September 24, 2015
One amazing thing happened in Muzdalifah. At one point, I was washing my hands, and heard one of the groups behind me praying. The imam had a very, very familiar recitation.
“No way,” I said out loud.
I turned around and, surely enough, leading the prayer was Imam Mohammed Raqih, the imam of the Wetaskiwin mosque. SubhanAllah, at the exact same place and time, across the world, we were there.
When he finished, I walked up to him, and it was one of those snapshot moments in your life, where a person’s emotions and facial expression are frozen in your memory. He looked genuinely surprised, his mouth somewhere between a grin and a gape, and he embraced me. We talked for a bit—he bragged to some of [the other people in our group] that he’s known me for 8 years. When we parted, I walked away both amazed and content. Another reminder of home, at a time when I was the farthest away from it.
I became a Muslim in 2007, when I was 18 year old. The time between my learning Islam and embracing it was very short—maybe 4 or 5 months.
I said my shahada—the testimony of faith that makes one a Muslim— in the house of my future manager, a man named Hicham, in a town about an hour away from Edmonton called Wetaskiwin. I had never set foot in a mosque before, and I had just barely started reading the Quran. I just knew it was something I had to do. It was a leap of faith.
Imam Raqih was the imam of the mosque in Wetaskiwin. He was—still is—a tall man with a handsome smile, warm accent and a wiry grey beard that juts out slightly from his chin. In the early years of my Islam, I was very impressionable (as are most converts). And so I was fortunate to have a good mentor with Hicham, and a good spiritual founding with Imam Raqih. I always felt comfortable around him. Whenever he was doing the Friday sermon (khutbah) I felt at ease.
In a way, Imam Raqih prepped me for Hajj almost 6 years before I would actually go. He did a khutbah about Hajj once, and in it he said that people expect to constantly be on a spiritual high following Hajj. And when that high starts fading, people think they’re losing their faith or becoming bad Muslims. But it’s natural, he told us; it’s natural that you’ll go through a phase like that. To him, faith was a practical thing. And so it became for me. In times when I would be going through spiritual dilemmas, over time I came to know that they would always pass; that I would always bounce back and find a way to “smile through the pain”, as Josh Groban put it in his song, “Brave”.
And so when I heard his distinct recitation, I was at first confounded, not thinking it was possibly him. But when I saw him, I had no choice but to go up and greet him and catch up and reminisce. Here, on the other side of the world, at the same time in the same place, I found my first imam.