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June 5, 2009

Religion as Therapy


Photo Credit: Philippa Banks/iStock Photography

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Finding Allah in All the Right Places
By Shyema Azam

I'm sitting on the floor in a 4x4 fluorescent-lit dressing room at the Gap, a scarf covering my hair, my forehead momentarily touching the ground as I inaudibly recite my afternoon prayer. Suddenly, I hear a voice — and it's not God's: "Is everything OK in there?" It's the saleslady who's come to check up on me. Since I'm not technically supposed to interrupt my prayer by responding, I stay quiet. She quickly follows up with a knock. Nervous that she'll continue asking questions — or worse, unlock the door and see me prostrating — I clear my throat loudly enough to indicate that I'm still alive, then quicken my supplicating so I can get out of there without having to awkwardly explain that this was the most private place I could find to pray. I finish up, return the two shirts that I never intended to try on, and casually walk out the door.

As a moderate Muslim, born and raised in the U.S., I always try to get my prayers in five times a day. The Quran and hadith, which are sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, dictate that these prayers are done at designated times: dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset, and in the evening before bed. But as a modern career girl who works all day, takes classes at night, and likes to peruse the makeup goodies at Sephora in her free time, I don't always find it convenient to just drop and commune with God. While some people can fondly mark former makeout spots, I can just as easily cite my former prayer spots: corners of parking lots; the dark, unfrequented section of my college library; the backseat of a parked car; and even once in the shadow of the ginormous Ferris wheel at Navy Pier in Chicago. If I miss a few in a day — it happens — I'll make it up later in one sitting (I like to call them pray-athons).

Perhaps my most awkward moments, however, have been at work. When I was an intern, the office coordinator of the company I worked for told me I could pray in the director's office while she was out, but when a full-time staffer came in and saw me suspiciously bending over behind her desk, I felt caught. (Once she realized what was going on, she awkwardly apologized and left in a hurry.) It was easier when I shared an office with my coworker Paula, since we agreed I should just pray in the corner — she even knew the cue to switch off her music and keep quiet when I pulled my shawl out of my desk. Most recently, I used my company's lactation room located on the 14th floor of a soaring glass tower. I'd check in with the receptionist to see if the room was empty, and if it wasn't, I'd wait my turn behind a few busty women carrying bags containing their breast pumps.

While all this may seem like an ordeal, it's my way of striking a balance between the mundane worries of my secular life (bills, deadlines, missing the latest episode of Lost) with a more profound feeling of purpose, and keeping up with a tradition that's been passed down by the generations before me. It's also a welcome breather and has become so much a part of my routine that if I miss a prayer, the whole day feels kind of off — like it does for a caffeine-addicted coworker who misses her morning cup.

What can I say? It works for me. Besides, I get to check out the sale rack at the Gap.

NEXT PAGE: A Jew by Any Other Name

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