Dhikr

I arrived at the appointed time. The Sufi Center was in a tidy little building near a school that was quiet on a Sunday. The area would have been free from all noise if not for a flock of black birds cawing loudly in the trees. I had learned online that today’s dhikr would be of the vocal variety. The description said we would be joining our hearts, souls, and voices in an ancient Sufi chanting practice.

Inside, the woman I had spoken with on the phone greeted me. Thin and tall, her blond hair was parted in the middle to let her face through. She had two names: the American one her parents had given her and the one she had given herself as an adult, Hayati, which means “life” in Arabic. Hayati explained that first we’d complete the evening prayers and then she would lead the group in repeating names of God. I knew that in Islam Allah is said to have 99 names, some known and some hidden. Each is a noun or an adjective (like “Nourisher” or “All-Wise”) that might help a person conceive of the attributes of God. Would we run through the entire list or pick a few? Whatever the case, I planned to just go with it.

More people arrived. They looked to me like a small cross-section of average middle-aged Austinites: open-minded creative-types. Maybe they had once been dope-smoking youths, but that was a phase on a long path of soul searching, the twists and turns of which had somehow landed them here. We gathered in a large room that appeared to take up the majority of the building. It had few furnishings and a beautiful woven rug covered all but the perimeter. Hayati retrieved a small stack of prayer rugs from a closet. I followed her lead, helping her spread them across the larger rug diagonally to face Mecca. The worshippers arranged themselves with men in front. The women pulled scarves out of their bags or lifted them from around their shoulders and draped them over their heads. I grabbed the one I had brought just in case. I was surprised at how conventional this seemed. One of the men played the part of the imam, reciting passages in Arabic. We went through the evening prayers just as we would have in a typical mosque.

After the prayers, we gathered into a circle. Hayati whispered to me that she had selected three names of God. We would focus on one at a time and I should follow her lead. She began. I think she was saying “Allah” but it sounded like “Ya…a…la,” each syllable a burst of breath from her belly. Soon the others joined her. Their eyes were shut tight, and they swayed back and forth. Together, their voices sounded like a train leaving the station, “Ya…a…la…Ya…a…la…Ya…a…la…” I was embarrassed, but I didn’t know what else to do. I closed my eyes and swayed. I was The Little Engine That Could chugging up a hill.

Hayati changed our chant to “Eh…la…la.” Around and around we went with these new sounds, each an exhalation. Time was not ticking at a steady pace. The bright dots against my eye lids formed patterns that shimmied with my breath. Our chant morphed again. “Hey…coo-a…la.” This one sounded hilarious and I wanted to laugh. It made no sense what we were doing. How was this different from the Pentecostal practice of speaking in tongues? Our mouths were making sounds our minds didn’t recognize. Then it was like Muhammad whispering across generations, telling me to just go with it. Hey…coo-a…la. Surrender. Hey…coo-a…la. Make peace with the bigger picture. Hey…coo-a…la. You are not in charge. The patterns behind my lids exploded into chaos, a million points of light shooting in all directions; the entire universe in my eyes.

Sufism

Little details of Sufism reminded me of bits and pieces from other faiths. I read that the name “Sufi” was derived from the Arabic word “suf,” meaning “wool,” for the simple garments these individuals preferred to fancier options. This made me think of early Protestants who believed opulent attire was inconsistent with true Christianity and insisted on plain, unadorned clothing. In both cases, it was meant as a way to voice concern about the larger society’s preoccupation with wealth, which felt to them like a departure from the core message of faith.

I instantly recognized Sufi worship practices like chanting and visualizations as similar to those in Kabbalah and Buddhism, particularly Tantric methods, and ditto on the insistence that new students must learn from more experienced guides or risk crossing over into dangerous territory. Even significant symbols in Kabbalah and Buddhism like the circle and the ocean made appearances in Sufism. But Sufis also did certain things that struck me as entirely unique. Their chanting might be accompanied by strenuous breathing or thrashing of the head and torso to induce a trance-like state to help separate them from the false reality of the material world. Of course, who hasn’t heard at least some mention of the “Whirling Dervishes,” those one-of-a-kind Sufis who spin around and around to represent the movement of the cosmos?

Somehow, my inclination to find Sufis in Austin with whom I could worship felt appropriate. Maybe it was Austin’s distance from the glitz of Dallas, or its reputation for not quite fitting with the rest of Texas. Both Sufis and Austinites specialize in nonconformity so, in that way at least, the two seem to go hand-in-hand. But perhaps this gets closer to the truth: by exploring Sufism, some part of me felt like I was betraying Fatima. I thought if I did it spur-of-the-moment and in a location I never imagined as relevant, then it might exist outside the narrative. I see now that in the telling it becomes the story and, at every turn, I’ve let down somebody.

It wasn’t hard to locate a Sufi Center in Austin. The website’s pages implied a connection to Islam, invoking Arabic terms and concepts, but nowhere was the relationship overtly stated. It called Sufism “an ancient, practical, and effective school of mysticism based on the teachings of the Prophets.” I had assumed that orthodox Muslims were the ones distancing themselves from Sufis. Now I wondered if the feeling was mutual.

The woman who answered the phone sounded surprisingly ordinary as she confirmed the time I should show up Sunday evening. I would be joining a weekly event called a “Dhikr Circle.” I wasn’t sure what we would do in this circle. “Dhikr” means “to remember” and, among mainstream Muslims, generally refers to a silent reflection or recitation that focuses a person’s thoughts on God. With Sufism, dhikr takes on a greater range of activity. Depending on the order, dhikr may be singing or dancing. It might require feats of stamina and strength. When the Dervishes whirl, that’s dhikr. I searched the Sufi Center’s website to try to determine what kind of dhikr was in store for me.

My Medina

While Mecca gets most of the attention for being the birthplace of Islam, it’s actually the village of Medina about 200 miles away where Muhammad developed his ideas into a full-fledged faith. In Mecca, his message of sweeping social reforms was unwelcome by those whose fortunes depended on the practices he condemned. The wealthy leaders didn’t want to give up their lopsided money lending methods or free their slaves. They certainly had no intention of earmarking a percentage of their incomes for the needy. After more than a decade of failing to convince Mecca’s elite of its obligation to care for the most vulnerable members of society, Muhammad decided to relocate to Medina where he found a more receptive audience.

I can’t help but draw parallels between Muhammad’s Mecca and my perception of Dallas. Both are commercial centers with vast income disparities, but it’s not just that. Muhammad was motivated by the indifference of those around him who hoarded their resources and I suppose I get this same sense of disinterest when I observe people who appear not only comfortable with inequality, but who seem to relish it. All the expensive adornments speak volumes, and not just of the size of one’s bank account. Of course, even after relocating to Medina, Muhammad returned to Mecca to visit the precious things he’d left behind: the Kaaba and Zamzam spring and other important sites. Eventually, his relationship with the place got less rocky. I suppose the same could be said of me and Dallas. Despite my emotional baggage, I’ve been drawn back because of my grandma and others whom I love. Little by little, I’m making peace with the city itself.

Dallas may be my Mecca, but Austin is my Medina. When I’m there, everything is less complicated, more laidback. Dallas forces me to swim in the murky lake of my subconscious; Austin is a dip in a crystal blue swimming hole. I wanted to take advantage of my proximity to Austin to pay a quick visit before making my way to Washington, D.C., where I’d always imagined this story ending. I was thinking of it as a respite, like a pause at an oasis before continuing on a difficult journey. Austin is about the same distance from Dallas as Medina is from Mecca (200 miles). Thankfully, my trek via Southwest airlines was slightly less arduous than taking a camel.

Arriving in Austin signaled that my trip was drawing nearer to its conclusion, which forced me to acknowledge I hadn’t yet made proper accommodations to experience a version of Islam that tends to be controversial among traditional Muslims: Sufism. I had put the issue on the back burner at least in part because of Fatima’s warning. When I asked what she thought of Sufism, her reply was swift and definitive: “It is not real Islam.” She recommended I steer clear of it. It was similar to the reaction I got when I mentioned Kabbalah to some mainstream Jews.

So, for the time being, I did as she suggested. Besides, I had my hands full trying to understand regular Islam. Yet, in my reading, I was intrigued by Sufis. Every faith I had explored boasted similar mystical variations birthed by individuals who cared less for the rules of religion and more for the experience of feeling connected to the divine. In every case, the parent faith appeared to be locked in a love-hate relationship with its mysterious little offshoot, engaged in some centuries-long process of dismissal and little-by-little acceptance. When Fatima denied the validity of Sufism, I got the impression she had internalized embarrassment on behalf of the majority of Muslims who are ashamed of the grotesque branch that sprouted from their healthy trunk. But from my perspective, Sufism did not indicate an abnormality. Just the opposite: I found it confirmation that Muslims are no different from anyone else. Within any group of humanity, some will possess these impulses. If anything, Sufism spoke to our shared human nature.

 

A goodbye hug

As Salma spoke, I noticed her finger nails were tipped magenta. What surprised me about her disclosure wasn’t that Muslims could have differences, but that such differences might exist within a unit as intimate as husband and wife or dad and daughter without it threatening the familial bond. If ever there were negotiations, it seems they long ago ceased, and now the family members lived in harmonious dissent. Perhaps this was a lesson for unity on any scale.

“It’s important you know that not every Muslim agrees,” Salma told me. “I don’t cover my head in public, but I don’t believe this makes me less devout.” On this last point, she was clear: she considered herself faithful. She performed her daily prayers, and she was true to the other pillars. “It’s important that we educate ourselves and do what we feel is right for us as individuals.” I thanked her for sharing her perspective, and silently wondered if voices like hers might help make some aspects of Islam more compatible with contemporary tastes.

By the time I was ready to go, Raj and his family had showered me with so many gifts that they also had to give me a shopping bag in which to carry them. I received a beautiful Quran, much nicer than the cheap paperback version I had been using. They gave me a box of sweets to share with my grandmother; they were delicious, like extra-rich and dense donut holes. Before his departure, Abdul handed me a jug. It was the shape of a canister one might use for gasoline, but much smaller and made of clear plastic. “It’s Zamzam water,” he said of the liquid inside. It took a moment for his words to register: I was holding water from Mecca. Aside from the Kaaba, the spring from which this water comes is perhaps the most important site in all of Islamic history. Like the Eid itself, its significance is tied to Abraham’s son, Ishmael. It is said that when Ishmael was an infant and desperate with thirst, the earth gurgled forth at this spot and has offered precious life-sustaining water in abundance ever since. “I brought it back from my Hajj,” Abdul told me. “You may have it.” I couldn’t believe this precious item was mine to keep.

After I thanked everyone profusely and promised to stay in touch, Raj walked me outside. At the car, I set my bag of gifts down. I felt an overwhelming appreciation for the effort Raj had made to get my phone number that first day. I was grateful to his family for including me in their Eid celebrations, and for everything they had taught me. If I was to follow Islamic norms, I would have taken care not to touch Raj. I would have driven away with a wave. But that felt all wrong: too formal and not at all indicative of the fondness I had developed.

“May I give you a hug?” I asked. I was emboldened by Salma’s advice. Each person has to assess guidelines for themselves and make judgments about what is and isn’t applicable. Raj seemed pleased by my question. “Yes,” he answered. He smiled and I went in for an affectionate squeeze that perfectly fit the situation.

A sharp blade

After lunch, Abdul prepared to leave. He had a date with a sharp blade and the throats of two goats. He explained that a farm about an hour’s drive offered this service for Muslims in the region. For Eid, its machinery was cleaned under the supervision of an imam. Abdul could select his animals and personally slit their throat, which allowed him adherence to some of the ritual’s finer details: he would make sure his knife’s tip faced Mecca and he would not turn away from the sight of the animal’s blood. I was relieved not to have to witness the slaughtering. Abdul would do it on our behalf.

The resulting meat would be divided into thirds, Abdul told me. Most importantly, one-third of it would be given to a family that lived on a limited income—a transaction arranged informally through the mosque. His family members would eat one portion and they would share the final portion with friends, most likely preparing it themselves and inviting friends over to partake. I learned that while it is important that the slaughter occur on the Eid, the guidelines about consumption are looser and the meat might stay in the freezer for weeks.

Once her father was gone, Salma asked if I would be willing to speak with her privately. We sat together on the sofa in the family room off the kitchen. She said she had waited for her father to leave because she didn’t want to be disrespectful, but she wanted me to know that she did not necessarily agree 100 percent with his interpretation of what it meant to be a faithful Muslim. Take, for example, the practice of women wearing hijab. “My father believes women should wear a scarf any time they leave their own homes,” she told me, “Whereas my mother and I think differently.” She explained that she and her mother interpret the Quran’s passages on the matter more loosely; they read them as referring specifically to Muhammad’s wives whose coverings were a show of discretion around the steady stream of foreign dignitaries and others visiting their house. Salma explained that she and her mom cover their heads while in the mosque but for busy days at the office or school, they opt to leave the hijab at home.

I nodded as Salma spoke. I understood that not all Muslims see eye to eye despite efforts to reach agreement on even the finest points. After Muhammad’s death, his closest companions tried to ensure consistency by recording in writings called hadiths the wisdom the Prophet had imparted through his daily habits and personal opinions. Gathered into a volume called the “Sunnah,” this information serves as a supplement to the Quran and practical guide; it’s also the inspiration for the name “Sunni.”

But even with these sources, many topics were never mentioned by Muhammad or his confidantes—leaving shades of grey on issues as minor as nail polish. My first night at the mosque back home, my Egyptian acquaintance, Mandisa, caught sight of my painted toe nails and explained to me that polish is not allowed in Islam because it acts as a barrier to water during pre-prayer washing. That same night, as I was performing my first-ever communal rakahs, I noticed that the woman next to me had a pedicure. I was confused. In my reading, I had seen nothing about nail polish; I wanted to get it right before unleashing my bare feet at other mosques. One book had mentioned a hotline available in the U.S.—1-800-Fatwa—for obtaining rulings by contemporary experts on topics such as these. I dialed the number, but it was no longer dedicated to this purpose. Instead, I got a recording about a sweepstakes for a free Caribbean cruise. I decided to err on the side of caution and strip my toe nails bare.

Raj’s family

We made our way to an upscale subdivision filled with identical-looking brick homes. Theirs was at the end of a cul-de-sac, the front door dwarfed by the impressive façade. I parked on the street while Raj stood in the driveway waiting for me. He reminded me of my grandpa who was always affectionate with me, though I doubted my grandpa would have been as tender with a stranger as Raj was with me. Raj ushered me through the entrance in the garage that led directly to the kitchen.

Inside, the food was ready and the table was set. They insisted I take the head, facing the big picture window looking out to the yard. Through bits and pieces, I had learned that Raj was a retired engineer who dabbled in writing. He and his wife had lived in Texas for close to 40 years. Now he beamed with pride as his daughter explained that she and her husband, Abdul, were both doctors. To top it off, his granddaughter, Salma, was currently in medical school. I thought about how envious my grandmother would be—she had waged a many-decades long campaign to convince someone in the family to become a doctor but not one of her children or grandchildren had been swayed. Here, Raj and his wife were outnumbered by doctors.

Abdul asked what had brought me to their mosque and Raj said, yes, please tell us. They knew I was learning Islam, so I figured they wanted a longer version. As we ate, I gave it to them. I started at the beginning and explained everything. I had grown up with no religion. I got older and grew curious. Then I moved to a small town and began by going to churches. I worked my way through Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism. It had taken several years, but I had finally made it to Islam. At home, I had done what I could to educate myself. Then I came to Dallas to visit my grandma and worship at mosques.

They nodded, but looked confused. I could see them trying to make sense of it. They wanted to know how my experiment would end, where exactly I would land. I didn’t know what else to tell them. I was trying to make sense of it too.

Abdul, especially, seemed baffled. He asked if I knew the pillars of Islam. I said them out loud, counting on my fingers: daily prayers, Ramadan, zakat (giving to charity), monotheism. That was four. What was the last? “Shahada,” Abdul said. Of course. The shahada, the statement of faith. He asked if I knew the Islamic view of Jesus. Yes, I answered, he is greatly respected and considered a prophet, similar to Muhammad.

I could sense the question—Did I intend to become Muslim?—on the tip of his tongue. Instead, he switched his approach. “You should become Muslim as soon as possible,” he said. What purpose did learning serve unless I planned to convert? I wasn’t sure he’d understand that, for me, knowledge was having the opposite effect: the more I learned, the less inclined I was to declare myself any one thing. But this hadn’t prevented me from developing a deep appreciation, love even, for the ideas and people I met along the way. I recalled Fatima saying she was eager for me to become a Muslim because then she and I would be sisters. I smiled at the sweetness of the sentiment. I wanted to say, “I hope we can be sisters no matter what.”

Second Eid

The morning after the Eid celebration at the convention center, I had another to attend—this one with my new friend, Raj.

I was supposed to meet Raj and his family at their mosque. The first stop on this Dallas leg of my religious journey, their mosque was the one whose walls were a blank canvas for its security cameras; the second time around, it felt familiar and not at all daunting. I knew the ropes: what door to enter and which direction to face. When I arrived, many women were present but Raj’s wife didn’t appear to be among them. I took a seat and waited.

My thoughts kept going back to the Eid celebration at the convention center. How had I felt being a part of such a large gathering? For that hour or so, I was united, if only symbolically, not just with everyone in the room but with others engaged in the same activity across the world. When I first saw photos of Hajj, I remember being amazed that all those tiny dots around the Kaaba were people. From the vantage of the photographer’s lens, they looked like little bits of something bigger, maybe a single piece of cloth with just minor variations of color and texture. It got me thinking about the irony of unity: you can see it so much more clearly from the outside. At the convention center, I had stitched myself in to the fabric of Muslims, an extension of the cloth around the Kaaba, but it didn’t necessarily feel how it looked: like we were all the same, like we were one monolithic hunk of humanity. I had blended in and gone through the motions but I hadn’t spoken in depth with anyone. If I had, I doubt we would have agreed on all key issues or found that we see the world in the same way. Can we have differences—perhaps even some that are very big—and still be “one”?

Raj’s wife appeared and greeted me with a smile and a loving hug. She introduced me to her middle-aged daughter and her granddaughter, who was in her early twenties. They planted kisses on either of my cheeks. I wasn’t sure I deserved such warmth, but I was happy to receive it. We settled in for the sermon—Raj’s wife in her chair and the rest of us at her feet like she would be giving us a bedtime story. The flat screens showed the orange-bearded imam and the backs of the men’s heads in the main sanctuary.

The imam’s talk was dedicated to an aspect of this holiday I had yet to focus on: the slaughter of animals. It is customary on this day to acknowledge Allah’s willingness to allow Abraham to sacrifice a ram in place of his son by killing an animal. The meat is to be shared with the needy. For Muslims who are unable to perform the slaughter personally, services located in the U.S. or other countries will do the deed on their behalf and ensure its distribution to the appropriate parties. This explained the flyers I had been seeing at various mosques over the last few weeks that said check a box—goat, sheep, or cow—and mail a check.

The imam did not spare us the grisly details. He spoke about the importance of seeing the knife slit the throat, not turning away, coming face-to-face with the reality of this sacrifice. It reminded me of the more gory details from Jesus’ story: the focus on the bloodshed, his wounds and the lashings. It also shares obvious similarities with the Jewish custom of sacrificing animals. I started to worry about what was in store once I went home with Raj’s family. Just a few nights earlier, over dinner with my grandmother and me, my great aunt told us about some old neighbors of hers, recent transplants from Greece, who kept a “pet” goat in their back yard. Every Easter, the goat would vanish, replaced by the smell of smoking meat.

After the service, I followed Raj’s van, filled with his family members, back to his daughter’s house. They seemed lovely, but I had no idea what to expect.

For all I knew, I would be the day’s ceremonial sacrifice…