The Night Before Ramadan
We must be into our twentieth rakat. I really wish I hadn’t worn jeans, the back of my knees are starting to chaffe.
Praying as a muslim is a very physical undertaking. I turn my head to the right, “As-salamu ‘alaykum wa rah-matul lag”, and then to the left, “As-salamu ‘alaykum wa rah-matul lag”; this is what I should be uttering to myself–if I knew the words. It essentially means “peace be with you” (similar to the sign of peace offered by catholics during mass), it marks the end of a rakat. Everytime we reach this point I hope it might be the last one so I no longer have to kneel in these jeans.
It was August 1, 2011, in Washington D.C., the night before the muslim holy month of ramadan. We finished eating dinner a while ago, I’ll call them Talib and Sayeed, they were each performing their wudu and getting ready to drive the ten minutes to their local mosque. These events would play out the same for the next thirty days. I decided to find out what happens at the mosque…
Talib was wearing some dark blue, loose fitting trousers with a loose cotton arabic style collarless shirt and a little hat–I’m not sure what the hats are called, but I’m told they’re optional. Sayeed was also in jeans and a large print floral shirt–he should have known better. We left the house about 9pm, after dinner, just the men, the women stayed at home (through choice I believe). Isha (evening prayer) begins at 9.45pm tonight, we were about fifteen minutes early getting to the mosque so we sat quietly on the carpet near the front after performing the two rakat that are required upon entry.
Gradually the mosque filled up, line after line of people behind us sitting on the floor like school children waiting for assembly to begin. The occasional whisper of short unwanted conversations are exchanged amongst neighbours. The imam enters dressed in white robes with a white head scarf and makes his way to the front to begin the Azan (or call to prayer) through the microphone. He looks to be of east african descent, there’s a large Ethiopian community in this part of D.C.
We listen to a short speech from the President of the community centre, he talks a bit about parking arrangements for the month of ramadan and after he’s finished we perform two more rakat to complete the required four for Isha prayer. The imam begins his sermon by welcoming everyone and noting the unusually high attendance.
“It shouldn’t just be during ramadan that you visit the mosque, you should try throughout the rest of the year to come and make Isha here.” He’s realistic that people have work and family to juggle but insists that Islam should be central to your life. He unveils plans for the mosque to extend the womens area later in the year and puts out a call for donations during this month of ramadan. It’s only then that I notice the partition at the opposite end of the room that separates men from women. It’s a simple free standing barrier, probably about eight feet high. I used to baulk at the idea of segregating genders for prayers but I can see here that it makes sense. The floor can get very busy and can become quite intimate, praying behind a woman could be quite distracting for a man.
“The mosque needs to raise $500,000. Normally any donations to the mosque are made anonymously but on this occasion I encourage you to demonstrate and share with your brothers and sisters when you are making a donation, to encourage them to do the same.” I didn’t agree with the imam and felt rather offended that he was encouraging public displays of generosity with the hope of influencing others to do the same–it was a modern social media-esque approach, not really fit for a religious organisation. I understood he was trying to help with fundraising for his mosque but it was a conflicting agenda that created a rather negative first impression, for me.
His sermon is short and we quickly progress to prayers. Tonight an entire section (or juz’) of the Koran will be read over the course of performing 23 rakat–I didn’t know this when I decided to come along. By August 27 the complete Koran will have been recited. This only happens during the month of ramadan and the prayers are called Tarawih (pronounced traa-way), it’s a purely optional activity for muslims to engage in.
After eight rakat some people disperse, it’s the minimum apparently. We keep going. A surah (or set of surahs) is read each time we stand, after repeating the first verse of the Koran (as with normal prayers). My mind starts to wander but I draw myself back in. Not knowing the words makes the process purely mechanical and I eventually start to close my eyes during the reciting and listen harder to the rhythmic arabic. Standing between Talib and Sayeed I start to feel a sense of brotherhood: sharing these events with them, travelling in the car to mosque, learning from them how to pray, it’s bonding us. The imam switches places with two other orators during the evening to share the load of reciting. Maintaining the song-like arabic sound cannot by easy.
It strikes me that this is perhaps what keeps many people involved with religion. It’s not the rituals and the praying necessarily, it’s the sense of community that is created, either with the congregation or even just within your family. There is a sense of calm and peace associated with taking time to be spiritual, I feel it on the way to the mosque and whilst sitting quietly on floor. I used to feel the same about attending mass when I was at school. All holy buildings seem to have an energy about them once you’re inside.
It’s 11:15pm by the time we’re finished. It’s late for young ones to be up, but it is summer holidays. A group of men are folding away the floor of a small open-sided marquee outside the mosque. There really were a lot of people here. It would have been nice to pray in the outdoors tonight, the temperature is warm and the air is humid, winter would be such a different story.
We return to the car and drive home. Tomorrow is the first day of fasting, it will be an early rise.