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Full Circle

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.

Excerpt: The Truth

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

 

William Blake

“The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”

 

I sat with a man upon the edge of the abyss. I sat in silence, listening to the song of his soul. He listened. My feet dangled off into the darkness, my ears alive. We sat as immortal statues for forty years, listening. Then he whispered,

“Why do you sit on the edge of oblivion?”

Tears, or blood, fell from my eyes. He caught a drop and threw it into the abyss.

“Why do you sit here, my brother?” he asked again.

I told him I was dying.

“There is no death,” he replied.

“Then where are we?” I asked.

“We are here.”

“Where is God?”

“He is here.”

“At the bottom?”

“Perhaps. We won’t know until we go.”

“Down?”

“There is no down, only forward.”

 

So we dove, like tears falling from the face of an orphan, into the abyss. We fell into a storm. Lightning illuminated the fall in flashes. Clouds, dense, black, eyes, dense, black, silence. We fell into an ocean.

The ocean was black and tasted like angel sweat. The storm above us suddenly cleared. He and I alone in the black and salty ocean with midnight above us. Stars, moon, and the blue that breathes just before black covered our eyes. I looked up at the moon and I could see it as a sphere, getting larger. It was falling.

The moon fell on top of the man and me, pushing us for miles and miles until we reached an island. The island was made of shadow and light and sand and rock and men and women and song and silence.

 

Upon the sand we sat.

 

“Where are we?” I asked through sodden lips.

“We are here.”

“Is God here?”

“Yes.”

“Can we speak to him?”

“We’ve been speaking to him.”

“Why is he silent?”

“He is never silent, you simply cannot hear him.”

“Why are we here?”

“We jumped.”

“But why are we here?”

“Because this is where we are.”

“Do you not know?”

“I know not, but I know why not.”

“Then why not-here?”

“Ask your self.”

So I asked my self, but my self was silent.

“Am I not my self?”

“Who are you?”

“I am me.”

“Perhaps.”

 

“This island is strange,” I said, “there are people, and things, but no food.”

“Why do you say there is no food?”

“I see no trees, no animals.”

“Is that all food?”

“For humans, yes, that is food.”

“Then I think, my brother, you must expand your definition of human.”

“Are we in heaven?” I asked.

“Are you close to God?” he answered.

“How do I know?” I asked.

“You will know.”

“Then this is not Heaven.”

“You are right, this is not Heaven.”

“So this is Hell?”

“Not-Heaven is Hell.”

“But where is the fire, where is Satan, where is Sin, and Death, and torture?”

“There is no death.”

“If there is no death, then how are we in Hell?”

“Hell is simply not-Heaven.”

“But punishment?”

“Is not-Heaven not punishment enough?”

“I do not want to be in Hell.”

“Then let us leave.”

“But how can we leave?”

“By first standing up. After we stand, we must decide where we want to go. Once we’ve decided where, then we’ll discuss the how.”

 

So we stood, he and I, on the island beach of Hell, looking out onto the ocean, with men and women and song and silence behind us.

 

“Where shall we go?” he asked me.

“Let us go to heaven.”

“Where is heaven?”

“As you said, it is where you are close to God.”

“Not where, but when.”

“When?”

“Yes, when.”

“Can we be in Heaven in Hell?”

“We can be in Heaven wherever we are. We can be in Heaven when we are in Hell, and we can be in Hell when we are in Heaven.”

“But you said that Hell is not-Heaven. How can we be in Heaven and Hell at once?”

“Imagine you are a magnet. Heaven is constantly pulling you toward itself. When you are facing Heaven, you are in it, but if you turn away from it, you are not.”

“To enter Heaven, all we must do is face it?”

“You must face it, and get pulled toward it.”

“That does not sound as difficult as the books make it out to be.”

“That’s the problem with books, my brother. They take what is free, and imprison it. Never cage a lion, never tame the ocean, never harness the wind, never stop motion.”

“But how do we make sense of anything? How do we live? How do we control our lives?”

“You cannot control that which is inherently uncontrollable. You may slow it down, you may hold it for a time, but eventually, what moves will move, what is held will be dropped, what is caged will break free, and what is set will come apart. Humans have tried desperately to control their lives, break it into sections, subjects, time…these are all falsehoods. What has been will be, what will be has been, what is now is always.”

“But what of the after-life?”

“There is no after-life. There is only life.”

“But death is real. A man’s head may be chopped off. His heart stopped. His life, over.”

“What about sleep? When you see a man sleeping, is he not dead?”

“Of course not. He is breathing, his brain is working.”

“If you did not know that breathing was a sign of life, what would you think of the sleeping man?”

“The man was not moving, not speaking, not responding. I would think him dead.”

“Yes. Death is simply a term used to describe something from which we can no longer detect life. In the way that knowledge allowed us to understand that sleeping is not death, do you not think that we will eventually learn that death is not death? There are signs of life that we cannot understand or sense. There is no death my brother, only life.”

 

“I must ask you some things.”

“By all means.”

“What is a mosque?”

“A mosque is a place to worship the one God.”

“What is hijab?”

“Hijab is only modesty.”

“What is jihad?”

“Jihad is the struggle to turn toward heaven.”

“What is faith?”

“Faith is the belief that knowledge exceeds our capacity to contain it.”

“What is God?”

“The center from which we all dance.”

“What is art?”

“Our expression of God.”

“What is poetry?”

“Creation through destruction."

 

I pondered this for a moment. Then I looked at the man and told him that I wanted to face the Truth.

 

“I’m glad to hear it.”

“How do I do it?”

“Let me ask you a question.”

“Anything.”

“Where are we?”

“We are here.”

“And what are we doing here?” he asked.

“We are sleeping,” I replied.

“Then, my brother, in order to face the Truth, Heaven, God, the Center, what must we do?”

“We must wake up.”

 

And we woke.