I must admit… as a new Muslim (not so new now) I have always found prayer a difficult task. When I first converted I was bombarded with the dos and don’ts of prayer and the orthodox opinions on the matter. As a woman, these lists were even longer… from the color of the hijabs that one should wear, to how sheer, loose and black an abaaya must be and how pure or impure one is at different points during the month
While at the beginning I was keen on mastering all the instructions that I was given, I noticed that they eventually made me depart from my original desire to pray. Going to the mosque for me meant getting lectured in a number of issues. First it was my appearance, so I was told that black and abaayas were preferable to colorful clothing and jeans and socks were mandatory according to “all” Muslim scholars. Next, I was corrected in my recitation of du’as and Qur’anic ayahs because I was told that Arabic is “divine.” Third, I was told that no-prayer equals no-Muslim because prayer is the second pillar or Islam.
Whereas I understood and respected my fellow sisters wish to follow, what they considered to be the rules of prayer, I did not find any peace or connection to Allah in the rules, the lectures and the “pushiness” (for lack of a better word). Soon after converting I found myself not praying and with a strong aversion to prayer settings.
These feelings were only aggravated by the environments in which I was told to pray… meaning upper rooms or dirty basements with one-way mirrors or thick walls all for the sake of gender segregation or “free mixing.”
After few months I was just not attending the mosque and not praying at all.
In battling my inner demons on how to go about the issue of prayer, I was happy to find that I was not the only woman out there who felt alienated from prayer especially in communal settings. I met women who were prevented from attending the mosque, who did not wear hijab and felt unwelcome (even by wearing hijab at the mosque), women who did not agree with gender segregation, women who wanted to lead prayers, women who just rejected the current treatment of women in mosques.
For me prayer was meant to be a sort of communion with Allah; a moment of solace during the day. Instead, Muslims around me made it look like a chore. A task that was “mandatory” and unavoidable. If I had known better on my earlier days as a Muslim, I would have probably saved myself a lot of arguments and heartbreak, which ultimately made me depart from prayer.
Now, three years later, I have found that prayer is much more than the movements performed during traditional salah.
After reading a compilation of Rumi’s poems in Rumi: the Book of Love I was instantly attracted to the story of “Moses and the Shepherd.” The story in few verses tells the story of Moses anger when noticing a shepherd approaching God “incorrectly.”
“God, where are you? I want to help you, to fix your shoes
and comb your hair. I want to wash your clothes
and pick the lice off. I want to bring you milk
and kiss your little hands and feet when it’s time
for you to go to bed. I want to sweep your room
and keep it neat. God, my sheep and goats are yours.
All I can say remembering you is aaayyyyyy
Rumi- Rumi: the Book of Love, 166.
Moses lectures the man, who later on repents; but God sends a revelation:
“You have separated me from one of my own.
Did you come as a prophet to unite or to sever?
I have given each being a separate and unique way
of seeing and knowing and saying that knowledge.
What seems wrong to you is right for him.
What is poison to one is honey to someone else.
Purity and impurity, sloth and diligence in worship,
these mean nothing to me. I am apart from all that.”
Rumi- Rumi: the Book of Love, 166-167.
My feelings towards prayer shifted, as I saw few Muslim friends focusing on the little-everyday things rather than in the five-times-a-day sunni prayers and its rules.
Although I decided to be settled about the issue and try to deal with prayer at a personal level instead of shocking my community, a week later they were shocked during a Jum’ah prayer when a female soldier wearing uniform appeared in the mosque with no hijab and prayed in the women’s hall. Perhaps it was the uniform, or the sister’s demeanor, but no one even dared to question her.
The sister, who was a convert, had found Islam during Canada’s invasion of Afghanistan and often prayed with men and without hijab. It worked for her and , often times, she was welcomed by some Muslim men to join them in prayer.
Thus, I was convinced that prayer was personal: an act of communication and love between you and Allah. And even when we pray in community there is more to it than just sitting there with people, completely covered, in a segregated space. Prayer should be taken to a different level.
Women praying in Kashmir- From Wodu Media.
The words and the movements may be in your head and in your mouth, but the heart has to be there as well… and it is probably more important than any “official” ways of praying. Omid Safi’s piece on prayer further encouraged me to further look for stronger links with Allah by bringing up the issues of what is prayer? And what is really important in prayer?
Is it that movement and clothing are all that matters? Is it the timing? The number of times you do it? Or is there more?
When approached with this issue one of my convert friends, a senior lady that has been a Muslim for over 30 years, told me: “ I think Allah is not as concerned about how you pray and when you pray as long as you always keep the link.”
I find that being presented with so many challenges in the mosque setting, does nothing to encourage my link with Allah. It actually diminishes it. My daily acts of remembrance of the divine, and the spiritual link that I have developed through time have led me to feel more comfortable with my connection with the divine.
Although perhaps silly, I often find myself asking questions and talking to Allah, rather than counting raka’at. This is not to say that I have rejected salah; on the contrary, going beyond the traditional understandings of prayer have helped me to experience the many and diverse ways in which we interact with Allah. It also enabled me to acknowledge that, at the end of the day, it is about you and Allah alone… it is about what works for you both.