A Religion of Pieces
In the fourth installment of his column Mohammed Fakhro examines his relationship with his religion, and looks at it as a mosaic of many experiences, across continents.
(O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.) [Qur’an 49:13]
I fell asleep every night of my childhood lost within the images of my room’s ceiling. The ceiling itself, with all 180 tiles of it, is not all that grand of a sight to look at. Each tile is a collection of grey scribbles not unlike an infant’s masterpiece of pencil on white paper. What I loved about my ceiling is that no two tiles were alike. Lines crossed over, looped around in a fainter trace and then jumped down in a whirl of darker grey. In them I saw knights and heroes fighting lions, while dragons and cats mingled in the distance with Jupiter orbiting around them. These tiles were my very own clouds, producing a beautiful array of nonsensical imagery night after night.
There was something about the tiles that sparks a similarity to my relationship with religion: each experience was imperfectly imprinted to last.
I was 8 or 9 years old some Ramadans ago when I memorised tiny new verses of the Quran each day. At night I would take my dad’s hand and walk towards our neighborhood mosque for prayer. My dad would always stay longer for the sunna prayer, giving me the much awaited opportunity to mimic the verses I did not understand, in triumph. I awoke on my right side after one of those nights to find my hands on my pillow as if raised in prayer. Gullible as I was, I asked my dad what that meant. “It means that Allah loves you,” he answered.
I entered the holy grounds of Mecca for the first time as a teenager. We had planned on waking up just before fajr prayer for the coveted chance of touching the Black Stone. I had only a small concept of what the Stone was but knew its importance. My brother woke up to wash and I followed; ceremonially washing my hands, face, arms, head and feet in ablution. What I noticed was a smell that came off my hands that I could not get rid of, and decided that when the time came, I would not touch the Stone and revert to kissing it instead. And when that time came, I was too short and in a line that was too long to think twice. I put my hands on the stone to lift myself up enough to kiss it and make duaa. The moment I stepped back, a bird avoided all the pristine white marble of the floor and pooped on my head instead.
At Miami University, I joined the Muslim Student Association. We were not privileged in having a mosque or an imam, and so we made due in a cramped classroom for both the boys and the girls and rotated amongst ourselves ‘imamhood’ duties. I avoided that task.
A tour guide led us towards a local mosque at one of the busier streets of Cape Town two years ago. He stopped in front of a green door smaller than him in size yet older than him by ages. “This is the mosque,” he said. The building was wedged between two shops with the prayer room itself being on the upper floor, where we had to leave our shoes on the first and take the narrow staircase that creaked one barefoot step at a time. The imam spoke as if in conversation, smiling and laughing in a tone I was unaccustomed. I was in awe of how he said what he said as much as I was with what he said.
My tiles are not a collection of classroom memorised verses and lessons we are to mimic but barely understand. It was, as in the verses, from the males and females I have come to know. It has been in them that I saw more of religion than in the loud, imam-toned pulpit.
These patterns can only be seen one seemingly nonsensical piece at a time, and I am still working on seeing them as a whole.
[Photo courtesy: Erfi Anugrah]