Prayer in Cairo

Out of all of Friday’s images of protest marches and battles with Egyptian security forces, the one which struck me more than any other is this one by Scott Nelson in The New York Times, January 28, 2011 (image 18 of 21).

Scott Nelson, The New York Times, 1/28/2011

As security vehicles burned in the background,
protesters prayed in Cairo on Friday evening.

There is something happening here to which we non-Islamic Westerners need to pay silent, respectful attention.

I’m not referring to the violence. I am referring to something about Islam which Reza Aslan makes very clear in No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam.

The truest Islam is found in moments like the one pictured here, when the communitas stops whatever it is doing—even in peril of its life, as is the case with these young men—and kneels, centering down into whatever measure of the Divine Presence each member has become able to recognize and share.

There’s something more going on here than political violence, something truer which arises from beneath the frustration and anger of the people. At its core, Aslan writes, the current struggle in the Islamic world is a struggle between people for whom religion is the pulse of the sacred in their daily lives, on the one hand, and governments and institutions for whom religion is a weapon of control, on the other.

It is very difficult for us to credit that the fearfulness of this struggle arises out of a longing for peace, but that is what these people are asking for, that is what they are kneeling for.


And so it is.

Blessèd Be,

Note: For communitas, see this passage from Weeds (Part II): “Religions may produce belief systems, yet ‘they are not at their core intelligible, and they are saturated with paradox’ (36). Unlike the Roman civitas, a society ruled by law and structured by clear lines of authority, a religion is a communitas stretching across time and space, a ‘spontaneous gathering of persons who identify themselves and one another as members of a unified body.” Unified, Carse writes, by “the desire…to get to the bottom of the very mystery that brings them together’ (84).”

6 comments On Prayer in Cairo

  • I ask myself, “Would I be so faithful? Could I be so true?”

  • Reta Richardson

    Thank you for sharing this image and comment. What we do speaks louder–by far–than anything we say. For me, this is a poignant example and lesson in how to integrate one’s spiritual being with mind and body.

  • in 1991, while travelling in egypt, i was on a train, and the ticket-taker checked the ticket of the people across the aisle from me, and then as i was holding out my ticket, he walked away, greatly confusing me at first.

    he went to the car ahead, which was a utility car with no people, and the door to the outside open, letting in swirling dust here and there. he pulled out a tattered piece of cardboard, which he placed on the dusty floor, then aligned himself with mecca, and began praying, prostrating himself multiple times. after a minute or two, he returned to the car, and resumed right where he’d left off, checking my ticket, then continuing down the rows.

    that image has always stayed with me, somehow a microcosm of the depth of their faith. fancy stained glass windows and pipe organs not required. a dusty floor, an only slightly less dirty piece of cardboard, a few square feet, a minute or two, and knowing the general direction of mecca is sufficient.


    • I just read a book on the practice of Celtic prayer. Celtic prayer is similar. Ancient Celts prayed contiounsly, with prayers or poems for eavh event and task. It is a God centered life. Some were Druid, others Christian, others a nature and pagam mix. In each, God is present. Personally, I am trying to recover the close relationship I had with God as a young woman. It was lost through the busy schedule full time teachig brings in eighty to onehundred hour weeks. Of course the force of evil drew me away with business. I am finding the way back frought with difficulities / temptations. Your story encouraged me. Thanks.

      • Sheila, Thanks for this comment.

        Reading across religions, in books such as Reza Aslan’s, has done much to help me regain my own closeness with God. You might want to glance at my Reading list, to see some of the range of ideas which have touched me.


  • Thank you for your comments, Friends.

    In today’s online New York Times is an interview with photographer Scott Nelson, “Cairo Photographer Sees Hope in Turmoil,” whose image of the praying young men in Cairo I included above.

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