This Ramadan, for the first time in several years, I attended night prayers daily at the masjid. After years of praying solo or with small groups in makeshift spaces, like the dance studio on campus, the masjid experience this year felt extraordinary. I can liken it to the time that I tasted tuna steak, after a lifetime of thinking that tuna comes only in a can; or the time that I swam upon Florida’s shores, after an upbringing in a landlocked Missouri; or the time that I ran my first 50K while still relishing the wonderment of a 5K.
The night prayers, taraweeh, are supplementary, providing an extra opportunity to connect with God after a day’s work and the five requisite prayers. In Virginia, we pray taraweeh at the masjid from 10 P.M. – 12 A.M. Over two thousand worshipers flood the masjid every night, too many to fit our cars in the masjid parking lot. We carpool and we partner with the two churches across the street, filling their parking lots, too.
I bid my family salaams, and disappear for the night deep inside a prayer line. We pray shoulder to shoulder foot to foot, and leave no gaps.
Throughout the month of Ramadan, the imam recites the entire Quran from cover to cover during these night prayers. On the first day of Ramadan, we begin with the first chapter. We make our way to the second, the third, and so on until we have completed all 114 chapters. The person leading the prayer, the imam, has memorized the entire Quran. During prayer, he recites verses in his best voice with a beautiful melody, incomparable to any song.
We start with the Opening chapter, asking God for guidance. We move to the second chapter, reflecting on the meaning of life, the purpose of creation, the trials of prophets, and the plights of nations that perished. We learn the commandments for life including legal code for business, marriage, family, religion, death, and many details in between. We remember the story of Adam:
Then We said, ‘O Adam, you and your wife, both dwell in the Garden and eat to your hearts’ content where from you will, but do not go near this tree; otherwise you shall become transgressors.’ After a time Satan tempted them with that tree to disobey Our Command and brought them out of the state they were in, and We decreed, ‘Now, go down all of you from here; some of you are foes of one another. Henceforth you shall dwell and provide for yourselves on the Earth for a specified period.’ At that time Adam learnt appropriate words from his Lord and repented, and his Lord accepted his repentance, for He is the Relenting and the Merciful.” (Quran, 2:35-7).
The Imam recites the verses in the original Arabic, as they were first revealed 1,436 years ago. The verses carry a rhythm that lasts for pages. We stand for several minutes, often into the double digits, listening to God’s words. The recitation flows like a waterfall.
We move to the following chapter, and journey through the lives of the prophets. We spend a long time with Moses and the Children of Israel. We recite the chapter called Mary, and we glorify God, the creator of Jesus. We visit with Noah, Joseph, Abraham, and the many prophets before Muhammad who preached the same message of the Oneness of God.
We pause in between sets of prayers to learn the meaning of the verses. We sit on the carpet to learn the context and the application to our lives. Standing, the prayer lines are shoulder to shoulder. Sitting, space becomes tighter. My neighbor’s foot is leaning against my hips. Everyone around me becomes my best friend.
We are learning the virtues of patience from the plight of Joseph. After losing his family and finding himself in an oppressive situation, Joseph ends up in prison for over a decade. He perseveres, and when he is freed, he becomes a leader who rules with justice and mercy in Egypt.
We stand back up for prayer. As the nights pass, the chapters become shorter.
During the last 10 nights of Ramadan, the chapters become even shorter. Gone are the long flowing verses spanning pages in length and containing multiple stories. We have reached the end of the Quran, and these chapters consists of a few or a dozen verses in total: one story, one moral, one lesson, one message. The message is clear. The rhythm is different. The pace is fast. The endings rhyme. One verb follows the next. Each word is packed—packed with meaning, packed with hard letters, and packed with weight. The effect is powerful.
The Imam’s booming voice, reciting God’s most concise words, knocks on the hearts of those who listen. Making it for that final day, when these shortest chapters are recited, feels like a reward. We have listened in detail to the lengthy chapters. We have reflected on the meaning of life. We have devoted ourselves to a higher purpose. We have dedicated night after night to our Creator, and here we are, on this last day, trembling and loving in straight lines towards Makkah. God warns and promises. His words are balanced. His lines are poetry. His commands are tangible.
It sounds like fireworks.*
Consider this sample:
By the Glorious Morning Light,
And by the Night when it is still,-
Thy Guardian-Lord hath not forsaken thee, nor is He displeased.
And verily the Hereafter will be better for thee than the present.
And soon will thy Guardian-Lord give thee thou shalt be well-pleased.
Did He not find thee an orphan and give thee shelter?
And He found thee wandering, and He gave thee guidance.
And He found thee in need, and made thee independent.
Therefore, treat not the orphan with harshness,
Nor repel the petitioner;
But the bounty of the Lord – rehearse and proclaim!”
~Quran, Chapter 93
*This post is inspired by Maryam, who became my friend and sister during Ramadan.