November 22, 2001


 Search the Internet

E-Mail this report to a friend
Print this page Best Printed on HP Laserjets
Recent Specials
Everything about POTO
Nobody's children
Arundhati Roy writes
     another controversy
The Land of
Let's uphold our
     national pride
Malevolence in
Look, Naipual just
     writes the books!
'Sometimes coercion,
     sometimes money'
More Specials...

The Rediff Special/S Ali

THE imam tilted his head, leaning closer to hear my question.

Wearing a white kurta-pyjama, a dark gray vest, a red kaffiyeh [a cloth headdress fastened around the crown] and a gray topi, he sat cross-legged, one hand in his lap, the other stroking his long beard, which was grayish-black save for a white streak.

He listened in the careful way that religious men do: nodding gently, looking directly at the questioner and saying nothing.

I took the pose of a duteous student, kneeling beside him and asking my question in a clear but not so loud voice, to be respectful. What, I asked, is the purpose of Ramadan?

There was a short pause. "O believers," he began, quoting from the Qur'an. "Fasting has been prescribed to you, as it has been prescribed to those before you, so that you may become righteous."

And who are the righteous?

"The purpose of the life of a human being is to prepare for the life hereafter," he said. "This is not life. The real life is that after death. You only have a short time in this world. If you do good deeds, you will be rewarded. If you do bad and commit sins, you will be punished. You will be accountable for what you have done in this world. You will be judged."

The questions I had left were unanswerable -- have I been a good man? Have I lived a righteous life? Will I be judged favourably?

Such are questions left to every man, I was taught, to wrestle with until his death, when the truth will be revealed.

So I pondered on them alone as I touched my forehead to the ground, as did the other 300 worshippers who came in from New York's streets and cold into Medina Masjid that night, to perform the nighttime taraweeh namaaz at the end of the first day of fasting.

Taraweeh is a special ritual done only in Ramadan, wherein one sipara, chapter, of the Qur'an is recited by heart, during prayer, every night, until the entire holy book has been recited and the month has ended. Usually, in prayer, one recites only a complete set of verses, a surah.

Because of this requirement, only a bona fide hafiz, someone who has memorised the entire Qur'an, can lead the taraweeh congregation. And instead of the time needed for regular prayers, the most being 15 minutes for isha, taraweeh takes up to about an hour-and-a-half.

After a whole day of fasting, and waking up early to eat, it is not an easy ritual to complete, as it requires great stamina.

During the prayer, a worshipper will stand still for lengthy periods throughout the night, like a statue, with his neck craned, his legs straight and tightly spaced, and his arms folded onto each other.

To make it easier for people, the prayer is broken up into two rakaats, or sets, each. Because of the regional differences in the way Muslims practise, some pray eight long rakaats, while others pray 20 shorter rakaats.

The rewards compensate the sacrifice; according to Prophet Muhammad, any Muslim who prays at night in the month of Ramadan out of sincere faith will be forgiven all his sins.

I was afraid I would miss out on such a benefit, though. I arrived at the small, brick mosque, set in the middle of Manhattan's Greenwich Village, just as the last daily prayer of the day, isha, had finished, and the hafiz had begun the taraweeh.

I had been to Medina Masjid before, and remembered it for a few reasons. One was that its parish was largely South Asian -- the majority was Bangladeshi, along with Indians and Pakistanis, Arabs and Africans.

The other was because of the sign it has outside, which comes off a bit corny -- lit up in bright white light, looking much like that of a corner grocery store's, the sign announces that the small building is an 'Islamic Center' and that 'Adam', 'Abraham', 'Moses', 'Jonah', 'Jesus', and 'Muhammad', all names tilted sideways, sort of like a chorus line, were prophets of God who preached Islam.

There were other mosques in the city I could have gone to, including the modern, imposing Islamic Cultural Centre of New York, built by the Kuwaiti government at 96th Street and Lexington Avenue, but I decided to go to Medina mosque because of its simplicity.

It reminded me a bit of home. So many of the mosques I had been to as a child, when there were just a handful of Muslims living in North America, were nothing more than converted homes or garages.

Though they were nothing to look at, and as teenagers, we would often poke fun at their austerity and lack of grace, I later came to realise that these mosques had a certain lived-in feeling about them, that they were "abaadi masjids".

You would find people in these mosques all the time -- someone would be inside, reading the Qur'an, performing namaaz, discussing religion, or maybe just getting some sleep on the floor.

These mosques had little to offer by way of creature comforts, and sometimes much was to be desired in their upkeep. But they were the earnest everyman's house of worship, humble and unadorned except for the constant prayer of the faithful.

And that, one scholar told me, is more beautiful in the eyes of Allah than the best designed mosque, the most fragrant and appealing mosque, which sits empty.

Medina mosque has no dome, no minaret, no ornate doors -- in fact, iron-wrought bars guard its street-level windows.

Also on guard outside that night were two policemen, standing near the entrance, rubbing their hands to stay warm. I looked at them while they scrutinised me, as I turned to go inside. The effects of September 11 on Muslims living here will long last that day, I thought.

When you enter the mosque, the first things you see are cubbyholes for shoes, and lots of shoes and slippers. A notice board, with notes written in Bangla, fatwas or edicts, and prayer times, hangs above. The prayer hall is on the right, and the washrooms are to your left, down a flight of stairs.

I heard the voice of the hafiz, over loudspeakers, in mid-prayer. Other worshippers were passing me by, stepping over scattered shoes, entering the room. I took off my shoes, put on a pair of slippers and rushed downstairs.

The north American wudu kanna, where people wash to purify themselves for prayer, is not like those in India or Pakistan, which are square pools of water. Here, it is usually a long tiled trench, with stools for people to sit above, and taps extending from the walls to provide water.

But in Medina mosque, they have managed to recreate a bit of the subcontinent -- half of the washroom stalls are squatting toilets, complete with ceramic foot grips, hose and a lota [tumbler].

I went to the trench, turned on a tap and placed my hands into the water, which was ice-cold. I washed my face first, taking water into my palms and running them across. I doused my right arm, then my left. I wet my hands again, and ran them over my hair, turning my palms outward, to wipe my neck. Finally I washed my feet -- first the left, then the right.

I did not dry myself, and as I went back upstairs, the wet hair on my skin tingled and burned against the cold air seeping in from the entrance.

The cold air suddenly became very warm as I entered the prayer room, where I was hard-pressed to find a space to stand.

The room itself was nearly bare. There were no pictures of Mecca, no verses from the Qur'an, just bare egg-white walls. The only things hanging were an old map of the 'Muslim World' (the countries with a majority Muslim population were coloured deep green, those with an absolute minority were hot pink) and a prayer clock.

The carpet was green, faded from years of use; it was split up into rows with masking tape, and the rows set at a 45 degree angle, all parallel to each other, for the sake of lining up worshippers in the direction of Mecca.

At the front left corner was the only adornment of the room, the mehrab, made of ivory marble, with the name of Allah in its centre.

I laid my overcoat down and joined a line. I raised my hands towards Mecca, and started the prayer with a takbir -- saying Allahu Akbar.

Keeping your concentration during namaaz is very difficult, and even more so doing taraweeh. At least during regular prayer, when doing it alone, you personally have to recite the Quranic verses, demanding that you recall them from memory. In a congregational prayer like taraweeh, you are simply following the imam, who does all the reciting. Thus, you simply stand and listen.

It is easy for your mind to wander. That is, in fact, not good. According to the etiquette of prayer, your fullest attention should be present at all times, because during namaaz you are understood to be standing directly before Allah. Of course, few are so dedicated. A joke Muslims often make is that if you've forgotten something, do namaaz, because you will remember it while in prayer.

I admit that at times, I was paying attention to things other than the divine.

The humidity of the room did not escape my nose, which picked up the human smell of warm bodies packed closely together in a small space. It was not malodorous, thankfully. Mixed in the smell was the faint tinge of ithaar, a non-alcoholic perfume used by Muslim worshippers. The combined smell was something I had only sensed inside a mosque, a smell I had associated with worship, warm and surrounding.

I smiled at the little boy standing a row in front of me, looking like a miniature in a beige kurta-pyjama suit, wearing a golden-weave topi that was a bit too big for his head. He held a Qur'an in his hand, following the hafiz's recitation.

I felt the slight pinch of my skin as I prostrated, and pressed my forehead against the carpet. So many people had walked upon it, and as a result, it was in some parts bristly and hard. It was slightly painful to have the weight of half my body directed in a single spot.

I noticed the toes of the person praying to the left of me were a bit gnarly. His big toe nail was a bit chipped and the sole of his foot was yellowed, hard and cracked. He was an older man, and his feet, I assumed, were the result of years of washing them for prayers.

At the end of surah fatihah, which is recited at the beginning of every namaaz, I marvelled at the vibrations of the room when every worshipper slowly recited 'Ameen.' It was murmured, not shouted, but the bass was so sonorous and deep, I felt everyone's voices travel through me, softly rattling through my bones.

The hafiz's voice was particularly heart-wrenching. His voice undulated over the Arabic letters and sounds, stretching his eee's, pitching his voice over aaa's and h's, wailing his waaa's. He ranged from low baritone to soprano, reciting the holy verses, the words of Allah, in a beseeching manner.

Unfortunately, like many non-Arabic Muslims, I could not completely comprehend what was said, but the tone in which it was said, the melody, the grouping of sounds, was powerful enough to communicate a feeling of reverence.

Finally, the prayer came to a close. Everyone sat quietly as the imam raised his hands in supplication.

"O Allah, forgive among us those who are living and who are dead," he began. "Those who are young and are old, those who are males and females and those who are present and are absent."

"O Allah," he continued. "Whomever you give life to, let him live upon Islam, and whoever you cause to die, let him die upon the faith. O Allah, do not deprive us of his reward [which You give him). And do not cause us to go astray after him [his death]."

Those who had families and jobs to attend to began leaving the mosque. But for those who had more time, a sermon would be given, one in English and another in Bangla, explaining the parts of the Qur'an that were recited in prayer.

The speech from the pulpit said that we had heard Allah's decrees on male and female relations, on invocations against alcohol and gambling, the sins of lying, cheating and backbiting, the rewards of charity, the story of Miriam and Zechariah and Allah's declaration of sovereignty over all creation.

"Nothing happens without Allah's will," the preacher said. "Day becomes night, death into life, the sun, the moon, the stars... everything is Muslim because it submits to the will of Allah. Everything is in the hands of Allah.

"No one will get close to Allah until they do the service of man," he continued. "All the prophets spent their lives reminding people about Allah and his sovereignty. If we want to get something from Allah, then we must give to man.

"There is not only the fast of the stomach. There is also the fast of the hands, the eyes, the tongue, and every part of our body that we must learn to control.

"This month of Ramadan is about correcting every aspect of our life."

I had heard this talk before, in countless other mosques. But I was struck by his reflections on the shortness of life.

"A lot of brothers who were here last year, are not here anymore," he said. "Maybe this will be the last Ramadan of my life.

"The Devil's biggest weapon is false hope," he continued. "He will whisper, 'Don't worry, there's always tomorrow, when you get older, you can become religious and go for Hajj.' Brothers, we don't know when we will leave this world."

I left the mosque with a heavy heart. Because the imam's words had found their mark, they had reminded me of a good friend.

Last Ramadan, I spent it away from home, alone, living in San Jose, California. A close friend of mine from childhood also relocated to Silicon Valley, so I let him stay with me the entire month, until he found a place of his own.

The apartment I had was within walking distance of the city's only mosque, and my friend found that convenient, especially during Ramadan.

I only had a small group of Muslim friends in San Jose, and we opened and closed our fasts together, and stood and prayed in the same rows during taraweeh.

I remembered him sitting next to me, during the final night of Ramadan, listening to the last sermon of the last taraweeh. How we hugged each other when it was over, and laughed, marvelling at the thought that we would both celebrate Eid in California, alone, away from our families.

We had known each other back home, but never really hung out. I never thought, that among all the people I knew, he was going to share my experiences living in California. He admitted the same.

He said he was forever in debt to me for my hospitality. I told him he was welcome to stay with me anytime, and that his company was good to have.

This July, my friend died in a motorcycle accident. He was only 24.

I went to California to arrange his funeral. I prayed for patience as I performed his last rites, helping to wash his body, wrapping it in a burial shroud, placing it in a coffin, and laying him down in his grave.

I thought I had done my crying for him, but the imam's words had stoked my tears. Wasn't it only one Ramadan ago that he and I were talking about home, joking, breaking our fasts with dates and water?

The innocent memories, which once were so warm and comforting, had become painfully jarring, a subtle reminder of how things have changed so much in the world.

I remembered how cold his skin was when I washed him, his closed eyes, his stillness, and the hot, salty tears crept down my face.

My wife put her arms around me, and softly tried to explain.

"This month makes us remember things," she said. "Ramadan makes us think about Ramadans of the past. This is the same reason why some people get very sad at Christmas time, because they reminisce about Christmases of the past."

"I remember him, how he looked when he was just lying there," I said, burrowing my head into her shoulders and hair.

"That's just the shell," my wife explained. "You don't know what the spirit looked like. You can't see the spirit inside the body.

"He is in a better place, truly. This world is full of hardships, and worries. And he is here; he's never left you. Just reach out, and he will be there."

As my wife consoled me, I thought about the imam's words.

What are these things, faith and mortality? The question about life that I, and every other human being, has wrestled with, at some point in our lives.

This month has always been for me a time of soul-searching, of trying to think through what I have done, right and wrong.

I remember my loved ones, here and gone. I wonder whether I am a good man. That when I raise my hands and press my forehead against the ground, the Lord is listening.

During such moments, I hope people forgive me if I have done them wrong, and that I do correct something about my character that is flawed. I am sure there are many things.

Will I be able to account for my deeds? The thought is terrifying.

My hidden secrets, my enmities, my peccadilloes exposed for questioning? I suppose I am afraid of my own humanity.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

The Rediff Specials

Tell us what you think of this special report