30Mosques.com | My attempt to disappear

The following is a post written by Musa Syeed, a close friend of the 30 Mosques project who did itikaf during Ramadan. Itikaf involves spending the final nights at the mosque during Ramadan secluded in worship.

After a few thwarted attempts, my plan was at last finalized. And it seemed pretty tight, I had all my supplies. I would make my getaway on the R train, and ride it straight out of midtown, out of Manhattan, and if I was lucky—out of this world.

Every Ramadan I tell myself that I’m going to do itikaf, a spiritual retreat where one tries to seclude himself in a mosque for any period of time. The Prophet Muhammad (s) recommended spending the last 10 days of Ramadan, an especially blessed time, in itikaf. Other years, I sometimes get around to spending one night. But this year, I finally one-upped myself—I was able to do 2 nights in a row. With itikaf the hope is to escape the dunya, this temporary world, long enough to imagine—and if you’re really lucky to taste—what spiritual excellence might be like.

After reading good reviews, I decided to do my itikaf at Masjid Hikmah in Queens. As I rode the train in, I checked the contents of my bag. I wanted to make this a good itikaf experience, so I came prepared. My long black kamees was folded in one corner. Although I resisted for a long time that there are some clothes that are more ‘Islamic’ than others, I know that my kamees is modest and comfortable and doesn’t distract me when I’m praying. I thought that when I wore it tonight, I would disappear, like some big Sharpie had just scribbled me out of this world, and I could move around the mosque unnoticed, fitting in. Quiet isolation is said to be key to a good itikaf.

In another pocket, I packed a few energy bars. Besides just not eating during the day, I was intent on eating less during the night and to eat more simple, healthy food. Whatever the mosque might serve, I was intent on making these energy bars my only meals. This I hoped would further the will power we develop during Ramadan, so that I could have the will to cut down on the junk I eat during the rest of the year.

Finally, there was my pocket-sized copy of the Qur’an and my dhikr beads. These I hoped would keep me busy through the night, so I wouldn’t be tempted to just turn this into some all-night hangout with whatever brothers I would meet there.

I got off the train, and I decided to change into my kamees before I even got into the mosque. I did this quickly on a dead street, and then entered the mosque. It wasn’t long before I realized my plans weren’t quite so perfect.

Allah plans, and we plan. But He is the best of planners.

For iftar, there were dates, fruit, cake, and soup. I was able to restrict myself mostly to just dates and fruit. But then when dinner came, and they laid out a buffet of Indonesian food, my energy bars became a distant memory. The peanut sauce, the coconut milk curries, the noodle salad were all too tempting. As I finished my first pass at the buffet, I realized my plate was a lot more full than I had planned.

Although the mosque is known as an Indonesian mosque, I had heard that the community is very diverse there, and indeed it is. But after most of the congregants left after tarawih prayers, I looked around me to see who else would be spending the night. I was the only non-Indonesian guy, and my black kamees stuck out against their colorful sarongs and floral print shirts.

And because I stuck out, I was the object of that great, overwhelming cultural force: Muslim hospitality. While I usually welcome this, tonight I was wary of it. I didn’t want to make friends, I wanted to spend the night in quiet meditation. But the men of the mosque, who also seemed to do most of the kitchen and cleaning work, wouldn’t leave me alone. Worst of all was Zam Zam, a young brother who seemed to be in charge of making sure things run smoothly. To make things worse, he seemed extremely interesting. While we made wudu, I realized that under his large black-green-gold knit cap were dreadlocks that fell to his mid-back. He was the main muezzin of the mosque, the person in charge of making the call to prayer. The teenagers seemed to look up to him. The children seemed to like him, even when he was gently reprimanding them for making a mess in the basement.

Early in the evening he turned to me and asked if I planned on staying the night at the mosque. When I said I would stay, he responded with a gleeful “All right!”, as if we were both 8 years old and my mom had just allowed me to sleep over at his house. I choked back a laugh. He piqued my interest, and although I avoided any extended conversations with him, I couldn’t help but continually make observations about him and guess at what his story might be.

As the evening came to a close, I wanted to evaluate my progress. I thought about my coconut curry-stained kamees, my full stomach and my uneaten energy bars, my burgeoning man-crush on Zam Zam, and the bookmark in my Qur’an that marked my sorry progress. I felt like I had failed.

From my lonely corner, I looked at Zam Zam thumbing his beads in his corner, and I finally felt like I knew him. There was something familiar in his unpretentious honesty and energy, the ease with which he communicated with both children and adults, and his quiet confidence. I realized why I recognized him. He is the believer I used to wish I could be, the image of a better me that I used to carry around. Before I let big-city cynicism seep into my heart, he’s the kind of guy I wanted to be like.

After an evening of being constantly pulled back to reality, I was tired and defeated. I wondered if I had this whole itikaf-escape-the-world thing wrong. This world is the only arena I have to prove myself, to live up to the ideals I claim to profess. So even though I lost this round, I have to stand my ground, here on this Earth.

Maybe instead of trying to get me out of the world, it’s about trying to get worldliness—its negativity, its short-sightedness, its littleness—out of me.

I’m not sure. Maybe I’ll ask Zam Zam when Ramadan is over.

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