Faith and All That Stuff

Ramadan. The holiest month. A very sacred, special, happy and spiritual time in the Islamic world. I chose to stay in Marrakech for part of Ramadan for two reasons. First of course I needed to be patient in order to spend some time with a friend who had a few days off in the midst of it all. Secondly I really wanted to understand. I wanted to witness. To observe. See. Listen. Ask. Regard. Consider.
I am not a religious person. I believe wholeheartedly in destiny. In a higher order. I believe in an after life and I believe in guardian angels who watch over us and keep us from harm. I know that I have been “in tune” with people in an otherwordly way for awhile after their passing. I firmly feel that there is some guidance that we can not quantify.
There are 3 main things that define a faith for me. First is the act of believing. A full and complete commitment on a cellular level in the deity to which you commit yourself. For some that is Allah. For some it is “God”. For me there is “some thing” that I have not been able to define. But I firmly believe in something. I’m committed to that belief in fact. So I suppose I can check off the first box in some way.
The second component is the dogma. What is the body of truth that your deity has laid before you to follow. What rules must you follow and what collective beliefs must you buy into in order to be a true believer. Personally, this is where I am lacking and this is where I run into the most problems with the big 3. For example, Christianity is not my cup of tea. I had my doubts early on. I was sceptical as a child and as I grew and observed I moved farther and farther away. Through my studies in university I came to a much higher regard for Judaism which is more historically accurate. I did not study Islam very much at that time. That I remember. But the day I heard that Christians believe you will be struck down and punished by God for being gay, and that this belief actually trumped a parents love and acceptance? That was the day I uttered “crock of shit” and never gave another serious thought to the practise. I mean honestly……crock of shit. Not for me. No thanks. You can’t preach “love thy neighbour (but not those ones)” and expect me to take you seriously.  Maybe that was the straw that broke the proverbial camel but you not be finding me in a church anytime soon.
The third component is the practice.I remain a keen observer of the acts that are required by different religions to demonstrate your faith. You sort of have to know me to not be offended by this next sentence* but a funny thing happened at my friend David’s mother funeral. It was a Roman Catholic service. I had not had this experience before. So there I was sitting in my pew observing all the activity that was happening. I have been to my fair share of funerals and I know how those things go. This was different. There was a lot going on. I had no program. Google didn’t seem appropriate. I just sat there and watched. APPARENTLY I moved my head around a lot in order to see some things. Much to the amusement of my friends in the pew behind me. Then out of nowhere these two women, garbed in FANCY gowns and hats, and one with a spear that extended nearly to the ceiling, came walking down the aisle right towards me, chanting something about “help me get the gifts, come with us to gather the gifts”. I panicked. I must have flinched wildly, thinking they were talking to ME, which caused my friend Lynne to beseech under her breath “NOT YOU. NO, NOT YOU.” Oh thank God! I thought in relief. I had no idea there would be presents at this thing. What the hell? I was not prepared. That was enough Christianianty for me.
Now, here in Morocco, I find myself immersed in a Muslim country and in fact surrounded by Muslim practises in my personal life at times. Fascinating. Of course this exploration of the faith began in earnest back in October when it seemed that I had no end of questions. Later I would learn that I had thousands more. Daily I have more questions. Always asking. Considering. Exploring. Reading. Learning.
I was by myself the first several days of Ramadan and that makes things difficult when you are seeking to understand. I did a lot of reading. I fasted for 2 days on my own, but because I was alone and because I was not really seeking a higher understanding (more just a curiosity of the physiological), I continued to drink water when I needed it. It was hard. It was hard because it leaves you with nothing in the middle of the afternoon. I was lying there watching movies, relaxing in my home, feeling depleted and marvelling at what it must take out of you to be fasting and working. To be in a position where people depend on you. Firemen, EMT’s. Doctors and nurses. Tour guides. How hard must it be to travel through the Sahara desert for 4 hours to get to a desert camp in 40 degree heat, with no food or water. That my friends, demonstrates faith. You know I have no end of respect for some of my Berber friends. This confirms once again that it is warranted.
Now I know there are as many opinions on religion, especially Islam, as there are bits of sand in the desert. I am not here to argue one way or the other. Nor am I going to tell you how I really feel because I don’t want to argue. My thoughts are mine alone and yours are yours. But I will share with you observations. Things that arose around for the subject of Ramadan that had led me to further personal observation.
Ramadan is a time for humans to put aside all desires. During the fasting hours there is no food or water, no smoking, drinking, no sex of any kind, not even looks that demonstrate affection or desire. All human desire is to be put aside. This is something that I admire in a collection of people, if what they truly seek is an understanding of what it means to be human, to shun all constructs of pleasure and desire. To understand what it means to be poor and humble. I think for those who follow this path with good intentions it can be a very enlightening experience. For me it became a solid reference point for fighting my need for instant gratification. We all have it now. It’s 2016. Instant gratification is the holy grail in North America. I am working on shaking that off when I can. Because that is what this Ramadan taught me. I hope it lasts longer than a New Years Resolution.
I went to ftour with a BB to visit some extended family. We had ftour together and it was really lovely. Ftour is breakfast. Which is dinner but not during Ramadan when you have to literally break the fast. I came to learn that in the modern age, Ramadan is simply “backwards day” for a whole month. You go to sleep at 3:45 am after eating a small meal and hydrating (In Marrakech an air raid siren goes off.) Then you eat a small meal of dates, milk, yogurt, various breads, hard boiled eggs and sweets. After this “wake up” meal, you carry on with your day. All the shops are open, people are bustling around gathering things they need, meeting friends, sitting in cafes, conducting business. Then you prepare a tagine for around 1 am. It’s the same eating pattern of breakfast lunch and dinner, three meals, just reversed.
But then you add in the modern need to work during the day and that’s when things get exhausting. Up you get a 10 or 11am. Go to an appointment or a meeting. Do some work. Fulfill your obligations. Get some laundry done. Around 3:00 pm it’s lights out. Energy gone. You can speak to a taxi driver before ftour but do not expect a reply, he has no energy. No one does. Until ftour. Don’t even try to have a conversation mid day. It’s just not fair.
One night after ftour I had the humbling experience of watching thousands of Muslims pray at Isha, the last prayer of the day. It was the same night as the mass shooting in Orlando. Of course we know now that the man had some issues with homosexuality but on that day at that time the world was blaming “radical Islam”.
This last prayer is a time when Muslims in Marrakech are welcome to gather outside the Koutoubia mosque near the big square for the recitation of the days last prayer. The streets are closed off. Men at the front, women at the back. A TON of police and security maintaining a very, very broad perimeter. It was peaceful. So beautiful and peaceful. To see thousands of devout Muslims in prayer, listening to the beautiful voice of the Imam calling out over the loud speaker for all to hear. Beautiful.
I had a chance to spend some time with a friend finally, which brought fasting and discussion into my home and brought me a closer observation of the reality of Ramadan. A greater appreciation. During one conversation I was seeking to understand the practice of prayer. Because you see you are required to pray 5 times a day. On the regular. It is the second pillar of Islam. But you are able to pray more to receive more “blessings”. I have heard this more than a few times. “My mom is at the mosque. She prays extra now in preparation for Ramadan.” “Why?” “To receive more blessings from the God.” So being the literal person that I am, I want to know what these blessings are. Are they more lives like in Candy Crush? Is it a tangible thing? Is it something that is repaid in the afterlife? What are these blessings? Are they like the Catholics gifts? Many devout Muslims will spend most of the night in the mosque during Ramadan. Listening to the Imam read out the Qu’ran. It is best, they say, to go to the mosque as much as possible during Ramadan. During the last 10 days particularly, it is highly desirable to pray as much as possible, so that you are actively caught in the act of prayer at the exact moment when Allah sent his message down to Mohammed, his prophet. If you are praying at that exact time, and no one knows when it is, then you are “particularly blessed.”
Here’s how it was explained to me, that feeling of being particularly blessed. I asked “How do you know? How does it feel? How do you FEEL after you pray, and conduct yourself according to the rules, and you are a good Muslim. How does it FEEL to be blessed?” And the answer I got was this, “You feel good. You feel right. And calm. You feel on top of the world, like everything is going your way. If you have received the blessing you know because things come to you and happen for you. Good things. Things you may have only hoped for. It’s a good feeling.” And my immediate thought was “I KNOW THAT FEELING.” And that thought came with a physical feeling. A euphoria. An “ah-ha moment”. It was a loud and shiny moment in time that I will always remember.
I know that feeling because I believe firmly in a higher order. And the dogma I follow is simple. “Be happy. Life is short. Don’t waste time on things that don’t matter. If you have something to give, give it freely. Make people better for having spent time with you. Encourage. Lift people up whenever you can because some ass is going to come along and tear them down. Be grateful”. Thats’ my dogma. My practice? I just don’t put up with negative things or negative people. Walk away. Move along. Smile. Help your friends. Support the people you love whenever you can. Listen to the Universe. Watch for signs. Follow your heart. Take time to sit quietly and just listen. I feel much better now, knowing that I’m not really missing out on something the rest of the world seeks frantically. I seek it to. And I’m doing ok.
I’m still going to study Islam with the passion of a new discovery though. It’s fascinating. And while I am so closely associated with it, I intend to learn as much as I can.
*Funerals are not funny. I fully appreciate the gravity of the event. But the funeral itself is a small part of the whole affair. We all meet far too often at funerals for parents, aunts and uncles or a beloved sister. Nothing about that loss is funny. But humour is a very needed part of the process of grieving. David wasn’t offended, nor should you be.

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