I still remember that young man. Sharp features, deep, piercing eyes, a gentle kindly face. No more than 25 or 26, I thought. Could easily have been a graduate student of mine, perhaps even one of my star students. But he didn’t come to be a student, rather to teach me something. Or should I say to proselytize me into his way of total submission to Allah. What he really wanted was to show me the way to the local mosque. He didn’t come alone. It was a congregation, a party of evangelist Muslims. But he was the only Bengali among them. Maybe he figured that he would be more effective on a fellow Bengali, that it would be difficult for me to ignore a personal appeal from someone with roots in the same place.
The mosque is not too far from my house. About 20 minutes ride by car. I have been there many times. My two sons would happily accompany me when they were very young. But soon they lost interest, not because they didn’t want to pray but because the rigor of the rituals turned them off. Once they were chastised by the imam for not adhering to the shoulder-to-shoulder rule of lining up behind the prayer-leading person. He explained that a gap between two shoulders is a sure invitation to the Devil to sneak in. That silly comment baffled my boys. They argued in their minds, I suppose, that a place where the Satan is so active and agile cannot be too attractive, after all. They didn’t mind praying, but not in that devil-invested environment. Later, I too stopped going to the mosque, for various reasons, not the least of which was the apparent bigotry I couldn’t help noticing among many of the devout Muslims. I presume the regular worshippers at the mosque noticed my absence from the Sunday congregations that I used to attend, so they targeted me for counseling back to my practicing faith.
If these gentlemen were residents of Ottawa, perhaps I’d not mind much. After all, there are always some unexpected, and occasionally, some unwelcome visitors at your door, especially at election times. They are well within their rights to call on any door to make an appeal for my vote or whatever. So why not the religious preachers? It’s their constitutional right too. But my young visitor that day was not a local resident. He came from a faraway country called Bangladesh, spending a huge amount of money on passage and other expenses, with the sole objective of taking me and others like me back from our sinful ways to the mosque! His mission would have been accomplished had he succeeded in taking me to the doors of the prayer hall. That’s it. He could have then gone back to Bangladesh with a sense of pious satisfaction. The comic irony of all that couldn’t possibly have escaped anyone. This young man of 25 had to travel 10 thousand air miles just to show an elderly person like me how to go to a place that I pass almost every week to my way home from shopping trips. I couldn’t help asking the poor lad what was this craze that drove him to waste his time and money on these silly ideas. Instead of coming here to show me the path to the mosque that I knew only too well couldn’t he have donated the money to a children’s hospital in Bangladesh and help show them the way to a life of health and happiness, I asked. The enormous amount of money he spent coming to Ottawa could have helped restore the eyesight of a lot of blind people. Could have fed a lot of hungry children for months. But, obviously, my words of advice fell on deaf ears. He responded by saying that it was the duty of every Muslim to spread the word of Allah. So I had to endure a generous serving of the word of Allah from a 25 yr old Bangladeshi clad in the traditional Islamic garb complete with a foot-long beard. Only Allah can tell what good that sermon did to me, but I do know what good it did to the preacher. He felt elated, liberated, that he had performed his duty, faithfully and diligently, and that his service should therefore have earned him a lot of bonus points for afterlife. At least that’s what he believed, right?
There was a time, a long time ago, when I was a regular worshipper at the mosque. I’d say my 5 prayers with religious regularity. If I had to skip any one of them for whatever the reason, I’d feel very guilty about it. Today I don’t say any prayer at all, yet do not suffer the slightest bit of guilt at heart. Does it mean I’m doomed, that I’m headed for the burning fire of hell? No hope of redemption? My folks at home think so. They do not put the blame on me, of course, it’s all due to the western influence, they say. If you live in the land of infidels then sooner or later you are going to end up an infidel yourself. Have I really become an infidel? What on earth does that insulting word mean anyway? No, sir, I have no appetite for that sort of prayer. The real prayer mat is not a nylon rug spread out on the floors of the mosque, rather life itself. My language of prayer is my work, and my work alone.
My parents were two of the most pious people I knew. After his retirement my father made a habit of waking late at night to say his midnight prayer, which is optional according to the scriptures. In our society there are two generally accepted tokens of exceptional piety--- one who regularly says one’s midnight prayers, and the other who has a black prayer mark on his forehead. My father had both. Quite impressive, wouldn’t you say? These symbols are usually enough to put the practicing Muslim on a higher pedestal, although in the Taliban country of Afghanistan these are barely adequate even for ordinary Muslims. It is likely that the Taliban wind will soon be blowing our way also, so that in addition to a black spot and midnight session on the prayer mat you might need to grow a beard that will touch your knees and a pair of eyes that will never see a woman other than your wife. As a child I used to go to a Muslim-only school. There we’d have to recite a sura or two from the holy Quran at the class assembly prior to our academic work. We had to wear Islamic uniforms, complete with Turkish Fez caps( I never understood why a Bengali Muslim must wear a Turkish cap). Needless to say, I too had my turns at the recital. I didn’t succeed in cramming the holy Quran in its entirety but I did manage to memorize a few passages as almost all Muslim boys and girls did in those days( they seem to do even more enthusiastically these days, surprisingly).There is no shame in admitting that I or anyone I know have any clue what any of those foreign ( Arabic) words mean. That didn’t bother me when I was young because I was programmed, as everyone else, not to worry about the meaning of the words, but to think about the good feeling that reciting those holy words of the Almighty brings. This good feeling, unfortunately, lost its shine in my later years, as I began to search the meaning of not just the Quran, but of everything else in life. If that is construed as a sin, then, of course, I am a sinner.
It is true that I stopped going to the mosque for congregational prayers, but that doesn’t mean I stopped praying. On the contrary, I think I’m a better worshipper now than I was ever before. The language of my prayer is not Arabic, of course. Allah understands Arabic, I don’t. I understand Bengali. And I believe Allah does too. If and when I wish to say something to Him I prefer to say it in a language that He and I both understand. Take, for instance, the word “namaz”, which means prayer. Will it offend Allah if I say it in my own language, ‘prarthona’, instead of namaz or salat? Maybe the Arabic Allah will not like it, but the Allah I know will surely not. And it’s not just the language of prayer, but the place and manner of prayer also that I like to follow a different track. I cannot accept that Allah will listen to my prayers only when I’m in a mosque, not anywhere else. To me, a mosque is a man-made structure, just like any other building, with bricks and stones, and some traditional Islamic designs to make it look different from a residential dwelling. I keep hearing nowadays of a lot of thieves and thugs and plunderers of public money building big spectacular mosques as a social cover-up for their misdeeds.
I don’t believe my Creator wakes up only when I prostate myself 5 times a day after I have cleaned myself in the “proper” way, and followed the prescribed dress code. I don’t think He is more interested in my daily drills than in my work. I believe He is nowhere, yet He is everywhere. We can’t be everywhere, which explains the craze to run to the mosque. But my prayer is to be able to accompany Him everywhere and anywhere, wherever He may be. I want to be with Him, not out of Him. I want to be in the homes of all human beings, all living things in the world. This is the prayer that keeps me occupied all the time, and this is why my failure to go to the mosque doesn’t bother me at all.
As far as I can recall, I donated some money when the big mosque in Ottawa was getting built. But then I stopped giving. I don’t know why, perhaps I shouldn’t have, perhaps I thought I would, but never got around to actually writing the cheque. I do not even pay the mandatory fitre or the zakat, on the Eid days. These are among the must-do items in the Islamic rulebooks. But I do pay to the United Appeal funds. I contribute regularly to other charities as well( I don’t think anyone can call me a scrooge). There was, of course, no United Appeal in the seventh century. Certainly not in the Arab peninsula. If there were, I believe we’d have been advised to pay to that fund also. After all, what’s the purpose of fitre and zakat? Help the poor and needy, right? General service to the suffering humanity. When I say ‘humanity’ I don’t exclude the humans other than the ones born in Muslim families or didn’t become Muslims. I mean all humans, of all colours and hues and creeds. I mean all those living beings that were created by the same Creator. All those people who ever existed on the face of the earth from time immemorial. If my donated dollar can bring some relief to an old suffering Jew or a starving child from a pagan family, then why shouldn’t that contribution be regarded at the same level as the obligatory fitre or zakat is beyond my comprehension. If my zakat dollars goes to the United Appeal instead of the mosque fund, then what’s wrong in that? I found my God the hard way, after looking for Him here, there and everywhere. This God of mine, however, doesn’t have an address in a mosque, temple, church or synagogue. Rather He seems to prefer living in a dense crowd, among the animals, and in the dirt-filled dark and narrow city slums. He likes to lie down on the dirty smelly mat of the beggar. He likes to look through the sad teary eyes of the orphan child. The God I know loves to roam in disguise the leper colonies, and to keep watch at the doors of the huts of the poor widows who have been cast aside by the society. I can’t say if He ever visited the site of the World Iztema( the annual international convention of Islamic evangelists), I haven’t been there myself, but I do know that He is there with the flood victims, with the children in various relief camps the world over. I also saw Him in Bosnia and Rwanda where all those unspeakably cruel things happened a few years ago. In contrast our learned imams and clerics do not like to step out of their comfy quarters in the mosque, yet the very Being for whom they spend their entire life with their heads stuck on the marble walls of the lifeless structures, is more fond of taking strolls out of those walls and get into the hearts and souls of the suffering men and women on the streets. That’s why the mosque I know does not have an address at the corner of any particular street, rather on all streets of all places all the time. Especially where humanity is being treated with indifference and disrespect, the suffering poor and weak are being regularly trampled under the boots of power.
I asked an old friend of mine why it should be mandatory for all Muslims to follow each and every word of the holy Quran, especially after 14 hundred years after its revelation. The friend didn’t like the tone of my question, so he brushed me off by saying that we do not have the right to question the wisdom of the holy words of Allah. His response was a bit of a surprise to me, because he was not an ordinary Joe Bloke, rather a highly regarded modern scientist. I didn’t stop there, of course. In that case, I asked, why would He bother to give us this precious thing called intelligence. Why would He not allow us to think independently if He was the one to give us the ability to think? Just didn’t make sense, I said. My friend was, obviously, not too pleased with my questions. So he started using meaningless parables, which is the standard technique of religious zealots. He brought up the analogy of the military in what I thought was a simple question about God. If the commander of the army gives an order, does the soldier have the right to question its wisdom, he asked. The soldier’s duty is to obey, not ask. Needless to say I found his argument unacceptable. First of all, life is not a battlefield in the crude medieval sense, nor am I willing to think of myself as a mindless soldier. No, I don’t want to be a soldier, I want to be a lover. I want to see my Creator in love, not in fear. I like to see Him in the image of kindness rather than a punishing warlord. The basis of my religion is not fear and punishment, rather kindness and forgiveness. I want to worship Him with love and joyful devotion, the way the birds do with their wings flapping in the sky. I want to bow to Him the way the flowers in my garden do every morning, or the way the sparkling eyes of the little girl on my street do. I want to submit to Him not the way the mullahs do five times a day in a routine monotonous manner, but the way the mighty oceans do, or the clouds in the sky, the moon and the sun do. I want to feel His presence at the core of my soul, in every fiber of my existence.
I’ll never know if I have the freedom to raise questions about the holy Quran. They had put a seal on my lips a long, long time ago. But they could not put a seal on my mind and brain. My mind tells me that He who got my love will certainly not mind my sulking with Him at times or throwing a question or two at Him. In fact, this is how I found Him in the first place—by asking questions. He understood it was never my intention to cut my ties with Him, rather to understand the nature of those ties. If I fail to appreciate what that relationship is that I have with Him then it would only be a traditional ’bondage’, and not a soulful ‘bonding’. The subtle difference between the two is very important to me. What I crave for is an intellectually uplifting, yet emotionally fulfilling bonding that will draw me toward Him as a straw is drawn to the river by a swift spring runoff. I pray that I can understand that this sacred bondage is also the key to my ultimate salvation.
( Translated by the author from his Bengali article ”Prarthona” published in the book”Lal Nodi” in 2001)
Mizan Rahman, মীজান রহমান