I’ve liked Middle Easterners since I was six- or seven-years-old; the mother of Susan, my first best friend, was Lebanese. And that affinity only grew when I went to work for the Arabic edition of the Reader’s Digest. The Parisians we lived among could be aloof and even xenophobic, but my colleagues at the magazine embraced me wholeheartedly. Their hospitality rivaled anything I had experienced at home in the Deep South, and they impressed me with a rare blend of earthiness and cultivation.
So, I was delighted when I met Khalida Parveen, an Iranian-Pakistani woman who is the new weekend concierge for my condo building. She is warm and kind to me, and she lavishes affection on my Hunny Bun. When our chats come to an end, she pets H.B. and whispers, “Remember to pray for me.”
I was intrigued. I knew from my studies that the Prophet Muhammed had instructed his followers on the treatment of animals and that he had expressly forbidden hunting for sport. And the Qur’an, more than the Bible, focuses on the commonalities of animals and humans.
“There is not an animal that lives on the earth, nor a being that flies on its wings, but they form communities like you. Nothing have we omitted from the Book, and they all shall be gathered to their Lord in the end.” (Qur’an 6:38).
The Qur’an further describes all animals as Muslim because they live the way Allah created them to live and obey Allah’s laws in the natural world. By following their natural, God-given instincts, they are understood to “submit to God’s will” – the essence of Islam.
But a human asking for an animal’s prayers? I wanted to know more. So, I asked Khalida to elaborate.
As Muslims often do, she told a story – this one about Prophet Sulaiman, whom Jews and Christians know as wise King Solomon, son and successor of David, king of the Israelites. Muslims ascribe to Sulaiman a variety of gifts, including the ability to control the wind and to understand the language of animals.
One day, in the midst of a severe drought, Sulaiman rallied his people and proceeded to an open place in the desert to pray for rain. Suddenly, he saw an ant standing on its two legs, raising its hands toward the sky and saying, “Oh, Allah! We are very small among all Thy creatures. We cannot survive without Thy grace. Please bestow upon us Thy sustenance and do not punish us because of the sins of human beings. Please send down the rains so that trees grow, farms become green, and grain becomes available.”
Hearing this petition, the Prophet Sulaiman turned to his people and declared, “Let us go home. The prayer of this ant is enough.” Sure enough, the rains came and the land became green and productive once again.
As I listened to Khalida’s story, I realized that her prayer request resonated deeply because it reminded me of Sister Mary of Grace. When I was a teenager in a Catholic girls’ school – the only Protestant in my class – Mary of Grace taught both religion and algebra. As much as I enjoyed the spirited discussions in religion class, I loathed algebra. This was partly because, at the time, math was taught as an abstract intellectual exercise or a clerical skill that would be useful to engineers and chemists. I also associated it with several rigid, humorless teachers I’d been stuck with in public school.
Still, as much as I hated it, algebra was a requirement. So, Sister Mary of Grace became my tutor.
At the end of our after-school sessions, I was both dejected and hopeful. As was the custom among my schoolmates, I walked Sister Mary of Grace to the door of the convent. She took the stack of books from my arms and, with the slightest of smiles, she said, “Please, pray for me.”
At 15, I was always moved by this routine request – a gesture of humility from someone I revered. Now I realize more fully what Sister Mary of Grace was signaling: that her superior skill and authority were merely temporary contrivances, that our different religious traditions were less significant than our shared faith, that she needed divine comfort and guidance as much as I, and that I had as much access to God as she.
Sister Mary of Grace is in her mid-80s now; five years after my graduation, she received a doctorate in math education and left the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart. I’ve started praying for her again. Hunny Bun, I trust, prays for Khalida and for me.