The act of praying or the sambahayang is one of the famous rituals of Muslims. Muslims must perform the sambahayang at least five times a day. I perform the sambahayang, but not five times a day. I do it five times a month when I have the time, or at least once every three months. It’s not that I don’t like to do it. I just don’t have the time. At nineteen, I feel that I have too many things to attend to. I have schoolwork, friends, and boy problems to deal with. Everything can be overwhelming, and sadly, performing the sambahayang is one of the things that I readily sacrifice to attend to other things I consider more important.
Whenever people ask me why I do not practice sambahayang, I always tell them that I don’t have the time. It seems that when it is time to pray, all of a sudden I remember that I have other things to do. Sometimes, I tell myself that I have to go to school or I have assignments to do or I have somewhere else to go. I know that all of these are mere excuses but I don’t really care. They can get me out of the task of praying and that makes me happy. I don’t know if my parents could tell that I am just lying, but I am hoping that they would not ask further. My Mommy always told me that time should never get in the way of my practicing Muslim obligations. It is in performing prayers like the sambahayang that I should find myself with Allah. I could find time or make time for prayer if I wanted to. In fact, I can probably pray more than five times a day if I wanted to. I often wonder how my Mommy would react if she found out. I always wish that she wouldn’t because I know that if she did, she would be disappointed. I don’t want to disappoint my mother because I don’t want to feel guilty. I hate feeling guilty. It eats me up from the inside.
I want to pray every day but I am not sure if I would like to do it five times a day. Sometimes I wonder why Muslims have a strict five-prayer policy. And does this mean they do not pray more than five times a day?
The Quran says that: “You shall recite what is revealed to you of the Scripture, and observe the Salat (samabahayang/prayer), for the Salat prohibits evil and vice. But the remembrance of God is the most important objective. God is aware of all that you do.” (29:45)
After reading this verse from the Quran, I began to wonder if it really is necessary to perform the sambahayang five times a day. What if I do not perform it but still pray through meditation? I am still remembering Allah in that way even though I do not perform the sambahayang. So, what difference would it make?
I remember once, when I was twelve, my mother taught me how to perform the wudhu, the ritual done to wash oneself before doing the sambahayang. She told me to watch her every move closely because I will be doing it after her. First, Mommy got a basin full of water and placed it in front of her. Then, she sat down, closed her eyes, and began to chant. I did not recognize any of the words that she said. I think she was speaking in Arabic. Maybe she was saying the opening prayer but I wasn’t very sure. I do not understand Arabic. People say that I have to learn the language because I am a Muslim but I have always refused to. Mommy and Daddy never forced me to learn Arabic so I didn’t think I should. A couple of minutes later, Mommy cupped the water with her left hand washing the right hand. She repeated it three times. Then, she cupped the water with her right hand and washed the left hand and repeated it three times. Then, slowly she sat upright and started to wash her arms. She repeated the same action three times on both her left and right arms. Then she cupped a handful of water into her mouth. She gargled three times. I thought it was kind of funny repeating the same act three times. I wondered why it had to be done three times. Will it make any difference if I skipped one act and proceeded to the next one? What would happen if I only did it twice? I had all these questions in my head but I never really got the courage to ask Mommy. Perhaps because I knew she would just get angry at me for even asking.
The next thing I knew, Mommy had already washed her face and neck. I assumed she also did it three times. Then, she sat still for a few minutes and then started chanting a few verses from the Quran. The words that she used sounded very familiar. I thought I had heard an Imam chant the same things the last time I was in the masjid but I wasn’t really sure. I often fell asleep when the Imam started chanting and only wake up when the prayer is almost done.
And then Mommy stood up and said, “Are you ready? It’s your turn.”
I didn’t know what to say but I think my silence gave Mommy the idea that I was not ready because she said, “Is there anything wrong? Why are you being so quiet?”
“Nothing. I am not sure I can do it.”
“Don’t worry. I will be here to guide you.”
I quietly told myself that I did not want to go about the process but because I couldn’t tell Mommy that, I blurted: “Should I really do everything you did? Can’t I just sit down and pray?”
I don’t remember what my mother said or did after I said that. All I know is that today, at nineteen, I know how the sambahayang is performed. I just don’t practice it.
Praying is a way of meditation. A state where a person reaches sublimity. But for me, sambahayang is like walking around school in heels and with a big bag of stones.
It was a Friday. We were about to go to the masjid when my stomach made a rumbling sound. Mommy told me that we will have lunch after going to the mosque; but it was almost noon and when we got there, it left me wondering what time we would eat. I gave my mother a stern look and I think she got the message because a few minutes after, she said, “Just a couple of minutes more, Sai. Keep yourself together.”
I had no choice but to bear with the hunger. When I was young, my mother would always tell me how sacred the wudhu is. She always reminded me that I should not eat anything after the wudhu because if I did, I would have to do the ritual all over again. Because I didn’t want that, I followed her. I tried not to mind the grumbling sounds from my stomach but no matter how I tried, I ended up opening the refrigerator, taking a slice of bread, and eating it on our way. I was busily eating my bread when suddenly Mommy shouted, “What are you doing? You have done wudhu already!”
“But I’m hungry. My stomach is aching,” I answered coldly.
“You should have eaten before doing the wudhu. When I asked you if you were hungry, you answered that you were still full. And now, you’re eating that bread.”
“I just felt hungry now. It’s okay. As if it would really matter. This is only a piece of…”
Mommy became quiet. It bothered me that she wasn’t scolding me because she always did whenever I violated the rules of Islam, like eating after wudhu. When I looked at her eyes, I knew she was angry. I didn’t need to be told because I understood that. I knew that she just stopped herself from lashing out in anger because we were in a public place. She didn’t want to make a scene. Mommy was always like that. She did not like me to argue with her. Whatever she says we have to follow.
“You have to perform wudhu again.”
I was frightened by the way she said the words. I knew I should just obey her.
I dreaded the fact that I had to go about wudhu again. How I wanted to ask my mother why I had to do it again. I was only eating because I was hungry. Why should I be punished for that? Why should they torture me with a few minutes of meditation and cleansing again? I’ve never really had the guts to ask my mother, and this time was no different.
Mommy told me that I should not eat after wudhu. I knew that I shouldn’t and I expected her to be mad at me but I didn’t expect her to be as mad as she was that time. The way her eyes looked at me as I chewed that piece of bread made me feel like I had committed a mortal sin, the kind that I would be persecuted for. Despite that, I did not feel any remorse eating that slice of bread. I was hungry and I didn’t care about anything else.
I really wanted to ask Mommy why she was so mad, why I was not allowed to eat after the wudhu and what difference it would make if I did eat after the wudhu. But I knew that she wouldn’t answer me. Again, she would just keep quiet for a few seconds and say, “Just follow what I tell you. I only teach you what good Muslims do.” Mommy always reminded me how important it was to follow her, but I cannot remember a time when we sat down together and she explained to me why there was a need to do it.
Before arriving at the masjid, I thought of going to the washroom and performing the wudhu again. But when we stepped down from the tricycle, we could already hear the Imam’s voice from the speakers outside the mosque. He was already chanting the opening prayer. I was happy to know that I won’t be able to do the wudhu again and because according to Muslim beliefs I was not ready for the prayer because I was unclean. Mommy instructed me to wait for her in a store beside the masjid. Mommy rushed inside the masjid and I went to the store and happily sat on the bench. At first, I felt really guilty not being able to attend the prayer that day but I resolved to myself that there was nothing wrong in what I did. And so I sat there for almost an hour eating and drinking what satisfied my hunger. I waited for my Mommy as I looked at the crescent moon and star symbol that stood above the masjid. “That symbol is just for identification purposes, Sai. With or without that symbol, a masjid is still a masjid. You don’t have to be bothered about that,” my Mommy told me back then. So, I really didn’t bother to know the truth behind the sign. But every time I looked at it, a scene flashes inside my head—a mother stopping her child from going out and playing.
Until today, I don’t regret eating that slice of bread because I know it would have been much better than joining the ceremony and praying to Allah that the Imam make the sambahayang faster.
On our way to the masjid, I sat at the front seat of the tricycle beside the driver. I knew that I should have chosen the back seat but I didn’t. I like sitting in front because it is the most comfortable seat in the tricycle. I don’t have to be squeezed between two strangers with the indescribable smell of a hot afternoon. I also didn’t like it when my knees would rub against the other person’s knee, and on the few occasions when I sat at the back, people would often step on my foot. Rarely did they apologize for it, and I hated it. Sitting in the front seat was like heaven inside the tricycle—or so I thought.
My story began a few hours back when I had to perform the wudhu. I had spent about two hours washing myself slowly part by part. Then I dressed up in a malong, and a white dress we called luko, which revealed only my face. My mother would always remind me how important it is to do the wudhu. She said that I should always be clean before I face Allah. And her litany of reminders would always end with “Do not touch boys.” I kept telling myself this, but when I am preoccupied with my thoughts, I would forget all of her reminders until she started her litany again.
While we were sitting inside the tricycle, all my thoughts were focused on how I could avoid touching the driver. I repeatedly told myself to be careful and I became very conscious that I was sitting beside a man. My mother’s words repeatedly flashed inside my head. “Do not touch boys. Do not touch boys.” I was sitting in the front seat but I found myself in a very uncomfortable situation. I was squeezed between my mother and the driver. I was carefully trying to prevent my shoulders from touching the driver’s right arm, his hand, or worse, rub shoulders with him. I leaned against my mother, hoping to save myself from any accident—meaning the driver’s body touching mine. My thoughts were filled with nothing but my mother’s litany: “Do not touch boys. Do not touch boys.” I was really worried that my hands or my shoulders or even just my fingers would touch this man’s body not because I was scared of my mommy, but because I dreaded the fact that I would have to do the wudhu again. It meant another hour or two of wudhu. All Muslims need to be as clean as possible. We have to be physically and emotionally clean before entering the masjid. And I dreaded the thought of my hand or shoulder or my pinky finger touching any part of the driver’s body because it would make me impure. Muslims believe that touching the opposite sex, whether intentionally or unconsciously, is an act of impurity because it arouses temptation and lust.
I must have been thinking very hard then because the next thing I knew, I found myself literally rubbing elbows with the driver. I did not say a word and pretended that nothing happened, hoping that my mother did not see it. The driver moved the tricycle to the side of the street and a passenger stepped out and walked to where my mommy was seated. She reached out to hand a ten-peso coin to the tricycle driver. As the driver tried to extend his arm, I leaned towards my right where my mommy could prevent his arm from touching my shoulder. I found myself in a very awkward situation. I was consciously trying to avoid any contact between me and the male tricycle driver, but at the same time I was worried that he might get the wrong impression. I think he did because while he was trying to reach out for the coin from the passenger, he threw me curious glances. I knew he was wondering why my mother was deliberately moving away from me. I wanted to explain why we were avoiding any form of contact—touching of the hands, or rubbing of the elbows. But at that time, I felt that there was no room for explaining. Then I noticed that the driver was also trying very hard to move away from us. In fact, his head was stuck out of the tricycle. We were all very uncomfortable in the situation but we could not do anything about it. We were all quiet when suddenly, the driver took my hand and slipped two one peso coins in my palm saying, “Day, kindly give her change.”
I could barely move because what I dreaded most had come. I did not know what to say because my mind went blank. And then, I heard the other passenger say, “Miss, my change.”
I looked at her, opened my palm, and felt the coins slip out of my grip. Then my mind went blank. I did not know what happened after that because I was thinking of the wasted hours performing the wudhu and the fact that I cannot perform the sambahayang anymore because of what the driver had done. I tried very hard to stay as far away as possible from the driver because I did not want to go about the same ritual, but again, I failed.
All this time, I have always thought that the only major thing that could break the wudhu is “boys.” My mother has always emphasized that I should not touch boys. But later, I found out that many things could break the wudhu after all: when inside the masjid and one laughs, talks about worldly things, farts, or falls asleep—all of which I have done without knowing that I shouldn’t have done them.
As we entered the masjid, my father, who had just finished smoking a cigarette immediately walked straight to take his space in front of the masjid, leaving Mommy and me standing by the door without saying a word. And then Mommy pulled me by the left arm and signaled me to follow her. We took a seat at the left side of the rear of the mosque where women are required to sit. It was always like that. Muslim women sit at the rear of the masjid while the men sit in front. Mommy said once that that doesn’t mean that the men are superior to women. It’s just that women are more capable of “concentrating” than men. I didn’t understand what she meant because whenever I stepped into the mosque, I immediately felt drowsy and sleepy.
The place was filled with soft murmurs of people who seemed like they had not seen each other for a long time. Two rows behind me was a girl who closed her eyes tight while sitting beside two women who were talking with each other. She must have been twelve years old, like me.
Just when the sambahayang was about to start, I felt the need to go to the toilet.
Before the wudhu, I had eaten two plates of paella that Mommy cooked. It must have been the reason my stomach was acting up. I could already hear my stomach making rumbling sounds, but I tried to stand straight and not move, hoping that it would go away. I knew that I could not control it anymore but the Imam had already started chanting. It was time for sambahayang when I felt the strong urge to use the toilet. Everybody had stood up, signaling the start of sambahayang. I knew I could not go out now. I just had to endure the stomach pain.
“Mommy, I really want to go to the CR. My stomach is aching,” I whispered.
“Just wait until after the sambahayang, Sai. It won’t take long,” Mommy said.
“Allah hu akbar/ Allah is great,” said the Imam, and everybody fell on their knees and bowed. As I bowed, it felt like those things inside my stomach were pushed further down. The rumbling noises inside my stomach drowned out the loud voice of the Imam. All I could hear was a voice inside my head telling me that I really needed to go to the toilet. But Mommy said that the prayer won’t take long and I believed her. The whole time I was there, I prayed intently to Allah to make the ceremony faster for my suffering to end. I prayed even harder that I won’t poop in my underpants because I was wearing a white luko.
But before all these, I had planned to pray for so many things. I had wanted to ask Allah to help me pass my math exam, and for Allah to convince my mommy and daddy to buy me a new cellphone. But, instead I had to pray that the prayer would end soon because I really had to go to the toilet. At that moment, I wasn’t able to pray for all these things to Allah. I was begging Allah to make the Imam chant faster although I knew that it was impossible. I prayed that other people would stop praying too. The Imam kept chanting like he used to, slowly and clearly. I wondered if Allah heard my prayers because about one hundred other people were praying all at the same time.
Mommy’s idea of a short prayer was not that short after all. I needed to use the toilet but Allah did not permit me. And then I heard the rumbling sound again. This time, it became louder and louder until I felt a gush from my behind.
I always looked forward to Fridays because it was the only time that I could play with my cousins. However, Fridays were also spent going to the masjid for the sambahayang. No matter how I wanted to sit together with all my cousins when doing the sambahayang, I couldn’t do that. In the masjid, boys and girls are separated. Boys are situated in front near the Imam, while the girls are seated at the back. In our masjid, there is a white cloth that serves as the boundary to separate the girls from the boys.
“Why is it like this? Why are the boys in front? Does that mean that Allah loves boys more than girls?”
Mommy just smiled.
“No. It’s not like that. Boys and girls are separated in the masjid to avoid temptation.”
“Temptation? What do you mean?”
“Girls like you should not be sitting beside boys.”
“In praying, Muslims need to concentrate,” Mommy said firmly.
“So, does Allah love boys better?”
“Allah loves everyone equally.”
“What is tempting, mommy?”
“Keep quiet, we are praying.”
I wanted to ask so much about what she meant by “tempting.” I couldn’t see any difference. Whenever I was with my male cousins, it was just like being with my female cousins. Nothing seemed different. Perhaps the only difference was that whenever I was with boys, I enjoyed myself more.
I like being around them because all we do is laugh. Their jokes and games are more fun compared to the girls and I really loved being around them. Fridays used to be very happy days until we grew up. Every time we had to go to the masjid, I had to sit beside my mother and another woman. Masjid is the place of prayer and silence. And because sitting with boys means fun, there is no room for it inside the masjid.
I often wonder why the concept of praying in Islam is different from other religions. Men and women sit at opposite sides of the masjid. Unlike in most Protestant churches where praise and worship is about singing songs, dancing, and socializing with other members of the church, Muslims are quiet inside the masjid. Sambahayang is silence. I don’t even get the chance to acquaint myself with anyone sitting next to me. Instead, we spend time meditating on our own. Sambahayang is not about fun. There are no instruments, no singing, no dancing, no games. It is boring, and Fridays spent in the masjid is a total waste of time. All I have to do is stand, bow, kneel, bow while lifting my butt, sit, and listen to the chanting Imam whose words are so alien to me.
Once in high school, I was able to attend a so-called worship session of one of my close friends. At the back of my mind, I refused the invitation because I didn’t want to be talked into converting into another religion. I grew up in Muslim traditions and although I may not be as devoted as the other Muslims I know, converting to another religion had never crossed my mind. But because they were my friends, I accepted the invitation and came to the worship.
I had planned to leave after about an hour because I did not want to die of boredom. But things did not turn out as planned. I actually found myself enjoying the activities. We had our own name tags and I was able to meet other young people from other schools. The program started with a song of one of the popular bands at that time, the Eraserheads. It was my first time to actually sing along with the band inside a church. The sound of the voices echoed in the walls of the function room. And then the band kept on playing songs about Jesus. I thought I would be disgusted, but to my surprise, the songs actually made me feel more at home. Everybody around me was just dancing and singing and having a great time.
I would love to be invited again. Before I even came, I had told myself that the activity was not going to be my kind of thing. I knew that it would only be about Christianity and Jesus and how great it is to be a Christian. I am a Muslim and my religion speaks of everything that is not about Jesus. But I was disappointed with myself. I wanted to just sit at the corner of the room until after an hour had passed so that I could leave, but I did not. Instead, I joined the praise and worship and had the time of my life.
One of the speakers during the session talked about dreaming. He said “Dreaming shapes a person’s future. The more a person dreams, the more he becomes successful.”
And then it hit me. At sixteen, I never really believed in the idea of dreaming. In fact, I don’t remember any time in my life that I dreamed of becoming somebody. I never had thoughts of what I wanted to be when I grew up. But when I heard him say that, a very deep sigh came out of me. I was won over.
On my way home, I wondered how the people in their church pray. There were games, a band, and interesting speakers. It is like Sunday had passed without even realizing it because of having so much fun.
If only I could spend as much time with my male cousins as I did in the Christian worship, praying would have been more exciting. If only praying in my religion were like this, I would go to the mosque and pray as often as I could. I do not understand why we pray the way we do. My mother just told me that I need only follow what she says, and so I did.
Every time an Imam delivers his lecture before the sambahayang in Maguindanaon, Maranao, Arabic, or any other language that I do not understand, all the curses I know flash inside my head. Whenever the Imam chants, it feels like he is talking about me, about how bad I have been. Imams in all the masjids I have been to have ways of making me feel that I do not belong and that I have no right to be called a Muslim. I’m not sure; perhaps it is my own guilt.
The Imam speaks of Allah’s words with hope that he could teach and impart important lessons in life. More than that, the Imam aims to persuade Muslims in the ways of Islam. But every time I listen to the Imam, all I can hear are curses inside my head. I have this great desire to know and understand what being a Muslim is really about, but I don’t understand the language of the Muslims. It is a language so alien to me that whenever I hear the Imam, my mind starts to wander. I am there but my mind is somewhere else. No matter how hard I try, I can’t concentrate. Sometimes, I spend the hour sitting there, listening but not understanding a single thing. Most of the time, I think of my assignments in school or my crushes. Nothing makes any sense. If my mind is not wandering, I giggle at every funny word or pronunciation I hear. But whenever I get bored doing so, I just sleep in Mommy’s lap.
The first time I decided to sleep in Mommy’s lap while we were inside the masjid was when I was in elementary.
“Sai, remember that we are inside the masjid for the sambahayang. You should listen to the sermon,” she whispered.
“Mommy, how can I listen when I cannot understand anything? Imams should make sure that everybody can understand what they are saying. Why do they even use a language many of us couldn’t understand?” I said firmly in a low voice.
She stared at me and then closed her eyes and she never said anything about it after that. Since then, I would sleep whenever the Imam started to chant. I really had no choice because when I am awake, I feel that I am alone and different from other Muslims. Everybody bowed their heads and listened intently to the Imam. And I was alone, struggling and guessing what the alien words meant. I really wanted to ask the translation from my mother, but I preferred not to. Most of the time, she would cry whenever we were inside the masjid. She listened to the Imam, bowed her head, and cried. I did not want to distract her from crying. When I looked at every woman I see inside the masjid, I felt like I was the only person who did not understand what was going on around me.
Whenever I am inside, I do not feel the essence of sambahayang or the essence of being a Muslim. I want to feel what Mommy feels whenever she is inside the masjid. But because I do not understand, I only see its uselessness. Sometimes, I find myself looking for excuses so that I would not have to go to the masjid and perform the sambahayang. If only Imams would try to make me understand, sambahayang wouldn’t be as tedious as I think it is.
I was not raised by my parents in a strict and traditional Muslim way of life and now I have to struggle. Allah knows how much I want to understand the Muslim language, if only to feel what most Muslims in the masjid feel when praying. In this way, I will finally belong.
Janesa Mariam G. Ladjiman hails from General Santos City. She is a graduate of the BA English-Creative Writing program of UP Mindanao.