critical writing exchanges

25.10.09

Rachel Apsden's journey to the heart of Islam

One of VA's original young critics, Rachel Apsden, travels to a remote madrasa in Yemen to find out what draws young western women to a life of strict religious study.

In the ancient cemetery of the desert town of Tarim, in south Yemen, a crowd of young women shrouded in black nylon are kneeling around a red clay gravestone.

"Bismillahi r-rahmani r-rahim," they mutter, hands cupped in supplication, shuffling under the midday sun. "Al hamdu lillahi rabbi l-alamin." They are reciting Qur'anic prayers for the soul of a saint and scholar who, 600 years ago, used to conduct miraculous conversations with the dead from the minaret of the mud-built town mosque.

The chanting is led by a birdlike old lady lost in her black robes: a "hababa", holy woman, who traces her ancestry back to the Prophet Muhammad. Behind the hababa, the girls stumble over the unfamiliar Arabic and begin to fidget. They surreptitiously check mobiles for a rare bar of reception or pull Polo mints from Warehouse bags hidden under their robes. Most have never been to Yemen before, understand little Arabic and have never worn a veil. Some have been Muslim for only a few months. But they have come to learn "pure" Islam, and are eager to do it properly.

To read the rest of Rachel's article, originally published in the Guardian, click here.
 

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