Every year that Ramadan swings round the corner, and as I am standing in the Tarawih prayers, my thoughts invariably wander to the yesteryears of college.
What is it about standing in prayer that reminds me of college? Well Raleigh, NC (where I went to college) was a town with a small but vibrant Muslim population. During Ramadan, our Masjid (Islamic Association of Raleigh) had arrangements after Isha for Tarawih. Tarawih prayers were eight rakats, with a break after four during which someone or the other gave a short discourse on any topic of religious or societal importance.
I particularly remember my first two years in Raleigh, when Tarawih was lead by a visiting imam from Virginia called Muhammad Faqih. Brother Faqih was a young chap, under 30, who was blessed with one of the most beautiful voices I have ever heard recite the Holy Quran. We didnt finish the Quran during Ramadan as is the trend in a lot of places. But instead we had long Rakats of slow and thoughtful recitation, long rukoos and sujoods. As we stood beind Brother Faqih, despite not understanding the Arabic, we were moved to tears on the parts we should be crying (on stories of previous nations that disobeyed Allah and were destroyed, mention of Heaven and Hell, and other such places).
So why is that experience remembered every year? It is maybe because here in Pakistanthe focus of Tarawih has shifted from a regular prayer of prolonged Qiyaam, Rukoo and Sujood to a bid to finish the Quran before the new moon is sighted. Today, we see people having 03 day, 05 day, 10 day, etc Tarawihs that are an insult to the very purpose of the prayer. The imam in order to recite the entrie Quran in 03 days is at Turbo mode and often it is impossible to decipher the words being recited (assuming any of the followers behind the imam or the imam himself know Arabic!). Suddenly the purpose has shifted to finishing the Quran and after 03 days the people head off to enjoy themselves, or to their businesses. However, the purpose is not the finishing of the Quran, it is the consistent act of praying 29 (or 30) days, reflecting on the text, and prostrating ourselves before our Creator in a bid to seek His Pleasure.
I sometimes regret that I never fully utilized the opportunity that Allah (SWT) gave me then, instead justifying missing prayers due to pressure from my assignments and classes, lack of transport to the Masjid, etc. Even after I began seeing life in a new light, I still missed the wonderful opportunity of those years.
In the past few years, Pakistan has seen a revival of Islamic thought and several organizations are now trying to get people to understand the Quran that is recited by having arrangments for explanation of the portions recited every 04 rakats to be translated and explained. However, this demands a considerable time commitment as this takes around 03 hours each night and most of us unfortunately are not willing to make this commitment.
I think as a first step, the major religious leaders should get together and ban any such Tarawih prayer where the recitation of the imam is so fast that the words blend into each other and often meanings are changed in the process. In addition, they should form the consensus that 03 day, 05 day, etc Tarawih are against the spirit of the prayer and discourage them on public platforms.
It is a long shot to ask but it is sorely needed as more and more of these Turbo sessions seem to be cropping up all over the city.
Now if you will excuse me I need to go back to re-living my memories…….
In August 1997, when I was about to leave for the United States for higher education, a lot of things were going on in my life. I had just recovered from a bout of Typhoid and Jaundice; I had screwed up my A-Levels exams; I was recovering from a broken heart and I was travelling hundreds of miles away from my home leaving family, friends and culture. My destination was a small city in the state of North Carolina called Raleigh. On the one hand, while I was sad to leave everything behind, I was also excited to go to ‘the land of opportunity’. Indeed at that time, my perception of America was a place where I would be free from the Pakistani society, and would be able to attend parties and ‘hang out’ with beautiful girls. Indeed until a few weeks back that was how my entire life was structured. I would go to parties on weekends, mingle with all these girls and generally have a lot of fun.
Amidst all this, I also became part of the growing Muslim community in Raleigh. I would go to the mosque every Friday, sit there, listen to what the Imam said in his speech and offer the prayer. I had grown up in a Muslim country, and hence took Islam as something that is there and a part of my life. However, aside from praying every day and fasting during the month of Ramadan, I seriously lacked any knowledge of what Islam really was. Here in a country filled with non-Muslims, I saw things I had never seen in a Muslim country. People would treat the mosque as a community center as well as a place of worship. People weren’t seen as Pakistanis, Indians, Arabs or Americans but were looked upon as Muslims. Regardless of their physical and cultural roots and regardless of the differences in the way they interpreted Islam, they were all one big community. Nobody was Sunni or Shia; nobody was Barelvi or Deobandi; everybody was Muslim.
Before returning to Karachi this summer, I had already started taking interest in what I practised and I started looking for knowledge. On the surface, I was still the same, going to parties and generally just being as I always was. But inside me there was a big change taking place. My whole way of thinking instead of being centered on my pleasure and my convenience was starting to center on Islam. Then I stopped going to parties and other places where I thought I would start doing something that is Haram. I started taking an active interest in the Muslim Students Association on the campus. As I researched and delved deeply into the root of my religion, I started to fear Allah more and more. The prayer was no longer a chore I had to perform 5 days a week, but a means of asking the Almighty for help.
My new way of thinking however disturbed all those who knew me. My family sent me e-mails asking me if I had suddenly become a ‘Tabhlighi’. My response was that I had not become ‘Tabhlighi’, but rather I had become a ‘better Muslim’. I was talking to my oldest friend one night and my new way of thinking certainly reflected in what I was saying because he asked me a question: ‘Are you alright?’ My response was Alhamdulillah I couldn’t be better. Another question that I was asked by my family was: ‘How did this happen?’ It happened because I started to research in what I claimed to believe but had no understanding of. I started to implement those beliefs in my life and slowly but steadily, the change became apparent. One of the main things that had kept me from implementing those beliefs was that in Pakistan anybody who starts to implement the rules of Qur’an and Sunnah in his life is branded as a ‘Mulla’ or a ‘Tabhlighi’. He is then cast aside by the society as a misfit and shunned by his own family.
Isn’t it funny that we call our country ‘The Islamic Republic of Pakistan’ but Islam is the thing that is lacking here? What we need is Islam. An Islamic state is not where our rulers steal from our coffers, or where alcohol flows like water behind closed doors. Neither is it the state where the young attend parties and both genders mix freely in an attempt to be cool. Islam needs to be implemented in our hearts and minds not just in our laws.
Therefore, I implore all of you to use your brains that Allah has given you and study the Qur’an and Sunnah. In addition to studying it, please try to implement it in your life to make it better. Insha’Allah the reward for this will come in the Hereafter.