When I was a kid, Mom used to say, “You know you’ve become an infidel when you forget the Fatihah.” The Fatihah is the preamble to the Quran, a prayer Muslims repeat five times a day.
Mom used to warn me to be grateful for the practice. That on the Day of Judgment, Allah would call upon me to recite the Fatihah and I would realize that I had forgotten the words and know what it means to be a lost soul.
While other kids went to soccer practice on the weekends, I went to a religious Farsi school, where prayer was homework and I heard the Fatihah all the time. They would check to see that I was praying correctly, and that I was emphasizing the right “qh” and “ha” sounds, and performing the correct poses and postures.
Dad paid particularly close attention to my religious education. “Don’t say ‘God,’ ” he would order, if I was being flip. “When people say ‘God’ they’re thinking of a man god, and that’s as bad as idolatry. We shouldn’t turn people into gods. Say, ‘Allah!’ Allah is the everything in the universe!”
But a girl can block out only so much cultural influence. Even my Quran used the pronoun “He” when it translated the Arabic words into English. And, when I imagined Allah, he always took the form of my dad, usually in the clouds, or he looked like some version of Santa.
Then, at 12 years old, my preteen impatience hit. Prayer was homework that I had to do five times a day?! I wanted to go out and play. I used to love sitting down to lessons with Dad, but now I couldn’t wait for him to stop talking so I could turn the TV back on.
Dad would scold me about rushing through homework, and when that was done he’d scold me for rushing through prayers. In silent protest, I’d sit on my prayer rug and daydream, trying to think of anything but Dad in my head telling me that everything I was doing wasn’t good enough.
When Dad realized I was lying about finishing my prayers, I braced myself for a stern lecture. Instead, he told me, “that is between you and Allah.”
When I was in college, Dad saw me in a YouTube clip joking about being a pork-eating kind of Muslim; he grimaced and said, “Never put your leftovers in my fridge.”
Despite other people’s perceptions of what should or should not be in contradiction with my Muslim identity, I never experienced that discord within myself. But I do get a little sad when anyone asks me if I pray. Truthfully, I just never saw the point of it. I couldn’t connect with the scripture and its archaic English translations. It wasn’t until recently, when I found myself in a mindfulness training class, that I sat for what felt like … prayer.
I took the class with a couple of friends, hoping that it would help me manage stress and improve my communication with co-workers. My friends and I carpooled there every Sunday night and learned about mantras, those mental scripts that can be used to protect your brain from itself. Words to recite in the times we feel impatient, to slow life down and remind ourselves that we don’t have control of everything.
The practice helped. I left every class feeling calmer and more resolute. But at the same time, I found myself annoyed. The teacher kept telling us how wonderfully secular the program was, but I kept thinking about what it really meant: it had taken a religion — Buddhism — stripped it of its complex cultural ties and painful political history, appropriated it, commodified it and put it on T-shirts, mugs and calendars, served back to us in easy “secular” doses.
And then the election happened.
When people asked me if I thought the Trump administration would keep its promises to register Muslims, I could feel my rib cage constrict with worry, and without thinking I reached for the Fatihah. The words of comfort Dad taught me as a kid, and I couldn’t find them and I remembered Mom’s warning. I felt what it was like to be a lost soul.
I don’t believe in hell. I don’t believe in being condemned. I don’t see myself as an infidel, but I do see myself as unmoored. I have this feeling of not being connected to my bones.
When I needed it most, I reached for the words of the faith that I was raised with: that the universe is unified by a force of compassion. And I looked everywhere in the attic of my mind to find those words. Looking further and further back into memories of practicing prayer with my father before my preteen cool set in, and before years of being the “pork-eating, alcohol-drinking,” kind of Muslim had left me untethered. I closed my eyes, desperate to remember those words of comfort, and they weren’t there.
When I heard that Donald Trump was our next president, it was the first time in my life that I understood what prayer was for.
This is what I told my father. Then I asked him to teach me how to pray, again.