I was out driving around Barbados recently with family and friends, as I often like to do, taking in the wonderful sights and natural beauty of Barbados. At one of our stops, we observed one of our daily prayers. It was in the shadow of the Ragged Point Lighthouse in St Philip. Just after we commenced our prayer, a busload of sightseers pulled up to visit the Lighthouse. The driver was commentating on the Lighthouse but it seems that the people on the bus were more interested in observing a group of Muslims at prayer. They were commenting in a loud voice, “Wait, look at them praying. I never see that before!” They then proceeded to film us praying.
It didn’t offend us but it got me to thinking that I have, on several occasions, experienced similar reactions and it is perhaps intriguing for some people to see Muslims at prayer. I recall once, at another Lighthouse, ironically this time in St. Lucy, we similarly set about to pray when a group of persons at the top of Lighthouse gave a running commentary of what they were observing. And it was all positive.
That is Barbados. People will be fascinated by something out of the ordinary, like a group of Muslims praying, but they will not be insulting or have any issues with the action of worshipping.
This is contrasted to other parts of the world where, unfortunately, and sadly, persons can be attacked for their acts of prayers. After 9/11 this became even more worrisome for Muslims who had to be extremely careful where they performed their prayers while outside of the home or mosque.
Islamic teachings prescribe for the Muslim to pray five times a day in a set manner. These are the compulsory prayers and a pillar of the Islamic faith. Devout Muslims will, wherever they are, seek to fulfil this obligation. The five prayers are spread throughout the day and night. The first is early morning, just before sunrise, the second at midday just after the sun passes its zenith, the third in the early evening, the fourth just after sunset and the fifth in the night. Prayers can be said at the mosque which is highly recommended or if not possible, then wherever one can in a clean environment.
Islam is the only major world faith that has such an injunction when it comes to worship on a daily basis. The ritual washing of the hands, mouth, face, and feet before the prescribed movements in the prayer, and the direction (towards the Kaaba in Mecca, in present-day Saudi Arabia) which every Muslim must face during the prayer set aside this devotional act from other acts of worship in other faiths.
Understanding these faith-based injunctions and practices allow for persons of other faiths or no faith to appreciate what they are observing if they happen to come across Muslims doing “strange” things in public places.
It is those “strange” actions that often times I have to explain whenever I am engaged in discussions on the practices of Muslims. I recall during a class I taught on Islam and Muslims at the Cave Hill Campus a student asking, why do Muslims worship trees? At first, I couldn’t understand how the student came to that conclusion but further probing enlightened me. The student had been in a park once and observed some Muslims praying. They had positioned themselves behind a tree, apparently not to block anyone’s path. The student assumed from observation that these persons were praying to the tree.
And so many assumptions can be drawn from observation without full knowledge. Like post 9/11, several persons in the Western Hemisphere felt all Muslims were terrorists and seeing them at prayer in a public space enraged them more. It was as though these people were saying their final prayers before setting out on some horrible mission. Or like a more comical anecdote here in Barbados – the story goes that an itinerant trader went to collect his money one Sunday from his customer who couldn’t pay that day. The trader went on but stopped next to the house to pray one of his daily prayers. The family seeing him doing that felt he was invoking some evil on the house for not paying so they immediately came out and paid off the bill in full, fearing some retribution.
I came across on the net a series of photographs in which the photographer sought to capture Muslims at pray in various public spaces. The story can be found at https://splinternews.com/this-photo-series-of-muslims-praying-in-public-places-w-1793862454. The story by Alaa Basatneh highlights: “For Muslims, praying in public can be risky.”
Dubbed a “social experiment,” one recent viral video of a Muslim woman praying in the streets of New York City showed how negatively some passersby reacted to her. In it, one man asks the woman if Islam is linked to terrorism, while another tries to physically stop her from praying.
Although Muslims often pray in public spaces, they tend to find less busy areas to do so (in high school, I prayed in the library and computer lab when classes were over, for example). Praying in public isn’t ideal, but it’s often the only way Muslims—who pray five times a day—can avoid delaying the act. Prayer, which typically takes five to seven minutes, involves standing, bowing, kneeling, prostrating, and reciting verses from the Qur’an. Most Muslims pray on a prayer rug if they’re not in a mosque.
Sana Ullah, a Muslim-American born in Florida, started an Instagram photo series in January 2015 called Places You’ll Pray to combat negative images of Muslims in the media. It features photos of Muslims praying in public spaces across America.
Finding that suitable place to pray in public can be challenging at times and overwhelming for some. Trying to balance fulfilling one’s obligations to faith and overcoming the intimidation of being in a public space and all eyes focused on you can be difficult.
The accommodation extended in several public spaces across the world now in multi-faith rooms, halls and chapels is a much-welcomed development. In hospitals, airports and shopping malls across many European countries and in North America one can find such rooms and spaces. I have prayed in a multi-faith room in the Miami airport with a Christian lady sitting just across from me reading her Bible. And I have utilized similar spaces in other airports. These spaces can provide the necessary oasis of peace amidst the hustle and bustle of these busy places.
(Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace, Secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association and Muslim Chaplain at the Cave Hill Campus, UWI and a Childhood Obesity Prevention Champion. Email: email@example.com)