Praying in Fear

I undertook two hectic job interview trips a week ago. I hit snowy weather, delays, missed connections, turbulence, and the airline lost my baggage just before the first interview. I interviewed in sneakers, knit pants, a T-shirt, and no coat in freezing Midwestern weather. I returned home to bronchitis, fever, chills, and a baby who soon fell prey to the same. It took me a while to get back to writing for the RDBlog.

But I had to write because something was on my mind. It was about how my last connection back to sunny Atlanta was timed to coincide with the dhuhr salaah.

The salaah (also called namaz in Persian and Urdu) is the obligatory five-times daily ritual prayer. This is the ritual memorably, though not always correctly, featured in movies such as Executive Decision and The Siege. Hollywood loves the salaah. Unlike the familiar (Christian) clasping of hands and bowing of head, the salaah offers a lot more to the eye. Not only do Muslims wash up an inordinate amount before the salaah (this is called wudu), but they stand up with arms clasped and head bowed. And wait, then they bow down in ruku’ just before they fall into prostration, palms and face flat on the floor and butt visible as they bend down in sujud. It is a most amazing sight. Picturesque and dramatic to some, hilarious to others, medieval and weird to others still, the salaah appears deeply frightening and “other” to many. But it’s nothing but prayer. In spite of the appendages tacked onto it by terrorist portrayals, it’s nothing but the human soul turning her face towards the Divine.

The ablutions (wudu) are a performance too. At a minimum, Muslims wash their hands, arms, faces, and feet (or they may wipe over their socks/shoes). Try even washing your face in an airport bathroom. You’ll be struck by how rare it has become to actually wash your face in a public bathroom. It’s excessive, unlike the quick hand-wash or the lipstick touch-up. And then, if you wash your arms, you might have people wondering what kind of nervous disorder you have. When I find the public bathroom empty, I know I have barely a minute to finish up and wipe my dripping face and arms before an inquiring gaze appears.

Most Americans are not familiar with the notion of “it’s time to pray.” And then there are those who have commented sarcastically, “What progress are Muslims ever going to make? It’s always time to pray” (a true story). The prayer, let me hasten to reassure my religion-wary friends, can take as little as two to three minutes.

Depending on the devotion practiced in prayer, it can take an hour or more. Sadly, it has been a while since it took that long for me, and that was when I lived in Pakistan. Life in the United States is remarkably regimented and structured. I am always amazed by how so freedom-loving and rebellious a people are so willing to buckle down and accept long work hours, long work weeks, and long years of work. The American workspace is not structured for 20-minute prayer breaks. I remember praying the optional night-prayer (yes, people add more prayers to the five-daily!) at 3am, spending an hour in a single cycle of prayer. It is one of the best memories of my life. It was like lying in peace on the Cumberland Island sands in Georgia while the warm sun washed sleep down upon me—except it wasn’t sleep, it was better than sleep. I remember my parents’ consternation over my vigils (after all normal people prayed only as much as they had to and no more, right?) and the personal Heaven I felt I carried with me when praying at leisure.

When I first requested permission at school to “pop out and pray” in the United States, I was instructed to be very responsible about not taking too long.

It is “prayer time” for Muslims five times a day: fajr (dawn to sunrise), dhuhr (early afternoon), asr (late afternoon), maghrib (sunset to just before dark), and isha (after twilight). Each prayer-time is finite. Muslims who pray regularly are usually on the clock. Svend and I regularly download and check the current prayer-times at a website like, because the exact time slots for each prayer shift every day.

Salaah is an amazingly disciplining and centering practice. While the degree of focus varies, it’s pretty nigh impossible for a believing, praying Muslim to forget that she is just a couple of hours away from standing up before her Lord. The intimacy is ever-available, and the accountability is ever-present. The timeless and the Infinite are always open to us within a rigorously timed structure.

There are small liberties within the prayer time-table, depending on how “strict” you are. If you are very sick, or otherwise unable to pray (any number of reasons could be cited) you can “make up” the prayer afterward, though it is better to make every effort to pray on time. (The writer usually falls on what her spouse would call the neurotically-regular side of the scale). Menstruating women do not have to pray the ritual prayer (a sheikh cites this state as one of “deep prayer”). If you are away from home, too, you can “combine” four prayer-rituals into sets of two (dhuhr and asr, and maghrib and isha). For people like me, the huge time gap between prayer-rituals while in a state of travel can be almost disorienting. We live our lives from prayer-time to prayer-time. This is a very specific state of being.

I struggle with the loneliness of not being able to share this state of being with most Americans. The explanations that salaah seems to require are endless. The physical motions it requires are simply too unfamiliar to the American gaze. For most Americans, just the sight of the salaah is so alien that they never get to the heart of it.

Or maybe it is too familiar.

When I first arrived in the United States, I prayed in the library stacks. I prayed in conference venues after sessions were over and people were milling about. I prayed in office spaces. I prayed in classrooms.

The past six years have changed the reality of public prayer for me. When I was in Pakistan, and my mother and I would go shopping, when the maghrib adhan (call to prayer) went up melodiously from the tall white minaret near Liberty Market in Lahore, we would simply stroll into the nearest fabric store. We’d ask the shopkeeper if there was a space to pray, and he would nonchalantly pull out a couple of prayer-mats, open an inner door, and let us in so we could offer the salaah in privacy (when respectable Pakistani ladies bend down in sujud, they should not be publicly observed by the male gaze.) Or we might walk over to the madrassah mosque and pray in the balcony area for women. And return to shoe shopping.

Pakistan may not have a lot of clean public restrooms or clean drinking water, but I miss the total luxury of being able to pray without that moment, so familiar in my life now, of “Oh my God, where am I going to pray?” And I miss the total understanding that anyone who saw us praying might instantly join us in a spiritual community of prayer.

Since 2001, I have limited myself to praying sitting in my car, or in private spaces. I try to “combine” prayers before setting out of home. But the issue is more frightening now. Like many Muslims, I do not want to be seen praying.

After Executive Decision and other movies of its ilk, I realized with a sinking of the heart that salaah and wudu were no longer simply odd. They had become frightening. Every time I make wudu in public, I seem to recall a movie where the washing up is used as a harbinger of an act of suicide martyrdom. Not only do I not want to frighten co-passengers. I do not want to be pulled off a plane simply because it was asr-time.

So a week ago, dragging my carry-on through St. Louis airport, I managed to make my wudu in relative privacy, but then there was the usual question: Oh my God, where am I going to pray? I wandered for a little while, past gates, security personnel, air and ground staff, lazily staring idle passengers (why do they have so much time to look around?!) Eventually I stopped at a less crowded gate and sat down opposite a woman sitting in a phone booth. I made no eye contact with her. I sat down, wearing my black bubble jacket, and pulled my furry hood over my head (women and many men cover their heads in prayer).

And then, what did you think I did, fall down in prostration in St. Louis airport?

Bah, how foolhardy do you think I am? Every time I imagine doing such a thing, I imagine some little old lady’s eyes widening in fear as she sees a person praying before a suicide attack. Or some anonymous co-passenger sees me praying in public, and tells the airplane staff he’s not comfortable with this Muslim person getting on the plane with him. And nothing else need be said, this much has been established by such incidents in the past (see this and this, and consider Dr. Ahmed Farouq who was kicked off a flight because his praying looked “suspicious.”)

So I pray a physically (and spiritually) truncated prayer. There are allowances within the Prophetic tradition for alternative physical motions: the Prophet prayed while riding a camel, and while doing so, in lieu of bowing and prostration, bent his head down symbolically; a person who is extremely sick and immobile may even pray while lying down on bed, using eye motions to express obeisance and physical devotion. What of the post-September 11 fearful Muslim in the airport? What is she to do?

I sat there, using abbreviated inclinations of my head to symbolically express bowing and prostration. Even so, the woman in the phone booth may have been wondering if I was mentally ill, with my repetitive motions. And what of the workplace? Where religion is nonexistent, invisible, and unacknowledged? Where religion is out-of-place, even? Where customers’ and clients’ discomfort with the Muslim prayer may put your job at risk? I miss the physical poetry of prostration, an accompaniment to total submission. I wish I could say that my awareness of the gaze of fear and suspicion does not infect my prayer. I’m not that devout, I suppose. I’m too profoundly aware of my Otherness. But the body and soul are partners, and I am broken from my bodily motions when I am forced to sit still in prayer, fearful of the gaze.

Not so very dramatic a problem, you say. But the turbulence within my soul bespeaks otherwise. It is my prayer. It is my centering, it is the Holy Mosque around which my soul revolves. In prayer, I offer complete submission, humility, love, and devotion to the Sovereign of the Universe and the God of my heart. Yet my body is bound, my limbs are trapped. It’s like trying to reach through barbed wire for a loved one on the other side. I dare not reach. And for what minor reasons? Because I am afraid—afraid!—of being taken off a plane? Because I’m tired and sick, and I don’t want to stay in the airport another night? Because I need to get home to my baby who has been missing me for two days now? Because I have no idea what might happen if the security bells go off in people’s heads because I happened to drop down to my knees in prayer?

The cognitive dissonance shakes me up completely inside. I am in prayer. I am in fear. I am watched. I am loved. I am hated. I am in submission. I am supposed to be heedless of all else and yet I am poignantly aware. And when I am done, I am awash in shame for my own fear.

Through this post I seek to communicate to at least some of you that, if you encounter that woman who’s praying in a corner of the office, know that she’s not necessarily a) preparing to bomb you or b) mentally unbalanced. It’s prayer. It’s her personal prayer. It doesn’t attack you, your nightclubs, your lifestyle, and even your agnosticism any more than your skirts inherently attack prayer. Salaah, prayer in the pews, prayer in the silence of your heart, prayer in meditation, prayer in song, prayer in dance, prayer in poetry, prayer in service to others: these can all enrich us and make for greater sanity, harmony, inner peace, and love. Let us free up the prayer from the terror.