It's 5 am and the call to prayer sounds from the mosque across the street. I jerk awake and it takes a few minutes for my heart to stop feeling like it's going to jump out of my chest. One of the speakers on the minarets is pointed right in the direction of my house so it sounds like the muezzin might as well be in my room next to my bed. This goes on for about three minutes as I lay in bed with the covers pulled up over my head. Usually I can sleep through the morning prayers, but any time I leave Tenom for a few days, coming back means starting over and trying to get used to the call to prayer again. I roll over and try to doze off again before my alarm clock wakes me. This morning ritual is another reminder of where I've been living for the past few months. I'm definitely far away from the Bible Belt of the South in more ways than just distance.
Since moving to Tenom, I've seen signs that I live in a place where there are Muslims, something that was not huge in my life before I came to Malaysia. In fact, the only time I heard about Islam was either in World Religions class or on the news. I will not claim to be expert. Of course, wherever I go, I see women in hijabs. At certain times during the day, I see people gather at the mosque for prayer. There are signs in restaurants that declare that the food is halel (ok for Muslims to eat according to dietary guidelines). There are certain public holidays that are religious holidays for Muslims. Some businesses display Islamic art. At first, I would look at these things as signs of how far from home I was, but over time, these feelings have changed.
As I've mentioned in previous posts, many people have welcomed me to Tenom through acts great and small. These people are from many different backgrounds and include Muslims. Sometimes this welcome can come from the man who smiles on the street or from the girl in the bakery who asks me how I'm doing. Sometimes it's the taxi driver who helps me figure out how to get somewhere or it's the man at the library who is oh so patient as I try to explain that I would like to check out a book again (and explains how to ask for this in the future). In truth, I've received pretty much the same reaction from people around town when they meet me and find out that I am from the US. Everyone is mainly curious why an American would come to a small town like Tenom. They wonder why I would even care about a place like Malaysia. When I share that I teach English and want to learn more about Malaysia, everyone is delighted that I'm interested. They're even more delighted when I can say this in Bahasa Malayu and that I'm currently learning the local language.
I think that in talking to people from back home, there is a single story of Islam that has come to dominate what many think. It's the images of the Middle East politics that come through the news every night. I know that particularly where I lived, this was really all we heard about Islam. It came off as something harsh and aggressive. But here, I've experienced something different. I have never received hostility for being a Christian or a foreigner. I've seen people going about living their daily lives according to their faith. Isn't that something that Christians strive to do? Live faith daily? This realization has made me look at different rituals in a new way.
Though I'm awakened by the call to prayer, I now realize that this is a part of someone practicing their faith daily. Even though I turn over and try to go back to sleep, people around town are reminded to wake up and pray. What's so bad about that? In fact, I think it's a beautiful practice. Five times a day, people take the time to drop everything and pray. How often do I remember to do that? There's certainly plenty that I could pray for. How would my day be different if I dropped everything and took the time to talk with God? So maybe I can remember not to be so grumpy when I'm woken yet again at 5 am. After all, I was able to wake up to a new morning. Maybe I don't have look at the call to prayer as a reminder of a different culture, but as a reminder to take time with God. Maybe I won't say the same prayers as a Muslim, but their practice can be a good lesson for me in my life of faith.