Memories of Prof Jeffrey Lang when he Embraced Islam (part 2)
First time praying
And when we pray and put our nose to the ground, we feel a joy, a rest, a strength, that is outside this world and no words could ever describe. You have to experience it to know. Ghassan Zarrah, former imam of the masjid at USF7 Hayya 'alas salaah! Hayya 'alas salaah! Hayya 'alal falaah! Hayya 'alal falaah!(Hasten to prayer! Hasten to Success!) On the day I converted to Islam, the imam ofthe masjid gave me a manualon how to perform salah, the Islamic prayer ritual. . 'Take it easy,' the Muslim students urged me, 'Don't push yourself too hard!' 'Its better to take your time.' 'You know: slowly, slowly.' I was surprised by their concern.How hard could it be to pray? I wondered.That night, ignoring their advice, I decided to start performing the five prayers at their appointed times. I sat for a long time on the couch in my small, dimly lit, living room, studying and rehearsing the prayer postures, the verses ofthe Qur'an that I needed to recite, and the supplications that I would have to make. Much ofwhat I would be saying was in Arabic, so I hadto memorize the Arabic transliterations and the English interpretations that the manual provided. I pored over the manual for a couple of hours before I felt confident enough to attempt my first prayer. It was close to midnight, so I decided toperform the 'isha' prayer. I walked into the bathroom and placed the manual on the sink counter with it opened to the section describing how to perform wudu' (ritual ablution). Like a cook trying a recipe for the first time, I followed the step by step instructions slowly and meticulously. When I finished washing, I shut off the faucet and returned to the living room with water still dripping from various parts of my body, for the instructions stated that it is preferable not to dry oneself with a towel after wudu'. Standing in the center ofthe room, I aimed myselfin what I hoped was the direction of Mecca. I glanced back over my shoulder to make sure I had locked the door to my apartment. Finding that it was, I then looked straight ahead, straightened my stance, took a deep breath, raised my hands to the sides of my face with my palms opened and my thumbs touching my ear lobes, and then, in a hushed voice, I pronounced, 'Allahu Akbar.' I hoped no one heard me. I felt a little bit anxious. I couldn't rid myself ofthe feeling that someone might be spying on me. Then I suddenly realized that I had left open the curtains ofthe living room window. What if a neighbor should look in and see me? I thought. I stopped what I was doing and went to the window. I glanced around outside to make sure no one was there. To my relief, the back yard was empty. I then carefully pulled the curtains closed and returned to the middle ofthe room. Once again, I approximated the direction of Mecca, stood straight, raised my hands to where my thumbs were touching my ear lobes, and whispered, 'Allahu Akbar.'In a barely audible tone, I slowly and clumsily recited the first surah of the Qur'an and another short surah in Arabic, although I doubt that my pronunciation that night would have been intelligible to an Arab. I then quietly said another, 'Allahu Akbar,' and bowed with my back perpendicular to my legs and with my hands grasping my knees. I hadnever bowed to anyone before and I felt embarrassed. I was glad that I was alone. While still in the bowing position, I repeated several times the phrase, 'Subhanarabbi-l 'Azeem', which means, Glory to my Lord the Great. I then stood up and recited, 'Sami'a Allahu liman hamidah' (God hears those who praise Him), and then, 'Rabbana wa laka-l hamd' (Our Lord and to you belongs all praise).I felt my heart pounding and anxiety mounting as I meekly called out another 'Allahu Akbar'. I had arrived at the moment when I had to perform a sajdah, a prostration. Petrified, I stared at the area of the floor in front of me, where I was supposed to be down on all fours with my face to the ground. I couldn't do it! I could not get myself to lower myself to the floor, to humble myself with my nose to the ground, like a slave groveling before his master. It was as ifmy legs had braces on them that would not let me bend. I felt too ashamed and humiliated. I could imagine the snickers and cackles of friends and acquaintances watching me make a fool of myself. I envisioned how ridiculous and pitiable I would look. 'Poor!' I could hear them saying, 'he really went Arab crazy in San Francisco, didn't he!' Please! Please help me do this! I prayed.I took a deep breath and then forced myself to the floor. Now on my hands and knees, I hesitated for a brief moment, and then I pushed my face to the carpet.Ridding my mind of all other thoughts, I mechanically pronounced three times,' Subhana rabbi-l a'la (Glory to my Lord the highestl). 'Allahu Akbar,' I called and sat back on my heels. I kept my mind blank, refusing to allow any distractions to enter it. 'Allahu Akbar,' I pronounced and put my face again to the carpet. With my nose touching the ground I called out mechanically,'Subhana rabbi-l a'la, Subhana rabbi-l a'la, Subhana rabbi-l ala' I was determined to finish this, no matter what. 'Allahu Akbar.' I called and lifted myself from the floor and stood up straight. Three cycles to go, I told myself. I had to wrestle with my emotions and pride the rest of the prayer, but it did get easier with each cycle. I was even almost calm during the last prostration.While in the final sitting posture, I recited the tashashhud and then ended the prayer by calling, 'Assalamu 'alaikum wa rahmatullah' with my head turned to the right, and again, 'Assalamu 'alaikum wa rahmatullah,' with my head turned to the left. Spent, I remained on the floor and reviewed the battle I had just been through. I felt embarrassed that I had to struggle so hard to get through the prayer. With my head lowered in shame I prayed: please forgive me my arrogance and stupidity. I have come from very far and I have so very far to go. At that moment, I experienced something that I had never felt before and which is therefore difficult for me to put into words.A wave ofwhatI can only describe as coldness swept through me, which seemed to radiate from some point within my chest. It was rather intense, and initially I was startled; I remember shuddering. However, it was much more than a physical sensation.for it affected my emotions as well in a strange way. It was as if mercy had taken on (In objective form and was now penetrating and enveloping me. I cannot say exactly why, but I began to cry. Tears began to run down my face, and I found myself weeping uncontrollably. The harder I cried, the more I felt the embrace of a powerful kindness and compassion. I was not crying out of guilt-although I probably should have shame or joy; it was as if a dam had been unblocked and a great reservoir offear and anger within me was being released. As I write these words, I can not help wondering if God forgiveness involves much more than His absolution ofour sins, ifHis forgiveness is not also curative and assuaging? I remained on my knees, crouched to the floor with my head in my hands, sobbing.for some time. When I finally stopped crying, I was completely exhausted. The experience I had just hadwas for me too unfamiliar and overwhelming to try to rationalize at that moment, and I thought that it was definitely too strange to tell anyone about right away.