It All Started with a Beard: Our First Family I’etikaf (Spiritual Retreat)

Yes, folks.  We’ve taken a giant leap from summer vacationing in the West to Ramadan-ing in the East but don’t worry, we’ll fill you in on the details, insha’Allah!  🙂

Before leaving for summer vacation, one of Urbndervish’s former students invited us to return to the northeastern coast of Oman to spend some of Ramadan’s last nights in I’etikaf with him and his family.  I’etikaf is often described as spiritual retreat- usually in a mosque and occasionally in a designated prayer space within one’s home.  It is from the practice of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) to spend the last ten nights of Ramadan in such a retreat in the mosque, engrossed in prayer, reflection and worship.  It is more common for men to retreat in the mosque, while many women opt to do so at home.  Even if there are adequate accommodations for women to retreat in a mosque, sometimes being at home proves to be more convenient.

Accepting the invitation, we packed up our faithful, sweet car Suzi and drove northward to Khaboura.  It took a while but we eventually found Jami’ al-‘Ubad, where we planned to spend the next two nights and days.  We were both very curious to see how Lil’ Z would fair in the mosque for the extended time.  She warmed up to the others, including two girls who were retreating with us.  Lil’ Z enjoyed hearing the Imam’s voice over the loud speaker: reciting Qur’an, praying, teaching, etc.  Even when the sonorous voice aroused her from sleep, she would look at me and ask “Saykh?”…”Dhan?” (toddler tr:  “Shaykh?”…”Adhan?”; English tr:  “Scholar/elder?” “call to prayer”).

To be honest, the experience was reminiscent of the days that Urbndervish and I spent attending study retreats:  long days and short nights filled with worship in the company of seekers.  Those study retreats (also known as deen intensives) used to leave us exhausted and nourished at the same time.  The day-to-day grind of our work schedules used to leave little time for extra worship, so we revelled in the opportunities to unplug and plug in.  On the other hand, the challenge of “plugging in” with a young child was apparent.  We packed the familiar items of books and crayons for her, but, as with all young children, she still needed attentive care, which is to be expected.  The distorted sleep schedule was difficult for her.  When we started to count the sum total hours of her sleep on one hand, we realized that it was time to cut our retreat short.

Since we were on the northeastern coast of Oman, we decided to return to a beachside location that captivated our tummies on the last road trip.  The Swahili food was calling us and with peak heat keeping us indoors, we thought Lil’ Z would appreciate a change of scenery.  In Sohar, we returned to the Butterfly Boutique Hotel– not just to eat but to stay overnight.  The spacious and cozy studio suites were inviting and Lil’ Z slept well–so well that she nearly missed breakfast!  Then, we realized that missing breakfast was an impossibility because the hotel was waiting for us.  We were the only guests in the entire hotel!  It was a little eerie but understandable when you consider that the last days of Ramadan aren’t for vacationing.  To attract visitors, the hotel had been running an excellent discounted rate for the entire summer, which is off-season for tourism here.  Enjoying four-star accomodations at a discounted cost when we were less than an hour away was tempting and hard to refuse, even in Ramadan.

After Lil’ Z ate breakfast, we took her to an empty beach to play in warm, chocolate sand and unearth beautiful white seashells.  The tide was too high for her to appreciate the sea but the weather was wonderful!  Being outdoors after 10am is usually a brave act of sheer necessity but in Sohar, by the beach, it felt good to be out under the overcast sky.  As the sun emerged from cloudy covers, the sand became noticably hot.  We quickly put on our sandals and headed back to the hotel with a whole line of staff patiently attending to us.  Again, strange!  Before leaving, we enjoyed a meal of delicious Swahili food (i.e. any and everything basking in coconut milk) and headed onward.

So, whose beard are we talking about, anyway?  The gracious host who invited us is a sweet, smiley man with an untrimmed, coarse beard.  In Oman, such a bearded man is called a mutawwa– because he is seen as upright and righteous.  Yes, it’s a very superficial designation but follow this story with me.  Once upon a time, our host was a barefaced newlywed.  His wife, a student of the Islamic sciences, made a cursory remark to him- “You know, you would look really handsome with a beard”.  He eagerly started to grow a short, trimmed beard but maintaining it grew to be a headache, so he just let it grow out.  Over time, he found others pushing him forward to lead prayers at the mosque.  Why?  Because long beard = mutawwa = upright, learned, etc.  He hesitatingly would step forward to lead others in prayer but was embarassed at his poor recitation of the Qur’an.  Therefore, he brushed up on his studies of Qur’an recitation.  Hearing his accurate and moving recitation, others began to ask him questions about religious matters.  His knowledge of other than the Qur’an was lacking, so he needed to study up to answer his peers.  His journey continued and now he is a man who truly strives to embody praiseworthy religious qualities, both inwardly and outwardly.  He frequently hosts prominent scholars in his home and both he and his wife are active in the Muslim community.  Cute story, huh?

There’s plenty more catching up to be done, so bear with us.  I’m nursing my two lovelies (and myself) back to wellness.  Lil’ Z has been going through a teething explosion for the last month.  After a dormant gumline for the last six months or so, all of the remaining teeth are deciding to erupt all at once.  Miskeena (poor girl)!  According to Urbndervish, between the oregano oil, garlic oil and lavender in our house, it’s starting to smell like a hippie pizza shop around here!  Funny guy, that one!  😉

Until next time, here’s an Eid pic for you.  Hope your holiday was as enjoyable as ours.

the raggamuslims


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