Monday, August 30, 2010


One thing I regret about the way I've taught about Islam in my classes over the past several years is the superficial comparison I've made between Islamic and Mormon approaches to prayer. Typically, I point out that faithful Muslims pray 5 times a day and look! if you count up our regular prayers (morning, evening and the three meals) you also get 5. This is incredibly shallow and the number 5 is really about the only similarity between the two.

As I've seen the phrase over and over in the Qur'an, Muslim's perform their prayers. This strikes me as different from praying. I asked Luda from Syria about this distinction and while her English is very good, she seemed a bit confused by my question. "We pray", she said. "Every prayer begins with a recitation of the Qur'an." (She has several suras memorized by heart). She then proceeded to show me, on the floor of Kristin's living room, how every position of every part of the body, from the fingers to the toes, matters in the prayer pose. She knelt down with the tops of her feet on the floor, facing inward, her palms down and then she touched her forehead to the ground. It's not just kneeling. It's a full-body prayer. Luda compared it to Yoga, and then apologized in case this was not appropriate, but being a recent fan of Yoga, I like the comparison. In both, the goal is to align your body and mind--both halves of the soul, according to Mormon doctrine--in pursuit of the same purpose.

So why not pray with your whole body, humbling yourself before God physically as well as emotionally? Sure, there are times when Mormons kneel to pray, but it's not as often as maybe it should be. And we pray all the time, but maybe our prayers are not as intense as they should be. Everything about Islam, including the name, stresses submission to God. Their daily prayers are not offered at the convenience of the pray-er but at exact, prescribed moments determined by the motion of the sun (which is determined by God). The prostrations are a constant reminder of this submission. To me, this is simultaneously marvelous and frightening. LDS doctrine puts tremendous focus on personal agency, personal revelation and conscience. To relinquish so much of it multiple times daily would be a radical offering indeed.

The other major difference I've noted is that Muslims pray for personal blessings, but only after praising God through the recitation of the Qur'an. The words of their prayers are far more focused on God than on themselves. The one repeated with every prayer is the opening sura:

In the name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful. Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds, The Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful. Master of the Day of Judgement
To you we worship and to you we turn to in help. Show us the straight path, The path of those whom Thou hast favoured; Not the (path) of those who earn Thine anger nor of those who go astray.

These lines remind me of the opening of the Lord's prayer "Our Father who art in heaven. Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." This is nothing like the kinds of prayers I typically offer, which are less about praising God than thanking him for my personal blessings and asking for more. I've been painfully conscious this month of how many times I use the words "I" and "me" in prayer. My prayers are very ego-centric. Even when I'm asking for blessings upon my family and my friends, they are still "my" family and "my" friends. There's not nearly enough "thy will be done" language.

So, while I don't want to relinquish my right to pray when I feel the urge to pray and face whatever direction I choose and formulate the content of my own conversations with God, I do see the value of prostration, at least in a metaphorical sense. There's room for more praise. And there's certainly room for more submission of my own will.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

why do they call it a fast when it's going by so slowly?

You know you've been fasting a while when you start having dreams about feeling guilty for eating carrots.

I'm nearing the halfway point of Ramadan and starting to get a bit burned out. I'm sick of being hungry; that's part of it. But I'm also tired of feeling antisocial. It's no fun eating by myself. And when I get up in the dark to eat an early breakfast I feel like sneaky binger. The one welcome exception was Monday evening, when my friend Kristin (who has lived in various middle-eastern countries and speaks Arabic) invited me to iftar with her family and her Muslim friend Luda from Syria. Iftar is the traditional meal to break fast and is usually celebrated by feasting with family and friends. (Unless you're a wacky Mormon usurping the Muslim holiday and then you usually celebrate it by eating cold leftovers alone at the kitchen table.)

Kristin had slaved all day to make some delicious Arabic dishes and Luda brought homemade Syrian food as well (sorry I didn't write down the names of the dishes; I was too busy eating). Ever the generous guest, I ran to the supermarket and bought a package of dates.

It was a privilege to meet Luda and I took advantage of the opportunity and asked her a good portion of my list of questions about the Muslim faith. I suspect I'll write about some of our conversation later. She was a lovely woman, very Western in appearance, but obviously committed to her religion even though she is essentially isolated in Utah Valley and prays at home by herself rather than attending the small local mosque.

One thing Luda said has me even more discouraged. When I admitted that I've been drinking water during the day (because I'm still running or walking 4 miles almost every day and I know I would suffer from serious headaches if I didn't drink any water) she said, "Oh, water is the most important part of the fast." So not only am I a total poser. I'm also a total cheater.

Kristin also told me it's a well-known fact that people gain weight during Ramadan. This has to be a cruel joke. Please tell me it's because they are indulging for hours after sunset (which I'm not doing), not because they are totally throwing their metabolisms out of whack by starving themselves all day and then eating right before bed (which I am doing). If I gained weight after feeling this hungry all the time, that would just be too harsh.

But I can say that I do feel, for the first time in many months, like I have some self-control when it comes to food. That's a cool thing. And I enjoy sitting in the dark of the pre-dawn mornings meditation/praying/listening to my own heartbeat. This is a rare gift. And food really does better when you have to wait for it for 15 hours. Even carrots.

Friday, August 20, 2010

washing hands

Photo: McKay washing in the fountain outside Cordova's Mosque in Spain.

One thing I'm NOT doing along the way in this Ramadan experience (but I respect, nonetheless) is washing before my prayers. It says in the 5th sura of the Qur'an:

O ye who believe! when ye prepare for prayer, wash your faces, and your hands to the elbows; Rub your heads and your feet to the ankles.

I like the idea of setting prayer apart as a sacred act by washing in preparation. It seems as if you were about to have an audience with royalty, which of course, you are. If I knew the whole Wudu ritual and could perform it without sacrilege, I'd try. But I sense it's one of the many things that belong so specifically to the Muslim religion that I'd be wrong to borrow it for my own curiosity. I do like the symbolism though of clean hands. It's all over in the Old Testament but I never thought to take it quite so literally.

Monday, August 16, 2010

fasting and feasting

Day five and I'm surprised by the fact that fasting isn't that difficult. I mean it's not easy to go all day without eating, but I think it's easier than, say, eating ONLY ONE really good chocolate chip cookie. There's something about total abstinence that takes the pressure off.

That said, by 8:30ish (it gets earlier each day according to the sunset) I'm ready for a big pile of food. I suspect with all I eat in the evening and the breakfast I sneak in before dawn I'm not reducing total caloric intake by much. It's not an ideal diet plan. But that's not my motive anyway. I do feel a strong sense of accomplishment that I've kept to the schedule thus far. I've had plenty of temptations, including a full weekend at the cabin with my fabulous family (my parents and 7 of my 8 siblings and their families) which typically means good food and abundant snacking. Thankfully my family was very supportive and there's nothing like 31 witnesses to keep you honest.

I'm also surprised by what I'm finding in the Qur'an. I have the book divided into 30 equal portions, one for each day of Ramadan. I read with two pens: a black one for underlining things I like and a red one for underlining things that don't jive with my personal beliefs. I'm into the fifth sura now and of the hundreds of verses I've read, there are only a handful that I felt compelled to underline in red. Why does this surprise me? I don't know. I guess I forgot that most religions have, at their core, the same fundamental principles: obey God, avoid hypocrisy, be kind to others, and keep your promises. The Qur'an is, thus far, largely devoted to these ideas and to predicting rewards for the believers (paradisaical gardens with rivers beneath them and pure spouses) and the unbelievers (the scorchings of hell). My strongest personal objection is merely that there is such a theme of division between these two groups. Many many verses are about the seemingly clear-cut differences between the faithful and the blasphemers. I suppose my own scriptures are no different. I just wouldn't mind spending more time admitting that we are all inherently good and deeply flawed at the same time, that we all struggle with demons and wish to be angels, that some days we believe and some days we doubt.

I sense a trend to my musings today. It's night: I can feast. It's day: I must fast. Some people are sinners and will pay dearly. Some are believers (Mormon equivalent: righteous saints) and will be rewarded. The avoidance of ambiguity makes all manner of things easier. It's moderation that's hard.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


(Arabic writing from the Alhambra in Granada, Spain)

Day one of Ramadan and I can already tell that the hardest part isn't going to be the fasting. It's going to be sleep deprivation. Of course, I say this before I've actually felt a single hunger pang, but I'm already tired and it's only 10 am.

I got up at 4:30 am for Suhoor, the meal before the first prayer of the day (which begins at 4:43 in my time zone and marks the beginning of the fast). I underestimated the time it would take to make oatmeal and so I was wolfing it down while it was still too hot and I didn't get to finish it off before my time ran out. I'm already having these manic conversations with myself about the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. It seems extreme to run a spiritual exercise by the seconds on a clock, but at the same time, if I start making excuses and fudging the numbers, where do I draw the line? If I don't follow the rules, soon I'll be arguing that the fast doesn't start until the sun actually rises and then it will be when I can actually SEE the sun and before long, I'll be saying I can just close my eyes and eat whatever I want.

It's only day one, mind you. I sense some internal battles in my future.

One thing I can say is that it's peaceful at 4:30 in the morning. The house seems perfectly quiet when I sit down to pray and then I begin hearing, one by one, the layers of sound that float across the dark air around me: the hum of the refrigerator, the vibrations of a thin stream of cars passing on the highway a mile away, a train honking at the crossing more than two miles away, my intestines gurgling around the oatmeal. My eyes have adjusted and there's a gray glow coming in from the streetlight outside. I enjoy being the only one awake in this hazy envelope of space and time. I would enjoy it more if I weren't aware that I will pay the price later in the day when I have to function on substantially less than my required 7 hours of sleep. But in the meantime, I can enjoy the moment and think about the millions of real Muslims out there who had to get up even earlier to make it to a mosque for their first prayer. I'm just in my pajamas in my living room.

I realize now that one of the layers of sound I hear is the ticking of the clock in the kitchen. It seems incredibly loud, in fact, and I can't believe I have tuned it out. It's not something I ever notice during the day. There's something about this early morning strangeness that makes time thicker and more precious than usual. Maybe that's part of the point to this exercise. The seconds do matter. They've always mattered but now that they mark the borders between dark and light and between food passing my lips or staying in the bowl, they have power over me instead of the other way around.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Ramadan, a Mormon seeker's version

I’ll begin with the fact that my kids think I’m crazy, my husband is worried about me not eating dinner with the family, and my parents (when they read this) are likely to fear I’m becoming even more radical than my normal level of radical. On my part, I’ll admit to some trepidation. If anyone were to ask me why I plan to celebrate Ramadan this year, I’d have to pause for a while to collect my thoughts before answering. That isn’t to say that I don’t have a good reason. It’s more like I have a whole pile of reasons, none of which seems logical or convincing or likely to satisfy anyone who thinks it’s inappropriate for a Mormon to participate in a pillar of the Islamic religion. I’m writing this, I suppose, to explain myself to myself and anyone else who questions my motives or my sanity.

Why I’m celebrating Ramadan

For several years, I have included a short lecture about Islam in my Humanities 201 class. I do this with full disclosure of my own Western bias and my limited knowledge of the deeper aspects of the religion. I do it in an attempt to show another perspective on the Middle Ages, to balance out our reading of the Song of Roland (which portrays Muslims as polytheist pagans and heroicizes their slaughter), and to reveal to my classes of predominantly Mormon students that there more similarities than differences between the two religions. I enjoy watching their surprise at this discovery. Every time I teach my students about Ramadan, I have wondered what it’s really like to fast for a month. I’m simply curious to know how difficult it is and what kinds of rewards it brings.

I finally bought a Qur’an (or at least an English translation of it) last Christmas. In the basement of the university library, next to the rows of computers where elderly LDS patrons squint at genealogy records, I have plundered the stacks of books on Islam (ironically located right next to the books on Judaism, a kind of peaceful coexistence only possible in the abstract world of the written word). Ramadan this year is an excuse for me to read the whole Qur’an, study my pile of books about Muhammad, and try to gain a more personal understanding of Islamic beliefs.

According to what I have read, the blessings of Ramadan include forgiveness of sins, greater power through prayer, internal peace, and more strength to resist temptation. The phrase I've read dozens of times now is “The gates of paradise are opened, the gates of hell are closed, and the devils are in chains." I could use all of these openings, closings and chainings right now.

One of the benefits of Ramadan is an increase in self-discipline and self-control. I don’t want to belittle the sacredness of the rite by treating it as a diet plan, but I am in need of more self-control, especially where food is concerned. I’ve heard some people dismiss Ramadan as an easy way to fast because you can eat whatever you want in the middle of the night. But how could avoiding food and drink between dawn and sunset for 30 days be anything but a genuine test of will power?

During Ramadan, Muslims strive to better themselves and fill their hearts with charity and empathy for others. They try to be more generous, more friendly, more anxious to serve the poor and needy. In addition to gaining control over what passes into their mouths, they control over what passes out of their mouths by banning gossip, backbiting, and spreading of rumors. I struggle with these weaknesses. Blame it on my years of analyzing art and literature, but whatever part of my brain it is that makes you a good critical thinker, that part of my brain is over-exercised. As in Rambo. It is hard for me to resist criticizing others, and (not that I need a holiday to make me do better) it seems appropriate for me to set some new goals and have a noble reason to hold my tongue.

And maybe this should have been listed first, but I’m seeking a spiritual benefit as well. Those who faithfully follow the prescriptions of Ramadan are promised taqwa, which I’ve seen translated variously as fear of God, God-consciousness or piety. No Dad, I’m not converting to Islam (could any feminist do this?) but I know that there are many paths to God. I haven’t yet exhausted the Mormon path (could I ever?) but I am interested in what truths I can find in the Qur’an and what I can discover about my relationship to God by subverting the will of the flesh and dedicating more time in my life to religious study and prayer. Couldn’t I get these things from within my own religion? Sure. Am I conflicted as to why I feel the need to borrow a piece of someone else’s religion to gain the clarity and insight I should be working harder to find in my own? Absolutely.

As a caveat, I know there are plenty who would say God will not accept my offering, seeing as it comes from a non-Muslim usurping a Muslim religious tradition. I readily acknowledge my status as an outsider. For that matter, for various reasons I’ve mostly felt like an outsider in Mormon circles my whole life. It’s a role I’m familiar with. My only regret is that I’m doing this alone. A significant aspect of Ramadan is the sense of community created by a group of people sacrificing together and celebrating together. There will be no public feasts in my version of Ramadan. No trips to the mosque for late night prayers. I might rope a few of my family members into eating some dates and Haleem with me, and my Arabic-speaking sister has promised to teach me a few phrases, but mostly I plan to do this solo. This may be the most un-Islamic aspect of my pseudo-Islamic Ramadan. So here’s an open invitation to anyone who wants to join me in all or in part on my strange quest for enlightenment, compassion and the ability to resist the lure of baked goods during daylight hours.