“There is really nothing more to say-except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.” Toni Morrison
The Bible was my friend. The pocket sized edition, with its black cover and gold lettering, fit snugly into my bag. Thumbing through its thin pages, a crinkling sound reverberated, like a gentle whisper, echoing words of guidance and comfort. Outside, the leaves rustled in the wind, marking the changing seasons. By the time I took my Shahada, the leaves had begun to fall, bright green giving way to different shades of amber. Summertime was over and the altering light reflected my changing heart. The old knowledge of revelation, born in the summertime of my youth, had started to die away. As the leaves gently fell to the ground, so did everything I held dear in my heart. Strewn across the courtyard of life, all that I had been taught to believe about God, was laid bare, scattered in the wind. I desperately chased those leaves of knowledge, but they crumbled in my hands. I needed something to hold onto, but everything I reached for just slipped away from me. I thought that once I became a Muslim, things would fall into place. The journey would be complete, the right road found. How foolish I was!
My friend, my Bible, lay abandoned, crying out for my touch. The comfort of the familiarity of its ebb and flow, words that once soothed me like a mother’s touch, now stung me. I did not know what I could trust from the Bible. I had always instinctively questioned some of its inconsistencies and contradiction. Yet, at the same time found solace in its pages. Did being a Muslim mean I must turn my back on the Bible? But what then, could I believe. For the first time in my life I felt utterly and truly ignorant.
A sense of joy mingled with overwhelming dread marked those early days after I accepted Islam. Like a child in a giant candy store I wanted to devour everything I could find regarding Islam but I soon became sick with doubt. Not doubt about Islam, and its truth, but doubt about whether or not I was referencing authentic knowledge. I hadn’t yet heard about the different sects Alhamduliah (All Praise to God). I don’t think I could have handled that knowledge at that time. I knew from my days as a Christian that there were many different interpretations and opinions, of Scripture. And I had grown up with a confidence instilled in me by my grandmother that her version of Christianity was the correct one. I had no grandmother to guide me down this journey of discovery. But what I didn’t completely grasp until much later is that Allah guides hearts to the truth. Even as I cried out to Him for guidance, my stubborn, willful, independent heart felt it could do all the guiding, Astagfirullah (I seek forgiveness of Allah). I relied too heavily on myself, and not enough on Allah.
“Say: Indeed the only guidance is Allah’s Guidance!” (Al-An’am 06:71)
As I resisted surrendering my heart completely to Allah, and being captive in His servitude; the most significant test of my life, up until then, was beginning to manifest itself and I was too foolish to understand. Storm clouds were gathering in the distance but I was blinded by the sunlight, I couldn’t see what was ahead.
Why has always been the question that governed much of my internal thought processes. Why should I pray 5 times a day? Why the Prophet (ﷺ)? What made him special? Why should I believe in Hadith? What exactly was Hadith!?! Why should I pray in Arabic? God knows I don’t understand Arabic! Why should I wear a hijab? What is hijab? Why, why, so many whys! I laugh now at my own questioning, but these were serious questions that I contemplated for a long time. The whys were like a gushing river ready to burst its banks. And to keep myself from drowning in the sea of knowledge, I decided to focus less on the why and more on the how. In retrospect this was utter madness, but it made perfect sense at the time. It was a way of escaping the discomfort I felt by not understanding. Islam came not only with vastly different knowledge for me but with a set of vocabulary words I just couldn’t grasp. I felt stupid. And although I’ve never been afraid to ask questions and say I don’t know or understand, I was surprised by my own inability to remember the new vocabulary words. Those who know me will describe my memory like that of an elephant. And here I was unable to remember words like, Alhamdulillah, salah, Rasoolullah (ﷺ), let alone their meaning. My Muslim friends, hurled words at me that I just dodged for fear of seeming ignorant. These words were all foreign to me, and I felt like my knowledge of Islam would never compare to my knowledge of Christianity. I could easily flip to a scripture in the Bible, but I had no clue what the Quran had to say. So, I abandoned the why for the how, and the raging storm, settled. Silly, silly girl!
Naturally, I started my quest for information on how to perform the rituals of Islam in the library. I had and still have a deep distrust of internet sources, and as a trained academic, authenticity is paramount. Standing in the new public library nestled on the Eastern dock in the center of Amsterdam, I caught a glimpse of the sun setting through the bay windows, and felt a strange feeling of distrust slowly creep up inside of me. Surely, I must be in the wrong section I thought, there must be more books than this. In the largest public library in the Netherlands all I could find were a handful of books regarding Islam and even fewer written by a Muslim. These books focused on a critical look at Islam and offered little to no real authentic knowledge about the religion. I felt my heart sinking into my stomach. What was I going to do? A darkness enveloped me, and the light of knowledge that until then had lit my path of life, went out.
I would ask Mohammad. I was blessed to work in a company that had many Muslims. And Mohammad was highly respected for his knowledge of Islam and his practice of the deen (religion). The first question I recall asking Mohammad was about how to pray. I had bought a little book on how to pray from an Islamic bookstore and it left me confused. First, the unit of prayers called rakahs explained using words I didn’t understand such as, sujood, niyyah, wudu, and even the word rakah confused me. The book was written for children but clearly expected the reader to have knowledge of these words, which I most certainly did not. Then I stumbled on something I definitely could not accept, it left a discomfort inside of me that was my hearts way of letting me know this was inauthentic knowledge. It taught a different way to pray for women. I tried to follow the instructions, feeling as someone new to Islam that it must be correct, even though my better judgement told me otherwise. Why would Allah order men and women to pray differently? This just didn’t make any sense to me. And as I prayed according to the books instructions I felt myself more distanced from God, my Creator.
“Mohammad,” I said shyly. I was afraid he might laugh at me or judge me for the question I was about to ask him. “Can you teach me how to pray?”
Mohammad smiled and said, “The Prophet (ﷺ), said “pray as you have seen me praying.”
“How do you know what the Prophet said, peace be upon him?” And why do we say, peace be upon him or what it is you said in Arabic?”
Mohammad smiled again, that smile would become very familiar and explained to me about Hadith, recorded sayings of the Prophet (ﷺ). He guided me to sunnah.com and advised me to always verify the authenticity of a Hadith and that I could do so using this website. Here were two more words I didn’t understand fully, Sunnah and Hadith but for now I just chose to ignore them.
“There are some Muslims who believe that men and women should pray differently, but the Prophet (ﷺ) did not teach us this. The only difference between men and women is that women are not permitted to pray when they are menstruating, this is as a mercy from Allah. I will email you a book to read, it’s one of the best I’ve read in English on prayer,” Mohammad said.
The book he recommended was, The Prophet’s Prayer from the Beginning to the End as Though You See It. I began to read the book with great enthusiasm, which quickly died out, due to a myriad of vocabulary words I didn’t understand. Of course, I looked them up, but I lost my desire to finish reading the book. It was all too much for me, I was emotionally overwhelmed. But one question had been answered and that was that men and women should pray the same. So that is what I would do.
With my little picture book of instructions on how to pray for children in tow, I started to pray. I read the words in Arabic, of course, mispronouncing every single word, and I struggled to remember to units of prayer and the order, often starting over. The only thing that I never failed to remember was to make the intention to pray. That was something very new to me and it fascinated me. The idea of intention, is one that was touched upon in my Christian upbringing, I had often heard the pastor say God looks at your heart. But no one actually went into depth about what intention was, and it certainly wasn’t something that was paramount. The seeds of intention, and their Islamic meaning, had been planted and like with many matters in my life I would contemplate this idea of intention for a long time, several years in fact. I needed to feel it, live it, have it implanted into my heart, and for this I needed time. Other matters were clouding my mind, like how to pray like a Muslim.
I would lose concentration when I prayed.
“The words don’t mean anything to me Mohammad,” I found myself hovering over Mohammad’s desk hoping he could give me some clarification. A sad look shot across his face.
“It is because the Arabic words don’t have any meaning to you. If you understood it would touch you,” Mohammad said.
“They are meaningless to me,” I uttered. “I don’t feel anything.” A deep feeling of shame overtook me. I was praying, barely, I say barely because I made many mistakes, and I felt nothing at all, except frustration. Other than the disconnect with the language, I couldn’t understand why we were meant to pray 5 times daily. It felt so prescriptive and it made me feel completely disconnected from Allah.
“Why can’t I just talk to God like I did before Mohammad?” I complained after several months of praying on and off. Often abandoning the prayer out of frustration, and then staying away from the prayer out of guilt. Satan, or Shaytaan in Arabic is a sly one, never underestimate how he will use everything against you to keep you from worshiping Allah. In my case it was my guilt for not praying and my lack of understanding of the units of prayer and the words I was reciting.
Mohammad laughed, “Why do you think that you are not allowed to talk to God?”
“Well, because salah requires wudu, and then reciting Al Fatihah and another part of the Quran, and that’s it. Where is there room to talk to God?”
“Islam doesn’t close the doors of communication with Allah, it opens them. You can always talk to Allah, at any moment without having wudu or performing salah. It’s called dua or supplication and it is similar to how you prayed as a Christian.”
I felt a sense of ease wash over me, I wanted to hug Mohammad but he had taught me that it wasn’t appropriate so instead I put my hand on my heart and thanked him. This form of appreciation felt more genuine than a hug. A symbolic touch of my heart to express my deepest gratitude, Subhana Allah, Glory be to Allah. It still brings me to tears when I think about all that my first teacher Mohammad taught me. He was gentle, took his time, did not overwhelm me with information, and most of all was kind and respectful when he rebuked me. He always taught me why certain things were not permitted in Islam, such as hugging the opposite sex.
Mohammad continued with a familiar smile on his face, that f a loving older brother.
“Salat is one of the five pillars of Islam. Do you know the five pillars of Islam?”
“I do but I am not sure how they fit into my life and why they are the five pillars?”
“Isra wa Miraj,” Mohammad said, and as he spoke those words a light illuminated his face and transfixed his eyes. I was captivated.
“The miraculous Night Journey and Ascension.”
Like a child at story time I eagerly awaited for his words to captivate me and I felt my heart skip a beat in anticipation.
“It was the night Jibril (the angel Gabriel), ascended with Rasoolallah (ﷺ),”
“The Messenger of God (ﷺ),” whilst in Paradise met the prophets who came before him. Mohammad (ﷺ) saw Adam (peace be upon him) sitting with Aswida (a large number of people) to his left and right. The angel Jibril told the Prophet (ﷺ), that the people to the left are the offspring of Adam (peace be upon him) who are in the Hellfire and when he looks to them he weeps, those to the right are in Paradise and when he looks to them he laughs. Subhana Allaah,” Mohammad paused. His voice became more serious, he told me about how the Prophet (ﷺ) ascended through the different levels of Paradise meeting the different prophets along the way until he reached a place where he heard creaking pens, and there Allah enjoined 50 daily salah on him, upon hearing this Musa (Moses) (peace be upon him) ordered him to go back to Allah and ask for a reduction, because the burden would be too great on his followers. The Prophet (ﷺ) went back to Allah and it was reduced by a half. Again, when he passed by Musa he asked the Prophet (ﷺ) how many prayers had been prescribed and again he ordered him to go back and ask for a reduction. Again, Allah reduced it by half and again Musa told the Prophet (ﷺ) to ask for a reduction, this time Allah made 5 daily prayers obligatory and although Musa told the Prophet (ﷺ) to go back and reduce it he (ﷺ) replied by saying, “I feel shy by asking my Lord now,” and so 5 daily prayers when preformed and accepted are rewarded as if you prayed fifty prayers.”
As I listened to the rest of the story I felt myself overwhelmed with emotion. Later that night I read the story on sunnah.com and deep from inside of me, as if it were coming from my soul, I felt a sense of truth so powerful, it was as if I could feel the presence of God. I felt a closeness to Allah, so intimate and pure it weakened me to my very core, that all I could do was cry. Moments, such as this one, are so transcendent that they mark you, in such a way you are left altered, changed somehow. It is difficult for me to explain, as it is something I feel, it I experienced in pure, unadulterated emotion, void of thought, uncorrupted, and life altering.
I sat for a long time in the dark contemplating the five daily prayers and the prayers that once felt so forced and inauthentic to me because of their prescribed times became a blessing. I looked up the prayer times and I realized that because of the shifting in time according to daylight hours, we are given a moment to detach from our day, to stop those things keeping us busy and remember our Lord in prayer. Not only remember Him, but worship Him. It no longer seemed like a burden but a great blessing. We, us, you and me, flawed, sinful, imperfect, always stumbling and falling human beings, are given the privilege of worshiping the Almighty Creator of the universe and everything that is in them, five times a day, and more if you choose so. And are rewarded for fifty prayers. How utterly amazing is that! Subhana Allah.
I wish I could say that this realization made it easier for me to connect to the words of the prayer, but sadly it did not. Do you remember that storm cloud I told you was gathering in the distance? Well, the beginning as with many storms is calm, silent almost, to the point you don’t even know it is approaching. I was caught in the prevailing winds, and my attention was would soon be diverted from contemplating, and performing the obligatory prayers to worldly matters. The lure of the dunya is great, especially when it concerns matters of love. For now though, I was happily oblivious.
Nour M. Fox