Ramadan Night Prayers at the Koutoubia Mosque

I’m in a pre-mourning phase for Ramadan.  Today is likely to be the last day here in Morocco.  This evening we look for the moon, again.  If we see it, tomorrow will be Eid, a celebration.

Ramadan has made the transition back to Morocco, after two months in the states, very kind.  Most people are being the best they can be.  Those who generally “know better”, in Ramadan actually “do better”.  When I walk by, I can recognize the young men who might, if they weren’t fasting, make boorish cat-calls to me and any other female.  But because it’s Ramadan, they just lower their gaze (and I don’t need to puke, thank you very much).  Fasting and prayer are having a calming, pacifying effect on the whole country, and I’m so thankful for that.

One of the Islamic teachings about Ramadan is that “demons are chained up, and the gates of heaven are thrown open”.  It does seem that people are freed from their demons, because when you give up food, smoking, sex, drinking and drugs, for 14 hours a day, what demons are left?  In addition to these things, people voluntarily give up other vices, such as back-biting, lying and cheating.  I mean, who even has the energy for sin, when you are fasting in this heat?

So, substitute all that with prayer, reading of the holy book, increased devotion, increased charity, and really the gates of heaven ARE open.  This is God’s mercy,  the rahma, and we can get a taste of it even now.

One of the highlights of this Ramadan was going to pray at the Koutoubia mosque.  I don’t get much chance to pray in mosques, what with the kids and all, but when I do, I enjoy every minute.

I drove through the empty streets of Marrakesh, and really that was a treat in itself.  There is no other time when the driving is that pleasant.  The Koutoubia is easy to spot from afar.  The French colonials had the good sense to oriente several major avenues towards the Koutoubia, so it is, in a sense, the town center.

The Koutoubia mosque was built some 1000 years ago (ok, I’m a little loose with dates), by the founders of Marrakesh, the Almoravids.  It was then partially destroyed and rebuilt by the Almohads around 1150 C.E.  It stands at an impressive 69 m (221 ft) which was quite an architectural feat for its time.  Tonight, the towering minaret is all ablaze with lights.  Atop the minaret are 4 decorative golden balls, tour guides will often perpetuate the urban myth that highest ball was donated by the wife of Sultan Yaqoub el Mansour, who melted down all her gold jewelry, as penance for breaking her fast.  (I find this Arabian nights-esque tale rather implausible, as there are 3 ways of atoning for a fast that is broken for no reason: either freeing a slave, or if that’s not possible, then feeding 60 poor people, or fasting 2 months back to back).

The mosque was rebuilt a third time because the original orientation was not quite accurate.  Mosques are meant to face the direction of Mecca, or at least in the cardinal direction that is closest to the direction of Mecca.  However, many old Moroccan mosques faced due South.  This was what the Moroccans of old thought was the direction of Mecca.

The ruins of the old mosque remain, a large esplanade dotted with partially standing columns.  I am happy to find that this year, the ruins are actually being used for prayer space.  The Koutoubia has a capacity of 25,ooo people within its walls, but in Ramadan, even this is not enough.  So two large overflow areas have been designated, each with about 5,000 people.  In Ramadan, ALL the mosques are usually overflowing in this way, with sidewalks, even streets being converted to prayer space.

I join the 5,000 or so women in 1,000 year old ruins of the mosque.  I feel alive already.  I settle in and wait for prayers to begin, looking around at all the faces, young and old, rich and poor, all the colorful jellabas being worn, all the chatter and laughter.

Soon the call to prayer is made, the same call that has unfurled from this minaret, 5 times a day, every day for the last thousand years.  We stand, shoulder to shoulder, in long straight lines.  As the imam, or prayer leader, begins his recitation of quran a wave of joy comes over me.  He has a beautiful voice, which I recognize from quran CDs.  We spend the next hour standing, bowing, prostrating and sitting, sometimes listening to the imam’s melodious chanting, sometimes uttering our own silent prayers, always praising God, thanking Him, beseaching Him for His Mercy, Guidance and Forgiveness.

And lastly, thank you all for your loving, thoughtful, supportive comments.  I appreciate them more than you can imagine.  I am humbled and honored that you take the time to read this.

Peace from Marrakesh,  Nora.