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I Don’t Know Why I Pray But I Keep Trying

For me, prayer isn't so much a question of belief as it is a question of who I want to be.

I am 7 years old and even though I am too young to fast or pray the five daily, I go with my family to the mosque for 30 consecutive nights of tarawih, a Ramadan-exclusive prayer between sunset and evening prayers. Over the course of the month, a bearded young man with an incredible memory and a shaved mustache leads a handful of us through the entirety of the Qur’an. Every tarawih consists of about 20 rakats, or cycles, but my parents don’t expect me to pray the full hour and a half yet.

The masjid, established by black Muslim converts in the 1960s, has impossibly tall ceilings and a blue-and-white striped carpet. People are already lined up on the white when we arrive, but they are quiet, sitting with prayer beads or the Qur’an. The mosque always has a certain stillness before tarawih, a prelude to the concentration needed.

I find my best friend Samir and we stand next to each other. We are each so different from the other. I am Pakistani where he is Bangladeshi, thin where he’s stocky, and my hair is wavy and long while he has a buzz. This experience at the mosque bonds us, and I always keep an eye out for him when I arrive. We are often the only two boys at the masjid, and aunties love to pull us to their chests and tell us we are “the future of the community.”

We start strong, with a focused two rakats. There is a small break after four, and then a large break after eight. Our dads dismiss us with a nod of the head. They have 12 more to go.

Samir and I close the door to the ladies’ break room (we are too young to yet be considered men) by bracing a couch up against it. It won’t stop the aunties from barging in, but it will slow the breach. We hold a fantasy X-Men draft, each building a team of mutants from around the world: Sunfire from Japan, Storm from Kenya, Nightcrawler from Germany, Colossus from Russia, and of course, Wolverine and Cyclops. I am aghast that Samir even likes Cyclops, much less thinks that he can beat Wolverine.

On round one, I leap off the couch with my claws bared while Samir shoots optic blasts at me. We wrestle and punch each other. There’s love in our fight, but also a bit of hate. Eventually, Samir’s sister manages to open the door and shoots her own optic blasts of judgment at us. We never even make it to round two.

"Remember, not everyone is as blessed as you two are.”

We’re still giggling when Samir’s sister leads us back to our dads, who probably pray more in one week than we have in our entire lives. This is the right move — we are a little scared of them, and fall silent. But when we go into prostration, we tilt on our heads like we’re doing handstands. At one point, Samir goes too far and nearly falls over. We both begin laughing uncontrollably. This time, no one stops us. They’re too focused on their own prayer.

The rest of Ramadan goes on like this, more or less. We usually drive over to Dairy Queen after prayer to get ice cream as a reward. On the night the community finishes reading the Qur’an, my and Samir’s parents bring six purple boxes filled with baklava to celebrate. Our mothers put the boxes in our hands and tell us to give at least one piece to every single person in the room. I just want to play with Samir, but my mother bends down to us and tells us this:

“Everyone in this room came together to finish the Qur’an as a community. The sweets are a celebration of that accomplishment, of what we can accomplish together. You two are too young to pray the whole month; one day, you’ll join them. But for now, your job is to make sure every single person in this room gets a sweet in their hand. Remember, not everyone is as blessed as you two are.”

A feeling I can’t put a name to settles over my heart. I feel light (though not lightheaded). I have never really been given a responsibility before, but I decide to take this seriously. Whereas after 20 minutes of prayer, I start to yawn and nod off, I am focused throughout the whole half hour of passing out sweets. I even make a second round to make sure. I never play X-Men at the mosque again.

I am 12 years old and have grown tired of my family saying that God will answer my prayers, so I devise a spiritual experiment. The house is still, the light reflecting blue off the Michigan snow. My parents are gone for work. This prayer, for the first time, is mine and mine alone. I make the purest intention possible. I intend to pray four rakats of zuhr, facing the Kaa’aba, in the name of God. Allahu Akbar. My recitation, usually clunky and muddy in my mouth, comes out smooth and fluid. Four perfect repetitions. My body tingles.

I finish praying by giving salaams to the right, then to the left. And then I make my du'a, my personal supplication to God. Usually, I request mundane things my parents already (usually) provide for me, video games and the like. But now I don’t ask for anything material. I say “Dear God, if prayer works, if this means anything, if you can hear me, give me a sign that things will be OK. That life will be OK.” If the question isn’t answered, I decide, God doesn’t exist.

I sit for half an hour, but no sign comes. The blue light begins to turn a sour purple.

The next afternoon, I try again, this time asking more explicitly. As immigrant parents, my parents spend more time at the office than at home; I ask for my mother to come home early. The intention is a bit less pure, the Arabic less smooth.

But she doesn’t come home until 6. As usual.

Well, maybe God still does exist, I think. But he isn’t answering my prayers. Or maybe, I think, I don’t deserve an answer.

I am 18 years old and I perform hajj at that too-young age, a boiling, self-righteous age. I feel forced to come to Mecca, as if it isn’t a privilege that people put themselves in debt to accomplish. “It might be the only time we’ll be able to go as a family,” says my mother, after she has already bought my ticket.

It’s part of pilgrimage to traverse between mountains of Safa and Marwah, as Ismail’s mother Hajra did, desperately searching for sustenance for her thirsty child. But unlike Hajra, I am not thinking of helping anyone else. I am thinking of myself. Walking calms me a bit, makes me feel in control. So I leave my family and stride ahead, not keeping track of my laps.

Around prayer time, the walkway becomes congested with people lining up to pray. A dark-skinned Mauritanian pilgrim grabs me and stands me next to him. I try to speak to him in Urdu, but it is difficult to communicate. I am nearly twice his height and a quarter his age. A man trips in front of us and nearly falls, but we are there to catch him. He nestles between us. Again, we share no language, but we find out he is Senegalese. And then, finally, moments before prayer, we spot a man in a wheelchair, looking for a place to pray with his son. So we spread apart and allow his son to roll the man next to us. We point to ourselves, and say “America,” “Mauritania,” “Senegal,” and I feel my heart pinch when the son points to his father and says “Iraq.”

We stand there, waiting for prayer to begin. We do not exchange any words, but I feel us speaking with the energy radiating off our bodies. Five men. Four countries. No language. And yet, here we are, all dressed in the ihram, a simple white cloth that Muslim men wear on pilgrimage — the same cloth that Muslims are buried in, ever since the 600s, in this very same city. When it comes time to pray, we pray together.

Praying doesn’t save my mother. But that was never its purpose.

When I return to my mother, I am more calm. I am excited at having met people from Mauritania and Senegal — places I have never even heard of, really, before this. And now I have a Mauritarian friend. A Mauritarian brother. She laughs and chides me, asking me if the trip was worth it.

When Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam, the first thing he did was go on hajj. He concluded, after being exposed to Muslims around the world, that “Islam is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem.” There is something in this that has always moved me deeply. But in Mecca, I witness an Arab pilgrim call an African security guard abeed (slave) after he is barred from an expensive hotel. I speak with Pakistani migrant workers desperate to leave abusive conditions. I know Malcolm’s vision is not true, not yet, maybe not ever, but in this moment with the four men, I believe I am building something, beyond difference, beyond the material, beyond personal desire.

Later, I tell my sisters this story. They are older and more world-weary and point out that it is easier to feel unity as a man. Too many men judged them, groped them, stood in their way. I listen and try to understand, but I begin to feel that if my mother was so committed to the trip, it should mean something for me. So I sacrifice solidarity with my sisters for solidarity with my mother, and her vision of the kind of Muslims we should be.

Soon after hajj, I begin to pray: three, maybe four times a day, in my college library and dorm room. I have never done this before. But that lightning spark between me and the four men stays with me.

It turns out my mother is right to book the trip. She falls sick a year later. Throughout her illness, I obsess over salvation. Praying doesn’t ease her pain. Praying doesn’t make the diagnosis go away. Praying doesn’t save my mother. But that was never its purpose. The ihram should have been a hint.

I am 28 years old and visiting home. My father, who has always been good at praying but is even better now that he is alone, asks, “So, do you basically not pray anymore?” The way he says this is meek, the edges worn down from years of finding more and more delicate ways to broach the subject. He is forever, earnestly and lovingly, the quality control on the content of my soul. I tell him I try, but it’s only half true.

We visit the mosque from my childhood, which is now on the white side of town and no longer really the mosque from my childhood. There has been a swelling of Indian and Pakistani immigrants, and I marvel at this new generation of kids who grow up with a choice of Muslim peers. Samir and I talk about when things were better, when there were less of us, but we were more united.

After prayers finish, I gravitate toward the handful of ex–Nation of Islam members and ask them how they stayed strong in the face of rejection from their family and friends. They chose Islam and I need to know why, so that I can choose it too.

Back in New York, a co-worker asks me to lunch nearly every Friday, and I have to deny them because I am going to the mosque for Jum’ah. I feel a twinge at openly admitting this, like I’ve invited strangers into a secret part of my soul. When your skin, name, and religion mark you as foreign, ritual can can be turned into a dirty word; America insists that your culture strips you of choice. But every week, at 1 p.m., I grab a cheap, green prayer rug from underneath my desk and try to search my heart for that old inexplicable feeling as I walk toward 29th Street. Now it is the only time in a week I pray.

If I’m lucky, the mosque, nestled underground like a bunker, won’t be filled by the time I arrive. Most weeks, I am late and I have to throw the rug on the dirty, often-wet New York sidewalk. The experience is mostly the same. I stand with men from all over the world — Somali, Yemeni, Pakistani, Lebanese, white, black American, and more.

Unlike the mosque back home, the women’s section is isolated and covered with a curtain. I convince myself it’s OK, because if I didn’t come here, I wouldn’t pray at all. I listen to the khutbah as best as I can, and then pray my two rakats of Jum’ah. After, I go up to the little Pakistani restaurant above the mosque, where I pay $9 for a dish my mother specialized in, aromatic goat pullao, and a cup of sweet, milky chai.

When I pray, I don’t feel God. On some lucky occasions, I feel a shiver of tension shoot through me or my arm hair stand up at a particularly beautiful recitation of the Qur’an. When I pray, it’s not because I believe in it, it’s more like: I choose it. There is something in me that needs to keep trying, even when I feel nothing.

When I pray, it’s not because I believe in it, it’s more like: I choose it.

So much of my life feels meaningless and random — the time and place I was born, the privilege I inherited when others did not, the people I love who have died. Prayer helps me connect to something outside of all the things I did not choose.

On my best days, I empty my mind and try to focus on the fact that I am just human and will not be here forever. That life is beyond my control and one day I will die. That generations before me and after me made these same movements, and they too died. And that maybe, when that happens to me, I’ll go into some ungraspable beyond and know that someone or something was receiving my desperate missives. I feel terrified of losing this habit, of growing arrogant and entitled. But that’s why it’s a ritual — so that I reiterate it until the meaning inhabits itself.

I always tell myself, One day. One day you’ll pray five times a day. When I’m an adult, is the conceit — but of course, I’m nearly in my thirties, and all I’ve accomplished is walking to 29th Street to pray once a week. For now, it’s enough.

This piece is part of a series of posts and essays celebrating Ramadan.