Saturday, October 20, 2007

God's villages

Once there was a man walking in a field with God. As they passed near a village, God asked the man if he knew the people living there. The man said he did. God asked him if he knew their religion. The man said “they are Jews.” The pair continued to walk and eventually they passed beside another village. God asked the man if he also knew the people in this village. The man said he did. God asked him he knew their religion. The man said “they are Muslims”. They continued walking and saw more villages. One was Christian. Another was Hindu. One was even Buddhist. God asked the man why the villages had different religions. The man thought about it for a long time. The only answer he could give was that the village children learned their religion from their elders, who were taught by their elders, going back generations, all the way to their prophets. God asked the man if he could explain why a certain child was born in one village and not another. The man said “only you know that”.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Laylat Al Qadr in Jerusalem

Upon recently arriving in Jerusalem, I was determined to go to the Haram Al Sharif and into Al Aqsa Mosque on the night of Laylat Al Qadr (you can read more about this holy night here and here). Many Muslims are unable to travel to the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, their third holiest site. It is therefore a great privilege for me to go there, and I wanted to make the most of it.

I walked in the direction of the Haram Al Sharif from Damascus Gate, down through the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem. There were many people--mothers holding tightly onto small babies, old men wearing their "kafiyeh" (head dress), and old women walking leisurely on the way. All were making their way to or from the Haram Al Sharif. The Old City's streets are narrow in some places. Because the shop keepers like to put seemingly half of their shop's goods for sale on tables outside their shop, the streets became even narrower. Pop music sung by women from Lebanon was heard bellowing out of one shop, while another not far away had Qur'anic music sung by groups of men with deep voices. Shop keepers yelled out what they were selling and how much it cost. "Hamseen sheckels!" they yelled again and again. Even the young boys working on behalf of their father or uncle had booming voices that no one could fail to miss. Smoke from meat burning on barbecues and countless water pipes hung in the air almost everywhere.

I finally arrived at my favorite entrance to the Haram Al Sharif, not far from the Western Wall. There were many thousands of men and women praying. Most of the women were in a different area from the men, around the Dome of the Rock, but there were a few women under the covered walk ways off to the side of the men. Some of these women were looking after small children. But others were quite old, and I am unsure why they were not with the other women. No one seemed to mind. It was all quite relaxed.

Praying on the Haram Al Sharif

While the men were praying with devotion and concentration, there were other men shouting out what food they were selling from their stalls. I did not expect people to be buying and selling things on such a holy site during one of the most holy nights of the year.

I immediately found a spot to join the men praying, and I did this for some time. Since I was off to the side, it was a safe place for me to start. After discretely taking a few photos, I went to another spot to pray. This time I went down the front, very close to Al Aqsa Mosque, and much more in the open.

I was doing the prayers like the other men, and soon another man came to pray beside me. I thought to myself "ahh, now I am really in the middle of things!" Many thousands of us prayed, and this particular set of prayers went on for perhaps another 20 minutes. There was a lot of Arabic that I did not understand but for me it did not matter. The main thing was that I was praying sincerely to God, with all my heart. I gave it my best concentration, and I felt my consciousness was changing. By this I mean that when I was focused on God in such a holy place, there was a special feeling in my mind that I cannot describe. All I can really say is that it is not an emotion. Just like when we fall asleep, our consciousness changes. In this case, it was changing but I was of course very much awake! It was wonderful to be in the midst of such a huge crowd of people praying to God on such an auspicious night.

When we finished, the man beside me turned to me and he said "you made many mistakes". I said "yes you are right, it is to be expected because I am very new to this". He asked me "are you Muslim or a tourist?" I gave him my answer, and he told me he wanted to teach me about Islam. While I think all prayers offered with sincerity are as real as each other, it is of course best to show respect for what is considered correct, so I was eager to hear what he had to say about correct ways to pray. I listened to what he had to say. Instead of talking about prayer, he emphasized the elements of cleanliness and purity. He liked what he was teaching, but I could not help but think he should have talked to me a little more first to understand exactly what he needed to teach me! However it was still good to listen to him.

After we finished our discussion, I went straight inside the Al Aqsa Mosque. It was not my first time there, but it was my first time on the night of Laylat Al Qadr. There was hardly any room to pray. There was many people and many things were taking place at the same time. Someone was giving a political speech about America and Israel. Some men were praying. Some were sleeping. Others were looking at everyone who walked by them.

Inside Al Aqsa Mosque

There was little emotion from the people praying and waiting inside Al Aqsa Mosque, giving the occasion a very different temperament than might be had a Shi'ite place of prayer, for example. My initial impression is that Sunnis seem to be more reserved than Shi'ites. Personally I prefer the more emotional and passionate approach--I cannot but help think of the example of Sri Ramakrishna on the occasion of religious festivities. Perhaps it will sound strange for me to mention a Hindu man as a role model, but for those who know of the life example of Sri Ramakrishna, it is of absolutely no surprise at all!