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a record of mundane things that have stuck in my mind, and what they may mean.

Monday, February 24, 2003

Assalaamu Alaikum :)

Typed this section from Muhammad Asad's Road to Makkah up the other day:

During that autumn I was living in my uncle Dorian’s house just inside the Old City of Jerusalem. It rained almost every day and, not being able to go out much, I often sat at the window which overlooked a large yard behind the house. This yard belonged to an old Arab who was called hajji because he had performed the pilgrimage to Mecca; he rented out donkeys for riding and carrying and thus made the yard a kind of caravanserai.
Every morning, shortly before dawn, loads of vegetables and fruits were brought there on camels from the surrounding villages and sent out on donkeys into the narrow bazaar streets of the town. In daytime the heavy bodies of the camels could be seen resting on the ground; men were always noisily attending to them in the stables from the streaming rain. They were poor, ragged men, those camel and donkey drivers, but they behaved like great lords. When they sat together at meals on the ground and ate flat loaves of wheat bread with a little bit of cheese or a few olives, I could not but admire the nobility and ease of their bearing and their inner quiet: you could see that they had respect for themselves and the everyday things of their lives. The hajji, hobbling around on a stick—for he suffered from arthritis and had swollen knees—was a kind of chieftain among them; they appeared to obey him without question. Several times a day he assembled them for prayer and, if it was not raining too hard, they prayed in the open: all the men in a single, long row and he as their imam in front of them. They were like soldiers in the precision of their movements—they would bow together in the direction of Mecca, rise again, and then kneel down and touch the ground with their foreheads; they seemed to follow the inaudible words of their leader, who between the prostrations stood barefoot on his prayer carpet, eyes closed, arms folded over his chest, soundlessly moving his lips and obviously lost in deep absorption: you could see that he was praying with his whole soul.
It somehow disturbed me to see so real a prayer combined with almost mechanical body movements, and one day I asked the hajji, who understood a little English:
‘Do you really believe that God expects you to show Him your respect by repeated bowing and kneeling and prostration? Might it not be better only to look into oneself and to pray to Hi in the stillness of one’s heart? Why all the movements of your body?
As soon as I had uttered these words I felt remorse, for I had not intended to injure the old man’s religious feelings. But the hajji did not appear in the least offended. He smiled with his toothless mouth and replied:
‘How else then should we worship God? Did He not create both, soul and body, together? And this being so, should man not pray with his body as ell as with his soul? Listen, I will tell you why we Muslims pray as we pray. We turn towards the Kaaba, God’s holy temple in Mecca, knowing that the faces of all Muslims, wherever they may be, are turned to it in prayer, and that we are like one body, with Him as the centre of our thoughts. First we stand upright and recite from the Holy Koran, remembering that it is His Word, given to man that he may be upright and steadfast in life. Then we say, “God is the Greatest,” remind ourselves that no one deserves to be worshiped but Him; and bow down deep because we honor him above all, and praise His power and glory. Thereafter we prostrated ourselves in our foreheads because we feel that we are but dust and nothingness before Him, and that He is our Creator and Sustainer on high. Then we lift our faces from the ground and remain sitting, praying that He forgive us our sins and bestow His grace upon us and guide us aright, and give us health and sustenance. Then we again prostrate ourselves on the ground and touch the dust with our foreheads before the might and the glory of the One. After that, we remain sitting and pray that He bless the Prophet Muhammad who brought His message to us, just as He blessed the earlier Prophets; and that He bless us as well, and all those who follow the right guidance; and we ask Him to give us of the good of this world and of the good of the world to come. In the end we turn our heads to the right and to the left, saying, “Peace and the grace of God be upon you”—and thus greet us all who are righteous, wherever they may be.
‘It was thus that our Prophet used to pray and taught his followers to pray for all times, so that they might willingly surrender themselves to God—which is what Islam means—and so be at peace with Him and with their own destiny.’
The old man did not, of course, use exactly these words, but this was their meaning, and this is how I remember them. Years later I realized that with his simple explanation the hajji had opened to me the first door to Islam; but even then, long before any thought that Islam might become my own faith entered my mind, I began to feel an unwonted humility whenever I saw, as often did, a man standing barefoot on his prayer rug, or on a straw mat, or on the bare earth, with his arms folded over his chest and his head lowered, entirely submerged within himself, oblivious of what was going on around him, whether it was in a mosque or on the sidewalk of a busy street: a man at peace with himself.