Wednesday, September 19

Appropriately Praying

For the past five years or so, I've been using my Ramadan commutes on the Tube to read the Quran. This has gone on largely without incident till today, although thinking about it I guess I'm actually surprised that it's taken this long for something to happen.

A girl, presumably a Muslim, politely interrupted me and asked if it was indeed the Quran that I was reading. I confirmed that it was, at which point she, albeit in the nicest possible way, accused me of being disrespectful for reading it in such an unclean place. At least I think that's what she said since a lot of her words were in hardcore Punjabi (apparently she didn't want to speak her mind so fully in front of all the goriya. Nice).

Now, although she was referring to the level of cleanliness around us, I suspect her real objection was to the appropriateness of praying at all in such a place. Of course since I was doing the actual reading, I held another opinion. As far as I knew there was nothing in Islamic fiqh that would make prayer prohibited for a regular Tube ride no matter how groggy it became or who else is using it at the time. In my view I was okay.

Ironically, this wasn't always the case, and there was a time when I would also pour scorn on fellow commuters who read the Quran on public transport, and for much the same reasons: essentially that it was better to pray in "nicer" surroundings.

I think that it was Hajj that changed my stance. The lack of comfort and far from ideal situations there (for example the crowds or heat) meant that, if I wanted to complete the rites at all, I had to adapt my practice to overcome the obstacles presented to me at the time.

Now when I say adapt, I don't mean compromise; no, it was more a case of figuring out what was important, what my objectives were and the reasons for which I was there in the first place. Once I established these, what seemed like obstacles before suddenly didn't matter much - although not ideal technically and spiritually I was still achieving what I wanted to. This was a general principle I took from my experience there and one of the most important lessons I had learned during my pilgrimage.

Looking at previous Ramadans when I didn't read on the Tube, I didn't really read the Quran much more than I usually did outside of the holy month - and I certainly didn't manage to finish it. Now though, I get through close to two juz (chapters) a day, or one and a half Qurans in the month, by using dead time which would otherwise have been wasted.

Similarly I'm much more steadfast in my salaat (regular prayer) now too; previously I would exclusively pray only in a home or mosque (because they were the ideal locations), choosing to miss and catch up later if I wasn't. But I've now learned to be resourceful enough to find a clean and legally (that is whatever is technically obligatory for a prayer to be valid) suitable place wherever I happen to be - and I reckon that the position I place myself in now is closer to the ideal than it was before, by virtue of my no longer reading a prayer outside of its allotted time.

So I do get where my critic was coming from. I will never instruct someone to read the Quran on a train if they feel uncomfortable doing so. And I will always prefer to pray in a clean room at home too, and stop reading in a place if it really does become objectively and technically unsuitable to continue (which really only amounts to a few extreme cases). But regardless of all of that, I'm not sure that you can accuse someone who is reading more Quran or praying more regularly than they would otherwise of being disrespectful to the faith.

I don't know the situation of this particular lady, but in my opinion real disrespect is putting the holy book in a place so safe or on a shelf so high that it doesn't get read much at all. On the contrary, I reckon that Islamic practice is for all times (unless explicitly instructed otherwise) and God is everywhere, and not just in or during those which happen to be the ideal.

Unfortunately we didn't get a chance to discuss the issue to the detail I've gone into above; she was only with me for one stop. But I'm secretly thankful of this really - in the process of giving me her advice she had put me a page or two behind in my daily read already, restricting me in a way a Tube train or other fellow non-Muslim passengers never would.