/ 4 May 2022

Iman Rappetti: The seasonal yearning for a ritual of a religious exile

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Jamkaran Mosque, east of the holy city of Qom, Iran. (Photo by Scott Peterson/Getty Images)

For most of the past week, I have been transported to Iran’s historic Jamkaran Mosque, on the outskirts of the spiritual city of Qom, south of the capital, Tehran. Renowned poet and musician Ali Fani is leading scores of pilgrims in a moving tribute to Imam Mahdi, the final Imam, whom Shia Muslims believe will return with Jesus towards the end of the world to rid it of injustice and evil.

In the video, tears roll down worshippers’ faces. The emotion that wafts like incense

between strangers in that place, reaches across the distance and seems to infuse my candle-lit room. I am taken back to the memory of my younger self, a student of Islamic jurisprudence, prostrate on a musallah (prayer rug) in that very mosque. 

I was united in fervent supplication for the absolution of my sins with dusty travellers, shrouded in chadors (a hijab worn by Iranian women) encircling me. Its effect on my heart is still powerful even though I have long moved on in my life journey to a place that does not include a God.

As I reflected on why I felt the need for the familiar comfort of Arabic and Farsi, the soundtrack of my lost faith, I realised it was about connecting to something that was important to me — the unity of purpose in the worship of God and the ritual of discipline. 

In my new spiritual homeland, a wild and open forest outside religious orthodoxies and practices, a small part of me misses the daily calls to prayer, the ritual washing that precedes it, the rigidity of its hours and the myriad other demands on how to live.

I feel a fleeting longing for the mass prayer, replete with the melodic recitation of Qur’an. I miss the days held sacred and the congregational bearing of witness to a

Supreme Being. In the place I am now, there is no weekly service, no organised spiritual support system, no music as collective audial dedication to a choice to live without God.

For me, this exile is necessary, it is the right thing. But it’s lonely sometimes. I wonder how others who have chosen to reject organised religion — the atheists and agnostics and others like me in the spaces between the margins of these labels — find their new reality. Do they miss the music of faith and what have they substituted it with?

As far back as I can remember my faith journey has been set to music. Before my path into Islam there was Christianity.

Living Waters, our church in my hometown, Durban, was a spiritual home for my parents. They were there from the early days when the original, modest wood-and-iron structure heaved with the clapping and singing of traditional hymns and shook with the foot stomping that accompanied the banjo. Maureen and John were still there when an attractive brick and mortar structure rose up alongside the old church, a testament to a growing flock and rising tithes. 

They were so excited; they even commissioned a cake model of the building from the famous Reddy’s Bakery in Reservoir Hills. They stood, hands clasped, proudly surveying its fondant bricks in the new foyer at the roof-wetting celebration.

It was there, on the front stage, that I got my start singing in the church choir led by the capable and passionate Peppi Bouchier, who taught me the difference between an alto, a tenor, bass and falsetto. Week after week I steadily improved till I made it to the praise and worship team. We’d sing the rousing hymns and choruses that whipped up the congregation and stirred many souls to “get saved”.

I personally found a special resonance with the music of Christianity — from the prayerful, solemn hymns like Horatio Spafford’s 1876 It is Well With My Soul to the dynamic, contemporary strains of Bebe and Cece Winans’ Love Said Not So. When

I felt lost, as I often did as a young person, I would find solace in The Commissioner’s He’ll Meet You at the Point of Your Need. When I needed a reminder of the saviour’s great martyrdom, Larnelle Harris would fill me with I’ve Just Seen Jesus

The music was the mortar between the cinder blocks of my spiritual life, cementing bonds between myself and those safe and secure times, when forgiveness and comfort were only a prayer away.

What is interesting in these two major faiths, closely related in teachings, is that one might not immediately associate Islam with music. Although there are sects in Islam that expressly forbid music and singing — there are reams of debates and writings as to why — the path of Shia Islam that I followed allowed the use of instruments and voices for devotional purposes. And when you add the variations of Qur’anic recitation, or qirat, it resulted in an enduring connection for me with those particular sounds.

Perhaps this need for me to go back and revisit the sites of the most religious and observant periods in my life has something to do with the Muslim fast of Ramadhan and the memory of my strict adherence to it. 

As Eid arrives, the celebration notifications flood in. Many assume that I still practice the faith, when religious faith (the meaning of my name in Arabic) of any kind has no place in my world. In these last two gruelling years, when the world changed so dramatically through Covid-19 and unearthed a deluge of existential questions, it seems natural that a yearning for the soft place that faith and religion provide, would become more pronounced. 

I’d like to believe, as I once did, that the departed are safely ensconced in the arms of the divine, that all suffering is made equal in the end, that crime and punishment are justly weighed and that the perpetrators of evil do get their comeuppance. But Reason, the scythe that severed the old bonds, is ever sharp and ready again to slice the cord tethering me to my old beliefs. I keep looping back to my own hard but clear decision: religion and all its teachings have wrought enough damage on the world, and we are better off taking responsibility for how we serve to be heaven or hell for each other, right here on Earth.

I lower the volume on the video and lean back into my chair, coming to from the entrancing rhythms of the Persian devotional poetry and Qur’anic recitations gripping the weeping pilgrims, I once sat among. 

I long for a path of belonging for the non-believer. A rich way of life for people like me, in which I can stand steadfast, connected to my deepest self through a practice that produces depth, sense of purpose and discipline. But without the bedrock of doctrine and the belief system that organised religion is rooted in.

Iman Rappetti is an award-winning journalist, broadcaster and the author of Becoming Iman and Sermons of Soul. She is the owner of RappettiCom, a communications agency in Johannesburg.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.