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.