Across Prague

Published at Islamonline.net (now OnIslam.net)

Whistle-stop tours tend to be so short, in my case barely two days, that I was left with only six hours spread over two days in which to discover the Islamic heritage of Prague. I would of course have had a better chance finding a needle in a haystack, for then at least you will find the needle once you run out of hay. As it is, the Muslims never made it this far into Central Europe, thus anything “Islamic” would be an addition made over the past couple of centuries.

My short trip exposed me to two faces of the Czech people. First, the common taxi drivers who, as well as being rude, have the tendency to charge three times the cost of the journey and to feign ignorance when you point out a sign at your hotel’s entrance clearly stating the cost of a journey from the hotel to the city. I suppose this is the same everywhere, so I could do little else than sigh with patience. This leaves me with the many other Czech people.

Admittedly, I didn’t really meet that many apart from Tom, whose (US) National Guard lanyard and his strong accent at first left me with the impression that he was an American college student on a summer job, only to discover that his accent, like mine, was acquired when attending American schools overseas.

Prague, unlike other major cities in this region, was spared major bombings in the Second World War. The minor damage that was inflicted was in the old town square where the old town hall, a pinkish colored building, was used as a document storage house by the Nazis. As they left, instead of removing their documents, they simply knocked the building down with a line of tanks from the square.

Perhaps one of the few good things Adolf Hitler did was to leave the Jewish “ghetto” intact, thus preserving some rather old synagogues to this day. Apparently his plan was to extinguish the world’s Jewish population and to leave Prague’s Jewish Quarter as an open air museum. Fortunately for humanity, his plan to exterminate an entire people failed.

Prague Castle is the largest ancient castle in the world and has a number of attractions. My advice would be to buy a ticket to walk down the Golden Lane. At the entrance there is a stairway that leads to the upper floors of the shops that constitute the old lane of traders. Lined today with various medieval coats of arms and weapons, the lane has a fun archery range at one end and a store selling the oddest leather goods at the other. If you ever wanted to see what a complete skinned cow looks like, the one hanging on the wall outside the store comes very close, right down to the hoofs and the cow’s nose—quite cool in a gross sort of way.

Elsewhere in the city, among many other sights, is a piece of “art” that shows two men urinating in a fountain in the shape of the Czech republic. There is a sign with a telephone number to which you can send an SMS; the men will then urinate the letters of the SMS into the water. There is something about Czech humor and “art” that leaves a lot to be desired!

After my haunting encounters with taxi drivers, our guide, Tom, showed me the pleasant side to the Czech people: What other than friendly hospitability could be expected in a city where nearly three fourths of its summer population comprises tourists?

Having managed to cover so much ground in such little time, I tried again to find the city center mosque but failed. Fortunately, I would return to Prague the next week and it is during that trip that I was reminded of an important lesson in life.

There always seems to be a sense of purpose to life. Whatever it is that Allah Almighty decrees will be; of that there can be no doubt. This is a lesson of which I am reminded on such a regular basis that it makes me question why it is that I feel so ungrateful for the many blessings bestowed upon me.

One evening during my second visit to Prague, having finished dinner with a colleague, I decided to detour to the area of the mosque. Step by step, miraculously, I actually walked straight into the mosque on the first floor of the shopping mall. Partly stunned, because of my previous failed efforts to locate the place, I made ablution and greeted the mosque with the cordial two-rak`ah prayer.

The mosque itself was simple. It is part of the shopping mall and can be reached either by an upward spiraling staircase or by the central mall staircase and elevator. Behind the front door one finds an entrance lobby with shoe racks to the left, two rooms for ablution directly ahead, two larger rooms constituting the main prayer hall and what seemed to be another room for women, separated by a closed door—sigh, yet another mosque separating the women from the prayer hall. Will we ever learn?

After finishing the prayer of “greeting the mosque,” I looked around the prayer hall. Simple, carpeted, without a pulpit. The ceiling was marked with some exquisite artwork and design encapsulating much of the heritage that characterizes Prague.

As I was sunk in deep thought, a man stood up and made the call to prayer. His near husky voice called out the most welcoming call to prayer I had heard in months. Calm yet powerful, his voice gave meaning to the hadith of the Prophet Muhammad who said that on the Day of Judgment the people who used to make the call to prayer will have elongated necks. To be honest, I have no idea what that means in its context but it is clearly a compliment, so I will accept it as such.

I sat listening with the widest smile on my face and thoughts rushing through my mind: “My life is brilliant, my love is pure, I saw an angel, of that I’m sure.” So begin the lyrics of a James Blunt song I like. I found myself with two parallel streams of thought. The one appreciating the purity and beauty of the call to prayer, the second one contemplating life and all the experiences I have been blessed with: a chorus of appreciation.

As we stood up to pray, we lined up side by side and managed to complete the first row between us. Midway through the second rak`ah, after Surat Al-Fatihah and the commencement of the following surah, my phone rang: “You’ve got mail, baby, yeah” blared my ringtone with an Austin Powers voice. While I was fidgeting with my phone to disable its sound, the rest of the prayer was completed without further disturbance.

After finishing the prayer, I took to the back of the prayer hall to reply to the text message when a man walked up to me. Pointing to himself he glanced at my little toy, part phone, part PDA, trying to figure out why I was tapping the screen with a pen. The Czech Republic isn’t so far behind in terms of technology, though, as yet, such phones are not commonplace. Sadly, at that time of night I also didn’t have any of our translators with me, so we resorted to the age-old custom of sign language. Pointing to his chest he said “Czech Musliman.” Eager to reciprocate, I too show a wide smile and point to my chest saying “British Pakistani Muslim.” He is stumped and clearly has no understanding of what “British” or “Pakistani” means. I too am stumped, knowing that this conversation will go nowhere very fast, so we smile again at each other and go our separate ways.

Perhaps there was a reason why I was unable to find Prague Central Mosque on the previous occasion. Suffice it to say that when something is supposed to be hidden from us, no matter how hard we look, we will never see it, unless by the mercy of Allah. Similarly, when Allah Almighty wants us to see something, we simply will not be able to avoid it.

There tends to be wisdom in everything, whether we are able to perceive it or not, though I do wonder about the wisdom behind jumping out of an airplane at 14,500 feet with a parachute—60 seconds freefall at 200 mph. Skydiving is fun (I’ve tried it) and where better to do it than in Prague!
May Allah Almighty have mercy on us and make us content with His decree upon us all, whether we can understand the wisdom behind certain things or not. Ameen.

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