Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series where one Muslim writer tries to figure out just what religiousness is supposed to be. It’s something we all have to figure out at some point, so he is trying to do it here. This conversation on religion continues in our linked podcast, “The Confessional.”
“In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, The giver of Mercy! / Praise belongs to God, Lord of the Worlds, / the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy, / Master of the Day of Judgement. / It is You we worship; it is You we ask for help. / Guide us to the straight path: / the path of those You have blessed, those who incur no anger and who have not gone astray.”
In a headnote from his English translation of the Qur’an published by Oxford University Press, British professor M.A.S. Abdel Haleem describes Surah Al-Fatiha, the first chapter of the Qur’an, as “a precise table of contents of the Qur’anic message.” Essentially, every major theme that the Qur’an contains is addressed in those first seven verses.
Like almost every Muslim kid in the world, I learned to recite Al-Fatiha in Arabic by heart. Since I turned 12, I recite it an average of 24 to 40 times a day — spaced out across dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset, and night — as a part of my daily prayers (“namaz,” if you want to get Desi). It wasn’t until I was 15 that I really got an idea what the surah was actually saying.
Namaz is done entirely in Arabic, and the old family wisdom says that it’s because people prayed the same way when the Qur’an was being revealed. But my family’s Pakistani. We speak Urdu, a somewhat related but ultimately separate language. There is a giant language barrier between me and this routine I do five times a day, and though I believe I’m supposed to do it, I can’t help but wonder: Am I doing this right? Other religions have prayers of their own, but what is prayer even supposed to be?
For Lessane Ketema, a UW student and recent convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, prayer is more contemplative than ritualistic. It’s a time for him to connect with God.
“Sometimes, I get to a point where I’m not even saying words anymore,” he described. “I’m just resting in God. It’s almost as if I’m in the divine presence, and beyond that, I’m no longer making any entreaties or even praise — it’s just simply a rest.”
This feeling doesn’t happen very often for Ketema, but the act of contemplation that gives rise to it is more commonplace. It exists in a plane he describes as neither emotional nor logical, but rather along a third axis that Western thinking has lost the capacity to describe. While the act of kneeling and recitation certainly plays a role in his prayers, finding himself within that plane, within God, is what drives Lessane to prayer.
For Andy Lobkov, a junior in the comparative history of ideas department, it’s a little more difficult to pinpoint. Although they believe in a god and were raised Christian, they’re not sure what form that god takes, and have since drifted away from the church. Even still, Lobkov finds spiritual value in praying in moments of strong emotion like happiness or joy, whether they direct it to God or to dearly departed family members.
“It helps ground me sometimes,” Lobkov said. “Like, if I feel very unstable or … I don't know, it just helps focus me a little bit more and like feel like, ‘OK, there's someone who's listening.’”
That’s the thing I keep encountering throughout all of the conversations I have about prayer for this series: a sense of connection. I don’t know if that connection everyone keeps talking about extends beyond fulfilling a request I don’t find too unreasonable for myself, though. However, something I’ve realized this Ramzan is why I probably need the connection.
Five times throughout the day, I drop whatever it is I’m doing for a few minutes to just take a moment of respite. Sometimes I want it, sometimes I don’t, but there is something to just stepping out of my life for the sake of something much greater than me. I don’t know if I’ve figured out what it is for me yet, but I can tell you that it’s there.
Reach Co-Development Editor Shahbaz Ahmed Khan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @JadeMoonSpeaks
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