I have been living away from home for the past four years. Post my recent completion of graduate school, broke and jobless, I moved back with my parents (no shame). For the time being, I’m trying my best to shift from my stimulating, fast-paced life in NYC to the hum drum and simple charms of suburbia. Most of my time is now spent catching up on the neighborhood elementary school girl drama via Manal, my 9 year old sister, and indulging on my mom’s much missed Hyderabadi cooking.
To make my adjustment to being back home more interesting, looks like I’ll soon be spending the first Ramadan in years with my family. Complete with ‘Family Ramadan Goals’. My dad convened my three sisters and I for an impromptu meeting this morning and proposed the idea. It was too cute to pass by.
This is what we came up with:
1) Add khushoo in our prayers (beautify our prayers)
2) Stop Ghibat (backbiting)
3) And…make Ramadan fun for Manal
My dad also added that Manal, although typically enthusiastic about getting into her cute pullover hijab and glittery jani namaz to join the family for prayer, could get better about meeting the five dailies.
He then reminisced about his visits to the mosque as a young boy. Early morning, while it was still dark out, my dad would get up to walk down to the mosque for Fajr prayer, but scared silly of stray dogs that could be out (this is India and he was a kid) he would hurry up to walk aside his neighbor ‘booda nana’ (translation from urdu-‘old grandpa’-and, yes, this is how my dad literally references him). To add to it, ‘booda nana’ wasn’t really a friendly guy.
After prayer, my dad would take a trip to the nearby cemetery to visit the graves of his maternal ancestors. He added that one time he stopped by the grave of his mother’s so-and-so but scurried away after being spooked by the corpse in the neighboring grave which had risen enough from the ground to be partly visible. What happened to ‘6 feet under’ I wondered? I can’t explain exactly how, but apparently, the surfacing of the corpses had something to do with the overcrowding of the cemetery and nearby roadside construction.
My dad’s story got me thinking. He mentioned that he was around Manal’s age, or younger, when this happened. So, approximately 7 to 9 years old. I tried to imagine myself going through the same experience with religion that my dad did at such a young age. Fajr trips to the mosque with ‘booda nana’ where I feared for the safety of my life from stray, possibly rabid dogs, followed with trips to the cemetery with sneak peeks of corpses sounded somewhat dramatic. Not to mention, terrifying.
I couldn’t help but distill the mark that his childhood experiences had on his adult engagement with religion-a straightforward, tough it up, no funny business type of attitude. All in a good way. Yet, very different from my American educationally and culturally promoted independent thinking, spiritual, and philosophical relationship with Islam. My dad’s credo is: ‘no questions needed-it’s all black and white’, mine: ‘let’s keep the conversation going- I need it for personal growth.’
And, who is to say which way is superior? Of course, there’s always room for critical self-reflection and improvement in our practices. But, is it ever possible to extract the religious experience from the personal experience? Or, simply stated, religious experience is, in fact, inherently personal.
This point seems obvious. Yet, I think sometimes in our quest for, in Dr. Sherman Jackson’s word, an ‘utopian’ Islam, we overlook this basic reality. The core teachings and principles of Islam are absolute. But, we would be naïve in thinking that the Islamic experience is tobe static across individuals, across communities, or across time.
As I’ve learned from my personal journey, Islam’s inalienable truth is best understood not as composed of inanimate untouchable statements, but as a living, breathing force that is contextualized into our historical, social, and, most importantly, personal experience. The diversity of these experiences offers wisdom, if we only allow ourselves to see it. This, Dr Jackson states, ‘is messy business’http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pBw6gb0JgwY&playnext=1&list=PL005D406B056CFB96. I want to add, beautifully messy.