I was 11 when I saw the Kaa’ba for the first time. The black satin sky of that Meccan night engulfed the white marble floor of Masjid al-Haram like the gaping hole of a lion’s mouth swallowing its own teeth. I was wearing the customary white towels, and hoping that I had wrapped them tight enough around my slight body. Nothing would be more embarrassing than to drop my towels in front of the Kaa’ba. Underwear was forbidden and my entire extended family was with us.
I remember walking through the gate of the mosque in Mecca and seeing the Kaa’ba unfurl in front of me as I walked closer toward it. It was smaller than I had expected. Every picture I had seen had been of millions of worshippers circling this immense cube of black. Standing in front of it, waiting to be overwhelmed, I remember thinking, “This whole place looks fake.”
But there was no time to think about reality, I had some walking to do. Tawaaf, that is the name of the circumambulation around the Kaa’ba. While making tawaaf, it is difficult to focus on much else other than staying on your feet. The closer you get to the Kaa’ba the denser the crowd becomes, and the harder it is to move. Round and round we went, repeating the strange Arabic words that our bearded religious guide was chanting.
I had never worshiped like this before. Prayer for me was always that of rigid structure, a lifelong practice of straight angles, formulas, and perfect timing.
Face 43.5 degrees from North, or the most direct line to Mecca from my location.
Stand straight. Place hands at side. State intention. Raise hands to ears. Begin.
Say: Chapter 1 + at least three lines from any other chapter.
Bend at waist Stand Prostrate Sit Prostrate Sit Praise God Repeat
It was all very linear.
But here, at the House of God, we worshiped in a circle. You can imagine how my mind exploded. I was overwhelmed by the scene. Hundreds of electrons revolving around a cubed nucleus of spirituality. Prayers from black, yellow, brown, and white. Singular images are still imprinted on my mind from that first visit. An old Turkish woman with her arms around the waist of her six-foot tall bearded son. My uncle’s wife protecting her baby. Our religious guide booming prayers that we were told to repeat, his red and white Saudi head covering thrown casually over his shoulders as his black forest of a beard perfectly framed his white teeth.
The closer I got to the Kaa’ba the more things descended into chaos. Like Marlow’s descent toward Kurtz, my family and I circled the Kaa’ba getting closer and closer to the center with each passing revolution. The crowd became denser, the chanting louder, the movement faster. As we got to the inner circles, it was impossible for my entire family to stick together. Most of them leaned their way out, like oil rising above water they floated their way to the outer circles. My father and I decided to go deeper. He placed me between his arms, forming a barrier between myself and the surrounding chaos.
We were now in the innermost circle. People were crying, burying their faces in the cloth of the Kaa’ba. It was a surreal experience for me as I was protected by my father’s arms. I was able to look at the swarming mass of people around me as an observer. I reached my hand out and touched the sacred cloth thinking about how they must replace it twice a year because of people like me wearing it down to its fibers. Well, not exactly like me, I was not sprawled against it as many of my fellow Muslims were. They were pushing and shoving and crying and sweating. Most of the men were in towels, and I thought how convenient that they are in towels. They can just wipe the sweat off with them.
My father, I’m sure, did not have such an ethereal stroll around the Kaa’ba. Fighting off tens of bodies in the throes of religious fervor while protecting a daydreaming 11-year old boy was most likely not the most spiritual of experiences.
Eventually we forced our way to the heart of the Kaa’ba. The Black Stone. According to legend, the Black Stone is a heavenly meteorite that was once white but has since turned black from the sins of humanity. It has been narrated that the Black Stone will intercede for those who have touched it on the Day of Judgment. Regardless of the stories, people now fight to touch it, kiss it, and ask for blessings in front of it. They fight hard.
As my father and I were mere feet away from the stone, all pretenses of religiosity and sanctity by the people were lost. We were not in Masjid al-Haram. We were at the Black Stone. Gone was the serenity and peace that identified the outer circles. Gone was the crying and chanting that I had associated with all worshippers here. These people desired one thing and one thing alone - to touch the Black Stone. There was an armed guard sitting above the stone that would break people apart if things got too violent. He was busy.
Looking at the madhouse that was the area immediately surrounding the stone, I knew that it was impossible for us to reach it, let alone touch it. People were throwing their bodies at a chance to experience the heavenly stone. My father fought our way toward the tumultuous mass pushing, squeezing, and surging forward. His arms were no longer sufficient to protect me from the onslaught. I was being jostled around like a bean in a bag with only my father’s body keeping me upright. The pressure was incredible. Somehow, we made it to the edge of the Black Stone crowd, but there was no way in. Not an inch of space was available to butt our way into the place in front of the stone. It was a struggle to just stand in place. Suddenly a man, or an angel, looked at my father and myself and gave up his spot for us to enter the fray. With no time for thanks, we took his place in front of the stone as he was pushed back into the current. I remember seeing flashes of the silver frame as bodies were flailing at the Black Stone. I was never going to be tall enough to stick my face near it, and I remember feebly reaching my hands out to touch the stone. Suddenly, through some superhuman act, my father picked me up off the ground and shoved me into the crevice that housed the Black Stone. How he managed to do this is still a mystery. Whenever I ask him he just smiles, shakes his head, and says, “It wasn’t easy.”
When my father lifted me off the ground, I found myself completely alone with the Black Stone. I had a half second to inhale its sweet fragrance, and then I instinctively reached my head in and lightly kissed the soft blackness. Then my father and I were pushed back into the ocean of bodies like fish caught in a jet stream.
Looking back on that trip to Mecca, I was struck by the dichotomy between worship at home and worship at the House of God. How could they be so different? Was one better than the other? Is the linear prayer that I had been taught the correct way to pray and the circular madness that I found in Saudi the exception?
And then I saw the relationship. I saw how the lines that we form to pray outside of Mecca are not lone beams shooting toward a singular target, but are the lines that color in a global circle. This circle that is formed through the prayer of Muslims facing Mecca from around the world is not only centered upon a single point, but it is moving. Just as pilgrims circumambulate the Kaa’ba in tawaaf, the global circle of prayer is pivoting around that same point, the Kaa’ba. As we pass the different time zones, Muslims are going in and out of prayer like Olympians passing on the torch, ensuring that humanity is in constant circumambulation of God’s house on Earth. When my lone prayer in Austin is complete, I know that somewhere after me there is a man, or a woman, or a boy, or a girl, or a group, or a mosque that starts their prayer where I stopped mine. By partaking in the five daily prayers, I am not simply fulfilling my religious obligation, but I am participating in the global prayer, the global tawaaf, in a constant universal remembrance that fails only when individuals stop passing on the torch.
I took a Differential Equations class once, and one of the main things we focused on the first month was solving linear equations. My teacher always reminded us that linear equations rarely show up in real life and that most of the math that we would be dealing with later on would be on non-linear systems. One student raised his hand and asked why, then, are we studying linear functions. My teacher laughed and said apart from linear functions generally being more solvable, a useful (and sometimes the only) way to attack a non-linear function is by zooming in close enough to it until the non-linear appears linear.
On the individual level, the function of prayer is linear, rigid, and uncompromising. But zooming out to the global stage, when looking at the function as a whole, prayer is a circle, a most non-linear shape. It is a moving, spinning body that is at once linear and non-linear, serene and wild, a source of peace and struggle, yin and yang.
As I lay out my prayer mat each day, facing the Kaa’ba, I am proud of my line in the circle. I am proud to pass on the torch.