I just finished a book called Stalking God: My Unorthodox Search for Something to Believe In by Anjali Kumar. A great choice for my inquisitive yet jaded self of year 2 in Morocco. Kumar goes on a spiritual quest around the world, essentially “stalking God” through a diverse variety of spiritual practices. From wickens, laughing yoga gurus, mediums, and Burning Man “Burners”, she dips her feet into communities a lawyer for Google never thought one would. In my little world over here, I’m not necessarily stalking God but rather existing in a community that’s already found him.
Where I live, religion is present, very blatantly, in every day life. It starts at dawn, around 5:30am, as the first call to prayer echoes through the village. If any of you have ever traveled to Muslim countries you’ve probably heard the adhan…or if you’ve ever watched American spy TV shows like Homeland or 24 that more often than not highlight scenes in the Islamic world, I’m sure you became familiar with it as well. I too, had watched the shows and walked past the mosques, but what were they actually saying in those spiritual, unfamiliar, and rhythmic word patterns? Below is what is repeated, 5x a day, the Arabic transliteration and English.
God is Great
(said four times)
Ashhadu an la ilaha illa Allah
I bear witness that there is no god except the One God.
(said two times)
Ashadu anna Muhammadan Rasool Allah
I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God.
(said two times)
Hurry to the prayer (Rise up for prayer)
(said two times)
Hurry to success (Rise up for Salvation)
(said two times)
God is Great
[said two times]
La ilaha illa Allah
There is no god except the One God
For the pre-dawn (fajr) prayer, the following phrase is inserted after the fifth part above, towards the end:
As-salatu Khayrun Minan-nawm
Prayer is better than sleep
(said two times)
If you came here and just observed, just watched, without speaking to anyone, I’m sure the word some variation of the word “religion” would pop into your head. It’s noticeable through the amplified prayer calls, the clothes people choose to wear, and the Quranic calligraphy stickers stuck on the back of parked cars and busses. There are also more subtle, intimate, aspects of devotion and religion through language, food, and behavior which take a little longer to pick up. Learning Darija has given me front-row access to many of these channels, some of which I now even participate in. I now inherently say “inshallah” (God willing) instead of “hopefully”, “lay 3wnk” (may God help you) instead of “goodbye” and “Hamdullah” (thanks be to God) instead of I’m fine, thanks. Phenomenal learning opportunity but kinda confusing, right? I’m not Muslim. Should I be saying these things?
I grew up going to Catholic church on Sundays (most of the time in which brunch was involved after), kneeling down and repeating the Apostles Creed (holding back giggles from my little sisters playing footsies on the pew), and making my confirmation in 8th grade (‘grats, the Church thought my awkward 13 year old tomboy self was now becoming an adult). As I grew up, religion became separate from my everyday life. It existed in the peripheral. Holidays, family gatherings, and unfortunately, funerals of my peers that had passed all reminded me of that religion I grew up associated with. I started traveling and it was upon studying in Turkey for 6 months, where I started becoming friends with people that felt really connected to their religions, mostly Islam. I remember not knowing all the answers to the questions they had for me, brushing off my beliefs but curious about their fulfilled relationship with theirs. It was a refreshing reminder to me there are still young people who feel a strong connection to God and are able to explain and educate me about the faith they practice. Me, I still hadn’t felt that connection.
A few years later, I find myself in Morocco where Islam is practiced by 99% of the population. I see it and I’m reminded of it every day. I don’t think I’ve ever thought about religion so much in my life until I came here. It’s become normalized, yet exhausting. Sometimes the words “inshallah” come out of my mouth and I think back to myself, “Do I really mean ‘if God wills it’, this meeting will happen tomorrow?” Probably not, but its become apart of Moroccan language and culture here to say “inshallah” after making plans, so naturally, it grew on me.
I started reading parts of the Quran last week. I know what some of you are thinking after reading that sentence. Wait, she’s reading the Quran? Is she like Muslim now or something? I see it as a learning opportunity and what better time to do it than a place where I have the whole community to ask for clarification. I’m sure there’d be many willing faces to sit me down and answer my questions about how modesty is written about in the Quran. For example, Chapter (Surah) 24 “The light”, Lines (Ayat) 30 & 31:
30. Tell the believing men to restrain their looks, and to guard their privates. That is purer for them. God is cognizant of what they do.
31. And tell the believing women to restrain their looks, and to guard their privates, and not display their beauty except what is apparent thereof, and to draw their coverings over their breasts, and not expose their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers, their brothers’ sons, their sisters’ sons, their women, what their right hands possess, their male attendants who have no sexual desires, or children who are not yet aware of the nakedness of women. And they should not strike their feet to draw attention to their hidden beauty. And repent to God, all of you believers, so that you may succeed.
The words “headscarf” or “burqa” or “veil” aren’t even written in the Quran, as I just assumed they would be. In addition, modesty isn’t just asked of women, its requested upon men as well. I want to be able to go back home, inshallah, and do my best to clarify situations of confusion or even ignorance towards Islam and its teachings given this unique opportunity I have.
The other day I was driving back to my site with a friend from my community and I told him I had a question about Islam. It was Friday and the prayer had just been called. I asked if he would go to mosque when we arrived back home. He replied, “Darouri” (Absolutely). I then asked how much significance Friday prayers had in Islam. Here I was asking about prayer times and what would happen if you can’t make it because work ran late but more importantly, there was something he responded with that stuck with me. He said, “Islam isn’t a religion that says go to mosque every day and study the Quran page by page. It’s about how you live your every day life. Be good to people, respect your family and community, take care of animals and nature, don’t steal or say bad words, help those in need. Those people that read the Quran during the day but lie, steal and inflict harm upon others aren’t true Muslims. People say one thing and they do another. It’s a problem that unfortunately distorts the true meaning of our religion.”
The more time I spend here, the more I learn and develop an open mind to understanding the religion that is at all times in front of me. But at the same time, I still feel confused about my personal connection to religion and question my own beliefs. That’s why I picked up Kumar’s book, the story of a lawyer who goes on a spiritual pilgrimage to answer the questions she knows her 3 year old daughter will ask one day:
Why are we here?
What happens when we die?
Is there a God?
Each chapter tells the story of a new discovery. Whether its talking to her dead friend through a “Vogue-looking” medium in a Tribeca coffee shop, having a spiritual epiphany while experimenting with the Andes hallucinogenic drug “Ayahuasca” in Peru, sharing sweat spinning to Hozier’s “Take Me to Church” as a collective cult at Soul Cycle, or joining a “laughing yoga” community via Skype in Mumbai. Kumar searches for the answers to these pivotal questions for over 3 years, hoping to experience some grand spiritual enlightenment. What she learns is that there are all these unconventional spiritual channels to worship through but the three human needs: health, happiness, and love are desired by everyone. Back to this common theme of Peace Corps service and understanding humans in general, we’re all more similar than we are different.
- Here’s a great TED talk about what the Quran really says about the women’s hijab:
- A link to read the Quran in English
- Stalking God: My Unorthodox Search for Something to Believe In (I have the e-book if you want send me a message!)
- Never heard the adhan? Here’s what it sounds like: