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.

Fasting in Ramadan: an altered state.

I pause to steady myself as blood rushes to my head.  My muscles are cramping, my head feels like a hot air balloon floating among the clouds, my stomach has shrunk from the size of my fist to the size of a walnut, and my mouth has forgotten what water tastes like.  No, I’m not crossing the Sahara on the back of a camel, I’m fasting Ramadan in the comfort of my own home.

“How are you?” my husband asks.

“Not great” I croak.

I’m not complaining though, I know that in a few hours, I will give my body a little of what it needs, a date or two, and several glasses of ice cold water, downed in a gulp.  Then, as the sugar hits my blood stream, I’ll go into a bit of shock, but things will even out, and pretty soon I’ll be in a completely different state than my current pitiful one.

Why am I having such a hard time with the physical challenges of fasting?  Every Muslim man, woman and child over the age of 12 is fasting with me here in Marrakesh, and all over the world.  I walk by construction sites and marvel at the workers fasting in the 100+ degree heat.  An old beggar woman walks by, she is small enough already, her back hunched over as she trudges by, and I know she too is fasting (although her normal diet is probably close to a fast anyway).  I see teenagers loitering in front of their apartment buildings in the late afternoon, wiling the hours away, and I know that they too are fasting.  My own 8 year old daughter surprised me by fasting 8 days of this month.   Why then am I so challenged today?

I look out over the city at sunset, and it’s turned into a ghost town, save a few speeding mopeds and cars zipping through red lights made irrelevant by the lack of traffic.  When I hear the call to prayer at sunset, I begin to weep.  I weep because it’s been a particularly hard day, and I feel weakened and humbled.  I weep because I now have a choice that thousands do not have, and that is to fill my belly.  I weep because I am feeling the joy described by the Prophet Muhamad, peace and blessings be upon him, when he said “the fasting person experiences two joys, one when he breaks his fast, and the other when he meets his Lord”.  And if this first joy is so intense, what about the next one?

Nothing in this world tastes as good as the first bite taken after fasting.  Never have I been so excited about water!  During the day, I pass through hunger to the next phase, where my appetite, puzzled by my not responding to it, decides to take a break.  I am no longer attracted to food, I see a plate of delicious fruit with the same amount of desire as I have for a plate of rocks.  For me, a usual snacker and a bit of a “gourmande”, this is such a relief.  I am excused from my mindless snacking, tasting of this and that, grabbing food “on the go”, refrigerator gazing and grazing, and all other forms of unhealthy consumption. Instead my meals for the day are carefully selected and prepared, eaten slowly and peacefully in the company of my family.

Not all days are as hard as today.  Most days I skip along with buoyant energy, keeping up with even my three year old.  I chalk it up to three days of international travel, a seven hour time difference (going east, the harder way) and our new clingy companion, the heat.  Tomorrow will, God willing, be easier, but in a way, I don’t want to forget today.  It’s these hardest moments that are the teaching moments, the moments of complete breaking and surrender.  I am reminded how weak I am, as a human, despite my illusion of control.  Take away food and water for 14 hours and I remember that I’m only a few breaths, a few bites, a few sips away from being, well, nothing.

“All of a humans actions are his, except for fasting, it is mine, and I reward it”.  These words are reported by the prophet Muhamad as God’s teaching about fasting.  Pondering them makes my fasting like climbing into a Zen Koan.  Why fasting, I wonder, why a whole month dedicated to this practice?  What are we to learn, and to experience?  The answers come in fragments.  Islam relies on pattern interruption to discipline the desires and re-orient the soul towards God.  On a daily basis, the five prayers call me away from the world, from my favorite distractions, from endless conversations, from my beloveds, from sleep, precious sleep!  Come to success! call the muedhins from the minarets, God is greater!  And I come, whether reluctant, elated, sleepy, distracted, reflective, no matter my state I do come and hold a few minutes of praise, of thanks, of remembrance of God’s blessings, and invariably, I leave feeling cleansed, subdued, centered.

So too is fasting a yearly type of pattern interruption.  Relinquish food for a while, relinquish even sleep, for this is a month in which you will enter an altered state.  Delve into the vast sea of the Quran, let the verses guide you, open secret chambers in your heart, remind you of things you knew once and have forgotten, turning faith into quiet certainty.  I see everyone around me in this altered state.  No matter their starting point, everyone is boosted up a notch in faith and practice.  I saw two men walk away from what could have been a heated argument.  “It’s Ramadan” they said, and went on their ways.  I see people giving up their addictions, the very disease that controls them, whether alchohol or addictions “of the flesh”, for a whole month.  I see whole families pouring out onto the streets, prayer mats in hand, headed for the mosques for Ramadan night prayers, Tarawih.  I know a man who sets an extra table for evening break fast, but never knows who is going to fill it until he goes to mosque, and invites a handful of poor people to come home with him.  I know friends who have given up, well, social networking for heaven’s sakes, because deep down, we don’t want to waste a single minute of this precious month on Facebook.  I know people who do not pray all year, but bank on going to the mosque Laylat al Qadr, a special and powerful night towards the end of Ramadan that is “better than a thousand months” of worship.

And while this may seem hypocritical, it is nontheless faith that pushes us all to try harder for God’s mercy and forgiveness this month.  Maybe some of it will rub off, and we won’t “lose it all” later on.  Maybe that is just our human state, that our faith and practice mark a certain fluctuation.  After all, a Saint, a friend of God, is one who is always in that spiritual high, and that is what distinguishes her from the rest of us aspirants.

With that said, my dearest readers, those of you who got through another long winded post, I will retire, for in a few hours, it’ll be time for 4 a.m. s’hour. If you are fasting as you read this, may your fast be amazing.  Ramadan Kareem!

Ramadan: moon sighting in Oakland, California

Our beloved guest is almost here.  I am talking about Ramadan, of course.  As I’m now in California, I joined a gathering of about 100 people in Berkeley to attempt to site the new moon, which would mark the beginning on the month of Ramadan.  Our gathering was more of a nod to tradition, an excuse to meet up with old friends, since any hopes of actually glimpsing the silver sliver had been dashed by scientific calculations.  The new moon was highly unlikely to be visible to the naked eye from our geographic location.  To top it off, a thick shroud of fog enveloped the Chabot Science Center, making it impossible to see anything beyond 50 feet.  No one bothered looking up at the sky, it was impossible to tell even where the sun had set (especially to directionally challenged old me).

However, we were sharing a common experience with Muslims all over the world, dating back to the beginning of Islam.   Lunar months are either 29 or 30 days long, and the only way to know when a new month starts is to look for the moon on the 29th day of the current month.  This is one example of how the rites of  Islam are interconnected with nature’s cycles.  I love the fact that, as a Muslim, I am encouraged to actually go outside, look up at the sky, and if I’m lucky, witness the miraculous birth of a new moon.

According to CrescentWatch there were no reported moonsightings from anywhere in North or South America.  Thus, the Ramadan fast is set to begin on Thursday, August 12th.  But wait, not everyone agrees that sighting the moon with the naked eye is the definitive way to mark the beginning of the lunar month.  Other organisations, such as ISNA, use astronomical calculations to determine, with scientific exactitude, the moment the new month starts, which is, to be so very technical, on Wednesday, August 13th.  I love the fact that there are two completely different ways of doing this.  Moonsighting, which relies on an organic, human, personal and communal experience, and astronomical calculation, which utilizes the latest technology (and so in a sense, is also a celebration of God’s gift of intelligence).  It seems fitting that in a religion that values personal reflection and understanding, and also values differences in opinion and methodology, that there should indeed be two approaches even in this case.

So, we will have a little gap of fasting tomorrow, some people will go with the traditional ways, and some will use the most advanced tools available, but in the end, one thing is clear, and that is that we are all going to embark on an amazing journey this month.  To all the Muslim readers of this humble blog: may this be the best Ramadan ever!  To all the readers who are followers of other paths: thank you for reading this, it makes the world a little cozier when we learn new things about each other, don’t you think?

On the way to the moon sighting event, my friend Cynthia and I and four out of our collective seven kids stopped by at the Lighthouse mosque in Oakland to say our afternoon prayers.  A sparse exterior in one of Oakland’s poorer neighborhoods:

Yet inside, this piece by Chinese Muslim calligrapher Haji Noureddine said it all, “Gathering of Beloveds”:

The holy Quran, which is the sea to dive into this Ramadan:

Above the community message board, a striking piece of calligraphy bears the name of God in Arabic, Allah:

Prayers are offered, as kids run and tumble:

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