By Ambata Kazi-Nance
Like many Muslims, al-Fatihah, the first chapter of the Qur’an, was the first surah I learned. But I wasn’t Muslim when I learned it, and I wouldn’t become one till more than a decade after I first read and recited it. It stayed with me though, slipping out of the shadows of my mind again and again throughout my childhood and young adulthood until I finally returned to Islam.
My father became a Muslim when I was 11 years old. My older sister and I began to accompany our dad to the local masjid in the Treme area of New Orleans, for Friday dinners after jummah. We sat at long folding tables with the women and girls eating fried fish or stewed chicken from styrofoam plates, licking our fingers and giggling. The crowded, too-warm space and all the people within it felt like home and family.
We soon started attending a girl’s group there on Saturday afternoons, taught by the mothers of some of our members. In the same space where we prayed and gathered for Friday suppers, we sat in a circle and learned the basic principles of Islam: how to pray and fast, when and why girls and women are exempt from those duties at certain times, ways to dress and conduct ourselves as young Muslim women, how to deal with boys and our desires and more. Each girl received a lavender booklet with instructions on how to make wudhu and pray, and some short surahs to memorize at the end.
After a year or two, our group began to disintegrate. Attendance dropped, one girl got pregnant and stopped attending. She came back after she gave birth, then quickly left again. My interest in Islam dwindled with the dissolution of our group. Boys and black eyeliner now held my attention. I attempted to fast a few days here and there during Ramadan but often overslept suhur. I could never remember the times for prayer. Islam then became my father’s religion only. His prayer rugs, Qur’ans, and dhikr beads were fixtures in the house that were respected but touched only by him.
“Islam then became my father’s religion only. His prayer rugs, Qur’ans, and dhikr beads were fixtures in the house that were respected but touched only by him.”
Still, there were moments though. Morning rides to school, my father’s Qur’an tapes playing like a lullaby as I looked out at the houses and trees whirling by my window, and the jarring interruption of that reverie as we arrived at my high school. Once, home alone with night coming, the creaks and groans of an otherwise quiet house unnerving me, I became afraid and wanted to pray but didn’t know what to say. I searched my bookshelves and plucked out the familiar lavender booklet and recited al-Fatihah in halting Arabic until my fears calmed.
“In that moment, I felt like I had stepped out of my body and my soul had spoken for me. Everything had melted away.”
Years later, on my own and far from Islam, riding in a car with a friend, he slipped in Mos Def’s “Black on Both Sides” in the CD player. Mos Def opened the album with “Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim,” In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful, and I was jolted back to a past long forgotten. Before I could stop myself I recited al-Fatihah in its entirety without hesitation. In that moment, I felt like I had stepped out of my body and my soul had spoken for me. Everything, my friend, his car, the world around me, had melted away. I looked over at my friend and he looked back at me like—well, like I had just recited an ancient prayer in a different language. After an awkward silence, we pretended that hadn’t just happened.
A few more years went by and I watched horrified as planes crashed into the Twin Towers in New York City. Everywhere people were talking about “those people” but I knew many of “those people”—like my father—loved God and found their relationship with The Creator through Islam. Conversations, discussions and heated debates brought back to the center of my mind what my soul was still searching for: a spiritual home. I had started and stopped that search so many times throughout my life, convincing myself that blind faith was enough, but then I knew my soul yearned for more. It wasn’t enough to pray to God only when I felt I needed reassurance or protection, I needed Allah’s guidance for all aspects of my life.
“As I read the words of al-Fatihah, “iyyaka na’budu wa iyyaka nasta’een: Thee do we worship and Thine Aid do we seek,” I knew. I had found The One who had been waiting patiently for me all along. My soul had been summoned.”
Too unsure of myself or what I was doing to talk to my dad, I snuck one of his many Qur’ans off his bookshelves and stuffed it away in my backpack. Late that night back at my apartment I pulled out my stolen Qur’an and opened it to the first page. As I read the words of al-Fatihah, “iyyaka na’budu wa iyyaka nasta’een:Thee do we worship and Thine Aid do we seek,” I knew. I had found The One who had been waiting patiently for me all along. My soul had been summoned.
When I became a mother, I wanted to help my son connect faith with religious and spiritual practice early in life. I taught him al-Fatihah as soon as he was old enough to learn. We recited it together every night before his bedtime. I knew that if he learned nothing else of value from me, at least he would have that. Although he now knows more Qur’an than I do, he reminds me that I taught him the opening. Sometimes in the dark of night he awakes afraid and comes to me. I tell him, recite al-Fatihah till you feel your heart ease. I pray it will be for him, as it was for me, the compass that will always direct him home.
Ambata Kazi-Nance is a writer, teacher and mother born and raised in New Orleans, La., and currently resides in the California Bay Area with her family. She is the Arts and Culture Editor for Sapelo Square. A catalogue of her writing can be found here.