...on the way to the mosque / 4
It was nice to be called brother. But not to be locked out and lost.
In frustration, I climbed a fire escape and found an open door. Inside, shoes lay scattered everywhere – a promising sign. Pushing through, I came to some stairs and another door. I knocked, coughed, shouted hello – but no reply.
I pushed through, only to find myself in… somebody’s bedroom.
I dashed down the stairs, put my shoes on as fast as I could, and returned to the bottom of the fire escape.
I went back to the group in the kitchen, who gave me spiced tea and HobNobs, then led me to find the people I was looking for in the ladies’ prayer hall – not somewhere I’d dared to look.
Twelve men sat in a semicircle chanting Arabic hypnotically.
They seemed delighted to see me.
The group was ethnically mixed, with members whose origins appeared to lie in Africa, the Indian subcontinent and southeastern Europe. Some wore clothes from those parts, others could have been dressed at Gap.
In age they ranged from early twenties to late fifties. I was placed next to a young man I assumed to be Arab: he had dark hair, a wispy black beard and Islamic hat, and prefaced every utterance with “Alhamdullilah” (praise be to God).
But in fact he was English and an ex-Catholic.
Joseph had told me that converts to Islam, particularly if they are cut off by friends and family, find themselves pressured by the established Muslim community to conform to standards that are not Islamic but cultural.
Jemima Khan experienced something like this, adopting traditional Pakistani clothing after marrying Imran Khan.
“I over-conformed in my eagerness to be accepted,” she said. I wondered if the same applied to my neighbour.
Over the next hour or so I joined the group’s meditative practice, using a bilingual text to chant the 99 most beautiful names of Allah, then the 201 names of the Prophet, and praise each one to the utmost – as much as there are stars in the sky and drops of rain.
Nobody complained about me, a non-Muslim, doing this.
By comparison, I remember being rebuked, as a child, by after taking communion though I’d not been baptised or confirmed. And that was in the easygoing Church of England.
While somebody lit incense, I confessed to my neighbour that I’d inadvertently joined the prayers at Regent’s Park.
He didn’t quite manage to suppress a broad grin, but recovered swiftly by saying “Alhamdulillah”. Allah would know if I’d done it with a good intention, he said.
The chanting ended. I was given fruit juice, dates and baklava, and introduced to several members of the group, who extended the eastern courtesy of touching their hearts as they shook my hand.
I may have been feeling light-headed, but the room seemed to be charged with celebration and a strong sense of brotherhood – as if we were a sports team that had just won an important fixture.
When it came time to leave, one of my brothers called out: “Have a good evening!”
It was nearly one o’clock in the morning.
At home, I looked up the group I’d met and discovered that they were an order of Sufis.
According to my books, Sufis aspire to detachment, patience and gratitude, using techniques that include chanting and prayer but also walking on hot coals, wearing a hair shirt, lying on a bed of nails and spinning on the spot for hours on end.
This might be a promising area for someone who is dabbling in Islam.
I found a group in the whirling dervish tradition and emailed a couple who host meetings at their home.
A few days later I met Amina Jamil and her husband, Hilal, at a cafe, where they explained more. They were dressed in western clothes – no headscarf on Amina – but possessed what I can only describe as a kind of nobility, as if they were from another time.
Hilal explained that their Sufi sessions start with silent mantras. These included “There is no God but God,” to be repeated 100 times. Then “Allah” 300 times.
“Then we ask for our faults to be forgiven, and we forgive others,” he said.
“We end with ‘Hu’, which is the divine pronoun.”
“The work of Sufism is to embrace and discover the self,” said Amina.
It gradually dawned on me that there was to be no whirling. After the mantras, the group reads a portion of poetry by Rumi, the 13th-century Persian mystic, theologian and founder of the dervishes.
Amina handed me a copy of Rumi’s poetry, slightly worn at the corners. She wanted me to have it.
It was the second time I’d been offered a book that somebody loved. I mentioned Mo, the Bosnian, and my concerns about reading the Koran in translation. Hilal agreed that some translations were better than others.
“But more important than the language is what you bring to the text. Do you have an open heart? If you are cynical, that is what you will find.”
Days later, at their smart mansion block, Hilal introduced me to six members of the group – mostly women. I didn’t catch everybody’s names, but they included an economist, two doctors and a psychiatrist.
Some were born to Islam, but one was a former Catholic (another!). We sat in a circle on chairs and sofas. The women put scarves on their heads and we began the silent mantras.
After the poetry reading, the chanting began. I noticed that my own voice was deeper than others, but gradually lost my thoughts to the harmony. Then Hilal laid out prayer mats.
I took my place beside the women.
Prostrating mechanically was easy. But praising a God I didn’t necessarily believe in? I kept in mind something Rumi wrote. “Stop trying to be the sun and become a speck,” I told myself. “Don’t pretend to be a candle, be a moth.”
The following Saturday I went back to Brent mosque to find out more about the group I’d met briefly in the kitchen – Sufis from yet another order, whose worship relies heavily on music.
I was introduced to a Sudanese man wearing what the ignorant might describe as a long white dress, and a fur hat. This was the sheikh, or teacher.
He was obviously held in great esteem because people stooped to kiss his hand.