Growing up, I was raised Muslim in a house located in an orthodox Jewish neighborhood which is a separate post in itself. My father was religious and taught me the different pillars of Islam and provided general moral instruction. My mother was less religious, and probably not religious at all (she would go on to spur my eventual existential plummet into atheism). Although I believed in God as a child, I wasn’t really interested in the physical aspects of religion such as the daily prayers and the fasting.
I am sure anyone who has had a remotely religious upbringing can relate to absolutely looking forward to waking up early in the morning to go to the mosque, temple, church, or synagogue with your family. It was hard to be motivated when I didn’t even fully understand the religious motivation for going for prayer. It was something that I just had to do, like my algebra homework or cleaning my room. It involved wearing traditional clothing that wasn’t particularly comfortable, and leaving in the morning to go pray in a small local mosque that would be tightly packed and not well ventilated. All of this was coupled with the fact that my father is obsessive-compulsive about being on time – meaning that we’d show up 30 minutes early for no reason.
Once I got into my late teens, I stopped going to the mosque every year for Eid al-Fitr, one of the largest holidays celebrated by Muslims all over the world signaling the end of Ramadan. My father was a little disappointed, but it wasn’t a big deal. I got to sleep in late and stay home as he went to pray.
Today is Eid al-Fitr. It is an important one because it will be the last one I can spend comfortably at home with my parents as I will be moving away in the Fall. It has been so long since I last went to pray that I cannot even remember when it was. Appreciating the sentimentality of the occasion, I told my father I wanted to go pray with him in the morning. We woke up super early (seems that tradition has held up well), put on our special clothes, and left home. These were my observations.
From the moment we left our home, there was practically a spring in my father’s step. He was smiling (usually a big no-no for the men in our family) and beaming with pride. The morning lag made me struggle to grasp it at first, but over the course of the day I realized that the reason my father was so galvanized was because I was there. In Islamic culture (and in Asian culture in general), there is a specific valuing and pride that comes with sons. Without commentary on the inherent sexism of this, my father was excited to be able to take his son to the mosque on the biggest religious occasion of the year. Going together is an unspoken message that says to people: we are united as a family, this is my son. As a kid, I didn’t care for meeting and greeting all the older men there that my father knew. I just wanted to go home and eat the delicious food my mother had been laboriously working on! What I never noticed was how much satisfaction and happiness my going had brought my father.
Today when I prayed, I started to relive little moments from my childhood like ripples upon a river stream. From wondering when the Imam (often the head of the mosque leading the prayer) would stop talking to being annoyed about the extreme proximity to strangers. I realized that while numerous aspects of going to prayer bothered me as a child, I enjoyed them to a different capacity now.
Maybe I’ve grown up and someone forgot to tell me. I certainly didn’t become religious again. So what changed? As the Imam began the ritual prayer and I bowed my head with my hands to the side, I carefully glanced with the corners of my eye to the rows and rows of fellow Muslims united in prayer. In that moment, I felt that I was a part of something greater and much bigger than myself. That was the problem, it had always been all about me as a kid. Praying there with my local neighbors, acquaintances, and the barber who had cut my hair since I was 5, there was a sense of spiritual tranquility. I was a small part of all that was going on and I felt connected, like supporting your favorite team at a sports game.
Then I looked to my right where my father stood tall, feet firmly planted, praying in benevolent grace. He was always there, on the right side, just as it had been when I was younger. My father had been my anchor of moral instruction throughout my entire life. He taught me about basic respect that was due to every man and woman, regardless of creed. He would always make me feel safe and protected as a child, and I felt just as safe now. Then I began thinking about how I would be moving and wouldn’t be able to see my parents anywhere near as often anymore and it started to get emotional.
That’s when I felt a sharp nudge to my arm. I opened my eyes (as they were closed throughout the prayer) and noticed my father looking at me from the corner of his eye and I realized the prayer position had changed. You see, there’s a specific physical ritual to go about the prayer and my old man was always a stickler for the details. He knew that I didn’t have all the exact protocols memorized, so he was constantly looking out for me even in the midst of his zealous prayers. Just like he would do every year when I would go with him. Unlike me perhaps, he hadn’t changed a tick.
Walking home after the prayers concluded (which took forever, that hasn’t changed either), there was a spring in my step too. It was ironic that I never fully appreciated the experience when I was actually religious, but could do so now. It had always been very meaningful for my father, praying together and meeting all his friends afterwards. The nitty-gritty details of the tradition never mattered; the upholding of the tradition, the willing immersion into the culture and sharing it with loved ones was what made the whole thing spiritual and significant for me.
While I didn’t realize it when I was younger, those experiences were some of the most meaningful that my father had shared with me. And I fully intend to continue the tradition.