Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Islam & Me - When in Rome...

Let me just start off by saying that the intent of this post is not to offend anyone or any religion. The opinions expressed here are solely my personal feelings and beliefs and I realize many people out there will not agree with what I have to say, but I hope you will agree that I have the right to my own convictions. I am comfortable with how I feel about this whole religion thing, but again, this is not intended to annoy or provoke, and if it does, I apologize in advance. Plus, I do not profess to be an expert in Islam (or any other religion), so what I am speaking of in this post are merely my own observations. If I get something technically wrong, again I apologize.

Shortly after I arrived in Arabia, I began participating in the prayers with Adnan and Adam, and other members of the family when we happen to be together at prayer time. This has greatly pleased Adnan and his mom and his extended family. It means a great deal to them. I do feel like I am only going through the motions since I do not know the prayers and don't know that much about Islam, but I must admit I do rather enjoy the physical movements associated with the prayers. In some ways it reminds me of Yoga, practically the only form of exercise I have ever enjoyed besides swimming, softball, biking, and tennis, and it's been so long since I have actually participated in those sports, that the praying movements actually feel good. During the first prayer of my day, usually my knees and ankles are pretty stiff when we kneel on the floor, but by the end of the day, I find that I am much more limber. And I have noticed that any back pains I might be experiencing seem to be alleviated when I am in the prostrating position, as I consciously try to relax my back at that time. As a result, I have very little back pain now and if I do, it is gone after prayer! This is good!

Muslims are called to prayer five times a day over loudspeakers from the minaret towers of each and every mosque in the city. No matter where you are, you can hear the calls to prayer broadcast from the minarets of several nearby mosques. There are mosques every few blocks or so, several in each neighborhood, in every direction. From our house, we can hear at least 5 different “muezzins” singing the calls to prayer. The closest and LOUDEST one is a very low voice that sounds like he’s using a kazoo, with a deep bassoon or viola sound. I think it’s the loudspeakers that make him sound that way. However the fact that he sounds like he is pressing his whole mouth upon the microphone probably doesn't help. I hate to say this and I don't mean any disrespect, but this guy sounds like a cow mooing. Dare I say, it’s a little obnoxious sounding? Another’s voice is much more pleasant sounding, very melodical. A more distant one sounds like a buzzing bee and another almost sounds like a mosquito flying around your head. Many of the muezzin’s voices sound like various musical instruments, almost like an orchestra of dischord, and since they are not in unison, it is fascinating to hear.

The prayer times are roughly at about 6am, 12 noon, 3:30pm, 6pm and 7:30pm. I don't always make it up for the early morning prayer, but the other four prayers, I do regularly. Sometimes Adnan, wearing his white thobe and his little white cap called a “kufiya,” walks down to the closest neighborhood mosque just a couple of blocks away to perform the prayers there. Every Friday, all the men are required to go to the mosque for the noon prayer and a service, which is broadcast over the loud speakers as well, so the women at home can hear it, I guess.

The first call to prayer alerts you to ready yourself for prayer. There is about a 30 minute window of time that you have when you can do the prayer. You must perform “wudu” or ablution, which is to wash up. This is a ritual cleansing, done only with water. There is a very specific method to this. You must wash your hands 3 times, your face, mouth, nostrils, and ears, and also splash some water on your hair. There is a particular order and method that you must use also. You also must wash your arms up to the elbows. And lastly, the feet must be rinsed off as well. Oh, and right nostrils, right ears, right arms and feet must be washed first, before the left ones. Adnan is always telling me that "Muslims are people of the right." Along this line, left handers are required to eat with their right hands. This is because when you clean yourself after using the toilet, it must always be done with the left hand, therefore eating and drinking are always done with the right hand. So for sanitary reasons, this makes sense. I bet many Westerners weren't aware of this. Actually the Koran is a practical guidebook to every day living, with guidelines covering just about every situation and aspect of daily life, from eating, to sex, to money matters, to raising children, to business dealings, etc.

About 15 minutes after you hear the first call to prayer, there is another call to prayer when the prayer itself is actually broadcast. You don’t have to wait for this 2nd broadcast if you have performed wudu and are ready to pray. Praying too has a very specific method, including standing with your right hand over your left, bowing, kneeling, sitting, and prostration, or bowing down with your head to the floor. And your eyes must be open - something a little hard for me to get used to since I have always prayed with my eyes closed my whole life.

I personally have never been a big fan of the rituals of religion, but I am coping with all of this and feel that it is a small sacrifice for me to make to please my husband and his family. The entire ritual of washing up and praying actually takes maybe ten minutes altogether tops. To pray, men must be dressed modestly; short sleeves are acceptable, and they must be covered to below the knee. It is not necessary for men to cover their heads with a cap or scarf, although many men do.

Women are another story ... they must be totally covered up with only the face and hands exposed. Adnan’s mom Tata gave me a “sharshaf,” a loosely fitting hooded one piece covering that all the women wear at home for prayers. It literally covers me from head to toe, with a small opening for my face and elastic at the wrists. The fabric is a lightweight cotton, and it can be any color and many that I have seen are in a tiny floral print. It is so ample that it fits over anything I might be wearing. I feel kinda like the Pillsbury Dough Boy when I wear it! Women have to be totally covered for prayers and for going out in public, but men don’t – and I must say that I still have a little problem with that. Women here have accepted it, were brought up this way, and most don’t even seem to care to question it. To them, it is natural, just a fact of life. In fact, the women cover up proudly to save their physical attributes only for their husbands. From what I have read and learned, the Koran doesn’t specifically say that women must cover up like this all the time, but instead the Koran says that both men and women should merely dress modestly. The problem seems to be that mortal men have done their own interpreting of the Koran, so it looks to me like they apply it more loosely to men than for women.

Adnan says that the reason women's skin and hair must be covered during prayer and when in the presence of other men is that it is too sexy and distracting for men. I told him that I find his hair and skin sexy, so maybe he should cover up too! He says that I cannot change what Muslims have done for centuries, so I am resigned to the fact that mine is a losing battle. I do hope that one day I will come to understand and accept this aspect of the religion that I see as an unfair inconsistency. The covering of the hair thing really bothers me. Now mind you, it's not just the hair, but the entire SEXY neck that must be covered up as well. I think having to cover my neck is the most uncomfortable thing about it for me. For almost 56 years, I went through my life, hair uncovered, blowing freely in the wind, tossing my head this way and that if I chose to do so. It was okay for Adnan’s brother Adel to see my hair and skin when he visited America, but here in Arabia, it is not allowed. Also I now cannot hug or kiss his brother on the cheek (or any man for that matter) when we are saying hello or goodbye. It is difficult for me to follow this as I am a touchy feely person, but I am trying my best.

Allow me to say at this point - and I don't mean to rattle any cages here - that I do not necessarily believe that I must pray 5 times daily at certain times in order to buy myself a pass to heaven. And I also do not believe that I must be covered up from head to toe in order to pray either. I believe that my god listens to me whenever and wherever I choose to speak to him (or her!) regardless of what I am wearing. In years past, some of my best conversations with God that I can recall took place when I was home alone, stark naked in a nice warm bubble bath! This is, after all, how we all came into this world with God's blessings. Ok, maybe not the bubbles part.

I am here because I belong at my husband’s side and I want to make him happy. This alone brings me happiness and peace. I am by no means miserable or upset by performing these Islamic rituals. I just find certain aspects of it difficult to understand – the reasoning seems one-sided and doesn’t make sense to me, that’s all. And I have never been one to just accept things blindly or to not question things I don't quite undertstand or agree with. Maybe one day, it will make more sense to me. Insha’allah. (That means - "God willing" and people here say it about a jillion times a day). When Adnan told me before I came to this country that things would be easier for me if I had the certificate saying I was a Muslim, I had no idea what he really meant by that. Apart from easing my ability to obtain my visa to enter the country, I now see how happy it has made his family - and I think this really is what he was really referring to as far as it making things easier for me. I am learning more about the religion - and I still don't agree with or believe everything I have heard - but knowing that the effort I am putting forth is making my husband and his family happy is worth it to me.

Having been raised a Christian, I must admit I got a little sentimental and sad as Christmas came and went. Being so far away from my family isn't easy, especially around the holidays. But my husband was sensitive to my mood and we spent a very pleasant Christmas day with his family, eating, playing cards, and then several of us went to downtown Jeddah that evening and it was amazing. Downtown Jeddah is a beehive of activity at night. It is hoppin’! There are street vendors much like you see in New York City. There are huge department stores and malls and hundreds of smaller shops teeming with activity. And the traffic – ah! the traffic. Anyway, my son Adam and I had a really good day, even if it was nothing like our Christmasses past.

Ever since I was a kid, religion has been a very personal thing to me. I attended church and Sunday school regularly, sang in the choir, even went to church camp in the summer. I grew up with close friends who were Catholic and Mormon. My mom had no problem with me accompanying my friends to their churches. I think because of that, I am very open-minded about religion, but I don't necessarily believe that any one religion is the right one for me. I just don't completely buy into everything that many religions teach and believe. I never could understand, for example, why my Catholic friends had to confess their sins to a middle man and then be directed to do 7 Hail Marys to wipe their slates clean when I have just always believed that I have an open direct line to my own very forgiving god 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Yes, I believe in a higher being and that there are unexplainable miracles that can and do happen. But I truly believe that most religions are basically the same and have very minute differences. We all know that there are many hypocrites and extremists out there who claim to be "religious" and do all kinds of immoral things. So, I have come to believe that my faith and spirituality are between me and my god, and I don't have to prove anything to anybody else. I do not feel incomplete or lacking in some aspect of my life. I believe what I believe. It's as simple as that.


  1. I had to smile when I read the section of your post about the calls to prayer coming from loudspeakers at mosques all over the city and how the sounds seem to compete with each other.

    I often wondered why the one that was closest to where I lived in Saudi sounded like the person had swallowed the microphone before beginning to pray. I lived in Saudi on 3 separate occasions,in 3 different areas, and it was always the same.

    I always tried to make sure I had my grocery shopping done between calls to prayer. If I happened not to get this accomplished and was in the grocery store at prayer time, I had to leave my cart in the store and go out since the store closed during prayer.

    Kristie Leigh Maguire

  2. I just thought I would take the time to say I have really enjoyed reading your blog. It is an eye opener to women in America who take for granted their everyday freedoms. I just drove my daughter to school in yoga pants and a sweatshirt! You couldn't do that. I have many of friends reading your blog as well. You are a very talented writer, I feel like I am there sometimes. What a great adventure this must be. Stay safe! God Bless You!

  3. I have been reading your blog each time you have a new posting, and I am enjoying it. Being the strong woman that you are, it's hard to imagine the lifestyle you are now living. I am curious... you have said repeatedly that you are doing many things for the happiness of your husband. Does he equally consider your happiness? How would you feel if he decided to take another wife and have more children with her? If this is none of my business, just tell me. I love my husband dearly, also, and re-locating from Az to Ky was a big decision for us!! If I hated it here, I know he would be willing to move back. Fortunately, I love it, and we still see our families several times a year between our visits there and their visits here. Anyway, I'm glad you're enjoying all your new experiences, and as always, I wish you and your family the best.

  4. Hi, Susie,

    I found your blog via someone else's blog, as I was surfing the blogosphere. I had to smile at your lengthy comment on prayers, religion, rituals, and all of that. I could have written those words myself, in the late 1980s,when I lived in Riyadh and started practicing Islam.

    I never did overcome some of the issues you, too, find difficult, but I did experience much happiness within the Islamic lifestyle there. I know you will, too.


  5. To Nancy -
    Adnan has been most accommodating to both Adam's and my needs since we have been here. Yes, it can feel pretty stifling at times, but I knew what to expect before I came, and I try to take it all with a grain of salt. So far I find things more amusing than frustrating, and I hope it stays that way. There are limitations on what we can do here and that's just the way it is. Life here is slower paced and much simpler.
    I cannot imagine that Adnan would ever take another wife or have more children. First of all, he cannot afford it. Secondly, he has his hands full with me and Adam. And third, he agreed before we married that he would never do that. And I have known him to be a man of his word!

  6. To Kristie -
    Ah yes - the rushing to get shopping done before the call to prayer is the pits! It seems that we are always in a hurry unless we go after the last prayer in the evening. But then everyone and his mother are out and about and it's wild!

    To Angela -
    Yes, there are many concessions I have had to make in order to live here. So far I find most things amusing instead of frustrating and I hope it remains that way. I'm glad to hear that you have shared my blog with your friends. One thing that has pleased me the most is knowing that so many of my family and friends are as interested and fascinated as I am about this place.

    To Marahm -
    I'm glad you enjoyed reading and could relate to what I said. Thanks for your comments.

  7. Like your thoughts on food I was sincerely looking forward to this, and future thoughts on living in Islamic ways. I remember asking Adnan about Islam related things when you were here.
    Our church has had several Abrahamic faith gatherings with Christian, Jewish and Islamic leaders sharing their thoughts. I remember one night in particular we were having a big gathering and it came time for the sunset prayer. Folks of all three faiths took part in it. We faced Mecca (which happened to be where the Jewish Arc of the Covenant was, we were in a Christian church, and we heard (some said) the prayer. Rabbi Weisenbaum, Pastor David and the Islamic leader all prayed together – in the appropriate kneeling position.
    I was deeply moved.
    I personally believe we are all (no matter which belief group you’re in) praying to the same force. Once that is understood then the rest truly is conversation about how we want to honor that force and live the best life we can. One is not more right than another – in my opinion. They are what fits their culture best.
    I am personally troubled by excessive ritual and probably would be challenged in your circumstance. But great love demands things of us – and it isn’t really that hard when you look at it that way.
    I just have always balked at being made to do a lot of rigamarole in order to have a connection to “spirit”.
    I’m with you on connecting in the bath tub. I think water is a great conduit of spirit! Bubbles are a wonderful image as I associate them with joy and have always agreed with the saying "The presence of joy is the clearest indication of God in our midst."
    Keep writing!

  8. I just hope you follow your heart and don't bow to pressure. Rituals do not earn you a key to heaven. Being made/forced to pray doesn't make you a good muslim. However, praying, even if you do have to like adnan did all these years, does. I've always admired that about him. And Mary Baker Eddy (founder of Christian Science) said that (I'm paraphrasing) "You can go to church and perform all the rituals and say all the prayers, but if you don't strive to be a decent loving person, then none of that makes a difference."

  9. To Lucinda -
    We are kindred spirits.

  10. How Awesome are you???!!! I absolutely LOVE your stories - but this one ... all I could picture was you and your Mother sitting at the table and laughing enormously at your stories. I love you!

  11. Dear Susie,
    Always a pleasure to hear from you. Very interesting lifestyle there but I am sure that you will adept to any thing that comes your way. A wonderful read. Thank you.

  12. Suzie-Q,
    hey girl, quite an adventure. It is right that you are following your passion, what else is there. It is so cool that you are experiencing another culture, certainly there is nothing magical about the US culture. It sounds like you are truly happy, but a little challenged at the same time. Being the trooper that you are it will be a meaningful part (new beginning) of your life, a far cry from Dogpatch :)
    I think you are exposing us all to the different ways of life this world has to offer. Got to hand it to you, it must be much more complicated than we can imagine without being there.
    Take care and keep the faith (whichever works out for you!)

    p.s. your blog is great and informative, keep hanging

  13. Susie, you might be interested in this article: The “Yoga” of Islamic Prayer.

  14. Susie, I have read a couple of your posts so far, and I am enjoying your blog. I will definitely be adding it to my RSS reader. And thank you for adding me to your blogroll.

    I just have a couple comments regarding this post. The ritual of prayer that you describe is called "Salat," as you probably know. But it isn't the only kind of prayer in Islam. There is also "du'a," which is the kind of personal conversations or supplications that you are used to. So certainly a Muslim also believes that God will hear you in any time or place that you pray, in fact the prophet advised us to remember God and ask his help in every situation. So why is there Salat as well as du'a? Salat has many functions. It is a means of bringing a community together in worship. It is a comforting ritual that reminds us to be constantly God-conscious. It provides a means of worship that suits and unites many sorts of people. Some people find the physicality of it soothing, some find comfort in the rules and rituals. Others seek in it a more spiritual awareness. It has something to offer to the simplest of us to the most intellectual, if we only look for it.

    I also have a few thoughts for you to consider regarding women's dress. When a woman makes her salat, she covers as you described even if she is alone in her house, so it is not about not being sexy in front of the men. (who would be forbidden to look her direction during the prayer anyway) If you had an appointment with someone very important to you, you would wash up and dress in your good clothes, right? Well, each prayer is an appointment with God, so we will wash and dress accordingly. It is showing respect. The Qur'an, by the way, does have something specific to say to women about dress. It says that when women go out they should cover themselves in their garments so they will be recognised as believers and not be bothered. But exactly how we must cover is a topic of endless debate. The way Saudi women dress is not common in most of the Arab/Muslim world. If you came to Palestine in your Saudi style over the head abaya, you would definitely stand out in a crowd! Veiling the face is still pretty uncommon here, and most women wear colors when they go out. Even the women that do veil their faces frequently wear white or a colored scarf and veil, and definitely no over the head abayas.

    I hope this didn't come off as a lecture, I was just trying to explain some things I was afraid were unclear to you. Again, thanks for stopping by my blog.

  15. To Alajnabiya -
    Thank you so much for taking the time to explain these things to me. I didn't feel like it was a lecture at all. I appreciate it - and what you said really makes more sense. I haven't taken classes or gotten any instruction yet really, so I found your input very helpful.

  16. You are welcome. I am no scholar, but if you have any questions on Islamic subjects, I would be happy to try to help you find the answers.

  17. Hi

    It was interesting and informative for me as a Saudi to read about things in Saudi Arabia from "others'" perspectives.

    As for Hijab, I don’t wear it to not to attract men, I don’t wear it because my father or my husband wants me to, I don’t wear it as a custom or a habit that I’ve been raised to keep.
    No, I always believe or like to believe that I wear Hijab (I actually wear Niqab – face veil) to satisfy God more than for anything else. If God wants me to pray five times a day, then I’ll pray five times a day. If God wants me to fast from dawn to sunset, then I’ll do so. If he wants me to obey my parents, to help people, to secretly give charity, to do the things He wants me to do or avoid the things He wants me to avoid, then I’ll just do so. Why? because deep inside I feel this great love and devotion for Him. Because I want Him to be satisfied. I don’t want him to be angry.

    I’m not saying that I’m a religious person, well, I wish I am, but I’ve tried being religious and I’ve tried learning more about my religion and fully practicing it and I did so for some time, and it was the happiest time in my life. It really was.

    I usually travel overseas in the summer. I’ve been to Europe, to Southeast Asia and to Australia and I wear the face veil everywhere I go? I know it scares some people there and many of the Saudi people here and there don’t like the idea of doing this "there", but, well, I do this because I believe that I’m doing it for God not for people and I believe God can see me everywhere. It’s a principle in my life. It’s my religious freedom.


    Behind the Veil - Jeddah

  18. To Behind the Veil -
    I have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for you. Thank you for expressing your feelings about this subject that many people don't understand and view as oppressive. I'm sure others also will appreciate knowing. Well said.

  19. Susie, I hadn't read this post, I love it! I love your intelligent down-to-earth contemplations.
    And I love reading about how nice Adnan is, and your family.

  20. i am new visitor to your blog. enjoyed reading. well i am from India and Hindu, now living in muscat for the last 3 yrs.. the goal of all religions is one . only the paths are different. similiarly all religions has rituals where the new generation question the rationale of these rituals...

  21. Hi Aafke!
    Thanks, and sorry it took me so long to respond to your comment. I'm so glad to hear your thoughts.

    Hi Jupiter!
    Yes, I agree with you. I still don't care for rituals myself, whether they be religious or whatever. Thanks for dropping by and commenting.

  22. Hello, Susie

    I'm a revert and living in UAE. I have so much to say, but for now, i wanna just stop and say, hello. I've been reading your entries and they're really good. I have full respect for people when they're, real. Not fake! You are the real, deal!!! We are still sisters in humanity. I would love to invite you to my all sisters forum


    Have a couple of non-muslim sisters! I think you would def,Rock the site. In a good way, of course. see you around the blog world.

  23. Yet another food for thought post Susie!

    Interesting your view of the athan. It seems in most mosques they do place a tape so I may be hearing the same athan as you.

    WHen I came here the athan shocked the loudness of it, but i grew to love quickly. And even I can easily sleep throu LOL unfortunately.

    I agree there are more culture (arab culture) in societies then religion. The double standards are unnerving. I asked my husband the same question about the veil; why men do not cover the way etc. And I got the same answer as you.

    I hate like u anything around my neck. I dont mind covering my hair but my neck OMG I hate it. I did not veil before coming so veiling in 30deg humidity kills me!

    I grew Christian but Muslim now 10yrs. While Eid should be our celebration here in Algeria is def not anything special for me. I miss Christmas time how it was when I was a child.

    Your post gave me some food for thought, i will dicussing with my dh some of the points u made here; so thanks!