Three NYC imams, the Aegean sea, and one writer’s passage toward a new relation to faith
January 30, 2018
In the first days of September, as the sun bore down on Jebel Arafah, a granite hill east of Mecca, two million pilgrims dressed identically in white sheathed the arid slopes of the sacred land. Attuned to the highest of spiritual states, they performed a significant ritual of the obligatory fifth pillar of their faith—the Hajj pilgrimage. A coveted aspiration of every observant Muslim, the Hajj pilgrimage is something desired from the depths of one’s being.
This wish, carried by the language of the heart, transcends every conceivable barrier and threads a billion people together like beads on an infinite tasbeeh. The answered prayer can fuel an appetite not unlike that of an insatiable lover. Having tasted of ecstasy, hunger renews itself, greedy for the sweetness of communing once again with God in that most exquisite of states alchemized amid the heat, the dust, and the over two million pilgrims in Mecca. The Haji returns. Or else spends the remainder of her years reminiscing about this intoxicating experience.
But how does a Muslim New Yorker observe the holy days of the Hajj pilgrimage? Or for that matter Ramadan or Eid? Thousands of miles away from that desert magnetized by the footsteps of ancient prophets, beginning with Adam, trapped instead in office cubicles, swearing through infernal subway delays and dodging midnight rats on summer streets across the city, how does that tried and true supplicant, the observant Muslim New Yorker, honor sacred days?
I was fortunate to spend the first ten days of Dhul Hijjah—the twelfth month of the Islamic lunar calendar during which the Hajj takes place—honoring it in two notable ways. First, by immersing myself in “the sacred manuscript of nature”—“the only scripture that can enlighten the reader” in the words of the Sufi mystic Hazrat Inayat Khan. Then, by performing pilgrimages in Turkey to the tombs of some of the holy ones, the awliya’, those intimate friends of God—Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, Shams of Tabriz, Abu Ayyub al-Ansari—whose spirits infuse the atmosphere of that spiritually enchanted land.
To “read,” as it were, the sacred manuscript of nature, I took myself to the coast, to a preserved, seemingly untouched landscape defined by brittle rock cliffs with jagged façades that plunge sheer into turquoise waters. Savoring the uncanny solitude, I floated in the crisp waters of the Aegean along the base of cliffs, reached out to graze my palm on mossy stone, and letting the sea carry me, stared up at the rocking sky. I took occasional breaks to perch myself on the rocks, now and then darting my tongue along little white patches of stone to taste the salt. My ears filled with the sound of the whipping wind and the waves. I marveled at the striking purples and fuchsias of wild flowers sprouting in stony crevices in the hills, quickened by the sight of so much nature, a thing utterly foreign to one who spends most of the year pounding the streets of Manhattan and Midwood, Brooklyn. This, too, was a pilgrimage and as I sat afterwards on the shore, lulled by the lapping waves, I reflected on faith and how it can, if we’re lucky, knit the disparate threads of our lives into uncanny coherence.
I thought back to some weeks earlier, to Ramadan this year, where the spiritual gifts of the month had come down partly in the form of an awareness of how uncommonly fortunate we are in New York City to have not just one but several “woke” imams to attune us to sacred states in the midst of frenetic lives, where the emotional fracturing is sutured by these “nurses of the heart” working and striving to create balance, for they, too, are tangled in the rhythms of the diverse and raucous city that we call home.
On a quest to understand how to straddle worlds—the daily wildness of city life and the quiet pull towards the mysterious unseen, the beatific gardens of God—I’d begun attending Friday congregational prayers. The gatherings, I discovered, include a diverse cross-section of New Yorkers from students to shopkeepers, street vendors, beauticians, construction workers and bankers, policemen to corporate executives. Harboring a lifelong antipathy to the dogmatic, narrow interpretations of my faith—often misogynistic and culturally biased in nature—interpretations that tend to predominate in orthodox mosques the world over, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a universalist interpretation of the faith grounded in the idea of unity in the khutbah of Imam Khalid Latif of the Islamic Center at New York University. Nonjudgmental, his sermon unearthed beauty.
During Ramadan, I also heard the sermons of two Sufi imams who addressed ecumenical congregations. After their khutbahs, I reached out to speak to each of the imams and was pleasantly surprised as to just how accessible and open they were to answering questions from a woman—a reminder that in Islam, imams (clergy) and alims (learned scholars) are active, participating members of community, both taking their lead from none other than the example set by the spiritually gifted leader of the ummah, Prophet Muhammad.
But how mystifying to have come upon not one but three progressive imams in the same month in the same city! Had a quiet but steady shift taken place all these years that I’d turned my face? Or is it New York City’s potent magic that draws such personalities—exceptional for their unwillingness to settle for less than the fullest expression of the truth—conscientious, courageous, striving to make of this city a sanctuary for their congregants in the midst of unsettling extremes? But even if New York is blessed with refreshingly “woke” imams, the overriding messages about Islam in the culture at large continue to be vituperative, so much so that some Muslim immigrants value survival—survival is what it’s come down to for many—by distancing themselves from their faith to “blend in” with the mainstream.
With the sun at my back, the breeze on my skin, stripped of the distractions and noise of the world, I flipped through my notebook, recalling in this sacred time of Hajj, my recent conversations with Imam Khalid Latif, Imam Shah of Dergah al-Farah in Tribeca, and an elderly Sufi imam who spoke with open heart and deep wisdom but asked to remain anonymous.
Why do people fast? I asked each of the imams. What compels them to continue to do so in a place like New York City where the temptations of worldly life dance relentlessly in one’s face and where modernity’s excoriation of fealty to sacred ritual is vociferous? How was it possible to inhabit both states—to be a master over one’s appetites and predilections and a connoisseur of worldly delights—in a city that constantly challenges one to shore up the ego?
Speaking with a New Yorker’s matter-of-fact directness, but tempered with warmth, Imam Khalid Latif stated that the fast is a time-tested practice, something communities did prior to Muslims being commanded to fast.
“The Qur’anic injunction for fasting is rooted in the idea that fasting is good for you. Its purpose is so that you might attain something called taqwa which sometimes gets translated in very archaic ways—God-consciousness; piety. Basically, what it means is a sense of mindfulness and awareness. It helps to create a presence that the rest of the time isn’t there. Taqwa is the function of the spiritual heart. It gives you an ability to know before you’re about to get into something, to not get into it like, ‘Hey, you’re about to lie, you’re about to gossip, you’re about to break a promise, you’re about to be racist.’ It creates an opportunity for an individual to avoid an action that wouldn’t be deemed to be ethical or moral. The act of fasting is meant to be a deflation of the ego while much of society functions on the principle of inflating the ego. So, the question here is really, ‘What is the purpose of the fast?’ It’s not getting you the money, it’s not getting you food, it’s not getting you sex. But there’s a deeper kind of engagement that’s not tangible but is nonetheless transformative. It can only really be felt through actual experience.”
“Basically, there’s no shortcut to virtue,” I interjected.
“When you’re in a space where you want to yield a certain increase, the only way you can do that is by going through the action that yields that increase to begin with,” Imam Latif replied, deflecting mystery, drawing attention to the simple, common sense aspect of the divine’s reasoning. “So, how one would increase in patience is simply by being patient.”
Patience, this past Ramadan, was richly sought, what with a vocal and unabashedly anti-Muslim President in the White House denouncing immigrants at every chance, terrorizing DACA recipients with the threat of cruel and unfair legislation, and emboldening bigots across the country to play out sordid fantasies. Then came the devastating news of the assault and killing in Virginia of Nabra Hassanen, a seventeen-year old Muslim student returning to her mosque with a group of friends after suhoor— the pre-dawn meal before the start of the fast at fajr. Grief and shock rippled through Muslim communities across America.
“I couldn’t say I didn’t feel kind of emotional downs given some of the realities,” Imam Latif said. “For me, especially in the last couple of years, what the Qur’an says of the human condition makes a lot of sense. When I hear of people who find themselves in severe poverty and hunger; when I hear of people who are dealing with our country dropping drones on their country; hearing about increases in violent incidents against Muslims in this country and Europe, it puts in perspective what people are capable of. And the adherence, at times, to a system that transcends egocentricity is important. Because if people themselves are going to make determinations of right and wrong, they’re going to bring into it elements of their own experience—and you see systems that are iniquitous, policies that are unjust.
“To me the anti-Muslim sentiment you find in this country is symptomatic of the more deeply-rooted anti-blackness that’s been here ever since the country was founded. And you get to a place where the perpetuation of that kind of hate and bigotry doesn’t exist because of the power amongst those who are perpetrating it, but more so because of the indifference of people who have the means to stop it, but they simply don’t do anything to stop it.”
Integral to Islam is the ideal of social justice—not as idea or aspiration—but as lived practice, permeating conscience. In essence, one’s faith is not defined so much by dress, diet or the cycle of prayers performed in the privacy of one’s bedroom, but rather by a way of being in the world among fellow human beings.
“There’s a comprehensive verse in the Qur’an that says God commands you to justice and excellence,” explained Imam Latif. “It’s comprehensive in that it’s telling you to practice your faith. You live your Islam. It’s something that’s done unconditionally without qualifications, so that you’re in service to God through service of his creation. We made you into nations and tribes that you can know one another… The “knowing” is not just abstract knowledge or understanding. It is rooted in acquaintanceship, it’s experiential. You have to be with people to know where they’re coming from. If not, how are you going to stand for them, to understand what they’re going through?”
A vast chasm separates the faith’s magnificent ideals from the perception of Islam in the collective American conscience as well as its practice within seemingly Islamic societies. During Ramadan this year, a flurry of “anti-shari’ah” protests raged across America. I found myself oddly impressed and confused. That the average American, who before 9/11 couldn’t distinguish Palestine from Pakistan, would now take to the streets to make a stand against Islamic law (the intricacies of which even all Muslims aren’t well versed in) was astonishing. As to how shari’ah, and the interpretation of shari’ah conjured by alt-right bigots, could possibly pose a threat to the American Constitution was equally confounding.
Not one to mince words, Imam Latif had shrugged. “I think these anti-shari’ah protests are just a different form of people who are racist getting out their racism. The racialization of Islam is very clear. People who aren’t even Muslim are victims of anti-Muslim bias. Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Catholic Latinos are getting beaten and assaulted because they’re perceived to be other. The racism that’s there is the racism that’s there. And I don’t think it should be called anything else. It’s not theological or legal difference; it’s people who have issues with diversity. It’s a manipulation through the leveraging of fear—attaching hot button words to certain things to make them what they are not.”
“But what exactly is shari’ah?” I asked, wanting to get to the bottom of this seeming threat. I’d grown up secular in Muslim countries. Shari’ah wasn’t a word we tossed around, that entered our dreams or daily vocabulary. Perhaps, we were like the proverbial fish who enquired about the nature of the ocean, asking for directions on where to find it, unaware that we were fully immersed in what we sought.
“Shari’ah literally translates as a path to water. It attracts life to it; people settle around it. It’s a source of vibrancy,” said Imam Latif. “And so, sharia’h is supposed to be a path that draws you towards that vibrancy. It’s expansive, not restrictive. When you conceptualize water from the largest of oceans to the smallest of raindrops, that water can be approached in a multitude of ways. Not just one angle. And, so too, sharia’h is meant to be accessible in a multitude of ways.”
I looked up from my notebook, gazed into the turquoise infinity stretching before me and breathed deeply. The tranquility was otherworldly, full of promise. The sun had shifted in the sky, turning the water at the base of the cliffs into shades of emerald. I flipped the pages now to Imam Shah’s words on shari’ah. I’d heard his khutbahs at Masjid al-Farah. He, too, had taken me by surprise. The poetic explanations delivered by the imams held no correspondence with the haranguing depictions of the anti-shari’ah demonstrators I’d witnessed in Lower Manhattan on an early Sunday morning with my terrified ten-year old.
“The way to look at shari’ah is the way a mother has love for her child,” Imam Shah had said. “Do this, don’t do that, be careful about this…because it’s really out of love and affection that the creator has given us certain guiding principles and ideas by which we can live a harmonious life here on earth with our fellow human beings.” His tone was contemplative, his voice possessed a texture that reminded me, surprisingly, of verdant, rolling hills. “Now, of course, as we know, the shari’ah has evolved over time and has done so depending on context and place.”
The example of Saudi Arabia immediately popped into mind. Ironic, indeed, that the birthplace of a religion that is, at its core, progressive represents today much that is anathema—misogynistic, bloodthirsty interpretations rendered into harsh, dystopian laws, squashing the very spirit of shari’ah.
“I think partly, yes, male chauvinism plays into shari’ah and, in the West, partly Islamophobia plays into it,” Imam Shah conceded. “When you want to criticize someone it’s easy to look at faults and focus on them. There are interest groups that want to dehumanize Muslims so they use whatever they can to do it.”
“But the Prophet respected women…” I muttered, stating the obvious, as a memory of the protesters and their screaming posters flashed in my mind’s eye.
“Of course! The Prophet, salallahu alayhi wassalam, said, The best of you are those that are the best with their wives and I am the best with mine. So, the best in the community of the Prophet are those who are best to their wives. He said, Paradise is at the feet of the mother. The respect and the regard that we are to have for the mother over the father is three times more. And then you look at him, the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, how he treated his daughter! When she’d come to his house, he’d get up and go to the door, kiss her hand, give her his seat. In that culture, it was a big thing. He was extremely respectful to women.”
Glancing at my notes, I turn to Imam Shah’s words on Ramadan. “I’d say fasting is something that helps you ready your true self. Because you’re fasting over 30 days, and including prayers and meditation, you deny your lower self and come to realize your higher self. The ability to see through the eyes of your heart, the ability to hear from your heart, all these faculties of the higher self, open up during this period, making you more intelligent. It’s a great time to learn and acquire more knowledge of the mysteries of God.”
True. But there’s the challenge of fasting in an environment where the rest of the world is continuing on as usual, aromas of coffee and food assaulting you at every corner, deadlines looming, meetings demanding brilliant ideas and bright smiles, work hours unaltered in consideration of the month, unlike in Muslim countries. For new immigrants, Ramadan in New York can be especially trying.
Imam Shah had smiled. “I have a friend, quite a spiritual person, and in some ways a teacher to me, who said, If you do a good deed in New York, you get one hundred times the reward! So, I’d say that perhaps because it’s more difficult to do this in New York, you’re going through a little more of a rigorous training, but you’ll receive the benefits for that. But that’s not the point! The point is not just to fast. Even the Prophet, peace and blessings on him, said some people fast but all they receive is hunger and thirst. In an Islamic country, fasting for some might just be out of routine. But, here, you consider the purpose behind it; it makes you more thoughtful. And the idea of coming to unity within yourself first—that is the point of fasting. Because you’re coming to that higher self which is already one with God and with all of creation.
“To be honest,” he added, “I think every American should fast because we’ve lost that basic etiquette of abstaining. It’s all about indulging if it makes you happy. This way of thinking pleases the body and the ego. While you indulge, you might be giving up the pleasures and ecstasy and the true freedom of the higher self!”
“But at the end of a very long day of abstaining from food and water, one is still, after all, human!” I said, eager to bridge the distance between the imam’s exalted spiritual state and the mundane fact of our humaneness. “So, given this reality, is there anything in particular that especially satisfies your hunger and thirst at sunset?”
“I don’t think there’s anything as such,” replied Imam Shah. “Fasting is really feasting! You’re feasting on all the spiritual gifts and the ecstasy. The Prophet, peace and blessings on him, said that if you haven’t tasted of ecstasy then you don’t really know your religion. If you haven’t tasted or experienced ecstasy, you haven’t really lived. This ecstasy is of the spirit and the soul—that is feasting for us, that sweetness which the Qur’an describes as the rivers of paradise. But then,” said Imam Shah with a twinkle in his eye,” I suppose you can find that in a good cup of tea!” He chuckled. “Nothing like a good cup of chai!”
Community is an integral element in Islam and during Ramadan, even as each person journeys in the fast alone, there is a coming together at sunset, and then again in the communal prayers known as tarawih which are offered each night of the holy month in mosques around the world and in every village, town, and city with a Muslim population.
“Even if your own spiritual state is not so heightened, when you join in community, you receive the benefits of the spiritual light of those around you,” Imam Shah explained. “The Prophet was pure light. When he was in community that heightened power and potency manifested and was shared with all those around him. Also, it is generally understood that when we gather together and pray and remember God, the angels descend!”
In his striking poem, “Ramadan,” the poet Kazim Ali writes:
You wanted to be so hungry, you would break into branches,
and have to choose between the starving month’s
nineteenth, twenty-first, and twenty-third evenings.
The odd nights of the last ten days of Ramadan are said to be amongst the most powerful. Nestled among them, hidden, is one in particular, Laylat al-Qadr, the Night of Power. The bride of nights I call her, full of mystery and power. It was on this night in the year 610 AD that the first verses of the holy Qur’an were revealed to the Prophet Muhammed in a cave on Mount Jabal al-Nour, near Mecca, while he was on a meditative retreat.
The angel Gabriel instructed him to read. I can’t, he’d replied, I’m unable to. The angel pressed him in a tight embrace. Once, twice, then commanded him to recite a verse after him:
Read! And thy Lord is Most Bountiful –
Who taught by the pen–
Taught man that which he knew not…
This treasured night, overflowing in mercy, and “better than a thousand months” falls on one of the odd nights in the last ten days of Ramadan. For the observant, these are days of retreat and watchful nights brimming with prayer. To catch this elusive night when the world stills, the grasses stops swaying, and silence sings is to receive the reward of 83 years of worship.
“If the faculty of seeing and hearing from your heart is already open, you can perceive the difference of this specific night. People describe a lightness and, oftentimes, a brightness to things,” said Imam Shah. “On this night, the angels descend; the signs of the spirit of God are revealed. You might feel in your heart a special sweetness. One Ramadan, a friend of mine as he was completing his prayers and saying his salaams, saw his glass of water go up in the air and come down. This happened three times! That’s how I know it was the Night of Power, he told me the next morning! That was a very direct sign of an angelic presence.”
The elderly, soft-spoken Sufi imam who spoke to me on condition of anonymity pointed out that Ramadan is a blessed time for several reasons, among these is that all the major revelations in the Abrahamic tradition came down in this month—the Old Testament, the New Testament and “the Last Testament,” as well as the scrolls of Abraham known as Suhuf.
“It’s also a period when so many are praying at the same time and abstaining from food at the same time that it affects the mercy of Allah. In terms of fasting, nobody knows if someone is truly fasting—they could go home and eat and then join everyone for iftar! It’s really between an individual and the creator, so it’s a very blessed time from that point of view, too.
“And the the Night of Power is so powerful for Muslims because Allah open-endedly gives His mercy if you can catch this night. But unless you fast, unless you stay hungry, you can’t know this! Unless we stay thirsty and abstain from certain things, we don’t feel it!” he said, intoning a quiet exclamation.
You wanted to be so hungry, you would break into branches… Ali’s beautiful, haunting lines echo in my mind, an accompaniment to the Sufi imam’s explanation of the gift of hunger in Ramadan.
“This is the spiritual part,” he continued. “But the other part is that fasting is very good for the health and now it’s scientifically proven. Yoshinori Ohsumi, who won the Nobel Prize two years, ago used medical terms but, basically, he observed that fasting gets rid of broken and damaged cells which accumulate in the body. If we can’t get rid of them, serious diseases come. How do we get rid of dead and damaged tissues? Abstaining from nutrients. Fasting also pushes forward growth hormones so new cells are generated in this period. We fast for spiritual reasons, because Allah is behind it, but the side benefit is a total renewal of the body! The Prophet would say, if people only knew the gifts of Ramadan they’d pray for all year to be Ramadan!”
For the greater part of my life, my relation to faith in its dogmatic incarnation has felt not too dissimilar to the tale of Little Red Riding Hood. The Islam of preaching mullahs armed with their fear and fetish of women brings to mind the Big Bad Wolf who gobbles up granny, dresses in her clothes, and pretending to be her, traps unsuspecting Little Red Riding Hood. In retrospect, my Sufi grandmother’s quiet Islam became mine. Familiar, comforting, an inner conviction. Through her sense of humor, her generosity, her tenderness, her gleaming intelligence and great heart, she modelled faith without ever preaching religion.
I closed my eyes in remembrance. The chorus of crickets in the pine trees, a constant song all day, had thickened now at this hour, as if others from the surrounding islets had joined the collective. The high-pitched humming enveloped the beach. Past and present melded. I sensed the spirit of the ancient world alive here, carried with each gust of wind. The weathered faces of the rock outcroppings stood as silent, vivid witnesses.
A few miles out from here was Physkos—today known as Marmaris—a city dating back to 3000 BC, where a castle once stood, according to Herodotus, and close by a cave that remained a place of worship for centuries—as far back as twelve thousand years ago. The cult of Mother Goddess Leto thrived here, mother of Artemis and Apollo, in this fecund land and its waters. The sacred was palpable here—the heat of the sun and sand searing my skin, the salt wind tangling my hair were initiation rites into this living, breathing manuscript. There is one holy book, the sacred manuscript of nature, the only scripture which can enlighten the reader, averred the Sufi mystic Hazrat Inayat Khan. I felt the atavistic impulse to worship, an animal-human reflex. I felt with a keenness my grandmother’s subtle transmission of faith, latent in me, awakening now.
That afternoon, to the sound of breaking waves and the song of crickets, I had a phone conference with Imam Latif back in New York. The NYU Islamic Center had sent out a press release announcing the imam’s availability, as well as that of other appointed staff members, to answer questions around Hajj and the upcoming Eid al-Adha holiday. In my solitary pilgrimage to the sea, I nevertheless yearned to hear about Hajj, to be attuned to the ecstasy of the pilgrims circumambulating the Kaaba. Sitting by the shore, I savored the gift of overlapping presences—Mecca, New York City, Marmaris—all three of which were spiritually significant in their unique ways.
It was early morning in New York City; I discerned in the background, the voices of Imam Latif’s young children. We exchanged salaams. His voice warm and friendly, he explained:
“The Hajj is rooted in the Abrahamic narrative. It seeks to embody the story of Prophet Abraham, his wife Hagar, and their son Ismail and the sacrifice they were willing to make. On the day of Eid—which falls on the tenth day of Dhu alHijjah—in addition to attending prayers at the mosque and hearing the sermon, there’s a ritual slaughter that’s recommended for people to engage in called the udhiyah. The idea is to commemorate the sacrifice that Prophet Abraham was asked to make of his own son—in place of that sacrifice, a ram appeared. Muslims all over the world will sacrifice an animal (sheep, goat, cow) and distribute the meat to the needy. There is an emphasis on social equity in community in every ritual in Islam and you see that during this Eid in the distribution of meat.”
I asked Imam Latif: “Muslims are enjoined to physically make the pilgrimage at least once in their life. Why is it not enough to simply honor the significance and symbolism of Hajj from home, to pray and give to charity and offer the sacrifice?”
“Hajj is essentially the ultimate embodiment of one’s relationship to God—in terms of the feelings that go along with it, the actions, the environment and the atmosphere. The movement towards the Kaaba, however, is not the movement of an individual towards an inanimate object. What the Kaaba represents at a more esoteric level is the focal point for Muslims all over the world. The Kaaba, if you go into it, is empty. The idea is not to be empty in the sense that you’re hollow, but to be in a space where at the inner level you’re analogous to what you find in the Kaaba—which is nothing. You find you have no attachment to anything in the world. You find within yourself a state of stillness. Your heart is kind of in a space of detachment.”
Hich! I thought, invoking a word used by Turkish Sufis, and which I’d heard for the first time three years ago, when I went to Konya to pay my respects at the tomb of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi. My hotel, overlooking the gardens of Mevlana’s mausoleum and museum, was named Hich. “Hich means empty,” the young man at the reception desk had explained to me when I checked in. “It’s what a Sufi aspires to be: nothing!”
“Can we think of the Hajj as an inner journey, not necessarily a physical pilgrimage that must be enacted?” I asked Imam Latif. “Such that the Kaaba is actually symbolic and resides in our heart?”
“The Hajj one would say is a journey of the heart,” he conceded. “But it’s a journey of the heart that still necessitates going on the physical journey. As much as there’s opportunity for people to gain from these days, whether they’re in Mecca or not, one cannot just say, “Well my Hajj is just me engaging in an inner journey on my own.” Or, a person could say whatever they want but it wouldn’t be what the Hajj constitutes from an Islamic perspective. No aspect of ritual in Islam is devoid of an inner part to it. So, the external mechanisms are tied to internal movement as well.”
“How are observant New Yorkers who are not in Mecca marking this time?”
“They’re encouraged to be charitable and generous, to embody the state of mindfulness and consciousness that understands metaphysically the real gain that can come from just being in a place of taking from these days. The ninth day of Dhu al-Hijjah, called the Day of Arafah, is essentially the pinnacle to Hajj. Those who are not in Mecca are recommended to fast on this day and engage in different aspects of ritual worship.”
“And those who are there?”
“Oh, you see this amazingly awesome sight! Millions of people all dressed in the same color but from different backgrounds, race, ethnicities, languages, standing and sitting together on this plain called the plane of Arafah, and praying individually to God! Men and women participate equally. It’s really one of the most diverse things you’ll see,” he said, his voice breaking. “I went in 2005 and I can still remember the experience vividly. When I talk about it, I’m still moved to tears because it had that much of an impact on me.”
By 4:30 that afternoon and the evidence of a full day in the sun mapped on my body, a feeling of peace satiated every cell of my being. The singing of crickets, the chirping of birds, the susurration of the wind and the waves, the blue of the sky and the green water echoed in me. If only I could carry this peace at all times in all places. How easy, natural and eternal it seemed here; how remarkable that it would inevitably disappear. I tossed aside my towel, one last swim for the day.
I thought back to the conversation a few hours earlier with Imam Latif, and the transcribed notes of conversations with Imam Shah and the Sufi imam, and experienced a tremor of gratitude. In the subtlest of ways, they’d eased an old wound. Many years earlier, when I lived in Saudi Arabia, one Ramadan evening while my husband and I were enjoying a quiet after-sunset walk in a park, snacking on dried watermelon seeds, a policeman had blown a shrill whistle. Suddenly, I found myself surrounded by a band of muttawa—religious police.
Scowling men with long, scanty beards, leather sandals and white robes that rose above their hairy ankles pounded their batons on the ground and shook them in the air at me. It turned out that I was the cause for public consternation. I was dressed in a long black abaya. But my scarf had blown askance in the breeze, revealing my hair. The men commanded me to cover my head, their harsh voices attracting an audience which gathered fast to watch the unfolding spectacle.
“When you, eat, when you walk, when you sleep, you have to cover!” One of the muttawa screamed.
“How dare you?” I retorted. “When I sleep?”
“You tell your woman to shut up,” the rabid man had turned to my husband. “Is she your wife? You should control her. Show us your iqama, your ID card…”
These men, and their version of shari’ah, it dawned on me now all these years later, were the mirror image of the haranguing, white supremacist anti-shari’ah protesters I’d witnessed in Lower Manhattan. They were one and the same, hijacking God.
I set one foot gingerly in the sea. The water felt icy, a blade against my sun-warmed skin. Slowly, wading in, I watched it ripple out in ever widening semicircles. During the Hajj pilgrimage, there is a ritual in which pilgrims go back and forth between the hills of Safa and Marwa seven times, running in the space of the valley in imitation of Hagar who went desperately in search of water for Ismail. Hajj is, in a way, the story of single motherhood, I thought—Hagar in the desert alone, fending for herself and her son, eventually rewarded for her patience when the spring of Zamzam bursts forth. Swimming out, I thought of the thirst of the Prophet’s beleaguered grandson Hussain and his family in the desert battleground of Karbala and of his granddaughter Zainab’s courage. Thirst; the quenching of thirst; the path to water. Patience. These were signposts on the journey, endured in faith towards faith.
Shari’ah literally translates as a path to water, Imam Latif had said. “Words like shari’ah, like sira which means prophetic biography, tariqa which is a spiritual path, suluk which is also a spiritual path in Islam—these are all roadways. The idea is that you’re going on a journey towards something; a destination. This aspiration together with the implementation of shari’ah is meant to lead to a higher level of ethical conduct and awareness, to get to a different level of consciousness through a certain ritualistic, spiritual practice.”
Not far from where I swam now, was the cave dedicated to Leto, the Titan goddess of motherhood and childbirth, known for her kindness and gentleness, but also, some say, her short temper. It comforted me to know she was close. I swam out further, faster, into the deep, the tug of the current, the roar of the wind and the waves stirring an exhilaration. This ever-living scripture of nature held me, a tiny speck in the universe of the sea, and at the same time encompassed the vast history of human worship. I squinted into the sun, marveled at the glinting water and the clarity of feeling that had overcome me—the sensation that the entire cosmos was distilled into this present, into these simple stroke by stroke motions, of me swimming out, leaving behind a wake, creating a roadway into the deep.