This blog post is really hard to write. I set a goal for myself on this project to present the stories objectively. However, two reasons make this blog post different: First, I was not able to take notes during the experience (for reasons you will soon understand). Secondly, this experience was very new to me personally and so I had to absorb, understand and live in the experience at once before later reflecting on what had transpired.
When Imam Ahmad invited me to his dhikr session he was, politely, very clear on one thing, “This is going to be an open space for everyone to come. I don’t know who comes. Sometimes, non-Muslims come to join. And, people who come are at different stages of their spiritual journey. I don’t judge and I try to teach respectfully. I just ask you to focus and look into your own heart.”
On the evening of the dhikr session, I arrived at the location. It was not a mosque, or a prayer room. It was an office in a medical building (from what I understood). When the imam arrived and opened the door, I realized we were in some sort of treatment clinic/spa. The clinic is a business belonging to the imam’s mother. We went ahead and cleared out one of the rooms from all the equipment and laid down a few rugs. It felt as if this was a mischievous secret act we were doing.
Dhikr is the act of repeating Islamic devotional phrases, mantras of sort. Muslims are encouraged to remember God by repeating such mantras during the day regardless of what they are doing. However, on that evening, we were to do dhikr together as a group, out-loud.
The night started with us reciting the Isha prayer, the fifth daily prayer required of Muslims. After the prayer, we sat on the floor in a circle. We started dhikr silently, and we were just getting comfortable. The imam told me that I should take pictures now, because we were about to turn off the lights. At this point, there were only seven people in attendance.
Once the lights were off, the imam led the dhikr. He would say something and we would repeat. This lasted for over an hour. In that hour, I went through a few stages. First stage was just getting comfortable with the dhikr session. I was distracted a little bit trying to understand what the imam was saying. He repeated Arabic phrases; however, because of the accent and the way of the recitation, I didn’t understand all of it. During the next stage I worked on focusing and reflecting internally. That part was serene and beautiful. Slowly though, I was getting tired. My throat was getting dry, and sitting on the floor was getting uncomfortable. The last stage was me trying to ignore the discomfort and carry on.
The imam wrapped up the dhikr and gave a short talk. He did this graciously in both English and Portuguese. It was a beautiful talk on the different levels of spirituality a Muslim can reach. After the talk, food and juices appeared and we all started to relax and chat. Those in attendance slowly left until only the imam, his brother, and I were left. We talked for hours.
The imam, an industrial designer who created story-boards for movies and TV shows, had a long journey towards Islam. He said that, as is the case with all his stories, his journey started when he was a child. He always wondered what is the meaning of it all. Why we are alive, why we go to work, why… why… He felt a need to explain that to himself. He found a group that called itself a secular Sufi group. He enjoyed it for a while, but realized quickly that Sufisim can’t be separated from Islam. Soon after, he went to Cyprus to learn from Shaikh Muhammad Nazim al-Haqqani. And, his journey continued.
His parents and siblings became Muslim when Imam Ahmad hosted a visiting Sufi imam at his family’s home. The family was so moved and impressed by how the visiting imam conducted himself that they converted to Islam shortly thereafter.
We continued talking until 1:30 am, discussing the imam’s life before converting to Islam, his career path, and his aspirations. I enjoyed talking to the imam and his brother, Abu Baker, who turned out to be a photography instructor. The night eventually came to an end and Imam Ahmad and Abu Baker picked up their car and dropped me off at the hostel. It was a great night and I am very thankful for the hospitality and the experiences they shared with me.
Ammar is on a journey to explore Islam in different countries around the world. He wants to show that Islam is a faith not exclusive to a single ethnicity. He hopes that these stories become part of the conversation about tolerance and acceptance in America.
For more information, visit our page about this journey.