Peace Be Upon You, I’m Out!

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There I was, standing in front of a Sufi saint, and for the life of me I could not think of a single thing to say.

Nizamuddin’s tomb lay at my feet, piled high with rose petals and garlands. Although he died more than 600 years ago, Nizamuddin still has no shortage of devotees, and throngs of them crowded the inside of the shrine, making their way around the tomb in a pulsating circle. Men and women of all ages prostrated with their eyes squeezed shut, silent prayers on their lips. Clinging to the wall of the shrine, I looked over to my friend Chris for guidance.

“The idea is that he’s in here with us right now, so if you want, you can pray to him, or ask him for help or something,” Chris explained.

As Chris folded his hands in front of his chest and began to pray, I turned back toward Nizamuddin’s flower-adorned tomb, trying to discern his presence. I desperately didn’t wish to offend anyone in the shrine, whether or not they were physically there. It appeared there was no correct way to go about this, except to trust what my heart was telling me to say. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes.

When I had stepped over the mammoth pile of discarded shoes and followed my teacher and classmates through the maze of hallways that make up the Nizamuddin Dargah in South Delhi, it wasn’t merely the shrine of Nizamuddin that I was trying to find; I was in some sense searching for the heart of the religion. Although my father is a Muslim, he and my mother raised me outside of any organized faith. Over the years, I had come to take pride in my agnostic upbringing, but at the same time, I had started to feel increasingly uncomfortable with my ignorance of a religion that was so inextricably woven into my heritage.

As I stumbled through the dark halls, taking care not to trip on the broken stairs or step in any fetid puddles, I tried to recognize myself among the people I was passing: the families of pilgrims, the flower sellers beckoning from every corner, the beggars huddled in the shadows. Where was I in this crowd? My eyes desperately searched for something I could make sense of amidst the chaos.

And then suddenly, the last hallway came to an end, and I found myself standing before Nizamuddin’s shrine, festooned with green lights and calligraphy, floating above the marble courtyard like a celestial wedding cake.

“Here, you will find people of all religions,” our teacher explained to us. “The devotees are mostly Muslim, but you will also find Sikhs, Hindus, Christians… all are welcome here.”

Later that night, we huddled in the hazy courtyard of a second, less well-known shrine that our teachers had wanted us to see, one that they had warned might be “a lot more crowded, and a bit more intense.” My teacher beckoned for me to come with him. Reluctantly, I followed him to the front of the shrine, where most of the devotees were sitting on the marble plaza or on the steps. In the area in front of the stairs, a makeshift stage had been set up.

“You sit here,” he instructed. “Better view.” I awkwardly twisted my legs underneath me and sat down on the stairs, nearly taking out a small child with my knee in the process.

“You are OK?” my teacher asked me. When I nodded meekly, he replied, “OK. I will be back.” I watched helplessly as he went around the shrine and disappeared into the crowd.

I sat there on the steps of the shrine, wedged in between entire extended families, and looked around, hoping to see Abdullah, my classmates, anyone I knew. Unlike at Nizamuddin Dargah, there was not another foreigner in sight. My knees and ankles began to throb with pain; I wasn’t used to sitting on the floor for so long. I tried not to fidget too much, fearing that this would give me away as a foreigner. No one there seemed to take much notice of me, aside from a few curious children.

Suddenly the crowd was hushed by the screech of a microphone, and without warning, the people around me sprang to life. The half-asleep old man grabbed hold of the microphone and recited a few Koranic verses. He finished and passed the microphone to a tall man in dazzling robes. The serene look on the tall man’s face belied the crisp force of his voice as he called out more verses from the Koran, with a peppering of Persian and Urdu poetry. After he finished, he passed the microphone to the young man next to me. In soft, flowing Arabic, this man spoke of the sun and the moon and of the greatness of God. The crowd nodded gently and recited the name of God along with him.

With each new speaker, the crowd became more enthralled. Each new verse was met with louder cries of approval and ever more impassioned reactions. And just when it seemed like everyone around me was about to leap off the ground in a state of ecstasy, the thumping of the drums and the wailing of the harmonium rose up from the stage as a group of musicians struck up a song. The musicians’ words of praise to the Prophet Muhammad were more than just pretty verses: Unification with God is the ultimate goal of Sufi music.

Amidst the swell of music I quickly lost track of how much time had gone by. I could only see the immense crowd behind me, as though I had been sucked in and came out the other side.

Today, there continues to be a debate in my mind about what exactly Islam stands for. Although I still have much to learn about the faith of my father, I feel that I may have a better idea of where to look. Instead of magazine articles and scholarly essays, perhaps I should turn once again to the muddy alleyways of South Delhi. There, I forgot all about my angst-filled pondering over whether or not I understood Islam, or where and how I fit into this world. And in forgetting, I found the truth.

 

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