When I received the email that classes would take place online starting March 13, it was too late to get a ticket back to Tabuk — international travel to and from Saudi Arabia had been temporarily suspended by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in order to limit the spread of COVID-19. I tried to avoid a foreseeable panic attack. I started counting all of the reasons it would be harder to keep myself calm if I went back home and tried to take classes in a different time zone. I thought praying would definitely help. It always does. So, facing toward Makkah, I got out my prayer mat.
About a month after that email, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched a website that allowed Saudi citizens and their families to register in case they wanted to go back home. It would arrange flights for all of the registrants and contact them with flight details on the basis that the elderly, the immunocompromised and the families of the individuals belonging to those groups would be prioritized. Needless to say, I registered a few hours even before the Ministry made an official announcement of this website. And I prayed again.
A month later, I hadn’t heard back about the status of my registration or flight details. I became so immersed in my routine during shelter-in-place that I didn’t want anything to disrupt it. At the time, it was also mid-May, which meant my summer classes would soon begin. But I still wanted to go back. I later received an email in the middle of the night stating that my flight would leave June 16. That meant I knew the date of my return, and I also had time to adjust my routine for my summer classes before having to watch a 10 a.m. lecture live at 8 p.m. Everything worked as I wanted. So I prayed again.
Today marks the 13th day of my return back home. (I remember the exact day because once I arrived at King Abdulaziz International Airport, I installed an app that specified the number of days I had to remain quarantined.) Later in the night a few days ago, I had just finished writing the final essay for one of my summer classes, which concludes at the end of this week. My parents overheard me complaining about one of the assignments for this class. Although I was exaggerating my concerns about it, they said as one something they’d told me all my life every time I feared a grade or expressed concern about the future — something they would still say at the end of all our video chats to ease my anxiety.
“As long as you pray, you got Allah by you. Nothing else matters.” They’ve always repeated it, but the first time they said it almost on a daily basis was when my academic performance and overall mental health deteriorated in the fifth grade. (Older students would harass me every day for being a “sissy.” But that’s beside the point.) My parents reminded me of the importance of praying and wanted to ensure I realized I was not to be defined by a grade. My worth, to them and to myself, should be so much more. So I prayed and prayed and prayed to Allah to be by my side. My parents said I should, and they were always right.
Moving forward to college, I started delaying prayers. I read the Qur’an only once a week. Allah was present with me, but I was distant. I started losing many of the habits I cultivated back home. To me, Islam was a constant reminder of the need to look beyond the materialism of the world. But I became numb to this reminder when the only aspect of the world that attracted me was its materialism. I lived for the temporary sense of satisfaction and validation of finishing my to-do list. I became addicted to the serotonin dose of achieving one goal and moving on to another. “Work,” “hustle” and “grind,” despite my exhaustion. So my parents’ counsel about the centrality of prayer reminded me of how I wanted more from life than the false, indulgent illusion of achievement. I prayed again, out of guilt and shame, out of hunger of wanting more from this life.
At the time, it seemed that the most evolved form of human life was defined by constant pursuit of one’s goals, one followed by another — an endless cycle of single-minded, inauthentic ambition and unavoidable exhaustion. I thought I personally chose this life; I blamed myself for not adhering to the “standards” set for me, and I punished myself with self-doubt. But human life as we know it, as philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein describes it, “is not just a random, continuous flow, but displays recurrent patterns, regularities, characteristic ways of doing and being, of feeling and acting, of speaking and interacting.” These patterns, therefore, are influenced by the dominant ethical framework, which shapes how we perceive ourselves and the world around us.
In our case, we are seeing through the lens of capitalism: exploitation of our health and stability in the name of productivity, minimization of our worth in the name of economic growth, prioritization of vicious competition and one’s self-interests in the name of individuality. Capitalism manifests itself in different facets of our lives. As political scientist Alyson Cole states, “capitalism is more than an economic system, and instead … (it) shapes our relationships with others, our sense of ourselves and our capacities, practices, and actions in the material world.”
One of the main factors contributing to the development of capitalism in Europe was a shift, as Daniel Walden argues, “characterized by an increased reliance on human reason and a decrease in religious superstition.” Its progress then required it to deglamorize the significance of the spirituality of the human experience in reaching the most evolved human life: one of “materialism” and “industrialization,” rather than the “magical” and the “divine” — making capitalism a religion in and of itself. And everyone not devoted to this religion that has defined modernity is to be excluded from this modernity. But I believe in the “superstition” Islam promoted. I find solace in it. And I believe in its ability to strip away the illusion capitalism sells us.
Praying is one of the five pillars of Islam. To be accepted, a prayer must entail khushoo’: the complete focus of mind and humility before Allah. The few minutes — or hours — one spends praying are a temporary disassociation from the materialism of the world, from the way it has grown on us. I find praying to be heavy sometimes — I perform it rather than practice it, without attention to details or khushoo’. The main reason I do this is because I want to finish this part of the day that I’m only obliged to do five times and go back to running this race of endless competition that I despise and no longer want to be part of.
When I think of dismantling all forms of capitalism in our lives, I think of Islam. I think of praying. I think of my parents’ reminder: There’s so much more to our existence and the world around us than the illusion of achievement that is marked by exploiting our bodies and souls in the form of cancerous growth.
Khaled Alqahtani writes the Wednesday column on decolonization. Contact them at [email protected]