Steps of prayer

When I first entered the children’s class room at the mosque, Fatima’s co-instructor seemed unpleased with my presence. She wore a dark caftan and even darker expression. Then Fatima welcomed me with an embrace and a kiss on both cheeks, and the other lady’s attitude appeared to soften. She opened a folder and handed me a photocopied sheet as if it were a peace offering. Single spaced and printed on both sides, it was labeled “Steps of Prayer.” It spelled out the precise movements and words to utter. It was exactly what I needed. “Thank you,” I said as if she were giving me a precious gem stone.

As we waited for more kids to arrive, I read the instructions carefully. It explained how to do a “rakah,” which is one cycle of standing/bowing/prostrating/sitting—the building blocks of a prayer. Depending on the time of day, every prayer has two to four rakahs. Start, it read, by facing in the direction of Mecca. Declare your intention to perform the payer. (For example, “I intend to offer fajr prayer for Allah.”) Then cup your hands to your ears and say, “Allah Akbar,” which translates as “God is the greatest.”

So far so good, I thought with confidence.

Next, the instructions continued, place your left hand over your stomach and then grasp the wrist of that hand with your right hand. Say, “Glory be to You oh Allah, and praise be to You. Blessed be Your Name, exalted be Your Majesty and Glory. There is no God but You.” But really I was supposed to say this in Arabic and, luckily, a transliteration was provided: Subhanaka Allahummah wa bihamdika, wa tabarakasmuka, wa ta’ala jadduka, wala ilaha.

I tried to form those sounds. I got half way through and began to worry.

I skimmed ahead.

I had a few more phrases to say in the standing position. Then I needed to recite the first chapter, or sura, of the Quran, which is very short and, ideally, another short sura or section of a longer sura—prayer’s choice.

Now came the bowing part I knew from the night before. A quick “Allah Akbar” and bend at the waist. In this position, I was to say three times: “Glorified my Lord, the Great.” In Arabic it sounds like, “Subhana rabbiyal Ajhim.” I got excited. I thought this was something I could probably master.

Stand. Say, “Allah Akbar.” Then come swiftly to my knees. With palms and forehead to the ground, I am to say three times, “Subhana rabbiyal A’ala,” which means “Glory be to Allah, the Exalted.” Awesome, I thought, this part I could do.

With an “Allah Akbar,” come out of the prostration and sit with posterior on the heels of feet, which is like a crouch with knees on the floor. This position has a special name: jalsa. From here, repeat “Rabbi-ghfir li wa arhamni” three times. This looks really hard to say, but simply means, “Oh my Lord, forgive me and have mercy on me.” I suppose, if one must, this is a good phrase to butcher.

After this and another “Allah Akbar,” one’s forehead returns to the floor for another three repetitions of the phrase, “Subhana rabbiyal A’ala.”

Now do it all over again—once, twice, or three times depending on the location of the sun.

At the end of the series of rakahs, regardless of how many and while still seated in jalsa, one recites something called the Tashahod. This appears, for the most part, to be a summation of the compliments and requests given to or asked of Allah throughout the other parts of the prayers. It is customary to point one’s index finger toward Mecca while saying it.

Finally, you turn your head to the right and say, “Assalamu alaikum warahmatullah.” Then you turn left and repeat this phrase, which translates as, “Peace and mercy of Allah be on you.”

Prayer

To achieve my goal of worshipping with Muslims, I needed to understand the prayers. When Muslims gather at mosques, their primary undertaking is prayer. The group activities one might recognize from services of other faiths—like singing or chanting or listening to a reading from a holy book—are, for Muslims, contained within the act of prayer. A service at a mosque will usually include a speech roughly equivalent to a sermon or Torah lesson or dharma talk in which an imam or elder addresses the congregation and imparts bits of wisdom. Other than that, it’s all about the praying.

In general, praying is one of the most important acts in the life of any Muslim. Of the five pillars, or deeds, to which a Muslim is expected to remain faithful, praying is the only one that must be done every day. Two other pillars—fasting during Ramadan and a donation to charity called “zakat”—are annual (though a Muslim may opt to fast or give more frequently). The remaining pillars need only happen once a lifetime. The first is the confession of faith or “shahadah” when a person officially embraces Muhammad’s message of the unifying one-God of monotheism by saying, “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger.” It’s the same point made by others who Muhammad himself recognized as messengers and prophets—Moses and Jesus and Buddha among other notables. Finally, every Muslim is expected to make a special trip to Mecca, located in present-day Saudi Arabia, before he or she dies, but only if health and finances allow it.

Prayers, on the other hand, are required a minimum of five times from sun up to sun down. Some historians say the number may have originally been three during Muhammad’s time and increased after the prophet’s death. Either way, Muhammad is said to have personally negotiated with Allah to have the number reduced from 50. Each of the five daily prayers has a designated time slot according to the position of the sun. “Fajr,” the first prayer of the day, is set for dawn. The noon prayer, called “zuhr,” is timed for just after the sun passes its highest position in the sky. After these comes a prayer in the afternoon (“asr”), at sunset (“maghrib”), and around nightfall (“isha”). While each prayer has a precise start, which moves by a minute or so as the days shorten or lengthen, you actually have until before the beginning of the next time slot to do the prayer, so the times really provide more of a window than a strict on-the-dot engagement.

Before the internet, most Muslims probably relied on old-fashioned means to meet daily prayer deadlines: word of mouth, the sun’s trajectory or, for those living within earshot of a mosque, the call to prayer. Now we have high-tech options. I was able to download a free app that displays the day’s prayer times for my precise location based on the GPS in my smartphone. For a small fee, I had the option to set a chime in advance of each prayer. While most prayers are conducted privately either at home or wherever a person happens to be when the time comes, Muslims are encouraged to complete a slightly shorter version of the noon prayers as a group at the mosque on Fridays. On this day only, the congregational “jummah” prayer takes the place of the zuhr prayer.

The next afternoon, I was sitting in the same basement room of the mosque where the women and I had eaten the night before. Now it was a classroom. A bunch of kids were sitting around a long table. I sat at another table all by myself. When Fatima told me classes are held for women and children she may have overdone it on the plurals—it was just one class and I think “woman” would have been more accurate. If you didn’t count Fatima and the other instructor, I was the only person older than ten. I thought back to the very beginning of my explorations into Christianity, when my sophisticated tome about Protestant reformer Martin Luther arrived in my mailbox as an illustrated children’s book. God may have been going by Allah here, but the sense of humor was unchanged.

Finally Fatima

I followed Mandisa out to the hall and up the stairs to the mosque’s main floor. I could see through to the main sanctuary. Men and older boys were milling and chatting as casually as the women downstairs.

We entered a room that looked like a makeshift library. Shelves filled with books and pamphlets lined the walls. Mandisa shut the door and we sat across from one another at a table. Mandisa looked very serious and I wondered if my Islamic instruction was to begin promptly. She seemed to be considering where to start when the door opened and a third woman joined us. The latecomer was as drab as Mandisa was colorful. She wore a solid grey caftan with an extra snug topper; not one hair peeked out. Her scarf was the same grey material as the rest of the outfit, as if she had made both pieces on her own. I wondered about the fabric she had used; it looked rough. When she got close, I could see sweat beading across her brow and upper lip as if she had just completed a physically demanding task. I didn’t know it right then, but the teacher I had been looking for had finally made her entrance.

Mandisa introduced the new woman, giving me her name and her country. I recognized her name immediately from my Islamic reading: it was the same as one of Prophet Muhammad’s most beloved female family members. Among Muslims, disagreements abound over which of his relations were closest to the Prophet, but this was a woman whose significance and goodness is undisputable. Every Muslim holds Fatima, Muhammad’s daughter, in high esteem.

“Fatima!” I said because I recognized it. The way it came out, I realized it might seem as if I thought we had met before.

She smiled. She understood. “You know it.”

I nodded. Her country, on the other hand, I knew little about. I had never met anyone from there. I hated to admit it but, in my mind, its name was synonymous with violence.

As Mandisa hunted the shelves for literature I could take home, Fatima beamed at me—as if I was an answer to her prayers, as if she had been waiting for me to come into her life not vice versa. “I am so happy. Allah makes all things better. You will see.” It occurred to me that this meeting was not as haphazard as I had assumed.

Mandisa handed over recent copies of an American Muslim magazine and Fatima invited me to return to the mosque the following day. She told me that classes are held for women and children in the afternoon. She repeated several times, “I will be there. ‘Insha’Allah.’ God willing.” I thought she was hedging, perhaps giving herself a little wiggle room in case she decided not to show. I fought my impulse to ask, “What happens if you aren’t there? Who will help me?”

The night prayers were about to begin and the three of us hurried back downstairs. Women were congregating in a small room adjacent to where we had eaten. This one was free of furnishings and the floor had extra-plush carpeting. I asked Fatima if she thought it would be okay if I joined. Of course, she said. She would do the prayers on her own later, but I should go. Wait, she said, fix your hijab first. She tucked my bangs into my headscarf like a doting mother.

The women were lining up shoulder to shoulder. I got in next to the younger of the two Pilipino women; the older was nowhere to be seen. In this room, the carpet had designs like little built-in prayer rugs to indicate where to stand. The orientation of the main squiggle put us with our backs to the windows. A man’s voice from upstairs played from small speakers hidden in the ceiling. I didn’t know the words, but I recognized the way he spoke them. All the women bowed. I followed along. We dropped to our knees. We pressed our foreheads to the ground. We sat. We stood. We did it all over again.

Mandisa

The women’s entrance at the mosque led into the basement of the building. At the end of a short hall, I came to a rack filled with shoes outside a room where the women were sitting family style at long tables. This must be some sort of party, I thought. I bought a few minutes by very carefully removing my shoes and arranging them on the rack. I wondered if I should remove my head scarf too. By recognizing customs, was I being respectful or deceitful?

I decided to leave my shoes off and my scarf on. I would be as forthright as possible when I spoke to people. I couldn’t help what assumptions were made about me from across a room. I preferred this scenario to the risk of offending.

The women were sitting around the tables talking. I wondered if Mandisa was here yet. I had no idea what she looked like. I made my way to an opening across from two women, one older and one younger. Their faces appeared Asian.

“I’m looking for Mandisa,” I told them.

“From Egypt?” the older one asked. I nodded and she looked around the room. “I don’t think I’ve seen her yet.”

“It’s your first time here?” the younger of the two wanted to know.

I nodded and sat. “I’m not Muslim.”

They seemed not at all surprised.

Someone announced the food was ready; I’d had dinner at home, but I wanted to participate. We filled our paper plates buffet style with rice and chicken and returned to our places.

The two women and I exchanged some basic information while we ate. They were both from the Philippines. The younger was a student. The older was married to a professor and had lived in the states for 20 years. She pointed at the ceiling. “My husband’s upstairs.”

They wanted to know what brought me to the mosque and I explained my quest. I told them that, specifically, I was hoping to learn the daily prayers.

The older woman looked at me sheepishly. “I don’t do them. My husband does, but not me. Maybe when I get old I will do them all the time.” She shrugged. “Not right now.”

“Corinna?” A beautiful face framed by a hot pink scarf was peering down at me. “Mandisa?” She grasped the hand I had extended and wrapped her other arm around me. We hugged and shook hands simultaneously.

Like mine, her clothes were western style pieces that just happened to provide full coverage: an ankle-length skirt and a shirt with sleeves to the wrists. Many of the women wore long caftans, most in dark colors. Some topped off their outfits with regular-looking scarves while others used special wraps with a cut-out for the face. The ways in which the women presented themselves were surprisingly varied.

“Shall we go to the library?” Mandisa asked. Her accent had just a whisper of British; it spoke volumes about the history of colonialism in her country. She seemed sophisticated and fashionable and it suddenly made sense why my other would-be Muslim mentors had fallen through. All along, it was meant to be Mandisa.

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.

Gratitude

Ramadan afforded me the opportunity to approach the precipice of starvation and look out. From this vantage, I could see how food is understood by our bodies as hope and joy; its absence can lead to despair and sorrow. At times I felt its abandonment as if it were an actual friend. It didn’t help that my human pals seemed to be steering clear of me, saying we’d catch up after my Ramadan experience was over, as if our friendships were based on cramming goodies into our mouths. One day I felt so lonely and depressed that I convinced myself a small snack was a medical necessity to cheer me up. I ate a few almonds hoping they might function in my system like Prozac.

Every evening, as the minutes ticked closer to the time for food, I found that my hunger—which had inevitably dissipated sometime in the late afternoon—would kick back in. Just knowing I’d eat soon seemed to reengage some vital link between my belly and my brain. I worried, then, about those for whom hunger is a real problem—the kind of challenge that recurs, persistent and corrosive. What would happen if I didn’t see an end in sight? How devastating to face hunger again and again without knowing if or when you’ll eat again. It’s not just a physical toll, it’s emotional too.

If this experience was designed to heighten my gratitude for food and drink, it did that in spades. I began to think of water as “beautiful, beautiful water.” I ran an errand one afternoon and the cashier was enjoying an icy beverage from a to-go cup—the clear kind with matching lid and a straw. The liquid inside was amber; I imagined it was an herbal tea of some sort. I made believe it was mint-flavored. I waited in her line, mesmerized by the sight of the frosty condensation gathered across the plastic. I could not look away as she picked up the drink. The spots where her fingers gripped displaced tiny beads of moisture causing larger droplets to snake down. Outside, the temperature was a bone dry 95 degrees and I was approaching my 13th hour with no water. I stared unabashedly as she lifted the straw to her lips and sucked. The sight caused a slight dampness to bloom at the back of my tongue, but it was too little to swallow.

After having been apart from water, my very first sip back offered instantaneous relief and pleasure. It was an uncomplicated homecoming. With food, the re-acquaintance process was more measured, as if the time away had somehow damaged my trust. Even though the last 30 minutes or so before the fast’s end were usually some of the most difficult mentally—a point at which my Willy Wonka fantasies often kicked into overdrive—when the hour finally struck, I approached my meals cautiously. I would start with something small like toast or dates and graduate to items with more substance. I would eat methodically, over the course of many hours, my satisfaction building gradually until, at last, I felt absolutely content.

I was so excited by my normal routine when Ramadan ended. No more middle of the night water chugging. I could hydrate whenever I wanted. I resumed drinking coffee, a ritual I hadn’t realized was so vital to my productivity and sense of wellbeing. My appreciation for lunch and mid-day snacks soared. To eat before one’s energy begins to flag struck me as a revelation. My thinking was sharper, my limbs more adept. I could take walks in the middle of the day. I was instantly more cheerful.

Hunger

I had never given much thought to my stomach’s precise capacity. I suppose I considered it more or less bottomless. I put stuff in whenever I wanted. Every so often, I registered its being full as pain, and then I stopped putting stuff in for a while.

Now with Ramadan, I became extremely mindful of each item that entered and what purpose it served. With food vying for space with water, I learned through trial and error. One night early on I wolfed an enormous bowl of pasta and discovered, while gut-busting, its substance petered out too quickly. I came to see my stomach as valuable real estate; I had to select and pace wisely.

I was forced to acknowledge the wisdom of guidelines nutritional experts cram down our throats. I still daydreamed about downing an entire batch of cookie dough or a huge stack of pancakes dripping with syrup. But when the time came to eat, those options were no longer appealing. Perhaps I would have gone in for a bite or two, but filling up would have been reckless. I couldn’t afford to live out my Willy Wonka fantasies.

I needed a small amount of carbohydrates in conjunction with protein. I found that eggs and high-quality yogurt provided long-lasting hunger suppression. My body craved nutritional powerhouses. Black beans, walnuts, and spinach were good, as was whole grain toast smeared with peanut butter. I read that dates, which are rich source of vitamins and natural sugars, are a popular Ramadan treat. I began to eat them nightly, craving their compact goodness first thing after a long day of fasting.

I became familiar with the nuances of hunger. There’s the superficial discomfort when your belly growls. Most of us in the course of our normal lives will never get far beyond this feeling. But past it, await ever-intensifying shades of hunger. Eventually the burning want dulls and radiates out. Your limbs grow heavy and less adept. Several hours in, it reaches your brain and your thinking slows. In the late afternoon, putting my body in a horizontal position seemed like a good option; in fact, most days, it felt like the only option. I thought how difficult it must be for Muslims who had to work throughout Ramadan, especially those with manual labor jobs. I was fortunate to have the freedom to rest.

Muslims are known to spend extra time reading their Qurans during Ramadan. Religious leaders also emphasize that time spent in reflection and prayer can be particularly fruitful during this time of year. But on practical terms alone, I can see why these particular tasks are favored. There came a time in the late afternoon when reading was about as physically demanding an activity as I felt I could manage. I studied passages from the Quran and made my way through books about Muhammad’s life, the history of Islam, the political narratives of predominantly Muslim countries, and the significance of religious practices such as Ramadan. But eventually even reading felt too challenging. My eyes didn’t have the energy to track the lines; my brain didn’t want to process the words. I would fall asleep or just lay there lethargically, my thoughts meandering.

Ramadan showed me the complexity of hunger. It seems counterintuitive, but the more time that elapsed since the last time I ate, the easier it became to not eat. At some point each day, my belly ceased signaling it even wanted to be fed. It must be some sort of protective mechanism: your stomach stops bothering you. It’s pleasant to be free of the nagging, but this is when the mind/body connection starts playing tricks on you because you don’t realize how in need of nourishment your body is becoming. Of course, when hunger stops hurting the potential for real damage begins.