View from the Balcony-Observing Ramadan from on High
How can I begin to describe what is happening outside my window right this minute?
Sometimes calendar makers know when Islamic holidays will occur a whole year in advance. Sometimes no one knows even one day in advance. But this year at least one calendar maker got it right. Of course, my Lincoln, Nebraska, local radio station KFOR 1240 AM calendar did not even list it, either the beginning or the end. The National Wildlife Federation calendar listed Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Wolf Awareness Week during October, but it makes no mention of Ramadan or the beginning of Eid al Fitr. The midwestern grocery store chain Hy-Vee calendar marks the moon’s cycles throughout the year, but only my Habit for Humanity International calendar says today is the end of Ramadan. Maybe that is because they are an “international” organization, so they got it right.
We live across the street from the largest mosque in our city. Since 4:00 AM, people have been streaming in. This mosque has a loudspeaker which electronically emits the call to prayer far enough that it overlaps with the speakers of the neighboring mosques. When the mullah in the mosque has finished, we can sometimes still hear another mullah at one of the other mosques in the neighborhood.
We live at the top of a 24-floor apartment building, and at the bottom is a bank. We live at a major intersection, and there are eight-lane streets on both sides of us between us and the mosque. Right now, at 7:30 AM, these eight lanes are parking lots, because people began double-parking and then triple-parking as the call to prayer continued.
About an hour or two into this amazing event, men carrying their prayer rugs were scurrying to join the throng. Each man would carefully place his doormat-sized prayer rug so that it touched the last man’s rug; he would then begin his routine. I was fascinated as I watched through my binoculars. I do not understand all the movements and phases of what I have just witnessed. Sometimes each man would lift both hands to his ears (as if to say, “I am listening”), then fold his arms loosely by his chest, and then repeat the whole process rhythmically two or three times. I really want to do some reading on the whole process—there is so much I do not know or understand about what they are doing, even though my friend Nadia has explained some of it to me. As the parking lot filled up, people stood side-by-side between the parked cars, barefoot on each individual prayer rug. I wanted to see how they did it, curious about the order I knew was there.
In the park across the street from us, I was surprised to see one group of men helping their women settle in a row right behind them. The only other women I had seen had been disappearing into the tiny door on the lowest level of the mosque. There were at least 50 times more men out there than women, and of course, they were all separated.
I found it curious that, although in general they were all basically facing the same direction, their orientation was not really precise. At least in the park across one of the eight-lane streets from the mosque, people seemed to conform a bit more to the lines of the sidewalk than to the exact location of the black box in Mecca. (Nadia told me about this too, something about the first altar Abraham erected being under that black box—I really need to read up on it a bit more!)
As I shared my tiny balcony with our two cats, I marveled at how many men were rushing from their shops, their apartments, their SUVs, their Mercedes, and off of their bikes. Some came with flowing red & white scarves, most with little white prayer caps, some with nothing on their heads at all. It was really quite spectacular. I mean, people-watching at an airport can be fun, but this was really incredible. Best of all, I could see them but did not have to endure being watched as well.—I liked that bit a lot!
I remember listening to K-LOVE a month or two ago online and hearing a little news blurb about the very small percentage of men there are in Christian churches in North America. They reported that something like 90% of the boys and male youths who go to church while they are growing up stop going to church after they leave home. The point was that American churches are obviously not catering to or meeting the needs of men.
What is it about Islam that is? Is it because the adult men proudly take their young sons, almost as soon as they can walk, to the mosque with them? It must be a great honor, leaving the girls behind, and getting to do this thing that only the men can do, like a huge private club. True, the women have their own section too. In the basement. Round the back. Dark, and small. But it is there. My next-door-neighbor took me to the one across the street from us last year. Very basic.
Anyway, back to the Eid prayer event outside my window. I was so intrigued with the hundreds of men (and the dozens of women), all gathering early in the morning, to join together and do what they have been taught to do. Now truly, that is quite a spectacle! They all…well, they were told that this is what God wants them to do, so they are doing it. Someone has taught them—maybe their parents, maybe their culture, maybe a friend—but somehow they have gotten the idea that God is pleased when you follow these rules. If you pray five times a day, and do it in this very specific way (along with a few other things), then you are doing it right. Wherever you are, at this time of day, stop what you are doing, make sure you are completely physically clean, repeat these exact words, make these specific motions with your hands and your body, and then you will know you are doing what you are supposed to do. There is no question about it: we will give you all the instructions, and as long as you follow all these practices, then you can know that you are OK with God.
I have to admit, that is actually rather enticing. When I think of my own son, I think he would like that. “Just tell me exactly what to do, step by step, without any room for misunderstanding, and I will do my best to conform.” Maybe that is what is so attractive about it. What do you think? I mean, in the actual practices and procedures, there is really no mystery. It is all spelled out, like a recipe. Just follow these directions, and you cannot go wrong. You are in. You have taken care of it. You have covered your bases, so do not worry about it any more.
There are a lot of people, perhaps at times myself included, who would like to live with that assurance. I want to have it figured out. I wish I knew that what I am doing and how I am living is right. I often question if there is something more, or better that I could be. I would like a little more structure sometimes and not have to personally be so discerning and perceptive. Don’t get me wrong, I know we have The Manual. I just want to look in the table of contents and be able to find which chapter and which section tells exactly what to do in this (and every other) particular, specific situation.
So many other aspects of life take so much time and effort and energy: relationships, work, traffic, the daily necessities of life, personal issues, various social problems, school, when tragedy strikes, politics, natural disasters, disease. The list is endless. So much of life is really complicated and, quite frankly, rather messy. It would be so nice if one dimension of life was “achievable.” We are often told, “No matter how good you are at something, there is always someone who is better.” Now, for some people, that is a great challenge and they are driven to excel and succeed and achieve greater than their personal best. But I just wonder if some of the appeal of Islam is that everybody does it the same way, at the same time of day, facing the same direction, with the same words. It is known. Everyone can succeed. Everyone can be the best at it. No one is seen as lesser than. The guy who just got off his camel is shoulder to shoulder, for once, with the guy who came in his limousine, doing the same thing, responding with the same phrases, bending over in reverence at the same time. They are all equal in the eyes of Allah. The practices of Islam, as I am witnessing today, seem like the great neutralizer.
I watched the weaving and maneuvering of the growing crowd. Through the lenses of my binoculars, I happened to find four boys on the roof, climbing back in through a window on the second floor. Twenty-four floors up, I could hear tiny flip-flapping sounds and saw people running across the street to join the fairly uniform lines of kneeling and bowing Muslims. I thought about the verse, “To obey is better than sacrifice.” In some ways, it seems as though Muslim men in general might live up to this verse better, perhaps because it is fairly obvious how to do it.
Well, it has taken me an hour to write this, and all is quiet now. They have all gone home to celebrate Eid together with their families. The month of fasting and abstaining from sex during daylight hours is finished. I would really like to know what it means to them. How does it affect them? Is there a sense of accomplishment, or achievement? Is there greater peace in their life? Are they more confident in who they are, or in how they relate to God? Is there more fulfillment in their life because of this past holy month? But even more than that, what I really want to know is what does God think, and what does He see in all of it? I know He knows each person’s heart. I know He sees our thoughts and our intentions. I know He is just, and a judge, and I also know He is true, and He is One, and He is merciful and a forgiver and healer of my soul. What is He hearing? I know He speaks Arabic. What do these repetitious words mean to Him today? From more than a million, maybe more than a billion mouths, they are bowing down to Allah.
What does my heavenly Father hear? He knows them intimately. I know He hears them. I know He loves each one, because He loves even me.
I wish I knew. I wish it were cut and dried, completely evident and clear, simple and direct. I know that God loves us so much that He sent His one and only son, Jesus, who is God, and that He died on the cross for the sins of every human being, so that each one could be right with the Father. I know that He rose on the third day, and I have new life because of Him. I just would love to know what this event means to Him. What about those 70,000 Muslims who died in Pakistan last month? What about them?
Three children are skipping and playing around their mothers who are sitting on their prayer mats behind the rows of men, waiting for the energetic voice from the loudspeaker at the mosque to become quiet. One woman is swaying gently, rocking her small child in her arms as he plays with her head scarf with one hand and sucks the thumb of the other. Five men and one boy in the park shake the hand of the mullah who came and led prayers for them separately. Horns begin honking as cars and buses slowly begin to fill. A river of white-robed men pours out of the mosque itself. They fill the parking lot and surrounding free spaces as well, dotted periodically with a cluster of black robed women, or brightly colored Indian head scarves. The holy month of Ramadan has officially ended, and now the Eid al Fitr celebration can begin.
And I am left still wondering what my heavenly Father is thinking, or how this affects Him.
I wish I knew step by step what to do now