Soul Meets Body

by

In Meknes, Morocco, on my way back to my hotel after a long day in the city, I briefly passed by a neighborhood mosque. It was hot and humid and I felt positively dirty and sweaty from walking around all day. Through the small green tiled doorway into the mosque I saw some men rolling up the sleeves of their silk djellabas, washing their faces and hands and arms in a basin. Some others quietly slipped off their sandals and continued walking through the inner doorway. I wasn’t used to seeing people preparing in that way before worship, but I liked it. I saw it as a symbolic act of purity and humbleness. I felt good after seeing that and cheerfully hurried home along the mismatching, uneven sidewalks gazing up at the off-white stucco buildings. It never had occurred to me that I was wrong in my judgment of what I had seen through the doorway. I wasn’t even close to understanding the way in which Muslims worshiped.

When people get sick, when their physical bodies are weak, they tend to call on God. I know this phenomenon well. A week after being in Morocco, when I was traveling in Spain and my immune system was extremely low, I got very sick. When the one thing I believed to be my own, my body, was compromised, I was reminded that I wasn’t the one in control, that I was not the God of my own body. In this vulnerability, all I could think about was what an old Muslim man from the Kasbah in Tangier had told me. He explained the way Muslims pray. Enthusiastically, he told me that when you are on your knees with your face on the ground, you heart is held above your head. And in this way, he said, with the gravel and dust pressed to your forehead, you let go of trying to control everything in your life, you let go of doubt, and you let go of yourself. There is a rhythm in the prayer, and in the resounding beat of your heart. With the heart above the head, we are reminded of who keeps it beating, of who fastened the ribs around it, and that we are not in control of our physical, mortal selves.

As I watch the teenagers of Morocco run around the streets at night throwing their arms over each other, kissing the faces of friends, it’s so clear that they know their physical bodies are vessels. For Muslims, physical expression is not symbolic, it’s an act of faith and devotion. When you look at the 5 pillars of Islam, four out of the five of them are physical acts of worship. Islam, as well as basically everything in Morocco, is physical, and everything is reserved for God. The body is a means of connection and sacrifice: an expression. It is a gift and therefore they honor God with it. I think about the men preparing for prayer, and now I see that they aren’t cleaning themselves as a symbol of purity or respect, but rather the cleaning is worship itself. 

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