Everyday Islam



These pages were written in response to the question of a friend: What is it like to live as a Muslim? There was nothing to read on the topic, she said—only history, or “academese,” or pious manuals from foreign countries. Which is all well and good, she said, but what is it like? How does it feel? What is it about?

This is a small attempt at answering that simple and important question. It is written by a Westerner for Westerners, and touches briefly on those fundamental practices most central to this way of life: the Five Pillars of Islam.

Wherever these five practices are followed, Islam is alive, and whoever embraces them and reflects upon them is a serious Muslim, engaged in a great spiritual endeavor.

Spiritual greatness? A tall order for ordinary people like ourselves. But according to the teaching, such is the true heritage of even the humblest of us. Even Americans!

Islam is for humanity. It is not the possession of Arabs or Iranians or any ethnic group. Though its language may appear to be unfamiliar, it speaks to the core. Surface unfamiliarity can alienate or mislead at first, making one uninterested in the conversation. Yet if you are moved to learn this language, you will find you knew it all along. Don’t be fooled ‑‑ we are all being addressed, and what we are being told is beyond price.

If there are errors in these few pages, please forgive them. May they cause no harm. But there is reason for hope, for this document begins, as all Muslim documents do:







Ash‑hadu al la ilaha illa Llah, wa ash‑hadu anna Muhammadan rasulu Llah

“I bear witness that there is no god but God,

and I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God.”


Say it in front of two Muslim witnesses, and you are a Muslim. That’s all there is to it. Really. The whole business is in those two unadorned statements. But if you make this declaration, un-coerced, there is no going back. You are in, you are committed, and you are responsible. This way of life is not for dilettantes.

Say it once with a whole heart and your destiny changes. Say it more, and see what will happen to you: The more sincerely you can say it, the wholer your heart can become. People can spend their lives repeating it and never get tired of it, because the more you say it, the better it feels. Many of us are hoping that, when this life closes, we will get to use it as an exit line.

La ilaha illa Llah. “There is no god but God.”

This declaration is called tawhid, or affirming Unity. It’s the core of the matter – the very center of Islam, and its key. You have to feel its importance in order to participate, and if you do, your own heart will provide the best commentary on it. Still, some starting points may prove useful.

Traditionally, the tawhid is understood to comprise two parts: a negation first (la ilaha/there is no god) and then an affirmation (illa Llah/except God).

In the first part, one looks around and refutes a lot of claims. So much of the world pretends to godhood – that is it lays claim to our service, to our devotion, to our souls, ultimately. It tells us that we, as human individuals, are subordinate to it and dependent on it, that we can derive our only meaning and fulfillment from it. Ambition, money, power, society, politics, work, relationships, distractions, traits of personality, group identifications, personal history – each of these things, and more, claims final authority over us.

The beginning of tawhid rejects this completely. “No god!” The impulse to Islam begins with a realization of human dignity: that simple human wholeness outweighs any partial force. Once this is truly understood, the consciously human person cannot subjugate himself or herself to any idol, whether an idol of stone or an idol of thought. Such submission is untenable because it is a distortion of the order of things. Not one of these is realer than we are, not one of them owns us.

But something is realer than we are, and something owns us.

There is no arguing about this; either one senses it or not. The testimony is simply inside one to find: it cannot be analyzed, justified, defended, attacked, proved or disproved. It is there. When we recognize it, if we have the grace, the courage, we can state it: but God. In fact, we must state it, or the fullest dimensions of our humanity remain unknown. Without the affirmation we are largely lost to ourselves—whether in habit, in delusions, or in despair. With it, our lives assume their true context and meaning. In this all religion agrees.

Many people in educated circles in the West flinch at the mention of God. If we examine this reaction we are likely to discover that there is a good deal of ego in it. Part of this is, perhaps, the bridling of the intellect in the presence of the ungraspable. Intellectuals like mastery, and God is not to be mastered. Another motive, usually more to the point, is embarrassment—for not to believe in God is widely taken for superior insight! To confess to believing is to confess oneself a gullible fool. It takes a certain cheerful contempt for social discomfort to be a fool for truth. But that is the definition of Islam: “submission”—to the truth. It is to stop raising tedious objections, to stop protesting too much. It is to admit that (like it or not) you hear what, inside, you are continuously being told—for it is only when you have submitted to truth that truth becomes available to you.

There may be another reason for the refusal of belief, and that is historical: the name of God has always been used to excuse a wide variety of horrors. In rejecting these horrors, we reject what is cited to condone them. There is excellent reason for this. The thing we are rejecting though, is not God. It is human passion or self‑interest hiding behind a false image of God. Until we overthrow these images, God is not truly affirmed, and that is the challenge of tawhid: to say la ilaha with all our force, in order to open the way for illa Llah.

Muhammadun rasulu Llah. “Muhammad is the messenger of God.”

The Muslim is required to affirm, together with the existence of Unity, that Muhammad ibn ‘Abdullah, an Arab of seventh‑century Mecca, (peace and blessings be upon him)[1] is the servant and messenger of the Unity.

Such a statement gives the modern Westerner some pause. First of all, who was Muhammad {sl}? How many of us, even if we have received a so‑called “higher education,” have the slightest idea? Our culture, which has transmitted to us a general sense of the stories and flavors of Moses and Jesus—and these days, even of the Buddha—still carries no information whatsoever about the prophet of Islam. Yet his is a living and distinctive presence, inspiring the love of millions of our contemporaries.

Curiously, as a civilization we find that love disquieting and somehow suspect. From the time of the Crusades it has characterized “Them”—the others, the bad guys. As the planet shrinks though, exiling any human experience from the realm of “Us” becomes more and more obviously a losing strategy. And the love of the Prophet is a major human experience. Those of us who were not born heirs to it may yet have the adventure of reclaiming it, for the appeal of his character is no parochial thing. Prior to such a discovery, though, comes the simple recognition of his function. This is the recognition that is required of us.

And so the second difficulty: What on earth does it mean to call anybody the messenger of God’?

What we are asked to accept here is that the ordinary human condition is relevant to ultimate reality, and that from the latter to the former information has proceeded. Our situation is not isolated. Communications have been received.

We are asked to accept that this is not a fantasy, a legend, or a fraud. This is really the case.

We are then asked to accept that this communication has been carried by a particular person. (In Islam, it is held to have been carried by a whole series of persons.) That person has news for us: We are meant to be functional. We are important to the way things are. We have a job to do, and whether or not we do it has consequences. The message says, “Wake up!” And then, “Here is the real job description for your essential nature. Here is what you were born for....”

The messenger does not simply deliver the message. He demonstrates it. In his own person, he authenticates it. Since the message is about human being, it must be in human being. To receive the message, we must recognize and embrace that human being.

And so our relation to reality finds its crisis in our relation to this other particular person. For the crux is that though the messengers are before us, we may or may not recognize them. The further we are from our own essential reality, the stranger the messengers appear.

The nature of the messenger is the criterion. It separates coherence from incoherence and enlightenment from self‑deception. To embrace the messenger is to know that there is a human character that is the touchstone of truth, and that to choose it is to choose the truth.

Islamic tradition holds that, always and everywhere, many individuals have received the transmission of the character of truth. This is called technically, wilayah, the friendship with God. Of the uncountable friends of God, a certain elect number have, in the past, been entrusted with broadcasting the transmission: their state is called nubuwwah, prophethood. And of the prophets (by some accounts 144,000 strong), the seven greatest were chosen to bear the major perspectives upon this message of human destiny. Their names are familiar: they are Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus, and Muhammad (peace be upon them all). These are the rasuls, the Messengers proper. With the fulfillment of their number, the transmission, in all its dimensions, was complete.

According to Muhammad {sl}, the content of the testimony of all these thousands of prophets has always been precisely the same. He insisted that the greatest of them was to be granted no priority over the least of them in that respect.

He also told us that he was the last transmitter.

To bear witness to his messengership means to notice that the compass in us that points toward spiritual north, points consequently in his direction. (We should check our compass first against the whole line of prophets—if they seem to be diverging, our compass needs correction!)

Then, having recognized the character of truth in him, we need to listen very carefully to what he has been directed to tell us.

“Say: If you love God, follow me, so that God will love you....”




The second foundation of the life of a Muslim is a particular kind of prayer known as salat (or namaz, in some parts of the old Muslim world). When Muslims talk about “making prayers,” it is salat they usually mean.

Islam knows several forms of prayer—du’a, petition (the prayer of asking) and munaja, intimate conversation, as well as salat, the formal presence with God. The first two are free acts of the heart, about which not laws, but perhaps rules of courtesy apply. The third though, is a divinely appointed responsibility.

We are asked to put aside a regular schedule of times in order to wait upon God, and to approach Him at those times with His means, rather than our own, and for His ends, rather than our own.

Salat is a mystery.

What it comes down to in practice, though, is straightforward enough. It is an act of presenting ourselves. The Prophet has passed on to us precisely what we are expected to do.

First, salat requires cleanliness. Before making prayers we must make an ablution.

Cleanliness is the physical analogue of inner purity; the practice of cleanliness resonates with the condition of purity. Active Muslims come to be automatically aware of whether they are “in” or “out of” a state of ablution. To be “in ablution” means that we may approach prayer in that moment; to be “out of ablution” means that we may not. It is impossible to be “in ablution” all the time, since ablution is “broken” by, and must be renewed after, sleep, excretion, sexual activity, the flow of blood, and excessive outbursts of anger or hysteria. To one degree or another, everyone cycles through these phenomena in the course of a day or a month or a lifetime. The requirement of ablution brings this fact into focus. Sometimes our forces are concentrated—other times, dispersed. It is only when our forces are (relatively) concentrated and our attention (relatively) disengaged from the biological world that an exclusively spiritual activity becomes feasible.

Interestingly, though, this activity is not a distant goal. There are repeated opportunities for it, and they are pressing. In fact, they are obligatory.

So we wash our hands, rinse our mouths and noses, pass our hands over our faces and heads, wet our ears and necks, forearms and feet, and then hurry off to the prayer. (You’re not advised to hurry to prayer, actually, but to approach it in an orderly way. That’s often not what happens, however. As the Qur’an comments, ‘Man was created of haste!’)

When we get to our prayer‑place, whether it is a mosque or a corner of the office—anywhere clean will do, except a graveyard or a bathroom—we need to find the qiblah, the shortest path to Mecca, and turn toward it. For the second requirement for salat is correct orientation. Valid prayer needs our best estimation that we are facing in the right direction.

Why Mecca? Mecca has the dignity of the Center. In the physical exercise of prayer, it becomes the point of focus for all who pray. If we were to look at the planet as a spiritual whole, we would find vast concentric circles of people ordered about that point. The membership in the circles shifts continuously as individuals move in and out of the prayer. Arcs of those circles shrink and swell as the canonical prayer‑times move over the face of the earth, organizing congregations as they pass—now many people are praying in some one place, now fewer. The circles themselves, though, are always latent, even if some arcs at some moments are entirely missing. For the whole of each circle is implicit in their common center.

To the individual at prayer there is rarely any direct sense of the whole circle (although the unison of congregational prayer, with its rows of participants, provides repeated small tastes of it), but there is always available a lively sense of the center. The center is the direction we must face. The center is dead straight ahead.

“Guide us in the straight path,”

says the Fatiha, the one recitation that must be made in every salat.

“The path of those with whom You are pleased, not the recipients of wrath, nor those astray.”

It is not that God is only to be found at the center, for according to the Qur’anic verse,

“Withersoever you turn, there is the Face of God.”

It is that, if we are to fulfill our responsibilities here, the center alone can be the object of our aspirations.

On the edge of prayer, and facing in, we need to check our deportment.

“Deportment” seems an old‑fashioned sort of idea, but it is very important to the salat, which clues us in that it is very important in general. There is nothing random about the salat.

Because there is nothing random about the salat, there can be nothing random in the salat, either. If every element carries meaning, then changing any element involves loss of meaning. In a divine form, what one might ordinarily take for “spontaneity” in fact amounts to static.

(What passes for spontaneity in most cases is rarely truly spontaneous anyway – the “natural” thing is usually simply a habit, acquired unconsciously almost anywhere, with which we have unwittingly identified ourselves! In the salat, on the contrary, we are consciously acquiring a habit from God—a habit with which it is very difficult to identify oneself.)

So on the threshold of salat, we put aside our ordinary behavior. Like Moses on Sinai, we take off our shoes, for we are about to enter holy ground.

We check that we have muffled the signals of our biological selves, restraining such stimuli from distracting ourselves or others. If male, we check that we have covered ourselves at least from navel to knee; if female, from neck to wrist to ankle. We cover our heads. And ideally, we have already made sure that we are under no urgent physiological pressures.

We are about to enter a moment of time that is more deeply coded than the dance of honeybees, more precise than a surgical operation; that will pass in a flash, and that we almost certainly will not understand.

To get any benefit whatsoever from that moment, we must consciously intend to enter into it. We have to open ourselves to it, whatever it is, for better or worse, without preconceptions of what we are supposed to receive. Whether we catch any trace of that or not, we have to be there. And to be there, we have to mean to be there. The intention to make salat is the ultimate condition for salat.

The details of this form of prayer, the standings, bowings, prostrations, recitations, can be found in the appendix, where they stand naked, simple directions, tracings in the sand. And this simplicity, the bare performance, is all that is required of us. It is a great consolation, on the thousand and one occasions when we find ourselves, suddenly, offering the closing benedictions, having somehow completely lost the prayer—maybe our minds took us to the grocery store, or the factory, or to what we should have said yesterday or are hoping to do tomorrow—to know that our bodies, at least, kept the tryst and that later our hearts might join them. It is a great consolation that in the bad day, the day of care and confusion, there still remain five tiny points, five pinpricks in the fabric of the world, through which that day might still be threaded by spirit. Because of salat, no day, even the most futile, is wasted.

But the standings, bowings, prostrations, recitations are also like a curled leaf within which, on the good day, we find something suspended from silken threads, cradled, that cannot subsist outside; something that might someday be a butterfly. The salat protects that vulnerable thing.

And there’s more. There’s a kind of food in it, or a kind of light in it, something that could be referred to any of the senses as we grope for expression. It may not be the same for you and for me. It may not be the same today and tomorrow. We might notice it or we might not. But it is there.

A great mystic said that God speaks to everyone in the salat. He did not qualify that. Saint or sinner, attentive or inattentive, whole or broken—everyone is addressed. And, he added, if you do not hear, it is simply that you are not listening hard enough.




Zakat is tithing. It is a plain enough business (though there are slight variation, among the different schools of law as to how precisely to calculate it). Basically, we take two and a half percent of our liquid assets and give it to needy Muslims, every year. That’s that.

What, shouldn’t we give to everyone’? Of course; but that is not the bare essential. The bare essential is to give to those who are close at hand. The responsibility of a Muslim expands in concentric circles—ourselves; our families; our neighbors; our society; our world. (To reverse this process often means to substitute talking for doing.)

Those who are closest at hand (besides those who wake up in the same room with us or walk out of the next door) are those with whom we pray. Often, those with whom we pray are even closer, in the real sense. To stand shoulder to shoulder with others who are facing the same direction and responding to the same call generates community—that is the common unity of purpose that makes isolated individuals into partners in a single enterprise. It is scarcely surprising that shared purpose joins people together more deeply than proximity or superficial preferences. What might be surprising is that this joining together needs fostering—it does not maintain itself without our effort—and that fostering it materially is a spiritual responsibility.

The sense of community is a joint identity that is the most powerful form of moral support. The forces of disintegration—those forces to which we say, “No god!”—are ubiquitous. Anyone who aims to testify for Unity needs all the support he or she can get. The Messengers have always built communities to provide that support, and such community was a special concern of the last of them. Community, like human life in general, has an outside and an inside. Salat and zakat, which produce and sustain Muslim community, illuminate the importance of this.

Zakat is the most specific obligation in charity, as salat is the most specific obligation in prayer. Thus the one is the door to exterior life, as the other is the door to interior life. The Qur’an advises us,

“Enter houses by their doors.”

Salat opens on the divine; zakat opens on the human world.

Both these involvements are absolutely required of us.

Zakat no more exhausts the realm of action than salat exhausts the realm of contemplation. Rather, the form of each pillar suggests to us the form of our best participation in its realm. How should we contemplate? Make your salat and find out. HOW should we act in the world? Pay zakat and observe.

Observe, first, that the fundamental of social action is giving. It is certainly not acquisition; neither is it the exercise of force in the name of any principle, even such minimal force as moral exhortation. All of that, even where it is appropriate and correct, comes much later—and its possible correctness might well be measured against this august Pillar. The primary human duty of a Muslim is not to be a preacher, a judge, or a missionary (zakat tells us), but to be a seeker of need and a channeler of abundance.

And even if we do not apply the Pillar of zakat widely, even if we restrict it to its narrowest application, if we pay attention to it, it teaches us things. It teaches us, first, some hard facts about ourselves.

How small an amount is the canonical zakat ‑‑ only a tiny fraction of what we take for our wealth, and even that derived after we have (theoretically) paid off our debts. But how hard it is, sometimes, to give up that little bit freely. What miserliness, what resentment are to be found there—or, alternatively, what grand righteousness and self-satisfaction! Surrendering zakat is an education in the lower end of human nature.

Zakat serves as the beginning of self‑knowledge from another perspective as well, for we don’t just stick our hands in our pockets and pull out a couple of bills. We are supposed to calculate what we owe, and calculate it precisely. Nor is this for the Internal Revenue—it is for God’s sake, and, we must recognize, it is from God’s beneficence. How often do we actually count our blessings? With zakat we are obliged to, periodically, in the most concrete possible way.

Furthermore, the high status of zakat hints to us that we ought to have enough to be able to give. Worldly work is needed to bring in enough sustenance to distribute to the incapable. To refuse to engage the world sufficiently to accomplish this is to lose a fifth of religion. It is like willfully cutting off a limb.

Far worse is the case of someone who has engaged the world but refuses to give of that sustenance. For the Prophet has warned us that salat is not accepted from those who purposely withhold zakat. Such people cut off two limbs.

So observe, second, that social action requires self‑knowledge. To avoid the damage inflicted by false self‑interest, we need to know what our interest really is. To give to others is in fact to give to ourselves. Life is flow. Pass it along or strangle in it.

The law of zakat shows us that getting must generate giving, and that inner and outer are mutually dependent. We separate these pairs only at our peril.




Sawm is fasting, and specifically the fasting of the month of Ramadan. Aha! The hard part at last! Except for women having their periods (who must defer it), and pregnant and nursing women, invalids and travelers (who may defer it), all practicing Muslims fast from dawn to sunset all the thirty­-odd days of the same wandering lunar month.

Fasting means to do without food and water, sex and cigarettes, from the time the first thin ghost of light enters the sky till the time the horizon swallows the sun. As with salat, you need to make a formal intention to do this rather than just blunder into it. And making the intention anew daily is held wiser than making it for the entire month, since a day’s worth is an easier promise to fulfill—and the promise of sawm is serious. To break the intention for a Ramadan fast (for any reason other than sudden illness or injury) incurs the penalty of two extra months of continuous fasting...just in case you were inclined to take this business lightly!

(Now here’s a very interesting point: If you forget that you are fasting, and eat or drink something inadvertently, momentarily unaware of your intention, and then remember—your fast is still valid! A brief special salat of two cycles, and you are back in the game. For our states are not actively under our control, while our intentions are.)

Fasting is available to Muslims as a private spiritual practice at any time (except immediately before or after Ramadan). There are also a number of days in the year when fasting is recommended, or has special merit, but is not prescribed. There is no two months’ penalty for breaking optional or suggested fasts, however. The month of Ramadan is very special.

The Muslim religious calendar is strictly lunar, calculated from new moon to new moon. The lunar year, made of twelve moon orbits about the earth, comes in eleven days shorter than the solar year, made of one earth orbit about the sun. Since it is the solar year that provides the ordinary seasons, the upshot of this difference is that religious events are cut free of the most striking terrestrial cycles; they follow a different schedule than that determined by day length, by bud and flower and fruit. That old, old story is not the story with which Islam is most directly concerned.

Ramadan moves backwards in time. We find it in summer, in spring, in winter, in fall, and after thirty-three years, in summer again. No season is without its grace. And if we recall that we are living on a globe, and that if on a blazing day we dug a VERY long tunnel through the center of it, we might come out in the snow... it is easy to appreciate that this disengagement is of universal benefit. For no people anywhere is stuck with endless years of interminable midsummer fasting, or of the odd abruptness of the miniscule midwinter clays. The eases and difficulties of the fasting season are distributed everywhere with the evenest of hands.

Thus the floating lunar months have no outward, obvious signs. They have inward, subtle associations instead. They have been correlated with spiritual phenomena and events, and with the states that resonate with those events. To observe the season of two of these spiritual events is demanded of us. The first of these is Ramadan, and the event is revelation.

It was in one of the last ten nights of Ramadan—known as the Night of Power—that the whole of the Qur’an descended into the soul of Muhammad {sl} , and that the angel Gabriel transmitted to him the first bit of it that was to become manifest—the divine command to read from that text, and recite it. (Qur’an means simultaneously “Reading” and “Recital.”)


In the Name of thy Lord who created,

Created Man of a blood‑clot....”


The text then manifested out of him in pieces, in specific moments, according to the symbolic appropriateness of those moments, over a period of twenty‑three years. The force of these launchings of the divine word into the exterior world was such that, if the Prophet were mounted when they arrived the animal’s legs would frequently buckle. The Prophet himself {sl} would break into a sweat. He reported that sometimes the words to be manifest were recited to him by the angel’s voice, and other tunes they were like the ringing of a tremendous bell. This form of activation, he said, was the hardest to bear.

As the verses were thrust into the world, people would run to catch them, write them down, commit them to memory; afterwards the Prophet would indicate in which chapters they fell and how the chapters were to be ordered. So all this dynamism turned into text—114 chapters, from long to short, making up (in one edition here) 1,222 printed pages: let us say maybe a quarter of that with the commentary and English translation extracted, perhaps three hundred pages (generously laid out); a book among books on a shelf. And yet....

The Qur’an is dead to the dead, and living to the living. It plays hide and seek with its readers, and

“...none but the purified may touch it.”

It defeats our narrative expectations entirely, rising and falling more like waves in the sea, and like the sea, containing hidden currents, some warm, some cool, some leading in to the shore, and some leading out to the vastness. A third of it, we are told, is accessible to anyone; a third to its own elect; a third only the Prophet knew. The words of God are endless, inexhaustible—yet you can find them here, nonetheless; and, we are told, you could find them all, the infinite discourse, if you were permitted to drown in this sea. One hundred fourteen chapters, three hundred pages (more or less); a book among books on a shelf.

The Qur’an is read in Ramadan, the month of its arrival, read as much as possible. But it is the spirit of it, the sheer fact of it, which is most alive during the month: the shattering gift of it—God speaks, heaven and earth enfold. All scripture, we are taught, descended in Ramadan.

For the believers celebrating the fast, the echo of this descent is present, not as nostalgia, but as an immediate mercy. We look for it, hope for it—at least one encounter, God willing, recognizable and direct. But whether or not we receive that longed‑for taste in any particular year, there is around the month—despite short tempers, growling stomachs, and all the minor inconveniences of observance—there is around the month the unmistakable aura of compassion.


It would be nice to say that we spend the month of Ramadan actively contemplating revelation. In fact, we spend the greater part of it actively contemplating dinner. Though chastening, this is not all bad, for it shows us in the most palpable way just what our position is, just how dependent we are. Fasting is much less a discipline for the body (which generally has plenty of supplies to get through a day) than it is for the ego. The ego is used to its habits, and to getting what it wants when it wants it. Ramadan throws all that up in the air.

So we put up with the interior screaming and yelling and begin, after a couple of days, to develop a sense of humor. Our demands become so transparently preposterous, the personal strengths we boasted of so ridiculously vulnerable, our terribly competent actions so unfocused, that the whole thing becomes funny. Ramadan afternoons, after about 3 o’clock or so, can be very silly. There is not necessarily anything grim about humility.

The dinners, though they can be hard alone, are wonderful if you can spend them with other Muslims. After the hungry day of solitary effort, the communal celebration is full of delight. How fine the food tastes! How good it is to see you!

And in an organized community, after the meal and the regular night prayer comes the special salat of Ramadan, called tarawih—the prayer of Rests. Up to twenty cycles long (depending on the school of practice), it is not an obligatory prayer, but an optional one available to those members of the congregation who would like to engage in an even fuller month of devotion. Though some devotees make a tarawih last all night, most people flag long before that, and it is a principle passed onto us from the Prophet that worship should not be a burden. A moderate tarawih, with the required breaks between cycles, might take perhaps an hour. That is enough time for most of us to feel what it could be to live for God.

Tea; sleep. An hour before first light, rise for the pre‑dawn meal. Try and figure out what on earth is worth eating; eat it. Make intention for the day’s fast; make dawn prayer; back to sleep—if you are working, only for an hour or two. Get up; go about your business; live another day of Ramadan.

The name Ramadan means “a great heat.” In it are all the facilities for a true spiritual retreat within the life of this world. It is a sort of alchemical furnace, and its heat has gradual levels. The baseline is the physical fast, required of all. If this becomes easy for you, there is the inner fast—the fast from anger, pride, and desire. There are even rumors of people who fast from what is not God.

But all of this emptying is for the sake of being filled. And it comes, at last, to an end. Whatever work has been done, is done. The dawn of the great festival of ‘Id al‑Fitr’ breaks. Ramadan is over.




“O soul at peace, return to your Lord, well‑pleasing, well pleased.

Enter among My servants. Enter My Paradise.”


We are hoping for this call. We are working, in one sense, to qualify for it, to be able to hear it and respond. But whether we are successful or not, whether we are even working or not, independent of any circumstance whatsoever, all of us must return. Our lives are inevitably measured against this iron fact. It imposes the zero point that no relativism can obscure. The silent teacher, as the Prophet called it, is death.

Hajj, pilgrimage to Mecca, is the ultimate formal obligation in Islam. Once in a lifetime a capable Muslim is supposed to put all of his or her affairs in order—provide for the family, settle debts, close whatever issues are open—leave it all behind, and begin the journey to the Center. And this is the cry of the pilgrims:


labbayka Allahumma labbayk

labbayka la sharika laka labbayk


wan‑ni `mata laka wal‑mulk

la sharika lak!


“I am here, my God, at Your service!

Here, Incomparable One, here!

Praise, blessing, sovereignty are Yours.

Nothing compares to You!”


Hajj is return. It is a rehearsal for the final return. In it we practice hearing the great Call, and we practice responding to it. How excellent it would be to recognize it properly when it comes!

Travel to Mecca is all yearning and striving for heedfulness. The tale of it can be told indefinitely. But once the pilgrims finally reach the sacred precincts, a dramatic teaching begins.

At the boundary, we put aside our ordinary clothing. Men dress in two white sheets. Women are allowed more range, but nearly everyone wears white. No jewelry or any sign of rank is permitted—­men may not cover their heads; and though women continue to cover theirs, if they come from a tradition of facial veiling, they may veil no longer. At this door, everyone’s condition is the same. The state of ihram, consecration, is entered. There is no hunting, no fighting, no frivolity, and no flirtation. There is no perfume or combing. We may not pull a hair, swat a fly, or step on a green leaf. Much charity is given now, but apart from that, it is over. For these few days, the distractions are gone; fact alone remains. The enormous crowd. Physicality. Concentration. Presence.

Instead of the world we knew, space around us contains a story, into which we step, as one might step from sleep into a vast and hidden dream. The space is both feverish and preternaturally clear. The story is of the rediscovery of the Center.

This is a story whose characters many people know, though the account the Muslims possess contains far more than the version given in the Bible. Here it is:

At God’s command the prophet Abraham left his young wife, Hagar, and their infant son, the prophet Ishmael, in the wilds of Arabia—a cruel forbidding desert where, beneath the sand lay hidden the ruins of the first house of divine worship ever built, the house raised by Adam himself. Hagar, alone desperate for water for her child, ran seven times between two small hills which she climbed looking for signs. At the seventh circuit, the child struck his heel upon the ground—and a spring bubbled up, the holy spring Zamzam that comforts the pilgrims to this day. By this spring the lady Hagar camped and raised her son, and gradually a small settlement formed. And years later, when Abraham returned, by this spring he and Ishmael rebuilt the immemorial temple of the Ka’bah, and re-instituted its ancient rites.

The story continues with Abraham’s famous promise to sacrifice his son, and God’s redemption of this promise with a ram. This son (unnamed in the Qur’an) is generally held by Muslims to have been Isma’el, and the place of this sacrifice Mina, outside Mecca.

Following Abraham. Hagar, and Isma’el, finders of the House of God and exemplars of submission to the divine, the pilgrims enact these rites: With Hagar we run searching from hill to hill; with Isma’el we drink from the astounding spring; with Abraham we pray before the Holy House ascended from the sand. Later, with all of them, we fight the temptations of cowardice, stoning the devils that would stand in our way. And finally, at the end, when the sacrifice is reached, we accept as they did the necessity of death—to find, with astonishment and gratitude, that what must die is not, truly, our most beloved. For it is not souls, but bodies; not human beings, but animals that die.

And interwoven with this great teaching is the other rite, even older, the rite the prophets came here to find: to circle seven times about the Holy House; and to stand as summoned on the ninth of Dhul-­Hijja, on the vast plain of ‘Arafat—no other time, no other place—with all the enormous company of pilgrims, and dressed in a shroud, to wait.

Hajj as an experience is something that no pilgrim can transmit very well to someone who hasn’t made the trip. It is difficult, troublesome, radically uncomfortable, and sometimes dangerous. That is part of it. It is leveling, unifying, bringing uncountable people from every place and every condition to a single place and a single condition. That is part of it. It is exalting, abasing, overwhelming. That is part of it too.

It is a point of absolute purity in an ocean of absolute lowliness. That is closer to the core.

When you have made the hajj, your slate is clean. There’s the chance to start over again. Has your life enabled you to take advantage of this?

Many hajjis go back for another taste, another chance, more practice. Others cannot find the means for more than the single trip, so they wait until late in life—to accumulate the money and the leisure, sometimes, or to be able to commit themselves fully to the change they are hoping to find.

Some fraction of pilgrims, surely, must retain the deepening insight that Pilgrimage provides, bring it back to families and towns, put it to use. In Turkish villages returning hajjis come home to find their front doors painted green, the color of life, the color of the Prophet’s Way.

The annual flux of pilgrims—in to the Center, then out again—is the breath of life of the Muslim world.

Even if you are not a hajji yourself, even if your town has no pilgrims to send out and take back, simply as a Muslim you share in the conclusion of the hajj, for the tenth of Dhul‑Hijja is everywhere and for everyone the great Feast of Sacrifice. Congregational prayers are said, Abraham’s vow recalled, and from each person of any means, a sacrifice is due. Lamb’s flesh is eaten—but for our children and our souls (which are, God willing, alive) ...there are gifts.


“Who has a better religion than he who submits himself entirely to God, is a doer of good, and follows the faith of Abraham the upright’?”

“O believers, say: We believe in God, in the revelation given to us, and in the revelation given to Abraham, Isma’el, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and in that given to Moses and Jesus and that given to all prophets from their Lord. And say: We are Muslims.”

“Believing men and women who add faith to their faith will be admitted by God to gardens beneath which rivers flow, to abide therein forever.”

“We set forth these parables to men that they may reflect.”

“Whose word can possibly be truer than God’s’?”





The proper name of God, as taught in Islam, is Allah

That to which the name refers does not vary. You can just say, “God” if you like.

It is a splendid name, nonetheless, because the sound of it comes from the heart.


The resonances are surprising.