Why do Muslims use a rug for prayer?
Different nations have different names for prayer rugs: the Arabs call it ‘sajjadal’, to the Persians it is known as ‘janamaz’, while the Turks would say ‘namazlik’. Whatever name you choose, the ritual meaning of the prayer rug shall remain the same for all of the nations: this is a means of observing cleanliness commanded by Allah, the purity of one’s body and the purity of one’s soul.
Allah allowed Muslims to say their prayers in any place they choose. The words of the Prophet which confirm this can be found in many Hadith Books, most notable in one known as Bulugh al-Maram, a collection of Hadiths compiled by their recognised expert, the scholar of late 14th early 15th century Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani. “The whole earth is a mosque to pray on except a graveyard and a toilet.” (Hadith 212) “Allah’s Messenger forbade prayer at seven places; a dump, a slaughter house, a graveyard, the middle of the path, a bathroom, and where camels sit at a watering place and on the roof of the Kaaba.” (Hadith 213)
During prayer Muslims prostrate themselves in front of Allah (doing the so called ‘sujud’) after reading the Holy Quran and as a sign of gratitude to the Almighty for His Blessings and Grace. A prostration means the worshipper must touch the ground with his forehead. This is the moment in time when both physical and spiritual purity and cleanness acquire their prominence and importance.
When a Muslim prays anywhere but the mosque, there is no guarantee he will not touch any najis, or the filth which Allah prohibited to touch (the impurities such faeces, urine, sperm, excrement, period blood, animal blood, traces of pork etc., it is difficult to say with certainty what exactly can stick to a man outside of the mosque, even the minute fraction of that filth shall render the whole of one’s prayer impure and displeasing to Allah). The prayer rug thus serves as defence against such impurities.
Muslims began using prayer rugs in the 10th-11th centuries C.E., i.e. when Islam spread wide across the earth and far outside the Arabian Peninsula. Traditionally, it began to be woven 20 inches in width by 60 inches in length. This size ensured that during prostration the Muslim would touch his forehead on the rug rather than bare earth or the floor and thus preserve the prescribed purity from najis.
The prayer rug is a kind of a ‘miniature mosque’. Muslims could feel it in their souls and therefore they started a pious tradition of putting images of mosques on it, such as the first holiest site of Islam the Sacred Mosque Al-Haram in Mecca (or even the Kaaba inside of it), the second holiest site the Prophetic Mosque An-Nabawi in Medina and the third holiest site Al-Aqsa Mosque at the top of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Sometimes it would be a locally renowned mosque or simply an arch with two columns (mihrab), the top of which is pointing at Mecca.
A prayer rug is first and foremost purity and cleanness which every Muslim must observe when he prays outside the mosque. For this purpose, any piece of cloth placed underneath would be suitable, for instance, a bed sheet, a towel, a cushion, however, for Muslims it is a sign of special piety and devotion to use prayer rugs, the objects which have become special for them and special in their discourse with their God.