Josephine Harreld Love and the Importance of Mentorship

This digital age has its many draw backs but it has a few pluses as well. With a pending move, I’ve been motivated to go through all of my ever-expanding belongings and sift out the useful from the what-the-heck-is-this? In doing so I came across a disc of which I had digitized some old photos I had shot on some 6×6 medium format film1. The image below is of noted pianist, Josephine Harreld Love. Love was trained in music at some of the finest academies including Atlanta University, Spelman College, New York’s Institute of Musical Art (better known now as Juilliard), Radcliffe College, and at the Mozarteum Academy in Salzburg, Austria. After touring the black-college circuit, Love settled down in Detroit, where she proceeded to open a music studio. In addition she founded and directed Your Heritage House, a fine arts museum and center for youth. I never knew who Mrs. Love was. But I did come to know the man who took me along with him to photograph her.

During the early 90’s, while attending classes at Washtenaw Community College, I took an introduction to photography course. At this point in my life not only did I not know what I wanted to do, I had no idea what I was doing! But it was providence that I took this course because in many ways it was that rock, stick, or leaf, that jutted out in the stream of my life to divert my direction; to give me some direction. As fate would have it, Titus Heagins, noted African-American photographer, was invited as a special guest to lecture one day in our class. Titus shared some of his work, particularly photographs he’d taken in Cuba. I was fascinated not only by his work, which was quite good, but also by the fact that, as to this point in my journey in photography, I had not met another black photographer. We hit it off right away and before you know it, I was tagging along with Titus to wherever he went, particularly Detroit. We spent many long days, some of them in the dead of winter, traipsing around blighted Detroit, photographing her devastated neighborhoods but also her people. This is significant on so many levels. One, this began one of the most important relationships I’ve had to this day. Titus was the uncle, that black uncle, I never had (I do have an uncle who I love dearly but sadly we were never able to develop that kind of relationship). Two, he was able to see value in me—as a young black man—in ways no one ever had before. And three, and perhaps most importantly, Titus understood the frustrations I had as a young man (both black frustrations and youthful frustrations), frustrations I had not found the way to articulate (and perhaps never might have found) let alone deal with. So it’s that value which Titus sparked in me which has given me so much confidence, that I have used it—and still use—every single day of my life since. That is the power of mentorship.

What’s amazing is that while Titus and I are alike on my levels, we’re also different on others. For one, I am a religious person. And while it’s never quite come up, Titus’ religious affiliation is probably hovering over the agnostic ocean. But he was able to see value in my Islam, not because he believed in it, but because he saw it was important to me. In fact, when I had an opportunity to go on ‘umrah2 in 2008, Titus and his wife, Maureen, gifted me some money to ensure I would be able to make it and would enjoy myself. For that, and for so much more, I can never repay them.

So who is Josephine Harreld Love? A pianist. I only met her once. But through her, I met a man, a friend, a mentor, who has greatly influenced and shaped my life for the better. I hope I am able to institute something of this mentorship at Middle Ground, as we prepare to move into our second phase of programming.

There’s a beautiful tradition from the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ in which he, peace and blessings be upon him, said,

لاَ يَشْكُرُ اللَّهَ مَنْ لاَ يَشْكُرُ النَّاسَ

“The one who doesn’t thank people is not thankful to God.” Recorded by Sunan Abu Dawud, narrated Abu Hurayrah. Hadith #4811

Thank you, Titus, for taking the time to share so much of your life, your time, and your energy with one lost, over eager, dim-witted young man, and giving me that push, whose inertia is still carrying me on and on.

God bless,

1. I used to shoot with a Hasselblad 503CW as well a a variety of large format camera including an old Graflex Crown Graphic 4×5, a Toyo 4×5 and at some point I had an 8×10 camera that was sadly stolen.

2. ‘Umrah is the lesser Hajj, or pilgrimage. Unlike Hajj, the major once-in-a-life-time pilgrimage that takes place in Makkah, ‘umrah can be performed anytime of year and only take a few hours or so.

A Wakeup Call – This Time For Maureen Dowd

Maureen Dowd – White Person Extraordinaire

I have written two articles (1 and 2) on the phenomenon of Muslim pundits. To be more precise, the articles were about Muslim Muslim pundits, those few self-elected personalities that have made careers out of irresponsible critiques against Muslims and Islam, especially when Muslim do not meet their expectations. And it is the latest article from Pulitzer Prize winning columnist, Maureen Dowd, that provides an example of a non-Muslim Muslim pundit. In her New York Times article, Ms. Dowd uses 911 words (coincidence? You decide…) to inform us just how short her recent trip to Saudi Arabia, the “cradle of Islam”, fell in how it failed to educate her about the religion that, “smashed into the American consciousness on 9/11”. Dowd’s article, despite its obvious lack of respect for the subject, does manage to bring to light a glaring tendency in popular discourse, namely the general acceptance of attacking Muslims and by proxy of them, Islam, through one, convenient scapegoat: Saudi Arabia. According to Dowd and those who follow this mode of logic, to reproach Saudi Arabia is to reproach Islam in its entirety.

In one of my recent articles, I talked about the phenomenon of American Muslims and their need to travel abroad to the Muslim world in order to feel validated. Dowd has in many ways followed the exact same line, albeit for a different end goal: to denounce Islam. However, the two parties both have a misguided perception that Arab world, and Saudi Arabia in particular, are symbiotes of the same host: the religion of Islam. As we have seen in recent events, this could not be father from the case. Saudi Arabia is a country, a Muslim country no doubt, but hardly representative of Islam itself in such a way that all other expressions of Islam outside of the Arab Kingdom are merely simulacrums of Islam.

Dowd’s article, Pilgrim Non Grata In Mecca, is problematic even in its titling. From the very get go, Dowd ascribes to herself a status she does not possess: that of a (Muslim) pilgrim. A play on the Latin persona non grata, a close translation being “unwelcome person”, Dowd assumes that she is indeed on a pilgrimage (perhaps she was making ‘Umrah?), Dowd places herself within her own narrative in a role she never possessed from the start. Dowd repeatedly misses the very Muslimness of Mecca and Madīnah, especially as it relates to the necessity of those would visit the Ka’abah. Dowd fails to realize or recognize the need to be a Muslim to not only visit these places, but to perform the ritual acts for which they solely exist for. This deliberate intention, on the part of Dowd, to ignore such an overarching fact concerning the Two Holy Mosques only further demonstrates the utter lack of respect that Dowd had for her subject matter from the beginning. It is not that Dowd is an unwelcome pilgrim but that she is not a pilgrim at all.

Pilgrim Non Grata continues its bull-in-a-china-shop critique of Islam by attacking not how Islam views sacredness, but in how Islam is not Christianity, Judaism, or Buddhism. Dowd’s smug rant about how Mecca is not as open as the Vatican or how one can have their picture taken with the Dalai Lama only further illustrates how absolutely biased and ignorant Dowd is on the subject of Islam. By holding up Islam to a fit it was never meant to wear, Islam can only but fall short of appearing to be “civilized”. In essence, Dowd’s main axe to grind with Islam (which during the course of Dowd’s article is difficult to discern where she’s more concerned with getting access to the country of Saudi Arabia or learning anything in particular about Islam the religion) is how it’s not Christian, or Buddhist, than it is about understanding how Islam views the sacred. Here, Dowd reveals her true colors (literally) as a white, western woman, whose only particular historicized notions of freedom, access, equality, etc., are theorized into ontological truths that can be used to demonize Muslims (by proxy of Saudi Arabians) and Islam as a religion as a whole. I must admit I am sorely disappointed that a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist could either be so woefully ignorant or so unabashedly crude. Perhaps that prize, along with western white privilege, is not all it’s cracked up to be.

It would seem that much of Dowd’s ignorance stems from a complete lack of understanding of Islam on its own terms as well as the few, highly questionable sources she draws upon. Aside from her own trumped up cosmology, Dowd refers to Sir Richard Burton, the British “adventurer”, who translated “The Arabian Nights”, referring to himself as a “amateur barbarian”. Perhaps if Dowd had done some research she may have found that the Arabian Nights in no way shape or form has any relation to the religion of Islam. No all things Arab constitute a running commentary on Islam. Perhaps if Dowd had simply talked to a few recognized, educated and reputable Muslim figures on the religion, she may have accomplished her goal of trying to “learn about the religion that smashed into the American consciousness on 9/11”.

Part of understanding Islam on its own terms would entail learning how Islam views the sacred. In fact, it is perhaps in Islam’s view of the sacred that continues to distinguish itself from other religious expressions in modernity as the quintessential pre-modern religion. In other words, the sacred, for the main body of Muslims, was never rendered into the profane; the secular. Aside from the anomaly of modern thought as expressed by a few pro-modernity Muslim thinkers, there has never existed the concept of Les Belles Lettres. Beauty, in the body of Muslim thought, has always been connected to the Divine. It is even one of the Attributes of God in Islam, where all other emanations of beauty only point back to the source of Ultimate Beauty. This notion of sacredness extends to the mosque – any mosque, not solely the Two Holy Mosques of Mecca and Madīnah – as well to the Qur’ān. Art in the Muslim world (and in pre-modern Europe as well) was viewed as religious: the decorating of mosques, the illumination of the Qur’ān and other classical texts and so forth. These artistic endeavors were done not out of a desacralized sense of beauty, but rather as a mode of religious devotion. In fact, if Dowd had spoken with a body of Muslims before hand, she may have heard voices from the Muslims who dismay over the very secularness of the Blue Mosque, in that what once used to be a place of worship has now been reduced to a museum of historic architecture; the belle lettre of buildings. So when Muslims wish to keep and preserve the sacredness of the Two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Madīnah, perhaps Dowd could see that this decision is informed by a very specific thought process that has very specific goals, namely the preservation of the sacred for all Muslims.

As for the three faith traditions that Dowd lists, she misses a key point: you may not have to be Catholic to go to the Vatican, but you may have to be Catholic to really understand what it means to be Catholic. You may be able to learn some very interesting facts about Catholicism as a non-Catholic, but without having the experience of being a Catholic, especially in a modern mindset, you will only have accumulated a collection of details that may or may not have the same meaning for the viewer as it does the object of their viewing. Similarly, as above, simply because Catholics have chosen to open up the Vatican does not mean that Muslims should open up Mecca. The Vatican is not Mecca, nor vise versa. Perhaps Dowd should consider doing some research on her topic before flailing about wildly with her pen.

Finally, I will depart with commenting on the methodology of Dowd’s inquiry. In her own words, Dowd stated that, “It was nearly impossible for me to experience Islam in the cradle of Islam”. Another in a long line of presumptions, I would challenge Ms. Dowd on just how she arrived at this observation. Much akin to Africa being the cradle of civilization, going back to Kenya and walking around the dusty streets of Nairobi will not, cēterīs paribus, give me any epiphanic understanding of what life is like in New York City. Further, the analogy of a “cradle” is also not without critique, as a cradle, according to the dictionary, is a small bed, often for infants, during which they are nurtured in their early existence. Islam was born in Mecca, but it grew up and moved out the house, expanded in Madīnah and eventually flew well beyond its borders. While learning about Mecca will indeed teach one about certain aspects of Islam, but it cannot give the whole picture. In the end, my advice to Maureen Dowd would be: if you want to learn about Islam, become a Muslim. If you wish to know some “facts” about Islam, well, you could visit Wikipedia. Or for that matter, continue reading this blog.

The Presumption of Privilege

As Islam continues to sputter along in its American context, post-9/11, various Muslim organizations and groups seek to capture the eye of the masses [who are starting to look more and more like glazed donuts by the minute] by inviting them to “return to Tradition”. I have not noted the capitalized “T” without purpose. Tradition, as it is being marketed currently, is a mono-narrative. Moreover, one might even call it a counter-narrative to the one that is equally applied by the West to Islam/Muslims, in any given time or space. But this concept of Tradition is playing out to be more than simply going back to previously forgotten sources or methods. It is also being linked to privilege. A privilege that takes the form in not only in what economic access can provide but a privilege of ideals. A Believers’ country club, if you will. But one of the main issues with this exclusivity is not solely in the gated mental communities that it fosters but the very idea that Tradition is a panacea. That so long as what is being passed along is stamped with the seal of Tradition, it requires no further investigation, contemplation or scrutinization. But is this truly [the?] tradition? And to what point or end is this tradition to accomplish? What avenues is this tradition to navigate for us? Or are we instead being taken for a ride. Islam in America and more directly, Muslims in America are in dire need for a viable, conducive, productive, creative, indigenous Muslim culture. But how do we get to there from the pre-packaged Tradition we’re currently being offered?

As some of you read before, I had been doing a bit of light reading before heading off to ‘Umrah. Upon my return I decided to put aside some of the heavier bits in favor of what’s been published in magazine format. Two articles piqued my interest: the Summer 2008 edition of The American Scholar, with an article by William Deresiewicz entitled, Exhortation: The Disadvantage of an Elite Education, and Great Neighborhoods, by Mark Hinshaw in the January 2008 edition of Planning. American Scholar deals mostly with issues through a social science perspective, while Planning is a journal in the vein of city planning [The magazine of the American Planning Association]. The two articles are not directly linked and yet, after reading both of them, their impact in tandem drew me to consider the current state of contemporary Muslim education and direction in America [again…].

There is a peculiar handshake between the parties of tradition and authority. Those who are seated are or have seated themselves as the key masters and gate keepers of tradition grant themselves a great deal of authority. An authority, that once imbibed by the target audience, is not easy to regurgitate. Its authority rises from the idea that tradition cannot be made but rather found, and more importantly, bestowed. Those that wish to belong can only do so as long as there are invited. It is precisely this type of exclusiveness that many of the traditionalists are offering American Muslims. Ensconced in the robes of this vernacular, calls towards Traditional Islam continue to rise. But we must ask ourselves: to what, for what, and by whom are we being called?

Let me state again for the record that I am not against the idea of tradition. In fact, I have talked, written and in general, worked towards the formation of a viable Muslim culture in America in my own small way. One can simply substitute tradition for culture in this case. Nor am I averse to the intellectual history of Islam. A quick perusal of this blog will vindicate any accusations. Neither am I unique in this clarion call. Notable scholars such as Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, Dr. Khalid Blankinship and Dr. Sherman Jackson, just to name a few and all potent scholars in their own right, have spoken on this necessity. But one of the caveats of tradition is that it can also take on a self-sanctioning pathology, where in stead of becoming a means to an end, it becomes a means and an end. The pitfalls of this phenomenon can be clearly observed in the so-called Muslim world. But for the sake of this argument, I am not interested in how Muslims articulate their cultures in the historical lands of Muslims but rather the process of transference. In as far as the Traditionalists look at it, America and by proxy all Muslims within it are rendered helpless and incapable of manufacturing and creating a vibrant American Muslim culture – a culture that not only speaks to the histories of those Muslims in America but even more importantly to their present and their future. Taking their point of view, at the very best, culture can be imported from overseas and draped on the shoulders of modern day Muslims but in no way do they recognize American Muslims as possessing any form of agency. With the script pre-written, Muslims in America will have to settle for acting in someone else’s play – never becoming stars in their own right.

In this interplay of tradition and privilege, the Traditionalists often see themselves as an object of desire. That in fact, their own interpretation of culture is fit for all peoples, in all times, and all places. And conversely, anyone who resides outside of their cultural expression do so at their own choice. It is here that I found Hinshaw’s comments pertinent:

I imagine that many people consider their own neighborhood a pretty fine place. After all, people live where they are comfortable with the physical surroundings and the neighborhoods.

Hinshaw precludes that who ever lives in a neighborhood does so at their own discretion. The possibility that people often live where they can and not where they would like to is completely glossed over in Hinshaw’s treament of the topic. And yet, for anyone who has done even the most rudimentary examination of inner city populations will realize that the people that reside within these spaces do so not out of choice but rather from the lack of it. To assume that inner city blacks, for example, “are comfortable with the physcial surroundings and the neighborhoods” in which they live in is woefully ignorant [ironically, I found this magazine at my place of work, the University of Pennsylvania: School of Design, in their City Planning department]. This presumptuous rhetoric smacks of the same song mentality practiced by the Traditionalists. They are just as much out of touch with the times as a city planner that assumes all people are happy with where they live. And yet, one of the claims of tradition is that it is supposed to be grounded. Grounded in some sort of existential, historical narrative. So what, precisely, is the current trend of Traditional Islam grounded in?

The theme of being out of touch is central to my critique of Traditional Islam [not to be confused with the intellectual tradition of Islam]. At least in the way it is marketed and packaged. By disarming its adherents of any means of agency, a homegrown, authentic articulation of Islam, driven by a healthy, grounded American Muslim culture, can never develop. Part of this syndrome is due to the fact that many of the institutions of Traditional Islam are out of touch with the development of such a culture. In fact, it may not even be an agenda point. I was reminded of this current situation by William Deresiewicz’s article in The American Scholar, where Deresiewicz speaks on his inability to communicate with his plumber:

There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Socks cap, and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him.

Fourteen years of higher education and a handful of Ivy League degrees, and there I was, stiff and stupid, struck dumb by my own dumbness.

Deresiewicz argues that it was his Ivy League education that did not provide him with the social skills to speak with people “below him”?. That because the plumber is assumed to not have the same amount or level of educational [a safe assumption, no doubt, as Deresiewicz has over a decade of Ivy League education], that not only can he not come down to the plumber’s level but the plumber cannot also ascend to Deresiewicz’s. In my many dealings with students and even some teachers of Traditional Islam, there has been a heavy tendency to practice intellectual elitism. And unlike Mr. Deresiewicz’s education, which undoubtedly took many years and lots of hard work, in the Muslim context, it seldom takes having a bit of Arabic under your belt and a few classes with the right scholars. Thus, by crafting a nomenclature around Tradition, those who fail to ascend to its lofty towers will be left to serve as the plumbers of the Muslim world [the fact that the world would suffer tremendous more for a lack of plumbers than a lack of intellectuals but this fact is not explored], at least academically speaking. There has also been the similar tendency of assumption that Muslims of non-preferential backgrounds [especially Blackermican or non-college educated, hence the lack of their numbers in their circles] lack the basic fundamentals of understanding this form of Islam. Indeed, central to the approach is an almost complete absence of the gifting of intellectual ownership of one’s understanding in Islam. To put in summary, if one wishes to understand Traditional Islam, one must keep paying the subscription fees or face having oness service shut off.

One of the key ways in which a viable culture might take roots here in America is that if Muslims in America begin to take intellectual ownership of their religion and their education in the religion. This process is being hampered by the exclusiveness of Traditional Islam as well as the celebrity of Traditional Islam. It’s add-another-fork-to-the-dinner-table mentality will only seek to impede this process. We need less secret handshakes and more psychological spaces opening up, especially given the last decade or so that indigenous Blackamerican community has gone through. Issues such as man/woman relationships, civic engagement, and education, just to name a few, are in dire need of revamping and retooling.

It is one of my supreme hopes that Muslims in America will wake up and realize that they have the tools to create a healthy, vibrant American Muslim culture. For anyone who thinks that having an American Muslim culture is not a major hurdle on the way to arriving in America need only look to our foreign brothers and sisters. For better or worse, it is their culture that allows them to alleviate many of the anxieties of quotidian existence that plagues so many Muslims in America. An anxiety that is rooted from the fact that they can take no solace in not having to consult an imam, shaykh, 15-volume tome of Bukhari or the like, just to simply figure out if you can cross the street, tie their shoes or go see a movie. It is this culture that could allow many of us to simply “be” to a greater degree versus “trying to be”?. And yet, as we work towards the development of this culture, God willing, we must be shrewd of our embrace of it. For as we have seen, it is apt to have a mind of its own. Culture should serve us towards our goals and ambitions, not making us slaves to the rhythm or at the very least, lower our monthly subscription fees.

‘Umrah 2008 – The Trip I’ve Been Waiting My Whole Life For

 

Before I delve into the heart of this post I would like to plug and praise the Madinah Institute. It was through their hard efforts that we all had the most enjoyable time, no doubt at the cost of them sacrificing some of their own enjoyment. May Allah reward all of you for your efforts. Second, you will notice that I have abandoned the usual academic, stoic prose in favor of a more heart/religion on my sleeve approach. This was no ordinary trip, thus warranting no ordinary post. I hope you will enjoy it.

But not to fear. For those of you who just anxious to see the images, here they are [I’ll be trying to put these back up again soon]. I hope that after you view through them, you’ll take a few minutes and read over the post.

Another quick note about the post. When you see [s], this stands for sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam [May God send peace and blessings upon him]. It is a salutation that Muslims send on the Prophet Muhammad when we mention his name. Ok. Enough notes. Enjoy.

It’s hard to believe, that at 11:20am, I am sitting comfortably in JFK airport on July 10th, 2008. From the first moment that it entered my head I never thought it would ever come to fruition. I must learn to be more trusting and imaginative with my Lord. Truly, God never ceases to astound. And while the time has seemed to hang in Limbo over the last month or so, it has all compressed here in this moment. All of the thought, the planning, the speculation, snares and trip wires, have evaporated and all that remains is myself, two bags and a 2pm date with a very sexy looking 747.

To relate how this trip even came about I must first relate how I met the brothers from the Madinah Institute at the ISNA 2008 Baltimore convention. They happened to be involved with facilitating it. In short time we were hanging out and having coffee, discussing projects that we might want to work on together in the future. The standard meet and greet that one does at such places. But shortly after meeting them it was immediately suggested that I accompany them on their Summer ‘Umrah program in Saudi Arabia. I politely nodded my head, giving an affirmative response that was more articulated on manners I learned as a child than sincere foresight of actually praying in the Holy Mosque. We promised to keep in touch after the conference, and that I did sincerely intend to do as it’s not often that I meet many Muslims today that I really feel comfortable with. Perhaps I’ve just had a string of unfortunate circumstances. Either way, I am very glad to have met them.

While toiling in my office in early June, I received a phone call from one of the brothers asking, “what can we do to get you to come with us to ‘Umrah?” I was shocked and excited at once, like diving into a swimming pool on a hot summer’s day. You know it’s going to be freezing and yet it always surpasses your prediction. But once the cold water washes over your body, you can’t imagine standing poolside any longer. You want to be engaged. You want to stay engaged. Such was my initial feelings when I received my invite. The negotiations were quick and subtle and before I knew it, I was putting in a request for time off. For the next four-plus weeks I had to respond to, “you’re going where?” I graciously replied, “Mecca [from here after referred to as Makkah]. Saudi Arabia. You know, the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah? Yeah, there’s where I’ll be.”  I even took the time to point it out with Google Maps. It was at that moment that the realization hit me in successive waves: staring down at the computer screen, two tiny dots seemed to grow bigger and bigger in my mind. Makkah. Madinah. The birthplace of Islam. Where it all started.

Preparing for a trip such as this one took one a little bit of finagling. Initially, I thought I would have to buy my ihram from the Internet but I was easily able to locate one in Philadelphia, not more than ten blocks from my house. In a small Muslim shop on 52nd and Chestnut in West Philadelphia, I procured my ihram from Shaykh Muhammad, the proprietor of Muslim Fashions. In fact, I had called the day before to see if he sold ihrams and he had set one aside for me. The shop was a quintessential inner city Muslim store, filled with rows of jumbled books, organized in no particular order. A small supply of men’s clothing in the forms of shalwar khamees, thobes, kufis and the like and a large selection of women’s clothing apparel. But what stands out the most with shops like these is the overwhelming bouquet of odors. Dozens of vials full of perfumes and body oils clutter the display case, their scents mixing vigorously with piles of incense, from boxes full of brown and green sticks to cones. The olfactory is completely stunned – one may not be able to smell properly for several hours even after exiting the store. And of course, anything one buys from Muhammad is ripe with the scent, needing four to five washings to attempt to remove. But the most important thing about this exchange is that none of the above should be seen as a negative. It’s just part of the experience.

The only intervening activities of note from here until departure was the head scratching one does at puzzling out how to wear the ihram without it coming undone and flashing everyone at the House of God. Definitely not in the itinerary. But like so many things in modern life, a simple Google search [sh. Muhammad ‘Adaly] – coupled with an hour or two of laughs and you’re a pro a walking around the house in two bed sheets, practicing, “Labbayka allamhuma labbayk -  [At your service, my Lord, I am at your service]”. With the ihram mastered, it’s time to pack.

Anyone who ever needs to fly from JFK and lives in Philadelphia, I highly recommend the Grey Hound/MTA/AirTrain combination. An e-ticket from Grey Hound can be had for as little as $12 – $15. Two dollars gets you from Port Authority to Howard Beach on the A Train. Another seven klaks and you’re on the AirTrain which will take you to any terminal in the airport. As long as you leave with plenty of time, it’s the most relaxing way to fly out of New York City for under $30 one-way.

For those who don’t know me as well, I have an extreme phobia of flying. Extreme to the point that I need to be medicated to board the jet. Logical persuasions always fall short of the mark. After all, it’s a phobia – it is not dictated by the norms of logic. And from the first moment I laid eyes on the Saudi Arabian Airlines 747 jumbo jet, my fear escalated to another level. I was astounded by how absolutely massive the aircraft was. My mind raced, trying to find a believable equation that would justify 50 tons of steel flying up into the blue yonder. But if there’s one thing I’m learning on this trip and that’s to not underestimate the Grace of God. I spent the two nights before my flight reverently supplicating to have a safe flight as nightmares flashed through my head of crashing planes, wreckage and worse. And yet, on boarding the plane, a peculiar sense of tranquility washed over me. A subdual of my fears granted me a very comfortable flight. Even take off and landing, which are normally fraught with anxiety went by smoothing [well, fairly smooth – my palms were still slightly moist]. The crew was quite pleasant and I enjoyed talking with them, discussing my first trip to Saudi Arabia. “Truly, with hardship comes ease.”

Saudi Arabia is very hot. That is something that should just be put out in the open and gotten out of the way. Or, if not out of the way, put out in the open to establish a context in which almost all actions, activities and indeed thoughts, occur in. From the moment you step off the plane you know you’re in a very different place. Not just because of the language or the palm trees but because of the heat. In fact, it is the environment of Saudi that impresses me the most. Harsh and yet beautiful, it commands your respect instantly. On the ride from the airport at Jeddah to Makkah, you pass through a very harsh terrain that is composed up scrub, sand, broken rocks, boulders and mountains. One is reminded of the times that the Prophet Muhammad and his people had to live in. The pre-Modern Bedouin has all of my respect. Traversing such terrain on camelback is not for the faint of heart.

Our arrival at the hotel was made quick as we landed in Saudi on Friday, the day of communal prayer [Jumu’ah Prayer]. Our task was to unload as quickly as possible, shower, and head off to the Haram [the Holy Mosque]. Having never set foot in Makkah before, I was anxious to get underway and within thirty minutes I was strolling down the street, white ihram wrapped around my body, headed towards the mosque, with only a general sense of where I was going. The street was packed bumper to bumper with traffic, as Makkah’s inhabitants tried to find parking spaces for the prayer. I gazed around me, bemused, as the thought occurred to me [and not for the last time, either]: “What is a boy from Michigan doing walking down the street in Makkah?! Wow!, I am really here!”. And I seemed to belong there somehow. As if I my very feet had contributed to smoothing the path that leads to the Ka’abah. It was with this thought in mind, rounding a corner, that the minarets of the Grand Mosque came into view. I was completely stopped in my tracks, transfixed in a gaze. At your service, my Lord, I am at your service [labbayka allahumma labbayk]. It was huge. Bigger than huge. It was magnificent. It took me several moments to take it all in, to digest it. Like a whirlpool, the gates of the Haram swallowed patron after patron, headed to find a spot to sit, awaiting the Friday Sermon. But yet again, another silent thought came to me: “This is modern architecture. As beautiful as it may seem, these minarets are modern fabrications. What I am in search of is ancient. Much older than these.” And so I picked up the pace, descending the last portion of the road that connects to the white marble outside the Haram.

I will endeavor to try and describe many of the wonderful things I have seen, heard, tasted and touched on this trip to the best of my ability. But I must plead guilty to being unable to properly describe what it meant to behold the Ka’abah the first time. Also named the House of God and the House of Abraham, the Ka’abah is the centerpiece of Muslim prayer. It is the direction to which Muslims pray. Often people will say that Muslims turn the direction of their prayer to Makkah, and while this is true, it is only true in that Makkah houses the Ka’abah. When at the Haram, one’s direction of prayer is the Ka’abah. It is stunning to see all four of its walls lined with people. Men, women and children all bowed in prostration towards it. Again, I was hit with the thought that when I am at home or in the office and praying, it is towards here, here!, that I am pointing my body. My qiblah [direction of prayer] leads here.

But in addition to the direction of prayer, it’s also the significance of being at the Ka’abah, to know that one is standing on the very same ground as the Prophet [may Allah bless him and grant him peace] once stood. That the companions of the Prophet once stood [may Allah be pleased with them]. An avid student of the religion from day one, I have read many an account of this or that event taking place at the Ka’abah, like the reading of ar-Rahman, the 55th chapter of the Qur’an, at the Ka’abah and the reaction of the Quraysh to it [my apologies for readers who are unfamiliar with some of the terminology. Feel free to contact me you wish to have a more detailed explanation]. But now with being here, I’ve gone from passive observer to active participant. To being inserted into the historical narrative, however small my bit part might be.

The Ka’abah is also much larger than one thinks, perhaps twenty feet in height and draped in black cloth, sewn and adorned with golden writing and calligraphy. The focus of the Ka’abah is the Black Stone. Pilgrims strive day and night to pass within its vicinity; to touch it, to kiss it. And despite what one thinks, being big is much more of a disadvantage when you’re trying to wade through a sea of people. I was never once able to get remotely close to the Black Stone. I simply take up too much room. But tawaf is not about touching the Black Stone or kissing it. It is nice if you can but it’s more just the presence of being in this place – one can feel the sanctity of it. The floor of the Haram is covered in white marble, which can be quite blinding in the intense midday sun. Thus I walked in, joined shoulder to shoulder with perhaps several thousand people, to make the Jumu’ah [Friday communal] Prayer.

After prayer I spent a little time walking through some of the shops that line the street going back to the hotel. Makkah, in a word, is bustling. There’s a palatable beat and rhythm that the people move to. Not in some exotic notion but rather that the people are always moving briskly – going somewhere of importance, at least to them. Shops line the streets selling a variety of goods from prayer mats, skull caps, and head scarves to money changers, food carts, fruit sellers and the like. There are also the make-shift vendors, many of them women, dressed head to toe in black, who call out their wares, haggling down to the last riyal [Saudi Arabian currency]. There is also no shortness of beggars, many of whom seem to border on professionalism, repeat the same stories over and over about how they came with their families to Makkah, had all of their money stolen, the car wrecked and so forth and ask you humbly, “Ya hajji, hajji, fiy sabiyliyllah” [O’ Pilgrim! Give for the sake of God]”. And while many of them are no doubt regulars there are indeed poor people on the street, many missing limbs and the like. For those who have not been and are planning to go, you must steel yourself for these encounters for while the professional beggars can be easily brushed aside, it is sometimes a child in the street with a missing leg or arm that can pull at the heart strings. But Makkah is for worship. That is the best advice I can give. Stick to worship at the Haram, at the Ka’bah and that will pull you through.

The next major task was to make ‘Umrah, one of the major foci of the trip. ‘Umrah is a type of pilgrimage, like the Hajj, but is shorter [taking only a few hours to complete], sometimes referred to as the minor Hajj. It does not fill the requirement of Hajj [the once in a lifetime mandate to make Hajj] – and can be performed any time of the year where Hajj is only performed in the month of dhul-Hijjah [the month of Hajj]. ‘Umrah consists of two major rituals, tawaf and saa’iy, follow by halq [complete cutting/shaving of hair – for men] or taqsiyr [partial trimming – for men/women]. ‘Umrah is performed in an item of clothing called an ihram. Ihram is also the name for the state that the mu’atamir [‘Umrah pilgrim] is in until the ‘Umrah ritual is completed. The garment [for men] consists of two white, seamless sheets of cotton, one wrapped around the waist and the other over the shoulders. Again, the mu’atamir remains in the state of ihram until s/he cuts the hair.

My days of practicing putting my ihram on and walking around the house paid off and before I knew it, I was headed off to the Haram, ready to perform my first ‘Umrah. I was accompanied by several members of our group, including Shaykh Muhammad Ninowy. We had waited until after the final evening prayer to go, hoping the crowds would be a little less and the heat a bit lower. We were granted one of our requests – it was only about 98 degrees instead of 109 but the crowd was still going strong. So lining up at the corner of the Black Stone, I raised my right hand, saluted the Ka’abah and said, “bismillah. Allahu akhbar, Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar [in the name of God. God is great, God is great, God is great]”. The first three times around the Ka’abah [making tawaf] the pace is sped up a bit by men, followed by four units at a regular walking speed. During the counter-clockwise navigation of the Ka’abah, one offers up prayers and supplications for oneself, one’s family, one’s loved ones, friends, the Prophet Muhammad [s], all the Prophets, all Muslims worldwide, all of humanity, and so forth. Other various prayers are offered up as well. It is a truly magical thing. Surrounded by thousands of people you do not know from Adam, and yet you find yourself smiling at them. Smiles are returned. Greetings are exchanged [as-Salaamu ‘alaykum, peace be unto you] and your thoughts glide upward to the Most High. We started as a group but by the first round of tawaf we were separated and all of us interspersed into the greater crowd. Over and over, we circle the Ka’abah, all thoughts on God. I don’t think I’ve ever had a more selfless moment in my life. I pray I can return for many more.

Once our seven units of tawaf were completed we offered two units of prayer at the station of Ibrahim [Abraham]. The many rituals of ‘Umrah and Hajj are symbolic representations of what Abraham and his wife Hagar did. For instance, saa’iy, the seven units of walking between the hills of Safaa and Marwa represent the anxious search of Hagar of water until God revealed to her the location of the Zamzam well. We left the station of Ibrahim and proceeded to saa’iy.

It was unclear if the current conditions at saa’iy are temporary or permanent. Saa’iy used to be open-aired but now is enclosed. This created two issues. One, the effects of the heat are intensified as the heat has nowhere to go. It was the only place in Saudi that I felt humidity. And two, it makes it more difficult to discern the localities of the small hills of Safaa and Marwa. I can only hope these are temporary measure due to construction on the Mosque.

The crowds were tight in here as well, as with the area being enclosed, there was nowhere for the crowds to spill over to. There are two main paths, one leading to Marwah and the other back to Safaa, with a small path in between the two to allow for the disabled in wheelchairs to make saa’iy as well. Again, one starts off by making supplications and the sets off between the two hills. Some people stop at intervals and have a small cup of Zamzam water before carrying on. At the completion of the said seven units, the rituals of ‘Umrah are now completed, with only the hair cutting remaining. Despite only walking, we were all fairly exhausted from the effort and headed back to the hotel for a shower and hair trimming.

The barber in the hotel was a curious fellow from Egypt. I believe he was from Aswan and perhaps of Sudanese heritage. He took a lot of pride in not only shaving heads but giving us a hard time about politics and religion. He kept us laughing for the better part of an hour, after which most people in the group had their heads shaved. I opted for a simple cutting of a few locks. And with the hair cutting completed, we finished our ‘Umrah and resumed our normal affairs, taking off our ihrams until the next time.

We remained in Makkah for a few more days, attending classes and recovering from the efforts of ‘Umrah. I had a chance to go out and get to know the city a bit. Zayd and myself took an excursion one day which resulted in a very funny incident.

Bartering is how things get done in Makkah. You barter for just about everything and anything. Prices are not what they seem and unless you just want to get taken for a ride, you’d better learn to barter. A little Arabic under your belt wouldn’t hurt either, as was the case with Zayd. While walking in a predominantly Bengali section of Makkah, Zayd [who, for the context of this story, is a white-American convert with a slightly Southern accent] needed to new AA batteries for his GPS tracking device [p.s.  just for the record. If you don’t want to be treated like a tourist and gouged on prices, put away the shinny GPS device and just get lost like the rest of us!]. Upon entering what looked like to be a promising little shop, the owner spotted his rent for the day and offered Zayd two AA batteries for the sum of 75 riyals! That’s about twenty American dollars. The man feigned speaking English of course and thus Zayd came back, requesting some assistance. I lent my swarthy appearance to the task and when I inquired about two AA batteries the negotiating started at 10 riyals, and the end of which the man was widdled down to three [about 80 cents]! Again, unless you want to spend all your hard earned cash on AA batteries, put away any all possible traces of American-ness.

In addition to classes we also took a tour around Makkah, visiting a number of significant historical sites from the grave of Khadijah, may Allah be pleased with her, the Prophet’s [s] wife, other graves of the Companions of the Prophet, may God be pleased with them, to some of the sites that the Prophet [s] used to frequent before his call to Prophethood. Caves and mountain sites where he [s] would go into spiritual retreat and meditate and pray. The shuyukh [plural of shaykh] provided us with a bounty of commentary on each and every place we went, enriching the experience and making it all come alive. May Allah reward them for the time and effort. It was these tours, combined with the classes, which really made the experience of going with the Madinah Institute extremely worthwhile. I commend them and ask Allah to reward them for their efforts in organizing such a wonderful trip.

From Makkah we journeyed approximately 5 hours through the desert to Madinah, also knows as al-Madinatul Munawwarah [The City of Light/The Enlightened City] and Madinatun Nabiyy [The City of the Prophet]. In pre-Islamic times it was known as Yathrib. Our stay was first at the Movenpick hotel followed by the Hilton. Both accommodations were quite splendid. Another small tip – befriend the Egyptian guy that cleans your room. If you get him to like you [which means trying to converse with him in a face-paced, half-intelligible Egyptian slang about soccer and Hajj, where your family is from and whether or not you’re married as well as leaving him about 10 or so riyals a day], you’ll want for nothing. At least that’s at the Movenpick. At the Hilton you can just speak English with the Bengali staff. They’re very gracious.

Madinah. The City of the Prophet. From the first moment one steps into Madinah, you can feel the tranquility of the place. A completely different vibe underpins Madinah versus Makkah. The hustle and bustle of Makkah is replaced with a much more toned down pace of life. Even the weather is tamer, despite it supposedly being warmer. A gentle breeze always seems to be blowing in Madinah. It is the place from one’s initial contact; you know you never want to leave it.

The rhythm of our stay in Madinah was more calculated, with classes being interspersed between prayer times. Less time was spent at the suwq [market], as was the case in Makkah, as in Madinah it seemed. We all really just wanted to spend time at the Prophet’s [s] Mosque, making Visitation to him, spending time in the Rawdah [a small section of the Mosque adjacent to the Prophet’s [s] house, which is considered by Muslims to be a part of the Jannah [Paradise]. I myself spent a lot time here, reading Qur’an one afternoon with El-Amin, a wonderful American brother I met on this trip, as well as making dhikr, making du’ah [supplication] for family and loved ones or just simply sitting there with the soothing thought that one is in the presence of the Best of Creation. Again, Madinah is a place of the heart and one longs to extend one’s stay here.

If one has the time and the resources, Madinah is a treasure trove of Muslim history, with many masaajid [mosques] and other places of interest. Many are within walking distance of the Prophet’s [s] Mosque. Unfortunately, I was unaware of this until after our trip. God willing, I will return again next year and frequent some of these places, hoping to photograph some of them. My intention to photograph them is not simply for the sake of tourism, but rather to preserve some memory of them as the Saudi government is studiously knocking down many important historical and religious sites. I can only hope that they will see that modernization can accommodate the past and put a stop to this. Amin.

Like in Makkah, the Madinah Institute also set up tours of Madinah. Several places were visited including amongst them the Masjid Qiblatayn [the mosque of two directions of prayer, where the initial qiblah of Jerusalem as moved to the Ka’abah in Makkah], Masjid Quba, the first mosque established in Madinah, as well as a number of other smaller and far well less know sites like the grove of date palm trees near Quba where there is a sweet-tasting well/spring, called Adhq [from dhawq, which means to taste], a place frequented by the Prophet Muhammad [s]. The grove was owned by Kulthum ibn Hadm, from Bani Amr ibn Awf. The Prophet’ [s], on the Hijrah [the Migration from Makkah to Madinah], stopped and rested in this palm grove area. We also visited the site of Uhud, where many Muslims were martyred. The Prophet’s [s] uncle, Hamzah, may Allah be pleased with him, is also buried there. Again, the efforts of the shuyukh in instructing us really made these legs of the trip so much more informative.

From here, I will conclude with just a few points. I have only scratched the surface of what this trip was and the more I think of it, I will not be able to adequately write about it. Perhaps, through a more personal correspondence with some of you, I can share a more intimate account. But in the end, it was a journey of the heart and thus, can only be truly articulated by the heart. My recommendation? Visit it for yourself. Taste it [dhawq] for yourself and then you will truly know what it means to visit the House of God. What it means to be in the presence of the Mercy to All the Worlds. Again, I prefaced my post that this would be written in the spirit of what I felt, not in my usual academic prose or interfaith dialect. I love Makkah. I love the House of God. And I love the Prophet. I pray I am invited again by its Host, to lay prostrate, open and completely human, as I have only felt in the Divine Presence of the Haramayn [The Two Harams of Makkah and Madinah].

My heartfelt thanks to the Madinah Institute for making this possible. To Shaykh Mohsin Al-Najjar for being patient with me and all of my questions. To Shaykh Ninowy to tolerating my clumsy Arabic with a kind smile [na’am, sidi, na’am, he would often say!!]. To Shaykh Muhammad Ali Ben Saddek Al-Ghumari. I treasure the time I had to speak with you. I apologize that my French was not better! Perhaps I can visit you in Fez, God willing. To British crew: I could not have bad better roommates than you sorry blokes [how’s my Cockney coming along?]!! I had the best time with Majid and Arfan [p.s. next time I look like I’m sleepy: wake me up. I won’t mind!! ]. To Asim – our time was short but I look forward to more. For Sajad and Esa: you guys were just excellent company. I really want to put together a trip to England to visit all of you. Faisal – I am counting on you to take me out for fish n’ chips when I come. And for all the others, brothers and sisters alike, you made this trip what it was. I hope we can all meet again under such favorable locations and spirit. But most of all to the Atiya family. Without whom, none of this would have come together and especially Moutasem, who’s tireless, selfless work made all of us just glide on rails the whole time we were there. May Allah reward you in it and increase you in that reward. Until the next episode, my heart will lay somewhere over the Atlantic, longing for Madinah.