Jewish Journal

The struggle to be Muslim

by Mahim Maher

March 11, 2014 | 2:21 am

Being a Muslim in Pakistan isn't easy. Oh yes, the country was made for the Muslims of India and we're supposed to be the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, but as some people will argue, that is our biggest mistake in a world where it seems that secular countries have their act together. But forget the Nation. I'll just talk about myself.

I recently went on pilgrimage to Mecca or Makkah and Madina, two of the holiest places in Islam. The pilgrimage is called Umrah and is a "lesser" one compared to the grand Hajj. It involves circling the Ka'aba or house of God, that black cube that dates to Abrahamic times, seven times. You then pray a short prayer and then run or walk between the two hillocks of Safah and Marwah seven times to revisit the trial of Hagar who went looking desperately for water for her infant son Ishmael.

I completed my Umrah and when I returned to Karachi all everyone could ask me was if I had attained peace.
No. I didn't.

Anyone who's honest will probably tell you that God is complex and having a relationship with God is hard work, especially in lives where children die and depression hits and husbands leave us etc. Someone told me despair is forbidden in Islam. Perhaps that's true. But isn't it one of the most human emotions? No one is inherently wired to be eternally hopeful.

People told me that the Haram Sharif or site of the Ka'aba is a peaceful place but if you go there today it will be hard to ignore the giant cranes. They are expanding the area and the construction is loud. Temporary circular ramps have been set up so your view of the Ka'aba can be partially obstructed from certain angles.

Amid the drilling, I tried to pray. I accomplished it technically but it was a struggle to connect. Many people have told me that they also struggled. I must confess that I find it easier to connect at home at 3am when I get up for a special prayer from time to time. Perhaps it's the silence.

The hardest part about God is that it seems like a one-way conversation. Could I get a receipt please? God, please bring Karachi mass transit, I prayed. Please reduce our homicide rate. And while you're at it, good roads and sanitation would be great, if you can manage.

When we landed in the city of Madina, four hours from Makkah, we drove straight from the small airport to the grave of Hazrat Hamza (RA), the uncle of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), who was one of Islam's warriors and was martyred at the Battle of Uhad. The grave is just a rectangular marked out plot, nothing special, no headstone. It is in a larger plot that is girt round by a boundary wall, a tall wrought iron grille and plexiglass. People have broken the plastic in places so you can actually look inside. So I stood at one point and looked in. I don't know what I was expecting, but obviously in Islam we are taught that it's not kosher to worship at graves. We come from God and return to him. Mourning isn't encouraged beyond three days.

So I stood there. Just looking. At the dusty sand. There was the sound of a few people talking beside me. A Bedouin woman was selling prayer beads on a makeshift stall behind me. It wasn't cold, just cool. We had come at a good season to the desert. The smell of roses drifted through the breeze.

So I inhaled. Deeply. It was a perfume slightly stronger than the ittar or incense people use at home. It was kind of like the non-alcoholic oils or Oud perfume Arabs are so famous for. Wave after wave of it. There was a depth to it, a mystery - not all of it was dried rose. After the first whiff hit the palate, a second earthier deeper layer followed.
"Do you smell that," one of my fellow pilgrims asked.

I looked down into the plot, craned my neck to see if someone had dropped a stick of incense. Was the woman selling it behind me?

It was coming from the grave, from the very air above the grave. Our guide said that this was true. Indeed, the graves of martyrs smell of roses.

People laughed at me back home when I told this story.

I couldn't shake the sense that I had been in the presence of something when I arrived in Makkah. When I performed the Umrah, circling the Ka'aba, I melted into the crowd. We were like a human dial rotating in unison around this one centrifugal point. As our mass moved, I turned to look at it and marveled. Someone is always circling it. For centuries someone has always circled it. "Once when there was a problem and the Haram was emptied for security reasons, birds began to circle the Ka'aba," a friend told me.

I read as much as I can, sometimes out of fear, sometimes in search of answers. Muhammad Asad's interpretation, exegesis and translation of the Quran is by far the best one I have encountered. He was a Polish Jew who converted and mastered the language. His explanations carry impossible nuance couched in the language of literary analysis, one that resonates with me the most.

And so I cling to these small moments of duende, as Lorca would call them. Most of the time I feel like I'm a bad Muslim. I don't pray regularly enough. I do tons of other dumb things. My faith is weak. I question. I get mad. I go silent. I sink in despair.

In Pakistan, which always feels like we're in a permanent state of falling apart, it's hard to believe that we're a Muslim country. Just today the weird news of the day was the Council of Islamic Ideology wants it to be easier for a man to marry a second time - you don't need the first wife's written approval, these wise and learned men maintained. Over 60 children have died of malnutrition in the Thar desert. The chief minister hasn't considered it enough of a reason to resign. 

It seems as if we get Islam wrong all the time. It's spirit at least. And all we're interested in is policing everyone but ourselves.

But I suppose that now, post-Umrah, as I navigate the Quran, trying to pray, connect, do the right thing even if I don't like it, somewhere there will always be the smell of roses.

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I am a 33-year-old journalist in Karachi, Pakistan where I work as the city or metropolitan editor for The Express Tribune, a daily national newspaper in English affiliated...

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