bit around the neck), it is displayed at the Fatima Bint Mohammed Bin Zayed Initiative centre in Jumeirah, Dubai.
“Beautiful, isn’t it? There is a lot of art and creativity in the prayer-rug genre,” says Walied Jabarkhyl, executive director at FBMI and a member of a family with expertise in rugs and carpets that goes back many decades.
“The weavers competed to make the most beautiful prayer rugs, and the different tribes or groups would work hard at making the most memorable creation,” he explains.
FBMI, which also has a showroom at Yas Mall, sells antique rugs from the region as well as new handmade rugs and carpets using indigenous materials by Afghan women. Its aim is to empower them by freeing them from economic hardship and allow them to take a leading role in Afghanistan’s future.
Another antique prayer rug, now almost 90 years old, is known for its vibrant colours – a mix of orange, red, green and blue – and for its rare message: it features a small church and a cross as well as a menorah, which is a nine-branched candelabrum used on the Jewish holiday Hanukkah.
“It was made by the Turkmen tribes of Jewish descent. They wanted to reflect the tolerance of all religions as well as their unity in prayer, where every time someone prays on the rug, they pray to the one God,” says Jabarkhyl. “It promotes a sense of harmony between the different religions.”
While these rare rugs cost tens of thousands of dirhams – the Ottoman rug is Dh80,000 – there are ethnic prayer rugs that are more affordable and yet have their own stories to share.
Within FBMI’s contemporary prayer-rug range, there are images woven of the holy Kaaba and the grand mosque of Mecca as well as the Prophet’s mosque in Medina. These cost between Dh1,500 and Dh2,000.
The traditional ones, made by different tribes and regions, featuring different floral and geometric designs, as well as filpai or octagonal elephant foot designs, which cost from Dh2,000 to Dh3,000.
The more specialised ones, for instance a Shirwan rug, where two hands praying in supplication are woven within the niche, surrounded by distinct geometrically designed flowers, costs about Dh3,500.
“There are so many, one can sit and just admire the different designs all day. The point of it is to make whoever owns one, love it and cherish it,” Jabarkhyl says.
While many prayer mats are collector’s items, if you want a simpler prayer rug, with basic designs, such as an arch and a few zigzag lines and floral images, there are some starting from Dh250. This includes a beautiful Belouch prayer rug, from the Herat province in Afghanistan, which features little houses or “yurt” – a tent-like house used by nomads.
You can find other designs available in silk, cotton or wool in special souqs, which can include animal motifs, featuring creatures such as peacocks and deer, and religious symbols.
According to a mufti at the Fatwa Center of the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments (Awqaf) in Abu Dhabi, “all designs are permissible as long as they don’t distract the worshipper and they don’t disrespect Islamic values”. He adds: “The most important condition is for the person to pray in a clean area.”
As our lifestyles change, there are now prayer rugs that have been modified to cater to the needs and health concerns of the 21st century, often related to the comfort of our knees and back.
For instance, Timez5, the “world’s first physiological prayer mat”, promises to provide better support while praying. The mats absorb weight and reduce pressure from various points in the body through a five-layer system. The first layer, a microfibre surface, has a heat-resistant coating and an antimicrobial surface that fights bacteria and fungi. The three central layers absorb, transfer and carry the weight, and the bottom layer has a micro-grip surface to prevent shifting and slipping.
“I hope more people will be able to benefit from our technology during the late-night prayer this Ramadan, which is meant to reduce pain and offer more comfort and focus,” says Nader Sabry, the chief executive of Timez5, which has been designing prayer mats since 2008.
He says that the prayer mats use high-performance materials, originally used in Nasa space suits to protect astronauts. A reflection, perhaps, of where the prayer mats of the future are heading. The mats that are made using Nasa-certified technology costsUS$300 (Dh1,100) and come in one colour: ivory cream. The simple design, lines and flowers, is meant to trigger tranquillity.
Whatever the design, age, colour and size, a prayer mat remains one of the most cherished items at home, where people will usually have a personal one, and others for guests who happen to visit.
The importance of the prayer rug is beautifully captured in the words of the famous “poet of love”, Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998), who said in his Damascus, What Are You Doing to Me: “And from my mother’s prayer rug/That first taught me/The path to God...”
Updated: June 18, 2015 04:00 AM