I grew up as a Christian and eventually lost my faith. In the household I was raised in, cultural understanding was valued. Even as I gave up the religion that years before I was a fervent adherent to, my parents did not fight to control my choice or sway my opinion. Many don’t have the same privilege, and through that misfortune comes the ignorance of the unknown. This dangerous condition can lead to social injustice, including violent crime and discrimination by employers.
In many religious households, children are taught that their way is the one true way, and that their religion above all else is the true path to god. Those children eventually become adults who beget more believers, and so the cycle of universalizing religion continues. Sometimes, converts are convinced (or conquered). Financially speaking, this is a self-sustaining system, and if done the right way could eventually lead to one universalizing religion dominating the others.
My somewhat sour view on universalizing religions was repugnant, but like it or not,two out of every three global citizens adheres to a universalizing religion. So, rather than sulk and become an unrelatable and pathetic agnostic, I set out to better understand the religion that seems entirely misunderstood in American communities: Islam.
My friend Inan and his family were kind enough to host me for thirty-six hours in mid-July, which happened to fall during the month of Ramadan. Though I had heard of the practice, I never actually understood why Muslims fasted during this time. How could deprivation of food and drink make one a better person?
But then Inan talked about the Five Pillars of Islam, a topic once took covered by human geography course I took. I had memorized and forgotten them long ago, but Inan discussed them with clarity and directness. They are:
1. Proclamation of Faith
4. Observing the month of Ramadan (fasting)
He explained that Islam is based on the idea of the idea of the “oneness of God”, known as tawhid. It is the notion that God is a single being, and that Muhammad is his unique prophet. All this time, I had mistakenly viewed Muhammad to be more similar to Jesus in the way Islam functioned. In fact, Muhammad was God’s messenger to his people, and though he is emulated in many ways through the actions of Muslims, they do not pray to him or treat him as a Son of God as Christians do Jesus.
During the first day with Inan, I watched him pray, which I describe as an intense, calm process that clearly has a structure. I thought back to the many times I prayed after taking communion, and remember being unsure whether or not I was addressing Jesus the Son, God the Father, or the still-misunderstood-by-yours-truly holy spirit. A feeling of happiness or joy would spread over me after I finished, but I still never felt very fulfilled or compelled. Seeing him full of worth and purpose after he prayed made me envious.
After more inquiry, I learned that Ramadan is a month that was designated clearly by a verse in the Quran in sura (chapter) 2.
2.185: “The month of Ramadan is the (month) in which was sent down the Quran as a guide to mankind, also Clear (Signs for) guidance and judgment (between right and wrong); So every one of you who is present (at his home) during that month should spend it in fasting. But, if any one is ill or on a journey, the prescribed period (should be made up) by days later. Allah intends every facility for you; He does not want to put you to difficulties. (He wants you) to complete the described period. And to glorify Him because He has guided you; And for this reason, you should be grateful to Him.”
Once I underwent the fast with Inan, I began to understand that doing so was less about the deprivation of sustenance and more about feeding the soul. I caught myself scrolling past pictures on Instagram of attractive girls in bikinis I might otherwise have gazed at. Instead of gossiping about meaningless things, we discussed politics, his views on faith, and the numerous ponderings I had about the religion. Without thinking constant materialistic thoughts, my mind was allowed to ponder philosophic aspects of religion I otherwise would’ve been too distracted to think about. I wouldn’t have had that experience without Ramadan.
The evening of the first night I spent with Inan, we headed to the mosque. It was the first time I had visited a religious building that wasn’t affiliated with Christianity.
We entered the musallah (prayer room), a large carpeted space filled with intermittently standing and prostrated parishioners. They were praying once before iftar, the micro-meal that breaks the daily fast. After iftar, additional prayers were said, and the main meal was served in the adjacent dining hall.
It bears worth mentioning that the whole time I was in the mosque, only those who identified as men and boys surrounded me. Those who identified as females were supposedly in a nearby room doing the same thing we were, eating a meal and sharing each other’s company. While I initially questioned why this was good, it was later revealed to me by Inan’s father that trips to the mosque should serve the purpose of making a connection with Allah. By separating men from women, each could pray and break bread without the distraction of attraction.
The following morning, we awoke in the early hours of the morning. We ate a filling meal that contained spicy rice, chickpeas and vegetables. The four of us (Inan, his sister, father, and me) left for the mosque, where we did the fajir (first prayer of the day).
The most noteworthy thing that happened that morning was a discussion about Sharia. To Muslims, sharia is the code by which life is lived. It encompasses topics in personal life such as hygiene and diet, as well as societal topics like politics, economics, and crime. After a sermon-like talk given by the imam, a 50-something man made a comment about sharia, saying that the entire mosque congregation would be better off if following sharia were expected of all of it members.
Interestingly enough, sharia is a topic that really makes conservative Americans’ blood boil. The following are the first 5 articles shown on Google after a search of the words “sharia in America”.
Out of the 5, 2 are somewhat educational, and 2 are blogs run by people who suspect the Islamization of America is imminent. The 5th is a Wikipedia article on the “Ban on sharia law”. Needless to say, anyone with an American Internet connection wanting to know about domestic sharia is going to find more negative viewpoints than positive.
What this man, whose name is Walid, was saying, that all members of the mosque’s community should follow sharia, makes sense if his point of view is considered. Later that night, I saw him at the mosque during evening prayers. I approached him, informed him that I was spending time with a Muslim friend and writing a story on Islam. He was glad to clarify his statement made earlier that morning.
Walid prefaced his explanation with a statement. “If more people adhered to Sharia, our community would distribute fairness and justice better than the US government.”
“What do you mean better than the US government?” I inquired.
In a thorough explanation, he used Saudi Arabia as an example. There, he explained, the condition of the person who is led to commit the crime is considered before punishment is given. Sure, I heard that the retribution for stealing was getting your hand chopped off, but this, according to him, only happened in cases in which the fruit thief had more than enough apples to eat at home.
Though I still wasn’t entirely convinced that this system would work, it seemed fairer than how justice is applied in the United States. If a criminal has stolen, his destitute state caused by structural inequality is never considered by the system.
That night, I entered the musallah for the last time, taking in the peacefulness I was surrounded by. I made the following conclusions about my experience while in the room.
I haven’t felt angry in the last two weeks. Nor have I felt spite, hatred, or lust towards others. I instead felt an incredible internal peace and an authentic connection with fellow mosque-goers. I observe that Islam is a religion that claims to and in my experience does have a direct connection to allah. It is the faith’s monotheistic nature that allows for this close connection.
My entire experience spending time living my life as a Muslim for 36 hours was enlightening to say the least. Though my stomach was starved, Inan, his friends at the mosque and his kind family enlightened my mind and soul. I still question the existence of god and the afterlife but, I am convinced that religion is a beautiful social construct capable of bringing people together.
“Privileged are those who can see from many perspectives.”