Waswasa - Whispers in Prayer

Birmingham Hippodrome

Patrick Centre

In a way, when it comes to God, we all believe, even atheists have a belief, a belief God doesn’t exist, but despite denial, it can still only be a belief. We don’t know and another thing many of us don’t know, or at least always understand, is each other’s religions.

Yet all major religions have similarities from the idea of a superior power, of God or even Gods, to the more basic comfort of prayer to a force we can only feel within us.

When I was a kid most children were encouraged to say their prayers when they went to bed, some still are, even if, in our more and more secular society, some now believe Easter is when rabbits are born or chocolate was invented according to occasional polls.

The prayers are universal, praying for parents, for relatives, for friends who are ill, for good health, for victims of floods, earthquakes, or sometimes, more in hope, or desperation than expectation, winning the lottery, getting a promotion, getting a car though its MoT fault free . . .

In WASWASA – Whispers in Prayer, Mohammed Ali explores the act of Islamic prayer in a semi-autobigraphical view of what that means in a modern, secular society.

Waswasa is Arabic for the whispers, the thoughts that distract Muslims when they are trying to pray, and trying in a society where, like moths to a flame, we are often attracted, even drawn to the forbidden - the act of prayer is an opportunity to reset, to refocus, to think.

Muslims are obliged to pray five times a day, pre dawn, when the sun is at its zenith, between noon and sunset, just after sunset and finally in the evening, each time in the direction of Mecca.


The art installation of prayers from the community

It is an act of worship outside the comfort zone of Christianity and other religions which make no such demands of their followers. And such dedication has its price.

Two actors Hamza Ali and Mustafa Chaudhry rotate to provide the live action and appear in the video and in this performance it was Ali who explains what finding time to pray while holding down jobs or keeping pace with modern living means. He tells us we have become guinea pigs in the attention economy – the demands on time are increasing all the time such that he can have a £3.99 meal deal in one hand while at the same time  trying to find a moment for prayers.

It is a world where phones are buzzing as people pray, eat or sleep where time is slowly sucked out of life, time that perhaps Ali’s parents enjoyed in the gentler pace of their home country.

The physical act needs a prayer mat, toes, knees, fingers and head touching the mat, along with ritual washing which means that it extends beyond religious spaces, beyond mosques, to places such as parks and city-squares; it spills over into our everyday worlds. It is even seen in sports grounds with athletes prostrating to the ground or raising hands to the sky in moments of triumph. It is not just Muslims who recognise their religion either, Catholic sportsmen can be seen making the sign of the cross entering the field of play or reaching their blocks. A universal nod to their maker.

prayer mats

Prayers don't need religion to be expressed

As an audience we were invited to walk through an art installation of prayers, written on prayer mats, which were often for everyday things or universal things we would all ask for, pleas we could all share as much as prayers.

Then we sat on artificial grass, shoeless, around a pool for a live performance and a well produced video wall as Ali explains both the ritual of prayer and its reaction, people asking what he was doing, a regular customer at his father’s restaurant worried something terrible had happened when he saw praying, an idea alien to a non-Muslim, then there were the local drunks abusing staff and doing runners – with Ali’s father holding him back, “let them go. It is not worth it”.

As for praying Ali’s job as a lorry driver saw him praying in dirty laybys, in a warehouse in a piled up store room, in the street. The reaction of workmates and onlookers was confusion, curiosity more than animosity or abuse, people uneasy at something they did not understand.

Ali talks not just about the act of praying but of the one certainty for all of us in life, death, something Muslims seem to confront with more ease than perhaps Christians. He talks of losing his mother to Covid, of the sense of loss, of her strength when he was in need.

It is all very human, human emotions, human thoughts, the one thing not talked about is religion beyond Islam's requirement to pray.

It is a powerful theatrical piece, well lit and well produced about the act of prayer the pressures, the practicalities, as we see Muslims around the world from New York to Australia, Cape Town to Birmingham in the act of prayer. All praying to the same timetable, the same act of worship.

At the end we might not fully understand the Islamic act of worship, but at least we understood a little more of why and what it means to Muslims, and that is a start. To 03-09-22.

Roger Clarke

Waswasa produced by Soul City Arts is part of Birmingham 2022 Festival


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