Hour of None

Early Christians had a custom of dividing up the day into four blocks of about three hours, each with its own mood and prayers to say. It was actually a practice that historians say was adopted from Judaism as a way to structure and honor the passage of time. I was surprised to see the third portion of the day referred to as the “Hour of None.”

The None in this instance was derived from the word “nine,” referring to the ninth hour of the day, which generally fell at about three in the afternoon and led into evening. But what I found most interesting was how this particular chunk of time was characterized. It was considered the portion of the day when businesses closed for the night and people returned home to bathe and eat. It offered both a break from work and a transition before the last prayers; it played the role of sort of spiritual exhalation. I wondered about the synchronicity of the names—if, culturally speaking, we aren’t in our own “Hour of None.” Perhaps we’ve entered something of a pause, a retreat from the normal course of things, an opportunity to reflect and prepare for what comes next.

If we have arrived at such a time, this “time off,” then I have the opportunity to consider what to bundle up and smuggle with me into whatever phase awaits. From Judaism I’ll take monotheism, which I’ve come to appreciate as the birthplace of the radical notion that all beings on this planet—human and otherwise—originate from the same source and are, therefore, intrinsically connected. I want to remember the intent of Sabbath—a designated time to surrender productivity and allow myself to relish the freedom of simply being. I must not forget to take a moment or two each day to focus my thoughts once again on how miraculous it is to be alive, perhaps letting a simple but amazing sight—a cloud formation or a fragrant bloom or a loved one’s smile—trigger the thought. I would like to keep the Jewish custom of keeping the word “dayenu” on the tip of my tongue, letting it tumble out in those moments when I am suddenly overwhelmed with appreciation or, perhaps more importantly, urging myself to say it when I feel slighted or cheated or preoccupied with someone who appears to have it better. Dayenu! I have everything I need—more than enough. I only need tap a deep well of gratitude.

I refuse to go forward without the story of Jesus tucked close to my heart. Here was a free-thinking rebel of his day who broke with tradition so he could best demonstrate his love and care for others. He lives on as a powerful example: all that is noble and good can exist in a person, the divine can be embodied, we are capable of greater heights of love—for ourselves and others. I can’t not think of the way he died, how exposed he was on that cross; how he literally shared his death with the world, demonstrating that strength is possible even in our most vulnerable moments—maybe especially at those times. Even in my darkest hours, I can rest assured that I am loved because I am not exempt from that most personal message Jesus sent to every single person: I love you. But I must strive with all my might to complete the assignment he left humanity. He was quite clear that we are to experience joy and to love others, two things that one might assume are easy but are perhaps the greatest challenges any of us face.

From Buddhism, I’ll borrow the daily practice of sensing “the oneness” to which monotheism points. It shows me how to go beyond recognizing my interconnectedness as an intellectual concept to feeling the truth of it with every fiber of my being. I want to occupy that space of knowing for as often and long as possible, and when I forget I want to find my way back, because great comfort is found there. I can cultivate this sense of wellbeing and then I can turn around and share it, projecting it out into the world where it will manifest in ways too mysterious for my mind to comprehend.

If Buddhism helps me nurture a sense of belonging by focusing inward, then Islam encourages me to fix my gaze outward and translate this unity into a sense of duty. It urges me to assume a position—on knees, forehead to the ground—conducive to embracing my own vulnerability so that I am better able to empathize with people in need. Ultimately, it would have me transform empathy into action, finding concrete ways to help society’s weakest members. Then, as further challenge, it nudges me to expand the collective to which I identify. It wants me to push beyond the obvious affinities such as nationality, race, socio-economic status, gender, or religious affiliation to ever-widening circles of humanity. Perhaps, at last, I can arrive to place where I feel beholden to every living creature and the earth itself.

What am I?

After my trip to D.C., I was officially finished with my religious explorations. From the initial visit to the Catholic monastery on an island off Washington State to jummah prayers at the Pentagon Chapel, it had taken roughly four years. I had sung, chanted, meditated, and prostrated along with thousands of others. At times, I had felt painfully nervous or confused or left out. Other moments brought unexpected calm, clarity, and connection. I had interacted with people whose lives were utterly unlike my own. I had formed genuine bonds with a few. I was different from the young woman who had started this endeavor—and not just because I crossed the threshold of age 40 while chipping away at it.

I had put in all this information and now it was my soul’s turn to do its mysterious calculations and spit out an answer. Shouldn’t it work like that? What was I?

My spiritual house had been spiraling around in this strange cyclone for years. Now, presumably, the winds were dying down and it was time for it to land…but where? I kept asking myself: what do you believe? As I was cooking dinner or walking the dogs or waking up first thing in the morning: what do you believe? Then I would take another approach. Just pick one, I would tell myself. Perhaps it wasn’t important what I selected. The goal was to settle in one spot, grow roots, develop, and evolve. I just had to commit to something.

The problem, as I began to see it, was that in selecting one version of one belief system, I was rejecting all the others—or at least that’s how it felt. In my imagination, I would make my choice. I would picture signing some official declaration of faith. Trumpets would sound. I now had license to declare myself a practicing such-and-such. But this scenario always made my stomach turn. My mind would wander to the options I wasn’t picking and I would feel queasy at those potential paths I had refused.

On some fundamental level settling down felt wrong. It occurred to me that perhaps my problem was emblematic of the criticisms regularly hurled at today’s younger generations. Our disengagement is a sign of some critical flaw manifesting in humankind. An aversion to hard work leaves us craving quick fixes. We want all the answers in our palm for no more effort than the light touch of an index finger.  We don’t have the patience for deep thinking. We’re too blasé and easily bored to struggle—especially with the intangible. I weighed these as possible causes of my indecision, but none seemed an appropriate explanation. In fact, it felt like the opposite. I suspected the problem might be too much interest, too much caring.

Nor was my reluctance to pick tied to a newly-discovered distaste for religion. On the contrary, I had found pockets of profound insight tucked within each faith. How was I to choose? In becoming a Christian, I could not be a Jew. In Judaism, I was not Muslim. In being Muslim, I gave up Buddhism. I had reached this strange crossroads where not picking among the religions felt like the best way to honor the religions. My not choosing wasn’t coming from a place of denial but, rather, a place of acceptance. And, if I chose no affiliation, wasn’t I also—in a funny way—opting for all of them? It made me think of the symbol of the open circle, so important in mystical traditions like Kabbalah. Represented in everyday parlance as a zero, it implies absence—but, at the same time, it is also suggests receptivity.

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.

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 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.

First Eid celebration

In the main room of the convention center, I selected the swath of cardboard directly behind the men, as close to the front of the room as I could get. I slipped off my shoes, tucked them into the plastic bag, and stepped over the tape. I settled on a spot that gave me a wide berth of personal space.

People entered in a steady stream as I waited. They greeted one another with kisses and took photos together on their phones. I scooted this way and that to accommodate new arrivals. Soon I had nowhere else to go as the women and children crowded in around me. I came face-to-face with a chubby baby in a hijab. I had only ever seen kids at mosques wearing western-style clothes, and here was a little girl still wobbly on her feet in a special tiny head scarf. I have no idea why dressing tots in grownup clothes has such universal appeal, but my heart melted at the sight of her.

The sermon began. It was about how Allah brings individuals together, how humanity is drawing closer. As if to demonstrate the point, waves of people kept walking through the doors. At some point, I raised my head high enough to see past my nearest neighbors and found that the room was nearly full. The women’s side was vibrant with color and style. It included everything from African queens in elaborately folded fabric hats to Persian princesses in sky-high heels; from loose robes to form-fitting designer suits. A covered head was the only common denominator in terms of appearance—and even in this the crowd sported a vast range of styles

The imam was saying that as we gather today, those of us in this room with others in this country and around the world, we must feel our connection also with everyone who suffers. As he implored us to feel others’ need as our own, audience members were passing big plastic boxes for collecting zakat. By the time one reached me, it had a mound of bills. I stuffed in a few more dollars before handing it on.

Then it was time for prayer. It took a few moments for us to properly situate ourselves so that our shoulders and arms were in contact. A thousand little whispers and adjustments blended into a sizable drone. When agreement was reached, we began. It was the same series of rakahs I had grown accustomed to performing at mosques, only here I was doing them in a crowd much larger than anything I had ever anticipated. It was like I had been learning dance steps in a small classroom for months, and now I was performing them in public as part of a giant flash mob. As a single body, we bowed and kneeled and pressed our foreheads to the ground.

The sheer scale of our synchronized movements made me think of the pictures I had seen of the Hajj. They show thousands and thousands of pilgrims wearing the simple garments that erase socioeconomic distinctions. The people walk in circles around the Kaaba, that small structure in Mecca that symbolizes the enormity of an idea: with one God, we are one. Every prayer in Islam is a return to this notion, just as Eid al-Adha is a return to the well from which its shared history flows.

The trial

The religions I’ve explored all have central figures that faced a period of deprivation. Jesus retreated to the Judean Desert for 40 days, consuming nothing but water. The Jews experienced 40 years of isolation and adversity in the desert. Guatama Siddartha sat for 49 days under a Bodhi tree. In each case, this time of hardship is an essential component of the story. It precedes a breakthrough, a vital step before a vision is clarified, the homeland is reached, or enlightenment is achieved. The suffering is designed to purify and to prove. It forges the key actors into who they are supposed to become: Christ, Israel, Buddha.

I didn’t go anywhere, but Ramadan had brought the trial to me. I had walked through a desert of my own creation for 30 days. I had spent hours with my cheek against the bathroom floor. I went days with dogs as my only company. I shed copious tears. I came face to face with despair. I emerged, several pounds lighter and a bit weary. But I was tougher and more fearless.

After Ramadan, I redoubled my efforts to find a mentor who could help me with the practical aspects of Muslim worship. This time, I emailed my appeal to the president of the Muslim Student Association on campus. I explained a little about myself, that I was exploring religion, and that I was looking for someone to teach me to perform the daily prayers. Then, just in case he wasn’t sure I meant business, I wrote that I had completed the most recent Ramadan. He wrote back immediately. Within a week, I had plans to meet a female graduate student from Egypt.

Via email, Mandisa suggested I come to the mosque at 8 pm on Saturday night. I wasn’t sure what to expect—if it would be just the two of us or if I was showing up for an already-planned event. Either way, I wasn’t about to quibble. I told her I’d be there.

I pulled into the parking lot a few minutes early. I had only ever seen one or two cars here and now it was full. People were also arriving on foot. I sat frozen watching for several minutes. I had dressed in what I hoped was appropriate attire: a skirt to my ankles and a long-sleeve shirt. It was the same outfit from my time spent among Orthodox Jews. I had also brought a plain white scarf big enough to cover my hair and hang past my shoulders. I tossed it into my bag just in case. I thought if the circumstances seemed to demand it, I’d drape it loosely over my head. Now I could see that all the women had their heads wrapped tightly. I pulled my scarf out and used my rear view mirror to put it in place. When I was done, I hardly recognized myself.

I finally got out of my car. I noticed an older woman standing nearby, staring at me. She must have watched me struggle with my scarf. She looked like someone’s sweet granny, her ample frame obscured by bundles of fabric, only the precious moon of her face exposed. She smiled and said, “You go this way.” Thank you, I responded and went in the direction she pointed.

The women were streaming toward the back of the building, and the men to the front. I got in line behind a few women and ahead of a couple more. I walked right in and no one said a word. I thought it must look like I belonged—that my attire was communicating the fact that I was a Muslim—and I was suddenly worried. I was donning this garb as a gesture of respect, but now I realized it might also function as misinformation. Were my clothes telling a lie? What I thought I was saying and what I was actually saying weren’t necessarily the same. It was problem I hadn’t considered until now.