The Pentagon Chapel

One of the Pentagon Chaplain’s deputies (my second escort of the day) came in and said it was time for both of us to head to the chapel. On our way across the hall, the Chaplain explained that we were joining a group of European visitors. These were government administrators from various countries who were attending a conference in D.C.; they had signed up for a visit to the Pentagon Chapel. Some of them were Muslim, so the official in charge of Islamic services would be joining to conduct a little question-and-answer session, which would lead directly into Jummah prayers for those who wished to stay.

At long last, and in fewer than 10 steps, I was standing inside the chapel. In some ways, it was an exceptionally ordinary space. The size of perhaps three private offices combined and opened into one big area, it retained elements true to its original use like industrial-looking carpet and a drop ceiling covered in generic-grade tiles. Five stained glass panels offered the only obvious sign of the room’s function. All of them had images that spoke to me of patriotism and strength: eagles, American flags, sun beams, stars. Four served in place of windows, but the fifth was at the front above where an altar might go. The only one with words, it read: United in Memory September 11, 2001.

I joined the 15 or so individuals already seated. The Chaplain and Muslim leader greeted each other jovially and then teamed up to answer questions about the chapel’s construction and uses; I studied the room. All the furniture was moveable to accommodate different needs. The Chaplain and I had entered from the hall, but I noticed a more formal entrance at the back, where a glass door led to something like a foyer and, beyond that, doors to the outside. This must provide easy access for guests invited to the chapel for special functions such as weddings or memorials; during certain hours, it also allowed visitors who just wanted to see the chapel to have a peek.

I looked at those words: United in Memory. I thought about the oft-used motto, “United We Stand.” The unity to which these phrases refer suddenly struck me as so narrow. They implied unity against an enemy such as another country or group of people. The common denominator among every religion I had explored was this: the mindset of an all-encompassing unity, all of creation connected. I wondered if humans were capable of forming much broader alliances—uniting, perhaps, against truly universal enemies such as poverty, hunger, illness, greed, hate, and shame.

After the question-and-answer session, it was time for Jummah. The Muslim leader invited me to participate. Within a few minutes, the chairs at the front of the room had been moved and carpets spread on the ground. The chapel was transformed into a little mosque. I fetched my headscarf from my bag. A couple of the men from the European contingent stayed, and more people joined. Most were middle-aged, middle-management types, but some stood out: a young guy in fatigues, an older man whose blue bib suggested cafeteria work, a young woman in hijab. The orientation had shifted: not only were we on the floor but we were no longer looking toward the front of the room. The other woman and I had our backs against the outer wall of stained-glass panels. The men were only a few feet in front of us. We were all facing the interior of the building.

For months I had imagined doing Jummah prayers here; now I was doing them. It was a dream come true. I thought about what a long and demanding road this project to explore religion had been. I thought how religion should help heal and unite but, often, is used to hurt and destroy. I thought about the individuals who had died here. I thought about people all around the world killed because of war. As I bent to place my forehead on the floor, my tears dropped on the carpet. I let them fall because it seemed appropriate to leave some tears here.

At the end, everyone was invited to say a few words to the group. When it was my time to speak, I thanked them for allowing me, a non-Muslim, to join today. “I lived in D.C. at the time of 9/11,” I told them. “Being here today felt….” A sob caught in my throat and I didn’t think I could finish. Quickly, I managed, “…really good. Thank you.”

As we stood to leave, the old man in the blue worker’s bib approached me. I thought he might say something. I recognized the look in his eyes: a mixture of sadness and joy that needs no translation. He raised his hand and, without a word, I knew what was being asked. He wanted connection, but was unsure how. I looked at the floor, giving him access to the top of head. He pressed his open palm to my crown. I suppose what he offered was a blessing or healing of sorts; a gesture of love and gratitude, equally. Unspoken, it said everything.

Clearance

When I was almost finished with the Dallas portion of my trip, my email request to the Pentagon was still traveling in circles. I tried to imagine what being denied access to the Pentagon was meant to teach me. Certainly, it was a powerful statement about religion and war. I understood that many people use religion as a means to create divisions between themselves and others, but I had come to see that the absence of such divisions was the one truth to which each religion pointed. The very notion of an “us versus them”—of enemies—is unity’s opposite. What could be more emblematic of enemies than the Pentagon? As if to confirm this point, the building itself would not open to my inquiries. Maybe I would go, shake my fist at the Pentagon, and be done with it.

I was reaching a place of gratitude for being given this powerful message when the email arrived: I had been granted clearance to visit the Pentagon Chapel.

The person who contacted me with news that my request had been approved was a military spokesman who said he would be my escort. We settled on my first Friday in D.C. as the ideal date. He said that would allow me to sit in for a Catholic service in honor of All Saint’s Day and the afternoon Islamic Jummah Prayers. He told me to allow an extra hour to make my way through security.

In all my years of using the Metro system when I lived and worked in D.C., I had never once disembarked at the Pentagon. On several occasions, I passed that station and went on to the Pentagon City stop, which leads to a shopping mall. But the Pentagon stop had only the military complex above it with nothing but parking lots and freeways beyond. There was no draw for anyone not associated with armed forces. When I was riding that line, I always wondered about the passengers who got off there, many of whom wore crisp military uniforms. Perhaps they had just flown in from front lines or lonely outposts to make reports to higher-ups. Their fresh-scrubbed facades seemed to invite speculation. What sorrows sights did those stern expressions conceal?

Now I was joining them. As I exited the subway train, I could sense fellow passengers wondering about me. What was I doing getting off here? I was not dressed the part: neither military nor typical Washington business attire. I had debated whether to revert to my old pantsuit style for the occasion, but decided against it. I had entered a new chapter, so I opted for clothes appropriate to the present. I dressed as I had for the more traditional religious services on this journey, with a patterned skirt to my ankles and a long sleeve jacket. I was at once too conservative and too casual to fit in.

The Metro exit deposited me above ground just feet from one of the Pentagon’s outer walls, too close to gain a sense of the building’s size or shape. From this perspective, it looked like any other government building: pale stone adorned with decorative flourishes. I followed signs for visitors, which led to a small structure near one of the main entrances. Inside, a line snaked back and forth, feeding into various checkpoints.

Even as I inched forward with everyone else, I maintained my doubts. I was convinced something would go wrong. I worried that the forms of identification I brought would prove insufficient or my spokesman/escort would fail to meet me.

Jihad

I pictured the Pentagon and me standing near it. I formed this mental image before I even began making my way through Islam, and it grew clearer the further I got. I knew that the building’s gaping hole from 9/11 had been patched up and a memorial to the victims had been built. I thought I needed to see these things with my own eyes and that somehow the proximity would help me work through lingering issues. Time and experience had given me a new perspective on certain terms that I once found troubling. In the aftermath of 9/11, I heard people say that the word “Islam” itself means “to submit,” implying that the faith is designed to make servants of us all—perhaps with Muslims as our overlords. Now I understood differently. I saw that the submission in question wasn’t vis-à-vis another person, but something entirely private: a shift in perspective. Islam would have me remember that we are pieces of a vast creation, not the creation itself.

I hoped for a similar realization about the word “jihad.” It translated roughly as “holy war,” but I had heard two interpretations. The first, the “greater jihad,” is an inner struggle. I understood this as the effort each of us must put forth to make peace with the human condition—the “one-two punch” of life: granted and revoked. Exertion of this kind tends to grow one’s capacity to contribute to the greater good. But I’d also heard jihad used to refer to “violence waged on behalf of Islam.” Perhaps this was the “lesser” of the two jihads, but it certainly garnered more media attention; in the news, Muslim terrorists are often called “Jihadists.” I wanted this second version to be a misinterpretation, the result of twisted logic used to justify a selfish agenda.

While digging around for information on the Pentagon’s 9/11 memorial, I happened upon an article about the multi-faith chapel that had been constructed when the building was repaired. Apparently, the Pentagon has accommodated a variety of religious services for many years, but never before had a space been specially designated for the purpose. Now the location had been chosen by the nose of an airplane commandeered in the name of religion; the chapel itself was presumably a peaceful pocket within a giant monument to war. The juxtapositions were striking. I knew immediately that I needed to attempt to visit the chapel. Perhaps being there would help me make sense of it. But what were the chances I would be allowed in? Unlike most other places of worship, this one is not open to the public. It’s for Pentagon employees, military personnel, and those granted special authorization.

Several weeks after Ramadan, I sent my first email message to the Pentagon. I had no special contacts. On the Department of Defense website, I found the email address to the Communications Department. I sent my note to “whom it may concern.” Briefly, I explained my situation: I had been a D.C.-based employee for the federal government on September 11, 2001; I was now a writer exploring religion; I hoped to be given permission to visit the Pentagon Chapel. For more than a month, my request bounced around. Public Relations forwarded it to the Office of the Chaplain. Each new contact scooted me along. When my plea came back to the original Communications Department, I had to admit that my chances did not look good. I started again at the beginning, realizing my appeal may never reach a person who could give me the official green light.

So I made my travel plans anyway: Dallas to Austin to D.C. At the very least I’d see that the Pentagon building had been sealed back up and I’d walk around the memorial that looked from pictures like an outdoor sculpture garden. That had been the plan before I knew of the chapel. I told myself it would be okay if my request was denied, that whatever happened was meant to be. The story is that which occurs, after all. You can do your best to sway an outcome, but forces greater than oneself are at play; individual and collective karmas bump and swirl. The future unfolds with a message that might not be easy or fair. I was learning from religion itself: faith is greeting even the most unwelcome events with a level of acceptance.

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.