Waging 'inner jihad' on an empty stomach

As Ramadan enters its final days, a Muslim reporter goes to Mecca and Medina and grapples with the double standard for female pilgrims.

After struggling with my first fast during Ramadan, Islam's holiest month, my sister Reem arrives from overseas and we decide to visit both Mecca and Medina, in spite of the fact that close to 2 million Muslims are expected in the holy cities this month.

We arrive in Medina Tuesday morning before dawn prayers. Pilgrims are walking down the dark streets, silently and in ever-increasing numbers as they approach the prophet's mosque as if hypnotized. Long crenelated minarets pierce the skies. The mosque, brightly lit from within, glows in the night. I can make out the singular green dome which marks the area where the prophet is buried.

Later in the day, before the sunset prayers end the daily fast, my cousin, already in Medina, and I walk to the mosque. It's packed with women sitting in line on the red carpets praying, sleeping, reading the Koran, or just chatting. We squeeze in between a group of Tunisian pilgrims. My cousin takes out a prayer book and we huddle together and recite out loud, "God, let there be light in my heart, light in my hearing, light in my tongue, light before me, light behind me."

Someone taps me on the shoulder and I look up. An elderly woman speaks in Urdu. I smile and shake my head. A few minutes later, she spreads out a plastic sheet. An Egyptian woman hands out free cups of yogurt while a Moroccan pilgrim on the other side hands out wholewheat brioche. It's considered a blessing to feed someone fasting during Ramadan and by the time the call to prayer rings out, we have water, dates, and bread in front of us.

We recite the prayer for the occasion, "God, for you I have fasted and on your bounty I break my fast." We dig in. At the end of sunset prayers the imam asks the congregation to perform more prayers for the soul of someone who's being prayed over at the mosque that day. "We're going to pray for a stranger?" I ask my cousin.

"You recite the opening verse of the Koran, and then you pray for his forgiveness."

"What if he was a bad person?"

"He was a Muslim," she says by way of explanation.

I want to visit the prophet's burial chamber and the Rawda, described by the prophet as a small stretch of heaven on earth beside his pulpit, but my cousin warns me there are long queues because women are allowed access to those sites for only a limited period. After two days in Medina, she'd been only once, while her husband had gone more than three times. "They act as if God is for men only, and it's not," she says.

Her words remind me of my visit to the Grand Mosque in Mecca last Saturday. My sister and I had gone for a minor pilgrimage, or umra, which during Ramadan is equal to, but does not take place of the hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam. While praying on the marble skirt that surrounds the Kaaba, the cube-shaped structure in the direction of which the world's Muslims turn in their five daily prayers, a group of women veiled in black from head to toe and sporting mosque badges stood in front of us and clapped their hands. "Pilgrim, pilgrim, over there, over there."

With my head on the cold marble floor, I was remembering the words of a Muslim preacher, "You are never as close to God as when you have your forehead on the floor in supplication."

One of the women stands in front me and claps her hands again to get my attention. "Pilgrim, over there," she orders.

I stand up. "Why?"

"No women allowed here."

"Why not?" I ask, with an edge to my voice. "Who said?"

"Orders."

One of her colleagues comes to me. "Don't break your fast by fighting. Sit by the stairs and I'll try to find you a place on the skirt," she tells me. I'm not mollified.

What has struck me most with fasting is that the challenge has been neither thirst nor hunger, but trying to make it through the day in the Ramadan spirit; without getting angry, getting into arguments, or thinking bad thoughts.

"This is inner jihad," says my other sister, Taghreed. "You struggle with yourself. You practice reining in your negative impulses during this month and hopefully it stays with you for the rest of the year."

Late Wednesday we debate whether to eat at home or go out for suhoor, our last meal of the evening, when Reem walks into the living room. "It's the first night of the last 10 days of Ramadan. Tonight could be the Night of Power. Instead of going to Caspar & Gambini's [restaurant] it's better to stay home and pray."

The night of power was when the first verses of the Koran were revealed to the prophet Muhammad, and on this night, according to the Koran, "Therein come down the angels and the spirit by God's permission on every errand." Nobody knows what day in Ramadan coincides with the Night of Power, only that it is during the last 10 days. According to his biographers, the prophet said, "One who spends the Night of Power in worship, one's motive being faith and devotion, will have all one's previous sins forgiven."

Chastised, we decide to stay home. We eat a light meal of fava beans and feta cheese with tomatoes, then everyone heads out. Just in case tonight coincides with the Night of Power I make a prayer. "Peace of mind, God," I pray. "Peace of mind."

Previous stories appeared on Oct. 15, 22, and 29.

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