A Prayer In the Corner

Allah (SWT) says: ‘Take one step towards me, I will take ten steps towards you.

Walk towards me, I will run towards you.’

Hadith Qudsi

Things just keep getting better and better, alhamdulillah. The best thing about living in a Western country and studying in an institution with Muslims being one of the smallest minority groups around is that I am constantly forced to think about where my next prayer is going to be, and where my next meal is coming from.

I was in such position just today, when after my lecture ended at eleven this morning I decided to drop by the Cambridge University Press Bookshop at Trinity Street (now officially one of my favorite bookstores due to the 20% discount for students) to get an ethnography I got hooked on, and then proceeded to spend the rest of my afternoon at Haddon Library. At around two o’clock, I started thinking about how I’m going to pray zuhr. The prayer room at Sidgwick Site is out of the question because it was too far, and plus I doubt my student card has been authorized for access. I’d prayed asr at a hidden corner in Haddon Library before so I decided to find another corner to pray zuhr.

I noticed a couple of passers-by when I was praying, but I had no idea the librarian himself saw me. I was on my way out of the library for a brief lunch right after I finished praying when he stopped me and asked, “Are you okay?” Puzzled, I replied, “Yes, of course.” Then out of the blue,  he said, “We have a room available for you to use you know, if you wish to do so.”

At first I didn’t understand what he was saying, but a moment later it hit me, and I said, “Really?” He smiled and nodded. I was at a loss for words and he said, “So you’re okay?” I nodded gratefully, said my thanks, and left the library in quite an emotional state. I was at first surprised (and glad) that I wasn’t chastised for praying in the corner, but above all I was very touched that he’d offered a space in the library just so I could fulfill my religious duties.

On Monday I was in a somewhat similar position. My seminars ended at around five that afternoon, but I had a birthday dinner planned with friends at Loch Fyne on Trumpington Street, so it didn’t make sense to go home and come back for the dinner. I hadn’t prayed asr yet though, so I took my ablution but found to my great disappointment that Haddon Library had already closed at 5.15pm. I decided to go to Queens’. As soon as I crossed over to Silver Street however, I was approached by an Indian girl who asked, “Excuse me, are you a graduate student?” I said yes. “We have an event — ,” at which point she dragged me to the door of the Graduate Union building where there was a poster about some talk on the environment/sustainable practices in the university happening that afternoon.

I was initially a little reluctant to join as I still needed to find a place to pray before sunset. As her invitation went on for another couple of minutes, an idea struck me: “Is there an empty room in the building where I can pray?” She said, “I’m not sure, but you can go on up and see if there is.”

Well, nothing to lose, I told myself. I went up to join the rest of the group, and it turns out there were only three people in attendance — the two speakers from the university’s environment office, and another Indian guy doing his PhD in Aerospace Engineering and about to join NASA in the next six months. Introductions were made. After observing that the common room was very empty save for the four of us, and that we were very unlikely to receive more attendants from the looks of it, I decided to ask for permission to “quickly pray in the corner, if you don’t mind.” They didn’t seem to mind at all, thankfully. And so in my quest to find a place to pray I found what I was looking for, plus made the acquaintance of a future NASA engineer and a physicist.

I am always very self-conscious whenever I pray in the corner, something which I cannot yet fully fight because I am not used to praying in public spaces — at least not when I’m surrounded by non-Muslim strangers. My prayers are usually briefer than usual, but as long as I’ve done the essentials then I believe they will be accepted; the important thing for me is the fact that I have gone out of my way to find a place to fulfill my religious obligation. The adrenaline pumping through my veins and the feeling of paranoia clouding my mind cannot be ignored, but I try to keep calm by reminding myself that I am facing a far more important audience — God — so I should not be bothered by others who do see me. I could have easily missed that particular prayer so I could pray in the comfort of my own home later during the day, but so many things could potentially happen between then and now; what if, God forbid, my next few breaths will be my last, and these feet will never get to walk these paths again? I would have left this world with an unpaid debt to God.

Today, my prayers have been answered. This afternoon when I was praying zuhr, as I raise my two hands for takbiratul ihram and whisper ‘الله أَكْبَر’ (God is the Greatest) to begin my prayer, I remember pleading in my heart, ‘Ya Allah, protect me.’ And then he placed a kind librarian in my path, and I could not have been more grateful.

الحمد لله

N.B: On a related note, my brother sent me this video of two guys who did a little social experiment: praying in public. Check out the public’s reaction!

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