I knelt behind a line of seven women in hijabs and long jackets. They were my mother’s and grandmother’s ages, except for two teenagers. Turning to stare at me with black-rimmed eyes, the girls gave me a once-over before returning to face the direction of Makkah (“Mecca”).
I was in the conservative city of Konya in central Turkey, where Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet and mystic, spent much of his life and ultimately died. A friend of mine was performing his midday prayers in the main part of the mosque and had encouraged me to look inside the small female section. I should have discreetly made my way out as soon as the ezan (call to prayer) began, but I had paused when the women scurried in. Moments ticked by.
Instead, I knelt awkwardly, my headscarf resting around my head and shoulders. My mind compelled me to leave but my body would not budge. And then the muezzin’s voice fell silent and it was too late to withdraw.
The woman standing furthest to my left turned and made eye contact with me. She paused and I wondered if she was going to ask me to leave, but instead her features softened and her hand extended towards me, gesturing for me to join them.
I hesitated but her smile was maternal and she beckoned again. I rose and my stomach fluttered at the thought of committing a religious offence, but as I approached the row of prayer rugs, the other women merely shuffled to their right without looking over, so focused were they in preparation. We began to pray.
Our hands rose to our ears and then dropped down to our stomaches as the women whispered, “God is greatest.” They recited a verse from the Qur’ān and then we bowed. A short recitation was performed.
We stood up before lowering ourselves to sit down, bending so our foreheads touched the carpet. We repeated this type of pattern a few times and ended on our knees, while the women made further recitations.
After the prayer had ended, some of the women continued to pray on their own. Others rose from their knees and returned the rugs they had borrowed to an alcove storage space. The woman who had invited me to join them turned to me and began speaking softly in Turkish.
I replied, “Türkçe bilmiyorum,” meaning, I don’t know Turkish.
Very shyly she asked me some basic questions in English: What is your name? Where are you from? Do you have children? Where is your husband?
She had grabbed both of my hands and we sat holding onto each other for many moments. Every time she smiled she would squeeze my fingers. It was then that I realized something: instead of committing an egregious error by attending prayer as a non-Muslim, this woman and I had lessened the language barrier, religious differences and probable cultural friction in order to meet human to human.
In addition to the healing power of prayer, when people move together they can unlock a deeper engagement with one another, one that bypasses intellectual biases and relies instead on the senses to mediate the experience.
By moving in prayer, we stopped observing one another from the outside and began to notice an inner commonality that went beyond language. It could not have emerged from sheer will or effort. Our cultures are different, sometimes so much so that it seems impossible to relate to each other, let alone cooperate.
And yet, when one of us is curious enough to risk breaking religious protocol and the other is open enough to extend her hand and heart in a willingness to learn about the Other, a memory is created: it disturbs the stereotypes that separate us, the ones that make us reluctant to step outside our comfort zones to hold hands with the unknown.
It was fitting that this realization came while I was in the resting place of Rumi, who was welcoming of all people. As he wrote in his poem, One Song, over 800 years ago:
All religions, all this singing, one song.
The differences are just illusion and vanity.
– Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī