Cook: Lessons from Islam

Cook: Lessons from Islam

July 9th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Starting tonight, here's the daily schedule for billions of Muslims around the world, including many here locally.

• Wake up early in the morning. Say, 4:30 or 5.

• Drink some water or tea. Eat a light breakfast, not some gravy-and-bacon blowout that inflates your stomach to the size of, roughly, a zeppelin.

• Then, for the next 16 hours, no food. No drink. Not a sip, not a nibble.

• Once the sun sets (at 8:57, to be precise), dinner together with family or friends.

• Repeat, each and every day, through Aug. 7.

"It is a spiritual cleansing," said local physician Azhar Sheikh.

Welcome to Ramadan, Islam's holiest month. From dawn until dusk, Muslims fast from food and drink, invoking the old formula that absence from bodily pleasures leads to spiritual growth.

When your stomach grumbles, or your head feels faint, or your throat goes dry, you detour your attention away from your body toward the divine.

Jesus did it in the wilderness. Same with Moses. Buddha, the story goes, went so long without food that if you put your finger to his stomach, you would simultaneously touch his spine.

Along with balking from food and drink, Muslims also (try to) avoid quarreling, gossip, lies, impure images, all things that constitute the junk food of the soul.

If you really want to know what someone believes, watch what they do. It's hard not to admire believers who fast 16 hours a day for a month, all while praying five times a day and reciting the Koran at night.

"To increase your God-consciousness," said Abdul-Baasit, the imam of the Islamic Center of Greater Chattanooga. (He's also a statistician at Blue Cross-BlueShield).

Near Gunbarrel Road, the center -- built one year ago this month -- is home to hundreds of local Muslims. Every Friday afternoon, they gather for prayer and khutbah, or sermon.

"Come and observe," invited Dr. Abdul Hafiz Eletr.

Last week, I did. We took off our shoes, placing them in one large cubbyhole just outside the main room. Men went to one room; women, to an adjoining one. I watched as the men (more than 150 came that day) greeted each other, then silently and reverently began the poetry of motions that mark Muslim prayer.

The face near the hands. The bending knees. The forehead to the floor.

The body pointed toward Mecca.

I was struck by the universality of it: all across the earth, men and women were praying in this exact same way.

They were young, old, in between. One wore a Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt (Las Vegas), another in traditional dress, most had on button-downs or golf shirts. Many stopped to shake hands and welcome me when the prayer ended.

I had wanted to recite the traditional Muslim greeting -- as-salamu alaykum, which means "peace be upon you" -- but practicing on the drive over, my tongue got a Charley-horse, so I just smiled and thanked them for having me.

(Quick story: recently, we Cooks vacationed at a water park up the road. The place was packed. Pounds of tattooed, sunburned flesh. Everywhere, bikinis and bathing suits, many about as big as bar napkins.

Among all these half-naked bodies stood one Muslim teen, waiting in line for the water slide. She wore tights down to her ankles, a one-piece bathing suit, a scarf around her head. Among such flesh, her modesty was softly and courageously endearing, like a rainbow after a flood).

After the prayer and sermon, a few of us sat together and talked. The men said how welcoming Chattanooga has been, especially the nearby Seventh-day Adventist community.

I asked them if there was anything they wished Chattanooga knew.

"You are sitting in a mosque. This is just a place of worship. No schemes are being hatched here, no plots," said Sheikh.

"I personally would like them to find out about Islam themselves rather than going on Fox or CNN," said Dr. Amjad Munir. "Islam is a peaceful religion."

And they all welcomed anyone in Chattanooga to come visit.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.