Abu Bakr Al Shatri was famous in the Muslim world for his mellifluous recitations of the Quran, for which reason there was almost no chance of him leading prayers in American mosques, which were too small and too strapped for cash to afford such an imam. But here in Dubai money wasn’t an obstacle. On Ramadan’s ﬁfteenth night, my brother and I navigated our way to Rashidiyya, a neighborhood not far from the airport, and parked his SUV in a sandlot under the elevated Green Line. I was so enthusiastic I was jittery: we were about to be led in prayer by someone who’d for me thus far existed solely in videos and recordings. I wore my best clothes: a powder-blue kandoura and, covering my head, a kaffiyeh in silver and cream.
I had accumulated a wardrobe of the ubiquitous ﬂowing garments that might’ve been what people here wore centuries ago, when they could not pore star-struck over prayer schedules, eager to ﬁnd out when their favorite reciter would be at which mosque. I had also spent much of my dwindling income on kaffiyehs in every conceivable color scheme and learned to tie them in the local style. I spent extraordinary sums of money, relatively speaking, on the local colognes. I had dabbed my finest on me that night, so overjoyed was I that I might be able to experience Islam in a way I never had before.
But once prayers began, we had a problem: our imam was not Shatri.
This was the right night, I told myself, based on the ﬂiers we’d consulted. And certainly we could not have gotten the mosque wrong. There were too many thousands of people packing the space. Never before that night had I experienced a religiously induced traffic jam; I liked that here God caused gridlock. “Maybe,” my brother guessed, “Shatri will lead tarawih,” the special prayers Sunni Muslims perform only during Ramadan. How desperately I clung to this hope. I’d been enjoying the Dubaian spin on Ramadan thus far. Every mosque was in immaculate condition. Every reciter would have commanded celebrity in America. They even perfumed the mosques in Dubai: you walked out smelling better than ever. Given all this — and that this was my only Ramadan in a Muslim country thus far — Shatri’s absence was heartbreaking. Because once tarawih started, it wasn’t Shatri either. It was the same imam. The wrong imam. The not-Shatri. While I appreciated this other imam’s mastery of Quranic craft, I hadn’t left an hour in advance and braved unfamiliar roads where hungry Ramadan drivers drifted between lanes at unhealthy speeds while pondering the afterlife to listen to someone I’d never heard of.
His name, I found out much later, was Idrees Abkar. Maybe you like him and now don’t like me very much. But consider my point of view: I was frustrated I’d apparently missed my shot at Shatri, and then more frustrated because I couldn’t stop feeling frustrated. Focus on the prayer, I urged myself, and I focused so much on focusing that I lost it entirely. This was the ﬁfteenth night. Where the hell was Abu Bakr Al Shatri, and why did things never work out?
After tarawih comes witr, which consists of three cycles of prayer. In the ﬁnal cycle before the penultimate prostration, the imam leads the congregation in audible supplication, or dua. Typically this involves the regurgitation of a series of prophetic pleas sung in a style nearly indistinguishable from Quran, though they are largely not of such provenance. Most such duas I’d been through were perfunctory affairs, with me racing to translate the Arabic of each supplication in time to know whether I should say “Ya Allah!” or “Ameen” before the imam started on the next entreaty. Not this time.
In a postmatch interview, a top-ranked tennis player once described what it was like to lose to Rafael Nadal. “I am one of the top players in the world,” this athlete said, not to brag but to underscore what came next. For, he admitted, he had no idea what had happened on the court, except that all his considerable talent had come to naught; he’d been crushed by some kind of magic he had never before encountered and to which he had no response. I do not, to this day, know what Idrees Abkar did. Except I was there for it. In his spoken supplication, the dua right before witr’s end, Abkar started talking to God in a manner that suggested he not only forgot but didn’t care the congregation behind him was in the room; or maybe it was that he was yearning for the thousands behind him to ascend brieﬂy to where he permanently resided.
If we could have been inside his heart, if we could have been offered transportation from our Jerusalem to his heaven, this is what we might have absorbed: Abkar was not leading us in prayer. He was talking to God while we happened to be behind him, squeezed in so tightly we could hardly ﬁnd places for our foreheads on ﬂawless plush carpet. We were realizing that he was realizing, in the course of his supplicating, that he was talking to Him, and this nearly did him in. “I am speaking to my Creator. I am speaking to Him because He created me.” Abkar started crying. Bawling, truly. What, after all, does it really mean to say, “Allahu Akbar” and begin a prayer — talking to the One who made you? It would be bewildering. And amazing. “You,” he whispered. Then he mumbled it. Then he screamed it. Then he tried it again because he could get no farther. “You,” he managed, in between roiling sobs, “brought us from nonexistence into existence.” This thought entering him stabbed us, too, but he kept on. Grown men began to weep. We were broken. And we knew it. We felt it. We couldn’t resist it.
Abkar made what was foundational into what was conclusive, thundering it, panhandling for it, returning to it, swearing by it, running a giant circle around us and spinning us around with him. “You created us,” he said, and then what he said next I will never forget: “La ilaha illa anta” — There is no God but You. He said it over and over again, until all of us were shaking, breaking, struggling to stay on our legs, held up perhaps just because there were so many of us. But that was only where he began, for with that out of the way, he asked, and how he asked; how painfully and unashamedly he described the miserableness of our souls and the griminess of our deeds and the insufficiencies of our actions that we felt there was no veil. Why should there be?
In the months to come I would look on the music of ecstatic Sufis and the poetry of God-intoxicated saints in an entirely new way. Their euphoria reﬂected a piety far greater than our modern puritanical ﬁdelity could summon. They lived a life immersed in God. I experienced the seminal principle of Islam in a way I could never have imagined: the direct and unhampered access to God, given by the Lord of All the right to speak to Him, and the means to do it. When I was growing up, I had a fantastic and formative Sunday-school teacher, a part-time doctor who was a full-time community leader. “Imagine if you were to describe to an unborn child the world that was coming,” he said to me. “She would not be able to believe you.” That, he said, was the challenge facing Muhammad in trying to describe what happens after death.
When Abkar’s supplication concluded and the prayer ended, nobody moved, for fear of breaking the spell that we knew would have to be broken. For every ascension to God, there is a return to the world. If this did not end, if this connection were not snapped, then we would be in paradise. We sat nervously still. Some of us sniffled. Wiped away tears. Were surprised to realize they were ours. Stared at the ﬂoor, like it might tell us, Yes, that just happened.
Adapted from How to Be a Muslim: An American Story by Haroon Moghul. Copyright © 2017 by Haroon Moghul. Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.