Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Raisin In The Sun

Some of you may remember a movie with this title starring Sidney Poitier. I am not referring to this movie, but to the raisins that devout Moslems are growing on their foreheads. This is based on a NY Times story that examines the practice of slamming your face into a prayer carpet five times a day while you wave your ass at Allah. Something's gotta give and it's the skin on your forehead that grows an ugly callus in protest to this mistreatment. But this is happening only in Egypt; an indication of the growing inportance of outward religious expression in that country.

CAIRO — There is a strong undercurrent of competition in Egypt these days, an unstated contest among people eager to prove just how religious they are. The field of battle is the street and the focus tends to be on appearance, as opposed to conviction.It is not that the two are mutually exclusive, but they are not necessarily linked. As Egyptians increasingly emphasize Islam as the cornerstone of identity, there has been a growing emphasis on public displays of piety.

For women, that has rapidly translated into the nearly universal adoption of the hijab, a scarf fitted over the hair and ears and wrapped around the neck. For men, it is more and more popular to have a zebibah.

The zebibah, Arabic for raisin, is a dark circle of callused skin, or in some cases a protruding bump, between the hairline and the eyebrows. It emerges on the spot where worshipers press their foreheads into the ground during their daily prayers.

First off, let me state this; Islam does not hold the patent on external appearances of piety while maintaining an internal spirit of ungodliness; there's plenty of that going around.

That being said, let me continue.

It may sometimes look like a painful wound, but in Egypt it is worn proudly, the way American professionals in the 1980s felt good about the dark circles under their eyes as a sign of long work hours and little sleep.

Two decades ago, Egypt was a Muslim country with a relatively secular style. Nationalism and Arabism had alternated places as the main element of identity. But today, Egypt, like much of the Arab Middle East, is experiencing the rise of Islam as the ideology of the day.

With that, religious symbols have become the fashion.

“The zebibah is a way to show how important religion is for us,” said Muhammad al-Bikali, a hairstylist in Cairo, in an interview last month. Mr. Bikali had a well-trimmed mustache and an ever-so-subtle brown spot just beneath his hairline. “It shows how religious we are. It is a mark from God.”

Observant Muslims pray five times a day. Each prayer involves kneeling and touching one’s forehead and nose to the ground. All five prayers require placing one’s head on the ground for a total of 34 times, though many people add prayers and with them, more chances to press their heads to the ground. Some people say the bump is the inevitable result of so many prayers — and that is often the point: The person with the mark is broadcasting his observance, his adherence to one of the five pillars of Islam.

To my understanding, one of the hallmarks of truly devout people are the ways they comport themselves in their public and private lives. You cannot make any judgement on a person's commitment to religious principles based on their appearance. It is a matter of heart... Has the infividual internalized the teachings he or she has received? There is only one way to be sure, and you have to get to know the person to make that determination.

Jesus commented on this in Luke 18:9-14:
"And He spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others; Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted."

We are not to do religious "things" to draw attention to our spirituality, for in doing so we are prompting others to honor ourselves. We are to honor God instead.

And this is my favorite, Matthew 6:5-8:
"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him."

For right after these words, Christ gave us the Lord's Prayer.

I'm sorry, but the "raisin" on his head looks more like he forgot to close the cupboard door.

H/T to my daughter Danielle for this story.

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