A Spiritual Experience Debased

I am visiting a new city – a major metropolis that shall remain nameless. A friend has recommended a mosque for juma’a prayers. My Uber drops me at the address and I stand outside looking up at the minaret, eyes turned towards the heavens.

I head inside and am greeted by smiling faces. I slip take off my shoes and do my greeting of the mosque prayer quickly. The carpet smells of incense – I feel better already.

My favorite spot at prayers is near the imam, especially if he has a great voice. I really enjoy hearing the Qur’an recited with the respect and expertise it deserves. If a close spot isn’t available, my second choice is near a pillar so I can lean back while the khutba is being given. I like to pick up a Qur’an to freshen up my memorized surats after the sermon concludes.

I find a free spot by a pillar and line up with fellow worshipers as the call for prayer is given. A Somali on my left and a Desi guy to my right – we nod at each other and smile. We each stretch our arms around to make sure that we are in a straight line, as the Sunnah dictates.

Prayers begin, and I’m pleasantly surprised as the imam’s beautiful voice rises – the guy clearly has mastered his tajwid & qira’at. As the imam observes a moment of silence, my mind contemplates the one Surat (Al Fatiha) we repeat 17 times a day in our prayers from the moment we hit puberty.

Then suddenly I’m jolted out of the beautiful moment. The imam begins reciting “Bara’atun mina allahi wa rassoulihi” – the only Surat in the Qur’an that doesn’t begin with the invocation of God’s mercy (“bismillah.. ”). This is the Surat of War, describing how the Meccans violated God’s truce by launching war on the holy month of pilgrimage.

My breathing races, ruining months of discipline I put into perfecting my prayer. I kneel and try to re-gather my focus. For the next round, the imam picks up from where he left off. He continues from the same Surah as if he’s preparing us for the sermon.

Once the prayer is done, a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach tells me that the sermon today will not be about the love God and striving to do good for all of God’s creation.

And indeed the imam unleashes a torrent: a graphic description of the horrors of war, a long list of death and destruction inflicted upon members of the ummah overseas, and a fiery call for Muslims’ duty to defend Islam no matter the cost.

Some of the men around me start crying. Perhaps out of sadness at the horrors visited on Muslim brothers in foreign lands. Or perhaps out of shame at their powerlessness. Instead of offering a message of hope, believers are being guilted into feeling powerless about events they have no way of influencing thousands of miles away — As if I could solve the Middle East wars or the deep geopolitical conflicts all over the Muslim world on my own. How absurd!

As the prayer service ends, one man still cannot stop sobbing. The imam consoles him in a loud voice so everyone can hear: “Crying for the word of God is no shame.”

I walk out of the mosque crying inside – pained in my heart at how our community leaders have debased divine revelation with crude, manipulative politics. It is truly a shame… and a dead-end.