Amina Wadud led Friday prayer Friday before last and I attended Friday prayer for the first time in my life in a mosque last Friday. On the surface, the two events are not related, but delving deeper, they are. For Amina Wadud it was leading prayers to a mixed gender congregation, for the first time in her life and for the first time since a century has passed. I can’t speak for Amina Wadud, so I will just speak for myself. I was raised in a way that religion was important, but was a private matter between the person and God. Friday prayers were important and even if one didn’t pray five times a day, Friday prayers at the mosque were kept. But this applied to the men in my family and women were told that as a special concession they were not asked to go to the mosque but could pray in the comforts of their own homes if they wanted to. I was always not very enthusiastic about big crowds, so this seemed like “heaven-sent” for me. My first time praying “jummah” in a mosque came about because I met with friends, who were all enthusiastic about doing it together. Perhaps it was fate or just that the time had come for me. Regardless of the reason, it was a memorable experience.
It was a lovely choice to attend it at the Sultan Hassan Mosque in old Cairo, one of the extremely wonderful Islamic monuments. What I liked in particular about it was the background to it, namely that it was designed so that each of the four main Sunni schools (Shafite, Malikite, Hanifite and Hanbalite) had their own space, while sharing the mosque, which for me enhances the feeling of tolerance, unity and accepting differences of opinion in the name of learning. I also liked the fact that women were allowed to pray in the main hall with the men, in one of the alcoves reserved previously for one of the four madrassahs.
Leaving my shoes outside with the mosque servant, like so many other people, I entered the mosque with joyous anticipation and a sense of excitement, drinking in the beauty of the architecture and the lovely fountain in the courtyard around which the four alcoves are arranged. Making my way to the alcove reserved for the women, I looked at the faces around me, noticing the diversity, different ages, different social backgrounds and social classes, different ethnic origins and nationalities even, but all united in this place for the same reason. Arriving to the women’s alcove I noticed a heap of shoes at the foot of the three steps leading to the alcove and wondered about that. Why wouldn’t they leave their shoes outside just like everyone else? What has it come to, if one can’t trust a mosque servant with one’s shoes. But I quickly dismissed this thought as I had no intention of indulging any negative thought that would tarnish my first Friday prayer ever in a mosque.
I settled down in a row looking at the ornaments and paintings on the lanterns and waited for the imam to call for prayers when a young girl approached me. I smiled at her and she didn’t smile back, but said to me very harshly: “Do you know that your prayer will not be accepted because you are wearing pants?” I was startled and kind of hurt. Isn’t it all about what is in the heart? Isn’t it all about niyyat? What happened to compassion? What happened to a kind word is better than charity? Who made her mother keeper of the Islamic dress code? Why didn’t her mother feel courageous enough to approach me herself instead of sending that little girl to deliver a message of intolerance and judgement? Why does everyone feel the need to be a mufti and decide what is acceptable and what isn’t? Why does everyone feel the need to judge others and determine what is acceptable to Allah and what isn’t? When did Allah delegate judgement to all and sundry? What happened to mercy and compassion and forgiveness? When was prayer reduced to pants, skirts or jilbabs? All these thoughts crowded my mind, but I dismissed them all and decided that I will not let this negativity permeate my thoughts and tarnish my first experience. I answered the girl saying: “Don’t worry about it, if anybody will be punished it will be me and not you, so go back to your row and stop worrying about whether or not my prayers will be accepted or not and focus on yours.”
Personally for me, prayer is a sense of inner peace, a closeness to Allah, a humbleness and in a sense also a sacrifice. I sacrifice my time and shut everything else out for as long as I am praying. It’s not about pants or skirts or bending down at a certain angle or even touching the floor with my nose or forehead. It is not just a ritual and a certain collection of movements to be ticked off a to-pray list. It is more of a conversation with Allah which I am having with my heart and my mind and after all Allah knows exactly what is in my heart.
[64.4] He knows what is in the heavens and the earth, and He knows what you hide and what you manifest; and Allah is Cognizant of what is in the hearts.
Before I could explore this any further the imam called out the azhan and started his khutba. Fittingly it was about the promotion of good and the fighting of vices. He quoted many suras and he was reciting them nicely and slowly. But I missed a few things. I missed the passion in his khutba. I missed feeling enthusiasm and emotions that should have come with a plea for people to change to the better. I looked around me at the faces of the people gathered in the mosque. I wanted to cry for the wasted feelings, for the power of prayers, for the sense and feelings it should have give. It was only a small number of people who concentrated and listened attentively, sometimes nodding in agreement and sometimes reflecting on what they had heard. I was a bit disappointed and I also started wondering about why people would come to a mosque to pray when they didn’t really feel like it deep inside? Surely praying is not just some ritual to be followed without any feelings at all and just an automated movement.
[4.142] Surely the hypocrites strive to deceive Allah, and He shall requite their deceit to them, and when they stand up to prayer they stand up sluggishly; they do it only to be seen of men and do not remember Allah save a little.
The imam didn’t prolong his khutba unnecessarily, but still the many children in the mosque became restless and started moving around, some started crying, some started talking amongst themselves. While I can see both sides of taking children to a mosque perhaps because there is nobody to mind them or to make them get used to participating in Friday prayers at an early age or whatever other reasons, I also somewhat resented the distraction. But then little children are children and despite the khutba not exceeding the 20 minutes designated by the government, they are allowed to be restless. It is not their fault. But I remembered what I grew up with.
[7.204] And when the Quran is recited, then listen to it and remain silent, that mercy may be shown to you.
[73.4] Or add to it, and recite the Quran as it ought to be recited.
Prayer and reading of the Quran for me was always a time of humility and some sort of privacy, which is impossible to achieve when screams and cries pierce my ears. For a second I missed the solitude of my own prayers at home. Be that as it may, the imam started his dua for the ummah and for Islam and the unified response of “Ameen” made me smile again. One voice by all, with a delicate echo by the women. Then finally the prayer. At the iqama everyone got up and quickly closed ranks, shoulder to shoulder. Shaking hands after prayers and wishes of “taqabal Allah” were exchanged. Even if they weren’t meant from the heart, because I was wearing pants and in the eyes of those who shook my hands my prayer would probably not be accepted anyway, I still felt good. A sense of belonging permeated me and a sense of being a part of some greater something, even if to me it felt like this greater something was not as sincere as it should have been. But I stopped that thought quickly too for I also don’t know what is inside people’s hearts and who am I to judge. I resented being judged and sentenced for my pants, so I was not going to fall into the same trap and unfairly judge people by what I see and not what is in their hearts. How would I, a mere mortal, know what they were thinking when they judged my pants, perhaps it was a well meant advice and not a judgement. I should stick to the “do to others as I want others to do to me”. May everyone be humble and sincere in their prayers so that “Taqabal Allah” from all of them indeed.
For some strange reason when I went home afterwards I felt the urge, no, the need to pray alone. Perhaps I wanted to find the spirituality in the prayer and not the mere ritual performance that I missed in the mosque. I was always more comfortable praying alone than in crowds. Perhaps this is due to my upbringing or relates to the fact that our house was always an oasis of calmness in the busy teeming beehive that is Cairo. Be that as it may, I have learned quite a bit about myself, so all in all, it was a memorable experience indeed.