Monday, May 03, 2010

The Prayer


I arrived slightly late at the mosque. It didn't really seem to matter; it's a Friday, and as ever, the place is packed to the brim with Allah's followers (and random Koreans taking pictures. On some days, you'll even find TV crews doing some filming), but there's always enough space if you arrive in time. Time was when I prayed in the parking lot, fulfilling my duties on the tarmac that has been graced many times by the presence of round rubber tubes going back and forth over and over with the sole purpose of movement: tyres. One place to the next, point A to B. It's also the only part of a Formula 1 car (or any car, for that matter) that touches the ground, and as I write this right now, I am fully aware of the most technologically-advanced motorsport division in the world facing the prospect of having no tyres to race with for next season. I doubt whether Avon could suitably fill in the breach to be left by Bridgestone.

But I digress. Praying on tarmac, parking lots, common, public roads, not the freakin' Nurburgring.

I slithering my way as politely as possible into the mosque proper. I found a spot I could just about squeeze myself down into, and lowered myself as humbly as possible. I noticed the wet spots on the edges around my trousers, near the bottom, the residual marks of the earlier wuduk I had undertaken. Many Muslims are required to do that to do their prayers, as a way of cleansing themselves before prostrating before the eyes of God. Another form, with a fair amount of substance, but would God reject those who didn't do it? Would Allah look less kindly upon those who pray without having cleansed of themselves? Hell, would God grant mercy on those who didn't actually pray?

I don't know. Big questions, a little too big to deal with within that particular moment of time. For now, however, is the only moment in time that truly matters, that the whole Friday comes down to. There are other prayers, but it's nothing like Friday prayers. The holiest prayer of the week, apparently (though some quarters may well contend that the Friday Maghrib may well be slightly more important).

Who's right, and who's wrong?

I raised and brought my hands together, touching my palms together as if to cup an invisible bowl, and slowly moved as if in a small trance, but without properly understanding what the heck the imam is actually saying. Most of the people from my generation don't. And my generation, I define as other Malaysian-Malay-Muslims (rearrange according to your own preference if that is what you may well...prefer) within my age range. I've no doubt that many others are way ahead of me in terms of memorising what needs to be said, and, like them, I may even hazard an accurate guess at what all the Arabic is all about. But the truth is...the truth is, I don't really know what the Imam is saying. And yet, here I am, nodding and silently chanting along like everybody else, fulfulling the form, rather than understanding the real content.

Is that right, or is it wrong? Should importance be placed on the style, or the substance? I don't know.

It's time. I got into position, having shuffled my way all the way near the middle of the mosque. The air conditioning is working today; woe betide the day when it doesn't. A grace during the cold winter months, but hot summer days demands different criteria to be fulfilled. Failing that, however, a stand up fan, metallic rather than plastic, swivels and turns its way left, right, and left again, as if its waiting for the sea of humanity to part before crossing the road. It didn't part, for we are about to start praying.

I went through the motions. I folded my arms, across my stomach. I uttered the words drummed into since I was young, reciting what I believe to be the prayers that descended down from the heavens, to which it is now being returned. I bend over, clutching my knees. I prostrated myself on the floor, before raising my hands, saying more words in Arabic I don't quite understand, before rinsing, repeating, and starting back at one (apologies to Mr McKnight for minor appropriation of his fine song).

The picture I have uploaded for this particular post probably represents the prostrate position about as well as any other photograph could have hoped to do. Funny, that; looking at the perspective presented by the photographer, it reminds me of the propaganda documentary that Leni Reifenstahl did for Hitler entitled 'Triumph of the Will'. I had recently watched the film, and though it was overly long for my taste, I did feel a sense of awe during certain shots. It has been talked about as a revolutionary film, and the point was hammered home when a particular paper I came across literally took several shots from the film and put them side by side with select snapshots from films like 'Star Wars' and 'The Lord of the Rings'. Perhaps there's little by way of direct, explicit influence that the filmmakers would admit, even to the themselves, but the fact that it came before them, and that it showed new things in new ways can't be denied.

Even if it was Hitler and his 'fellow' 'Aryans'. Note the double inverted commas here used for consecutive words here. What does it mean? Consider that for yourself, Ms. Mohan: it's not that hard. :)

Lest I be accused of comparing Muslims to Nazis, I merely make the point of the similarity between the visual images gleaned. What of the act in the image? The act of bowing and praying and begging for the mercy of a great, unseen One. The god may be one, the belief may be universal in nature, but even here the differences between the people are stark when constrasted against one another.

Let me give an example. There's a point when near the end, the prayees lift their forefinger, as if to point to Allah, before finishing off the whole prayer for the time being. The act of lifting the finger can vary greatly from one person to the next, and in some cases, from one nationality to the next as well. I have observed this in Malaysian and Korean mosques, which tend to collate a wider variety of Muslims. In Malaysian mosques, the finger remains outstretched, erect as a pillar, strong in its direction and purpose. Many of the non-Malaysians I've seen, however, do point, but in very different ways. Some wave the finger around wildly, as if it is a college student let loose at spring break. Others would flash it for a short while, lifting it and then setting it down almost as quickly as it happened, gone in the blink of an eye. I can't help but observe these sometimes, because it can be rather distracting, but also...let's face it. Anyone who is able to focus and concentrate for the entire Friday prayer without letting their mind truly wander off somewhere is someone who I can truly respect. Khusyuk, that's the term that we Malays happily 'stole' from the Arabs to describe it. It means, in short, focus, concentration, attention on only that one thing at that one particular time. Rare are the occasions that I can pray with deep khusyuk, and even rarer are the times that I do it five times a day. That in itself can be a challenge.

But then again, what isn't? Being involved in a religion, believing in its own sets of virtues, principles and laws, is always a challenge. I suppose we can widen the scope a little and spread its wings, for life in itself is a deep challenge. How do we meet this challenge? What is the one right way to do so? Perhaps certain cliques wouldn't say it out loud, but I know of people who would readily gossip and point fingers (without praying), saying and describing with glee the ways that people are doing it all wrong. "Arabs, that's how they pray. It doesn't look nice on the eyes." I can recall specifically two such events, and one of which is not limited to merely judging Arabs either. Nevertheless, perhaps that is another story for another time, because it suffices to say for now that for my part...I don't know.

I don't know whether it's right or wrong, and whether it's correct or incorrect to be judging right or wrong in itself. To be merely mouthing the words we thought are right, or to truly live the truth that lies deep within our souls.

To paraphrase yet another singer, and with big apologies to Mr. Kid Rock...only God knows why.

Amen.

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