Rugs can be and are more than just comfort, decoration and a store of wealth. They can also be tools of our spiritual life. Consider the prayer rug.
Many people have a misconception of what a prayer rug is, believing it to be a very small rug, perhaps two feet by three feet. In fact, even for someone who is only 5’3”, a 2’X3’ rug is not big enough to pray on. The worshiper needs enough length to be able to kneel all the way down to the floor and be able to put their forehead down on the front of the rug. For even the most diminutive adult, the minimum size needed is about three feet by five feet.
Unlike most other Oriental rugs, the prayer rug is directional. Some Chinese and French rugs are directional, but most Oriental rugs consist of top and bottom halves that are like mirrors. The prayer rug design is “pointed,” and unlike most rugs, it can be oriented to be upside down, the design going one way, getting more narrow at the top. The pattern can be very primitive or it can be more detailed and finely executed, but it will always become more narrow going upward. The top often has places marked in the weaving pattern to place the hands when praying, on either side of the spot marked for the head.
When one goes to pray, the rug is oriented so that the head is pointed toward Mecca. The worshiper will then kneel on the back part of the rug and bow down to pray, placing the hands on the markers of the rug and the head on its marker. The rug acts both as a mat for praying, as well as a guide for how to place the body during prayer.
Prayer rug designs themselves are wide and varied. There are formal rugs, very finely detailed, and casual rugs, with more primitive patterns. Some rugs are geometric with markers for body placement that are essentially just squares or rectangles. Others include an intricate tree of life design, with much more elaborate markers for body placement. There are even some prayer rugs that have a mosque as the place marker for the head.
There is no one country that makes superior prayer rugs. There are muslims all over the world and all the major handmade rug producing regions create beautiful prayer rugs.
These rugs are highly portable and a prayerful person will always travel with a prayer rug, using it to pray in their room. Here is an interesting fact about Islamic prayer; if you are not invited or welcome in a space, you are not to pray there. If you are in a hotel, for example, because you are paying for the room, it’s “yours,” so you may pray in it. But if in an unwelcome environment, or a place where one does not belong - if you have broken into a house, for example - a Muslim will not pray.
While most prayer rugs are longer than they are wide and constructed for one person, there are some fascinating prayer rugs that are designed wider than they are long. For example, a rug might be five feet long on the pointed length and then fifteen or more feet wide. The design on these is quite different. It will have a repeating pattern about three to five feet apart. This is a family prayer rug. They are created for families to pray together at the same time, with the same rug, each family member having a place on the rug. Usually the husband will be on one end, the children in the middle and the wife on the other end. They are not very common but will come through from time to time and are well worth collecting.
Sam Ramazani is an Oriental carpet educator, appraiser, broker, and skilled repair craftsman. With his daughter Sara, he owns Sara's Oriental Rugs in Louisville, KY, providing beautiful handmade rugs, as well as expert rug cleaning and repair.