The other night, it was close to 11:00 pm and I was finally enjoying my own little ‘midnight’ snack and a healthy dose of reality TV when I got a phone call from a cousin I haven’t heard from in quite some time. He is in the East Coast and it seemed too late for a leisure phone call from him. So I answered in a panic, yet, all he wanted was to say “hi” and to talk a little bit about the obligation of a Muslim to pray the five daily prayers. OK, this is odd, I thought, but I guess I could entertain this topic for a few minutes. Might be better for me than the junk TV I was winding down to anyway.
We chatted for a few minutes and he started to get very heated about the requirement of the five daily prayers. To back up a little, let me paint a quick picture of this eccentric cousin of mine. He is smart. A New Yorker. Middle-aged. He has studied at prestigious universities, has traveled the world, and even delved into religion so much so that he used to give sermons on Fridays, the holy day of the week for congregational prayer in the Muslim tradition. His main question for me, “Do you really believe in the flying white horse story?”
It was late, I wasn’t about to continue talking about such a deep subject in my closet as my husband and baby slept, so I told him I would get back to him, and that yes, I believed in the story because when logic takes a person so far, faith steps in and one must trust in faith. Even if a flying horse is far from a realistic truth.
The next day, when I thought about his question, I did not get bothered by his challenging positions. Rather I was at peace in knowing that even though some religious stories are so hard to believe because they can’t possibly be true given scientific facts and logic, I don’t mind. I still like to believe in something. If I used my logic to reason every last thing on this earth to have it make sense for me, my creative outlet, hope, and imagination would be destroyed. Furthermore, I feel that as a woman it is part and parcel of my disposition to be hopeful, to look further, dig deeper, and feel things even when the pragmatic man tries to challenge me differently. As much as my left brain wanted to agree with him, my right brain leads me when it comes to matters of faith and religion.
I’m a believing Muslim, and a happy one. Although my faith as a Muslim gets tested every day, my belief in God remains solid. I love the Big G (pet name, we have a casual relationship sometimes), so much so, I talk to God daily, “please help me get through this traffic to make it to my classes on time,” “please God make my son cooperate today, and help me to get him to drink his milk and eat all his food,” “God, please give me energy to get through the day,” or of course, “thank you God for the daily blessings, the life I live – you rock.” Some type of dialogue along these lines takes place daily. And not always on the prayer rug during the five designated praying times of the day. So my days are usually occupied with the internal chatter between my God and me. I am grateful to have the audience of God so that my rants, complaints, moments of gratitude and bursts of joy are constantly listened to. At least, that is my belief, and it makes me feel good.
However, as a Muslim, I am also obligated as one of the five pillars of Islam, to observe the daily prayers: fajr (dawn), dhur (middle of the day), asr (late afternoon), maghrib (dusk), and isha (evening). These prayer times are mandatory for each practicing and believing Muslim, and to skip them is like not brushing your teeth in the morning, or forgetting to wear pants when you walk out the door. You just don’t miss your prayers, if you have committed to your faith and you’ve decided Islam is the path for you. The daily prayers are really that important.
My cousin ranted about the requirement to pray being bogus because the following narration: The Prophet Muhammad flew on a white winged creature from Mecca to Jerusalem, where he then ascended into heaven to meet the Prophets before him, and eventually was in negotiations with God about the requirement of the daily prayers from 50, down to 40, 30, 20, 10 eventually ended at 5 (on the advice of Prophet Moses to Prophet Muhammad saying that the people will not pray those many prayers daily), the Prophet settled at 5, and now here we are today. This sent my cousin over the deep end. He just could not reason that story anymore, and could not discuss it in public with non-Muslims, because it was so hard to explain. So therefore, he just threw out the baby with the bathwater. And says he has never been happier and more at peace because logically speaking there is no such creature even from a scientific standpoint. His question still rings in my head: A white winged horse that flies? Prove it to me Val. How I became the lucky family member to receive this phone call, late at night, is beyond me.
Regardless, I respect his position, but also a part of me is sad for him – sad that everything for him at this point in life has to be reasoned, or rationalized with logic. Things have to be scientifically proven or at least have some sort of valid proof of existing for him to believe it. This universe is so mysterious, it’s almost impossible to prove what goes on in our Oceans, in the Orbits, even in the human body, so how to explain some of these bizarre religious stories? You just can’t. Frustrated by not having any good arguments as to why he should believe (it doesn’t matter to me either way, I am not a “pusher” of faith) I just said, “I don’t know bro, it’s late, I pray the five prayers (when I can), you don’t. It’s OK. Love you, bye.” How else to end the call with someone ready to banter back and forth until the fajr prayer? This was the only diplomatic and non-confrontational way, because I may have dabbled in the study of Religious Leadership but I am far from an expert. My heart leads me in faith, not so much my head 100%. So he really barked up the wrong tree here!
As for the prayer requirement, I can see both sides. For a Muslim or any faithful person of a faith tradition daily prayer or meditation is relieving and relaxing. It also provides structure, and brings the faithful a sense of peace and solitary time with their Creator or with their spirituality. It is a break from the routine of the day, it is a time to reflect and offer prayers to something bigger than one’s self and one’s life. That is how I feel about prayer. For someone like my cousin, it is something that should come from the heart at any time of the day as many times of the day, or never. It is up to the person to perform prayers based on desire and feeling, not because the time of the day dictates it. I know he is not alone is in his thinking. Many other free thinking and reformed Muslims, or non-Muslims perhaps, view the prayers the same. As for me, I have learned to blend the two schools of thought. I am not rigid in my religion, and I love knowing that God is not rigid with me. Which is why, I have embraced the notion of “Stop. Drop. And Pray.”
What this means, is that if my prayer rug is nowhere near, and it’s past the designated prayer time, I don’t need to stress or fret. Rather I will find a head cover, whether it be a jacket I can pull over my head (looks goofy, but it covers the hair, that’s the point!), or a scarf, or sometimes, when I’m really in a bind, a towel; I will cover my hair, find the direction of Mecca (sometimes I don’t even know the direction), and just pray. It might be hours after the required praying time, and I might not have all my praying accoutrements, but I am praying. And I am not stressing about it. I am relaxed and finally alone with my God, and all I can say to God is, sorry, I ran late. I hope that’s OK with you. Actually I know it’s OK with you, because you love me, and you are happy that I made it to you in whatever shape I am, at whatever time I arrived. This to me is prayer. And I love every bit of it.
In my view, Islam can have its structure as it does, but there is also room for flexibility in dealing with an individual’s daily life. Today, it feels as though the idea of God and his rules have become such a burden (to some) that they start to question the stories of the Qur’an and whether or not they have any validity. My cousin, who is fed up with the people of the faith using the verses of the Qur’an so literally that there is no leeway to practice with flexibility, would rather turn his back and just love God without the “shackles” of religion as part of it. I am totally supportive of that. Religion is not for everyone. I just think that it’s sad that because Islam is no longer a part of his heart, when he speaks about it, he sounds disdainful. Furthermore, the way I practice according to him is so “new age” that he doesn’t even think I’m practicing correctly, and therefore I should join his camp. But I see it very differently.
My response to him today, is “No dear cousin, God is very pleased I have found him in the 21st century, in the Western part of the world, as an American, as a female, and am standing strong in my faith in God, with things I can understand, and with things that don’t necessarily add up. I can still appreciate the stories of the past.” I suppose the stories of the past, are just that, they are a part of a religious history. As believers, people can adjust and learn how to work with the stories to keep them grounded, and yet imaginative, even when things are so farfetched, i.e., parting the red sea, turning water into wine, giving life to the dead, or sight to the blind. These are just a few examples of stories that are revered even if hard to prove.
These unrealistic yet very rooted stories of the mainstream religions may be hard to legitimize but the value is in the message they teach. Which, ultimately is something that my cousin is over with. For him the message is meaningless when various people interpret differently, and then people fight over it, and judge each other because of it. I see it, I get it, I am so on the same page with that reasoning, that I have thought many times, why bother? My answer to that is simply that staying as a Muslim gives reason to my existence. And that is the message I have gathered from all the stories.
In the end, I truly believe prayer is personal, and even in Islam, we need to remember the point, which is to bring closeness to us and God. It shouldn’t cause conflict because of the details about the obligation, but bring about inner peace to keep us motivated.
Valentina Khan received her Masters of Arts in Muslim Leadership Context at the Claremont School of Theology. She is also a law graduate and candidate for the California Bar Exam. Valentina is a co-founder of I Am Jerusalem, an interfaith organization which promotes friendship, understanding, and striving for the “greater purpose” by dedicating time to community service and social justice. She spends her time at UpLift:body, life, community where she is the owner and teacher of all things positive for the mind, body, and soul.