Sanctuary for the Soul

Certain spaces hold a special place in our hearts. We live through important moments of our lives there, and they remain with us forever after in memory – no matter how they may physically change, or how many years or decades pass.

I visited one such place at the end of last year, on my way home from a rare day working away from home.

It was a spontaneous decision to go, facilitated by the fact that the kids were on holiday – so there was no pressure to rush home. I cast aside the worries of afternoon traffic and headed to Al Jaamiah Masjid (more popularly known as Stegman Road mosque) – which was my first spiritual home.

A not-so-accidental discovery

After high school, I moved from Durban to Cape Town, and – living away from my parents – my first year of university was relatively void of religious experiences. So, early the following year, when my mother moved here, we found ourselves frantically driving around the suburb of Claremont, trying to find the mosque for Friday prayers.

I’d not been to any Cape Town mosques at all the previous year, but – not wanting to risk her wrath – I pretended to vaguely know where it was. In the end, we didn’t get to the mosque we were looking for. Instead, almost by accident, we ended up at Al Jaamiah – far from the intended destination.

It was no accident, of course. Things happen as they are meant to.

Back then, I wasn’t religiously conscious. I went only because I was told to. I would sit right near the mosque entrance on Fridays – far from the imam – so I could get out quickly once proceedings were done.

Deepening the bond

A couple of years later, events in my life led to a spiritual awakening of sorts (the details of which I won’t get into here). And so, I’d sit closer to the front on Fridays, and regularly attended the Taraweeh night prayers in Ramadaan. I’d actually take in what was being said by an imam who had an incredible impact on me in those early years of rapid spiritual maturation.

A few years after, while living alone, I spent even more time at the mosque – often waiting all alone in the hour between the two night prayers. The lack of people was common not only for those waiting periods, but for the actual prayers themselves, because the mosque’s location was not in a predominantly Muslim area. The Muslim community of decades ago had long been displaced by Apartheid, and not many had moved back after 1994.

So, I had all that time alone. I’d read, walk around, or just enjoy the silence. A solitude which was beloved to me in this safe haven…this spiritual home.

I’d attend Thursday night classes, where I’d often lie down at the back – out of sight of the congregation. I’d be exhausted from the day’s work and exertions, and would sometimes fall asleep. But even if I didn’t take in much intellectually, I still went. I still wanted to be there. In the company of spiritual seekers and the angels that surrounded them.

Many other memories come to mind when I think of those years. I remember one time in particular, during the Friday khutbah (sermon), when a giant cockroach crawled up the wall behind the imam. He stopped, took it in his hand, and released it out of the window. A miraculous feat to me, given my fear of such creatures.

Coming home

Fast forward to that afternoon, a few months ago, and I initially stopped outside the mosque to see the site that will become a graveyard. In my early years there, I always felt that the space was perfect for that purpose. I later learnt that it actually was a graveyard in the 1800s, but had fallen out of use after being closed by the Apartheid government when the Muslim community was removed from the area.

The community finally got permission to open it up again in 2020, and plans have been underway ever since to re-open it. My family has now reserved two plots there, and I can think of no better place to be laid to rest. (Not in this country, at least.)

The graveyard space was still closed off, so I couldn’t go in. Instead, I ventured into the mosque.

It felt strange at first. Bigger than before.

Much of it was still as it had always been. The fans are still the same, for example. As is the mic fixture on the ground.

But walls are a lighter shade of paint. And the wall clock is smaller – not the giant red digital one I looked to for so many years.

The grandfather clock that oddly stood at the front for a while is also gone. And the carpets are different, too.

I remembered it all. So much of this place. This place that holds so many memories.

Standing at the back of the mosque that day, I looked out of the window – to a magnificent tree that I had admired all those years ago. It still stood – so majestically – in that open patch of land which will host the dearly departed in time to come.

And as I looked out of that window, I gazed at the land where my two of my family members will rest, God-willing. If my parents die before me, this would be their resting place. It would give me reason to go to this place. A reason to come back home.

And when I die, I want to be buried there, too. It’s only fitting that the place where my spirit flourished will be the final place where my soul and physical body rests.

From journey to journey

When I spent those spiritually formative years at the mosque – more than 15 years ago – I was  engaged in a quest: marriage was the only thing on my mind. My primary focus, by far. They were desperate years. Lonely years where I yearned intensely for love…for marriage…for companionship. Wanting to have someone to hold and care for. To be with.

But in that time, I was also being nurtured on my spiritual journey. The two went hand in hand.

And this mosque – which is such an indelible part of my spiritual journey, fittingly played a big role in my next major journey: marriage.

A few hours after my future wife and I met for the first time (at a conference planning session), I went to this mosque. It was the place from which I sent her a message – the initial message which marked my pursuit of her hand. I’m still embarrassed by the words I used in that message…but it doesn’t matter, because in my awkward, unconfident way, it was a huge step. It was a courageous endeavour I knew I had to undertake.

And it happened here – at this place. My place.

Later on, when I was getting to know her – before the proposal – it was in this very building that I got the idea to proactively call her mother and express my feelings for my prospective wife. It was a tactic to try to win her mother over…endear her to me, to help my chances with her daughter.

If you knew me at all back then, you’ll know that being proactive was not a commonly-exhibited attribute of mine. But that day, in that mosque, the idea came to me, and I followed through on it.

Not too long after, when the proposal had been accepted, her family arranged our ceremony for this mosque. Not by my own choosing or influence, but because her family had a contact there.

If I could have chosen the place to get married, it would be here. But I didn’t choose. It was just destiny that this place – which was so beloved to me – would be where I started my next significant journey of life.

On the afternoon of our wedding, before the nikah ceremony, when I walked into the mosque, I went straight to a spot near the back. I fled from everyone and everything – needing to pray. To make deep, deep, desperate supplications to my Creator – for His presence, companionship, guidance, and help, in all that would follow.

Towards the front of the mosque sits the spot I sat in when I said the words that entered me into matrimony. Those words – witnessed by God and my family and all who were there –fulfilled my long-held dream of marriage. The words that made me a husband at last, after so many years…deep, intense, yearning-filled years of wanting this dream.

And it all came to fruition right there. Right on that spot. Right in this mosque.

Alhamdullilah.

A gift of peace and memory

We live relatively far away from the mosque now, so I rarely visit it. I’d not been there in a few years, but on this afternoon, when I finally went back, I was again alone.

And as I prayed the late afternoon salaah alone, the light suddenly streamed in on me, on the spot of prostration. It felt like it was God’s gift to me – giving me this peace, here in this beloved place.

And as the memories flooded my mind and heart, I was grateful. Grateful for all I’d had in this place.

Grateful for this sanctuary of the soul. A place that will remain in my heart eternally.


2 thoughts on “Sanctuary for the Soul

  1. A very touching and beautiful piece, Yacoob, rich with so much detail and filled both with yearning and peace. It also made me grieve for the many Ukrainians, for people fleeing madmen all over the globe, who lose forever their places of memory and sanctuary.
    Thank you for this very gifted piece of writing.

    • Though physical places may be destroyed, we take them with us in our hearts…they live on eternally. But I like to think that in the next life, we’ll get to be reunited with them too, if we so wish.

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