Only by demonizing another can hate continue. The following is a talk I gave in October of 2016. I know there is a wide range of emotions that this topic brings up. But I ask that before making hateful comments you ask yourself whether the direction of your anger is warranted.
October 3, 2016
In many ways my past life experiences have created the amazingly strong and compassionate woman whom stands before you today. A woman whom has survived her past and represents the “American Dream.” I’m a college graduate whom continues to expand her education, work full time, own my own home, have 2 children ages 12 & 7 and dog. Despite all these accomplishments, I felt my life was not working, something was missing, my heart was still empty. I was still searching for God and all I knew was that my heart was not content. My story is not intended to generate sympathy, rather it is to remind myself of where I started, what I have overcome and what I have achieved. Tonight I have been asked to talk about one of my earliest experiences with the Islamic faith and for me this occurred during my first Taraweh otherwise known as (the night prayer) during Ramadan (the month of fasting). This is my experience and what I learned about myself and what I found.
I was raised in a home where my family valued independent and free-thought and freedom from the controlling influence of organized religion. Despite growing up in a home that was non-religious & non spiritual I have always inherently known there was a greater power. This knowledge led me to be the “black sheep” of my family. In an act of rebellion against my family I searched for God starting at a young age and despite being ridiculed, chastised and actively dissuaded from searching I continued to search and to believe. My search led me to explore various Christian denominations in an attempt to find God, but despite a strong desire to find contentment, fulfillment and peace of mind I always left with an emptiness and knowing that I didn’t fit in. Though I never lost faith, the emptiness became overwhelming and I attempted to fill the void with other life events. I got married and was blessed with 2 beautiful children and despite what life looked like on the outside, my heart was incomplete. I found my life repeating itself and my children falling into a life that was free from GOD and frighteningly antagonistic to faith. I restarted my search for God and when the partner I had chosen to support me in making my life complete turned his back and became the source of ridicule and chastisement to any spirituality I found myself desiring a relationship with God more than with my then husband. My youngest child was one month old when my Godless marriage disintegrated.
I had little intimate knowledge of Islam and Muslims. Sure I had some limited professional and some personal interaction with “that” religion but that night I had decided to embed myself in “their” world. My curiosity had led me to explore a faith that was certainly fringe in my world but my curiosity and desire to find my heart had lead me there. My decision to go to a mosque was shared with just a very few. It was not a decision that I could discuss with my family. Those I did share with warned me about putting myself into such a dangerous environment. This created some anxiety, but my faith that God presented this path for me to see kept me striving forward. That first night I decided to arrive to the mosque early because I was not exactly sure where I was going and it was a good thing I did. I arrived before service started and didn’t see any women. I ended up walking through the main center entrance or the men’s entrance even though I had been instructed to enter from the side or women’s entrance. They were unmarked. The moment I stepped into the foyer and realized I was in the wrong place, I found myself in room full of men, and all of the comments from “concerned” friends about the danger I was putting myself in began to wash over me. My confusion must have been obvious in my eyes and I stood anxiously waiting and ready to run if one of “them” decided to come rushing out yelling at me for being in the men’s area; or God forbid attack me. However, instead of anger the room looked at me and smiled. One of the men walked towards me quietly chuckling at the look on my face and gently escorted me to the women’s entrance.
Walking up a flight of stairs I made my way to the front of a room with several other women, all of whom were strangers but whom all smiled and some waved as if they knew me. One of the women fixed my askew head covering and at 10:20 PM I walked to the front of the room. A simple command filled the air followed by a brief moment of silence and following the visual cues of the women around me I stood reverently and crossed my hands across my chest. The voice of a young man began filling the room with words in a language I did not understand, the recitation was a beautiful poetry recited in perfect Arabic intonation filled with emotion that flowed through me. I stood listening intently determined to take in everything around me with an open heart and an open mind. The intonation stopped and with a simple command of ah-meen everyone around me bowed at the waist, then prostrated, then knelt, then prostrated again and then rose to a stand again. I had vowed to myself that I was going to experience all that this night had to offer with an open heart and an open mind. As I stood I allowed my head to clear and I prayed. To the best of my ability I found myself feeling, standing, bowing, prostrating and standing in sync with the women around me.
In the past, I have heard people of faith talking about the small still voice of God answering prayers. And after an hour I found my focus wavering, noticing how this was all so different from anything I had ever experienced before. I remember thinking to myself… “what am I doing here”. It was then a wave of sheer calm blanketed over me and the thought “Here you will find peace; here you have found your tribe.” That first night of prayer ended at 1:45 AM and I drove home cherishing that calm feeling and the contentment of my heart.
I awoke a few hours later to begin my first fast of Ramadan and determined to attend taraweeh prayer the next night to determine if what I had felt that first night was fleeting or if I had finally found what my heart had been searching for, for so long. I quickly fell into the pattern of Ramadan… wake up, eat, start my fast, watch the sun set, eat and go to the Mosque to hear and feel the reciting of the Holy Quran.
There were two nights of Ramadan that stand out in memory and it was during these two nights my heart burst with emotion; years of built up sadness and the emotion welled up in my eyes and with confusion as to why I was feeling such strong emotion at the time as I could not logically understand what was being said. However, spiritual self must have known what those Arabic words were conveying as nightly, following the conclusion of the salaat, the Imam spoke briefly about what had been reicited. There are two nights which stand out so strongly in my mind:
The first was about single women falling for the guiles of man. That if a male contacted a woman out of nowhere there was always an ulterior motive and for women to be on guard at all times about this. It was then I finally understood hijab.
Islam has a requirement called “hijab”, and while hijab is often associated with the head coverings that women wear, in reality hijab is a code of dress that applies to both men and women. For women the code of modesty is akin to what one would see in any orthodox Christian church or Jewish synagogue. Clothing that does not reveal the shape of the body that extends to the ankles and wrists as well as covering the head.
I have come to understand that covering in Islam is a show of respect to God for giving us these Earthly bodies and respecting the body as a temple. Dressing immodestly distracts others from focusing on God and our purpose of our being to serve others. In the past, walking into a room of women was a fearful event for me. Judgement on dress, appearance, makeup, hair etc. Being part of the film and media industry these judgements are even moreso the case. However, I realized that when in modest dress / hijab everyone in the room see’s you for who you ACTUALLY are for your brain, rather than the initial judgement of appearance only later to discover whom a person is within.
There is an additional gift in this as well because one no longer judges their own body in comparison with others. I have heard there are other reasons for the full cover but this is how I currently see it.
The second night the talk was about how alcohol destroys families. Unfortunately, I have served as a first hand witness of how alcohol destroys and kills friends, families and relationships.
Both of these topics of being fooled by men with false intentions and alcohol were things I had dealt with over the course of the past few years and had caused my heart much pain.
Now Ramadan is over and I miss it dearly. I have long since forgotten the hunger pangs, the lack of sleep and the irregular sleep patterns. I miss the month of the Quran and the relationship I formed with Allah during those nights of standing until the wee hours of the morning. It was during this month
I came to know God more than I have ever known.
If you ask me to answer succinctly what it is I have learned, what I have gained and what I have found since that first night I walked into the mosque…
I have gained closeness to Allah in a place I never would have thought to look
I have finally found love and contentment of the heart.