By Haroon Moghul
How to be a Muslim: An American Story is a coming-of-age story about the ways in which a young, second-generation Pakistani-American struggled with everything that makes us human: Faith, romance, heartbreak–and hope. After a major life crisis, Haroon Moghul traveled to Dubai, desperate to find a reason to keep living. There, at rock bottom, in the middle of the sacred month of Ramadan, he headed to a mosque to hear a celebrity imam–who never showed up.
WHO SHOT THE SHATRI
Abu Bakr Al-Shatri was famous, for which reason there was almost no chance of him leading prayers in American mosques, which were too small and too strapped for cash to afford such a mellifluous Qur’an reciter. But in Dubai? On Ramadan’s fifteenth night, my brother and I navigated our way to Rashidiyya, a neighborhood not far from DXB, and parked his SUV in a sandlot under the elevated Green Line. There with time to spare, I was so enthusiastic I was jittery; to be led in prayer by someone who’d for me thus far existed solely digitally? I wore a powder-blue kandoura with a kaffi yeh in silver and cream.
There was an openness in Dubai you could not find in the West, and even less so now. (Try walking around in New York City in shalwar qamis.) In Dubai, though, nobody cared. I had accumulated Punjabi kurtas, whimsical Turkish T-shirts, and the ubiquitous flowing garments that might’ve been what people here wore centuries ago, when they could not pore star-struck over prayer schedules, eager to find out when their favorite reciter would be at which mosque. I had spent much of my dwindling income on kaffi yehs. I’d learned to tie them in the local style, and had every conceivable color scheme. I spent extraordinary sums of money, relatively speaking, on the local colognes. I dabbed my fi nest on me that night, so overjoyed was I that I might be able to experience Islam in a way I never had before. But once prayers began, we had a problem: our imam was not Shatri.
This was the right night, I told myself, based on the fliers we’d consulted. And certainly we could not have gotten the mosque wrong. There were too many thousands of people packing the space. Never before had I experienced a religiously induced traffic jam; I liked that here, God caused gridlock. Maybe, my brother guessed, “Shatri will lead taraweeh,” what we’d really come for. How desperately I clung to this hope. I’d been enjoying a Dubaiian spin on Ramadan. Every mosque is in immaculate condition. Every reciter would command celebrity in America. They even perfume the mosques here: you walk out smelling better than you ever have. Given all this, and that this was my only Ramadan in a Muslim country thus far, Shatri’s absence was heartbreaking. Because once taraweeh started, it was the same imam. The wrong imam. The not-Shatri. While I appreciated this other imam’s mastery of Qur’anic craft, I hadn’t left an hour in advance, braved unfamiliar roads and nigh-comatose post-iftar drivers promiscuously drifting between lanes at unhealthy speeds while pondering the afterlife to listen to someone I’d never heard of.
His name, I found out much later, was Idrees Abkar. Maybe you like him and now don’t like me very much. But consider my point of view. I was frustrated I’d apparently missed my shot at Shatri and then I was more frustrated because I couldn’t stop feeling frustrated; focus on the prayer, I urged myself, and I focused so much on focusing that I lost it entirely. This was the fifteenth night, where the hell was Abu Bakr al-Shatri, why does my Islam suck, and why do things never work out and where did Zhaleh go and why did I ruin things for Hafsa and me and I totally just went to a bridge and almost jumped. After taraweeh comes witr, which is just Arabic for “odd.” Three cycles of prayer. (God, as One, is odd.) In the final cycle, before the penultimate prostration, the imam leads the congregation in audible supplication. Typically this involves the regurgitation of a series of prophetic pleas sung in a style nearly indistinguishable from Qur’an, though they are largely not of such provenance. Most such duas I’d been through were perfunctory affairs, me racing to translate the Arabic of each supplication in time to know whether I should say “Ya Allah!” or “Ameen” before the imam started on the next entreaty. Not this time.
In a postmatch interview, a top-ranked tennis player once described what it was like to lose to Rafael Nadal. “I am one of the top players in the world,” this athlete said, not to brag but to underscore what came next. For, he admitted, he had no idea what had happened on the court, except that all his considerable talent had come to naught, he was crushed by some kind of magic he had never before encountered, and to which he had no response. I do not, to this day, know what Idrees Abkar did. Except I was there for it. In his spoken supplication, the dua right before witr’s end, Abkar started talking to God, in a manner that suggested he not only forgot but didn’t care we were in the room, or maybe it was him yearning for the thousands behind him to ascend briefly to where he permanently resided.
If we could be inside his heart, if we could be offered transportation to the Rock, to fly from our Jerusalem to his heaven, this is what we might have absorbed. Abkar was not leading us in prayer. He was talking to God and we happened to be behind him, squeezed in so tightly we could hardly find places for our foreheads on flawless plush carpet. We were realizing that he was realizing, in the course of his supplicating, that he was talking to Him, and this nearly did him in. “I am speaking to my Creator.” “I am speaking to Him because He created Me.” What kind of person, given a gift, complains about it? Abkar started crying. Bawling, truly. What, after all, does it really mean to say “Allahu Akbar” and begin a prayer—talking to the One who made you? It would be bewildering. And amazing. “You. . . .” He whispered. Then he mumbled it. Then he screamed it. Then he tried it again because he could get no further. “You,” he managed, in between roiling sobs, “brought us from nonexistence into existence.”
This thought entering him stabbed us too, but he kept on, no rest for the bewildered, him tearing us open and fi ring a water cannon of tears into our hearts. Grown men began to weep. We were broken. But we knew it. We felt it.
We couldn’t resist it.
Abkar made what was foundational into what was conclusive, thundering it, panhandling for it, returning to it, swearing by it, running a giant circle around us and spinning us around with him. “You created us,” he said, and then what he said next I will never forget. “La ilaha illa anta.” “There is no God but You.” He said it, over and over again, until not one of us was not shaking, breaking, struggling to stay on our legs, held up perhaps just because there were so many of us, but that was only where he began, for with that out of the way, he asked, and how he asked, how painfully and unashamedly he described the miserableness of our souls and the griminess of our deeds and the insufficiencies of our actions that we felt there was no veil. Why should there be? We were supposed to be absolute monotheists, the people who keep our one finger raised come what may. In the months to come I would look on the music of drunken Sufi s and the poetry of intoxicated saints in an entirely new way. Their sins reflected a piety far greater than our modern puritanical fidelity could summon. They lived a life immersed in God. I experienced the seminal principle of Islam in a way I could have never imagined. The direct and unhampered access to God of His creation, given by the Lord of All the right to speak to Him, and the means to it.
When I was growing up, I had a fantastic and formative Sunday-school teacher, a part-time doctor who was a full-time community leader. “Imagine if you were to describe to an unborn child the world that was coming,” he said to me. “She would not be able to believe you.” That, he said, was the challenge facing Muhammad in trying to describe what happens after death. When Abkar’s supplication concluded and the prayer ended, nobody moved. For fear of breaking the spell that, we knew, would have to be broken. For every ascension to God, there is a return to the world. If this did not end, if this connection were not snapped, then we would be in paradise. We sat nervously still. Some of us sniffled. Wiped away tears. Were surprised to realize they were ours. Stared at the floor, like it might tell us, Yes, that just happened.
Shatri came the next night. I went out for shisha.
Excerpted from How to Be a Muslim: An American Story by Haroon Moghul (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with Permission from Beacon Press.
Haroon Moghul is the Fellow in Jewish-Muslim Relations at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He’s appeared on all major media networks, and has been published at the Washington Post, TIME, CNN, Guardian and Foreign Policy. In 2016, he was honored with the Religion Newswriter’s Award for Religion Reporting Excellence. Haroon is the author of three books, including How to be a Muslim: An American Story, which the Washington Post called “an extraordinary gift,” and “an authentic portrayal of a vastly misunderstood community.” Haroon was a Fellow at Fordham Law School’s Center on National Security and the National Security Studies Program at New America Foundation. He is on the Multicultural Audience Development Initiative at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and graduated from Columbia University with an M.A. in Middle East, South Asian and African Studies. He kind of wants to move to Los Angeles.