“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 muslim declaration of faith, the leaves had begun to fall, bright green giving way to different shades of amber.
“Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so,” I sang.
“Little ones to him belong they are weak and he is strong.”
I stopped as I realized which song I was singing. Memories from the summertime of my youth filled me. I remembered the first time I had been taught to properly sing Jesus Loves Me. The East New York Seventh Day Adventist Youth Choir, announced they were holding auditions. I had long wanted the honor of wearing the long blue pleated skirt and white blouse and stand in the choir pews singing my heart out to God.
“Little sister Henry,” the choir director said with a slight Jamaican twang.
“I want you to sing as if you can see Jesus in front of you,” she continued.
I closed my eyes and imagined myself standing in front of God, not Jesus, and from inside of me rose a soft, strong and determined soprano voice.
Th first refrain went off without a hitch, then from somewhere deep inside of me came,
“God loves me! Loves me still.”
“Sister Henry,” the choir director said.
“When I am weak and ill;” I closed my eyes and continued to sing, my small voice filling the church hall.
“From His shining throne up high, comes to watch me where I lie. Yes God loves me,”
“Sister Henry,” the choir director shouted.
I was in a trance and could hear nothing but my own voice, singing to God.
“Yes, God loves me, ouch.”
“Sister Henry’s granddaughter, listen to me when I am talking to you. Don’t vex me nah. The words are “Jesus loves me”, now start over again, you’ve made the choir and ya singing solo this sabbath God willing if ya don’t give me a heart attack first. Jesus help me!”
I could not deny that I loved Jesus, and could always remember loving him. And his love for me I had never doubted. But as the leaves outside gently fell to the ground so did everything I held dear. 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 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!
“So what have you learned about Islam,” Tchamaco, my brother, asked on one of our marathon calls.
“I learned about the five pillars.”
“You don’t really sound sure. Have you read the Quran?”
“You should. There is a lot which might surprise you.”
“What did you think when you read the Quran?”
“You need to read it for yourself to make up your mind. If you’re going to be a Muslim then you need to be all in and not halfway. You can’t pick and choose. And you need to know what it’s all about.”
“There is so much I just don’t understand and it is overwhelming. I am full of joy and terror at the same time.”
“I don’t know where to begin. I went to the library the other day and the majority of the books are mainly critical of Islam.”
“Dayja, don’t be stupid. You don’t start in the library. You find a Muslim you trust and start there. And read the Quran,” Tchamaco paused and continued.
“I remember reading in the Quran that all guidance comes from God. So ask God. If you want to be a Muslim now that is what you need to do.”
“It’s just that I don’t understand some things like we we need to pray five times a day, it feels so fake. And who the Prophet Mohammad?The whys are creating a lot of static in my head.”
“Look I already told you find a muslim you trust and read the Quran. Or are you going to be stubborn like you always are? I gotta go. Love you.”
Most of our conversations end like this one, abruptly, but with an honesty I find annoyingly pure and begrudgingly cherish.
Later that evening I looked up the verse my brother was referencing.
“Say: Indeed the only guidance is Allah’s Guidance!” (Al-An’am 06:71)
“Oh Allah help me please. There are so many things I just don’t understand,” I cried out, sleep made impossible by a growing doubt.
Even as I cried out to Allah for guidance, my stubborn, willful, independent heart felt it could do all the guiding.
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. I would pray, perform the rituals of Islam, without seeking out the purpose, all that mattered was 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 but most of all overwhelmed. And “how” restored balance.
The first flurries of snow would melt as they hit the ground before I would partially follow Tchamaco’s advise.
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.
“Mohammad,” I said shyly. Inside my stomach, that monster, churning me into knots, my old friend fear, told me to stop talking and not dear ask him how to pray. He will think you are stupid. Just walk away, walk away and spare yourself the embarrassment.
I had been a muslim for several months and still was uncertain on how to pray correctly. Somehow I felt I should know everything about Islam, utterly unrealistic.
“Can you teach me how to pray?” As he words flowed out of me I felt the fear subside.
Mohammad’s smile beckoned me to sit beside him.
“The Prophet (ﷺ), said “pray as you have seen me praying.”
“I bought a book on how to pray and it instructs men and women to pray differently. That just doesn’t feel right. If the Prophet said we should pray as he prayed then what about women?”
“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.
“Ok I got this,” I told myself.
“Allahu Akbar,” I said. My eyes fixed on the little book containing a transliteration of surahs.
“Bismillāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīm,” I began, trying my best not to lose my concentration.
“Wait, how many units did I pray?” Inevitably each prayer would at some point reach this stage.
I often would forget how many units a prayer had or when I had to prostrate. But nevertheless I muddled though.
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.
To say that I felt disconnected from God is an understatement. The refugee of how to preform the acts of worship had created a vacuum one in which there was no room for talking to God.
“The words don’t mean anything to me Mohammad,” I found myself hovering over Mohammad’s desk hoping he could give me some clarification.
“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, but it was perfunctory, the only emotion, frustration.
“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 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 prayer requires ablution, 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 ablution or performing the obligatory prayers. It’s called dua or supplication and it is similar to how you prayed as a Christian.”
Mohammad continued with a familiar smile on his face, that of a loving older brother.
“Prayer is one of the five pillars of Islam. Do you know the five pillars of Islam?”
“I do but I am not sure how five daily prayers fit into my life and why we need it so regimented?”
“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 he met the prophets who came before him. Mohammad (ﷺ) saw Adam (peace be upon him) sitting with 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 Allah.”
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 prayers on him, upon hearing this 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 Moses 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 Moses told the Prophet (ﷺ) to ask for a reduction, this time Allah made 5 daily prayers obligatory and although Moses 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.”
Later that night a wave of gratitude washed over me. 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 (Praised be to God).
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, away from Allah. The lure of the dunya (temporal world) is great, especially when it concerns matters of love. For now though, I was happily oblivious.
Based on my memories Nour M. Fox
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