Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Ramadan reflections

How many times have we read the now-defiled words "hearts and minds"? When the Iraq adventure started the phrase became a buzzword intended to sanctify a preemptive war. It has now been tossed around as casually as a cinnamon shaker at Starbucks, and the meaning has been forgotten.

Men may have forgotten the importance of influencing hearts and minds, but the Lord has not. Sometimes in the most unexpected places the Holy Spirit is still at work. This piece from Aquol is being copied entirely, because the ending is so important. This is not a spoiler, but the reader is asked to read it through thoughtfully from start to finish with no expectations. Just read.

I stepped into the women's section of the neighbourhood mosque, my mother by my side and the imam's quranic recitations booming in my ears. The praying area was on the upper floor of the mosque, ornate, sweet-smelling and half full by the time we got there. The imam had already finished isha'a prayer and started on tarawih so we quickly joined the last line and started praying under the brilliant chandelier and, thankfully, an air conditioning vent.

One thing that has always moved me is the reverberation of the congregation as they say "Amen" after the end of a quranic verse. As women are not allowed to raise their voices in prayer if men are in earshot, the rising chant after each verse is a deep rich tenor. These moments always affirmed - as far as I was concerned - the virtues of group prayer and the significance of communal religion. A lone worshipper believing more in a personal spiritual relationship with one's Maker, I am not a fan of mosque prayer but taken with the spirit of Ramadan and not wishing my mother to go on her own, I found myself smiling at the familiar "Amen" that emanated from the (not overlooked) male congregation below.

Tarawih prayer is nine prostrations prayed in pairs of two where the last is prayed after a supplication or du'a. After the first two prostrations I looked around and was untypically pleased with the ambience, a week of fasting and dawn prayers had obviously worn down my cynicism. Young girls of five and six, veiled and deep in prayer were mimicking their mothers' moves and Asian servants prayed side by side with their female bosses. For the first time in a while, I felt that just for that moment, I had managed to be a Muslim among Muslims worshipping one God, not an outsider or a cynical critic asking to be left alone as I examined and re-examined people's intentions and tried to sniff out some whiff of hypocrisy or patronising intereference that I felt were so inevitable.

I found myself relaxing and listening to the meanings of the words in the Quran, divorced from the mouths of the shaykhs that boomed at me that I was an adulteress because I wore perfume or that I was cursed because I plucked my eyebrows. I felt bad for not having more faith and for allowing the opressiveness of interpretation to obfuscate the essence of the the message. I pledged not to be antagonised or intimidated, at least not through second hand sources. Why should God have to to suffer for the textualism, non-sequitur extrapolation and heavy-handedness of His self-appointed respresentatives or Islam be guilty of the terrorism of its self-declared vanguard? I shut my eyes and listened, prostrated myself and let myself feel humbled shutting out all preconceptions, questions, and fears and felt sad once more, that I had been deprived of this feeling, for letting myself be alienated by the continuous negative images both abroad and at home and again pledged to be a more discerning worshipper.

At the beginning of the ninth prostration the imam began his supplication exalting God and glorifying Him. We all raised our hands in prayer and mumbled "Amen" after each line. "God, You are Strong and we are weak, You are the Forgiver and we are the sinners. O God, wash away our sins that are as deep and as wide as the sea." Here came a loud "Amen" and I was shocked to feel the tears on my face. I had always viewed demonstrations of piety or emotion during group prayer as some mild form of mass hysteria and had, even during pilgrimage, managed to restrain myself and dismiss any emotion as irrational, like I was going to be duped by some invisible force that wanted to deprive me of that last shred of logic that stood between me and the quicksand of absolutism.

I wiped away my tears and told myself that I was tired, pre-menstrual, and stressed ... but the tears still came as the imam continued.

"O God, may Islam be triumphant." "Amen," I said.

"May the enemies of Islam be defeated and the warriors of Islam victorious." "Amen," I said, feeling slightly less holy.

"May those who have mocked the Prophet and drawn disparaging cartoons of him suffer till the blood freeze in their veins that they wish death upon themselves and not be granted it." I opened my eyes, my tears drying up.

"O God, defeat the Christians and Jews, decimate their numbers, shatter their unity and cleanse the earth of them that there not be a single one left alive." Here came the loudest "Amen." I looked at my mother deep in prayer and said "I'm not saying 'Amen' to THAT!" She shushed me irritated.

Before I could regain my composure my forehead was on the floor for the ninth and final prostration. Somehow, it didn't feel the same. I tried to recapture the focus and the clarity but prayer was over as soon as the raka'ah was and I found myself shuffling out of the mosque looking for my shoes and feeling somehow like I'd been mugged. My mother and I walked home in silence. Deep in thought I comforted myself, tomorrow, there would be another tarawih.

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