Perhaps what gravitates me most towards faith is that it offers a sense of community. Exploring places of worship while traveling is one of the most intimate venues to get to know communities and cultures.
Yes, this piece stems from the spirit of Ramadan, but it’s also a therapeutic vehicle to reflect on a more timely concern. I can’t seem to wrap my head around murders of innocents in places of worship like mosques, synagogues, and churches.
Even Shakespeare agrees with me
Hamlet, in a gist, is about an Old King’s brother, Claudius, killing the King and crowning himself as the leader. Claudius then marries the Old Queen. Hamlet is the Old King’s son who aches to seek revenge on his uncle and now stepfather. It’s the story that the Lion King (or if you’re a Bollywood fan: Haider) ripped.
One of the most impactful scenes in this famous tragedy is in Act III, where Hamlet sees his uncle praying before confession and hesitates to kill him. Hamlet says:
Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven,
And so am I revenged. That would be scann’d.
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven. (80)
Claudius is kneeling, presumably unarmed, and Hamlet has the advantage. So what stops him? Hamlet reasons that if he kills Claudius while he’s praying, that God may forgive Claudius and grant him heaven. The idea enrages Hamlet so much that he cannot bring himself to do it.
Places of worship have been an asylum for so many in times of turmoil. During the Rwandan genocide, people sought refuge in churches and mosques. Just the thought of violence in a space devout to hope, meditation, and spirituality makes me sick.
As a means of validating peace in places of worship, I’m sharing some spiritual treasures I’ve seen around the world.
Hinglaj Mata, Balochistan, Pakistan
Once visitors have removed their shoes, we’re greeted by relays of flowers hung haphazardly from any which corner of the cave. Pilgrims come from far and listen patiently to the tale of Hanglaj Mata.
There is a stereotype of all Pakistanis being Muslims, while a long tradition of religions like Christianity, Sikhism, and Hinduism on the same land is disregarded. I grew up pretty sheltered in Pakistan and had no idea there were religious minorities in our country. Before the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947, the region constituting present-day Pakistan had a 14% Hindu and Sikh population, which fell to 1.6% due to migration of 6 million Hindus and Sikhs to India.
Mosque Lulua, Cairo, Egypt
There is no shortage of mosques in Egypt, but Lulua has a special place in my heart. It’s classy yet simple. It’s remote but accessible. It can be seen from the busy city on top of the hill that it sits on but seldom do tourists visit.
Etymologically, the name “Lulua” means “pearl” as the mosque’s white exterior shines at golden hours. The Lulua Mosque was built in 1015 by the Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim and reestablished 900 years later in 1911.
Igreja Nossa Senhora Das Gracas, Franca, Brazil
There are no hidden entrances or expensive stained windows in this church. It does, however, come with a bucket list experience.
Since I was a little girl, all I wanted to do was go to a white dress wedding. During my summer internship in a small city in Brazil, I told a local friend this. I’m not sure if it was my broken Portuguese or his Brazilian hospitality, but he made it his mission to get me into a wedding. He went to the town church and got the event schedule. We just walked in with the guests and sat in the front row for the nuptials of two total strangers. There was singing and crying and cute kids bringing rings and everything I saw in movies. We obviously took selfies with the bride and groom after.
Zaytoun Mosque, Tunis, Tunisia
I love olives. Olive in Arabic translates to Zaytoun. I will, therefore, name my first baby girl Zaytoun. In Tunis, I stumbled across a hidden entrance to a mosque while shopping. I didn’t have a hijab so a friend lent me her hoodie. Within seconds of stepping inside the short wooden gate, I was under an open sky. I walked around, listened to the adan chiming from one of the minarets, and played with the pigeons in the fountain. Some men slept under the arches to recover from a day of work. Others rushed to gather behind the imam and welcome the night.
Al Hussain, Karbala, Iraq
I don’t think there is a more peaceful place on Earth than Al Hussian. With Iraq still recovering from war, I was hesitant to go. It was hot, crowded, and there were a million checkpoints, but every bit of that was worth it because when I sat in the shrine, my hands automatically assumed prayer position and my lips recited every half-learned verse I could remember from Saturday school. All the stories I heard about Imam Hussain growing up unfolded before me and I couldn’t help but cry and cry.
Dargah-e-Hakimi, Burhanpur, India
Beyond the Golden Temple and the Taj Mahal, there are countless spiritual gems sprinkled in the nooks of small towns across India. These marble shrines in Burhanpur shone in the August heat of Madhya Pradesh. We watched the old roll prayer beads between their fingers murmuring the same sentence over and over and the young roll the wheels of their toy cars along the intricacies of the chiseled marble.
Dome of the Rock, Palestine
Have you ever felt like your sight wasn’t enough to absorb the beauty of something? In a city fought for by so many, the Dome of the Rock centres the perspective as to why. Sixteen-year-old me couldn’t comprehend the history of the land she stood on. The qibla of the mosque was decorated with verses of the Quran and bullet holes.
This little church, Honduras
I’d never attended a service before this. This church, for which I can’t recall a name, was in the outskirts of a small farm we were staying at. I had no idea what I was doing. I just copied the children in front of me. We stumbled to keep up with a Bible reading in Spanish and mispronounced the lyrics of hymns. There was also this gorgeous bike parked inside the church and I just kept thinking about whom it belonged to and whether they’d take me with them.
Aya Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey
With what started as a church for nearly a thousand years, the Hagia Sophia was later transformed into a mosque, and now a museum. The structure echoes the inevitability of change. I feel people are like that too. You can spend years laying a foundation of values and centuries carrying their weight under domes of self-care. But history does this thing where everything you work for starts to home other bodies. And at the end of it all, you become a carcass for photography. With time, we all turn into amalgamations of the people and ideologies like Mary between God and the Messenger. The world keeps turning.
Wazir Khan Masjid, Lahore, Pakistan
I started this list with Pakistan so it only makes sense that we end here. We were just wandering the mosque when an old man asked if we wanted to climb the minaret. I followed a little boy, who, after the okay from the man, guided us up to the secret stairs barefoot. The steps were dark, steep and filled with pigeon feathers. To think someone had to climb up these 5 times a day to do the calls to prayers, wow.
Ramadan Kareem. May He give us the strength to lift ourselves and everyone around us.