As the Muslim chaplain of a large, acute-care hospital, I routinely visited Muslim women on the maternity floors. Some are waiting to give birth, others have just given birth. I was on my way to congratulate a woman who had just given birth.
I had a long-held desire to bless a newborn, a tradition in Islam. It was something I had yet to do in the hospital. Before he left, my predecessor, the imam (leader), had explained to me that I did not “have to worry about blessing a newborn.” He stated that it was something I would never be asked to do by parents. Either the father of the baby would do it, or some other male member of the family.
Despite the Iman’s view, I would soon learn during many months of clinical practice, how this tradition was upheld by practicing Muslims, and even non-practicing Muslims, who didn’t identify with any mosque community.
Never believing the word, “never,” I made sure I knew how to do the blessing, just in case someone did ask me to do it. But on this initial visit, I had no intention of giving a newborn blessing, for I was still following the imam’s instructions. But then, I met Zainab, the new mother in room #724.
The door of the room had been left half-open. After knocking, I cautiously poked my head through a tiny crack, until I could see Zainab’s reflection in the mirror of the bathroom. She was standing at the sink, putting the finishing touches on her face, eyes, and hair. Her eyes looked puffy and red, like she’d been crying. But I dismissed the thought, thinking she’s must be a tired, new mommy.
She saw me, and immediately spoke to me from the mirror, “Come in, please. I’ll be right out. You can come in. Please wait inside the room for me.” She seemed to be expecting me, and I thought, maybe she thinks I am the discharge nurse. I accepted her welcoming tone and entered the room.
Past the bathroom door, I saw the baby daddy standing over the hospital crib, his arms folded over his chest, as he stared helplessly at the fussing baby. Absorbed, the dad didn’t even notice me. Meanwhile, I was wishing he would pick up the poor baby, whose fussing was growing louder and louder.
They are a handsome couple, in their early twenties, with the classic Mediterranean features of some, the dark hair and fair skin. Startled, the husband finally looked up to see me standing there.
“Hi there. Assalama alaikum (peace be with you). I’m the Muslim chaplain.”
He glanced at me with disinterest, still distracted by the baby’s fussing. I continued my introduction.
“My name is Mary. I wanted to congratulate you and Zainab on your new baby. It’s a boy, right?” I double-check my census. I want to get this right, since I am beginning to feel a little like an intruder.
Suspiciously, he looked at me and asked annoyed, “Who are you? What do you want?”
Although his curt sounding questions did not ease my sense of discomfort, I was accustomed by now to being a pioneer in a new profession. I attribute these questions to the novelty of my profession, and I know that most Muslims know next to nothing about what a Muslim “chaplain” is, or does. In fact, there is no word for “chaplain,” in Arabic or in any other language where Muslims come from, in largely Muslim majority countries.
Still compensating, I pressed on, “I am the Muslim chaplain here at the hospital, and I wanted to stop by and congratulate you and Zainab. Is this a bad time? I saw your wife’s name on my patient list and these are my regular rounds…but I can come back later. Anyway, congratulations! What’s your baby’s name?”
“His name is Tommy. Who did you say you are? A Muslim what? But, listen to me,” he said adamantly, “We’re not Muslims.”
Once again, I was not surprised to hear this. I explained, “I’m so sorry. The computer print-out has your wife’s religion listed as ‘Muslim.’ But sometimes the print-out is incorrect. I’ll tell you what. I’ll go and make the corrections in the computer and also in your wife’s chart. So, what religion should I put down instead?”
“Yes. Please change it right away,” he insisted. “We are Christians. I am a Baptist.”
“I will correct that for you, sir, no problem. Did you say your baby’s name was Tommy? That’s a nice name. Is it a family name? Where are you from, by the way?”
“We’re from Iran, but we are Armenians.”
“Okay. Sorry about any confusion. I’ll get right on it.”
But then, as I was about to leave, Zainab rushed into the room from the bathroom, to block my way out. “Wait! She said, “Don’t go.”
Something about the desperate tone of her voice and intensity caused me to freeze in my tracks. She quickly brushed past the dad to pick up the screaming infant. Mercifully, Tommy stopped crying.
Turning back to me, with her back to her husband, she said in an unmistakably conspiratorial tone, “Please don’t go. I need to talk to you.” This took me aback, but I planted my feet to the ground.
Suddenly, her husband stepped between us. Addressing her, he asked, “What do you mean, Zainab? What are you trying to do? You know your parents are coming. We have to leave soon. Let her go!”
“Look,” she replied, barely controlling what appeared to be a formidable temper, “I want to talk to her. I need to talk to her. Will you just go outside for a minute, please? Please?” She was beseeching, firm, and also, verging on hysteria. I was feeling very much the “interloper.”
“Why?” he demanded, raising his voice in frustration. “Where do you want me to go?”
He had not looked at me once. I watched Zainab for my cues. She sat down on the bed, holding the baby on her shoulder, then, gestured for me to sit beside her, in a way that left no room for equivocating. I sat.
The husband was now standing over the two of us, his body language pugnacious: hands on hips, slightly bent at the waist, haughty expression, loud voice, and waving his hands whenever he spoke to his wife. I said not a word, but observed, as the angry rally of words sailed back and forth.
Then, out of frustration Zainab raised her voice, and in a strident tone, ordered her husband, “Just go! I don’t know care where!”
I gulped. At this, her husband turned abruptly on his heels and walked into the bathroom. I turned a quizzical look to Zainab, who asked me, “Is he gone? Where did he go?”
Zainab was acting as if we shared a secret and were on the same team, which made me extremely uncomfortable. I was unwilling to be on anyone’s team, not knowing which goal our team was shooting for, or how we might make it, with two captains on board issuing opposing orders.
I tried to remain balanced and answered her question, “Well. Yes, he’s gone. But I think he’s only in the bathroom.”
Resuming in her best conspiratorial tone, Zainab began to explain what this was all about:
“Listen to me. We are Muslims and have always been Muslims. Our families are all Muslims. He just changed recently and became a Christian. I go to church with him… to make him happy. But I don’t like it, and I want my son to be a Muslim. Isn’t there some sort of blessing in Islam? I don’t know much about the blessing because I grew up here, even though I was born in Iran. So I know that the blessing is important for the baby to become a Muslim. Can you do it? Can you help me? Can you do it? The blessing?”
To myself: Was she really asking me to do “the” blessing? For months, I had waited for an invitation…. but not like this.
I answered her truthfully, “Yes. I can do the blessing. But…”
As if on cue, the baby daddy suddenly reappeared. After bounding out of the bathroom, he stood over us, vibrating in a suppressed anger. I was feeling a little scared of him, at this point. But I felt an unwelcomed guilt as well. I looked at Zainab, but she was not scared in the least.
Zainab and I were sitting side by side, on the edge of the bed. The baby was sleeping on her right shoulder, nearest to me.
He ignored me, but continued to argue with his wife, “What are you doing, Zainab? I don’t want this. I don’t want this!”
In a steely, low voice that warranted no further discussion, Zainab hissed, “Get out! Go away and leave us. Right now! Go!”
With her free arm, she pointed to the door and ordered her husband out of the room. After an eternal minute of starring each other down, the husband stormed out.
I thought to myself, what am I to do, in the middle of all this? Caught between two warring factions, I was confused about my responsibility and role. Speculations set in: Was there a reason why Zainab was arguing with her husband in front of me? Or, does she always treat him this way? Is she afraid to tell him what she really wants? Is she empowered by my presence? Perhaps, giving birth has changed her, as it does most women. At times, she appeared as a tigress protecting her child; at other times, she was a sad young woman.
Zainab interrupted my speculations, asking urgently, “Will you do it…the blessing? Hurry, please, before he comes back.”
I was feeling sorry for her and for him. I tried to stall for more time, hoping that we all would gain the proper perspective on the situation. I asked if she would like to know the significance of the blessing. But, as I was in mid-sentence, her husband stormed back into the room, gesturing wildly and beseechingly, “Zainab. Why are you doing this? This is my baby too. Do you even know this person?”
This was really the first time the baby daddy had acknowledged my presence. His curt tone and the implication that I am somehow untrustworthy drew my ire. Finding my voice, I stood up in front of him and said, “Wait a minute, sir. I’m the Muslim Chaplain, and whatever you happen to think, I am certainly not going to hurt your baby!”
He looked at me, then, looked away to dismiss me. The idea came across that he didn’t want me there, any more than I wanted to be there. But I wasn’t going to leave Zainab now. He held his ground and returned his angry stare to his wife. He was not going to leave us or his baby.
In a gentler voice, hoping to break the impasse, I tried to appeal to his reason. “Look, your wife is very upset right now. Please leave us alone, just for a few minutes. She wants to talk to me. And maybe she will calm down after that.”
But Zainab would not seek calm and became more indignant. She nearly screamed at her husband, “Just get out! Leave us alone!”
“All right, Zainab. But your parents and grandparents are coming any minute now. Please… get ready to go. We are leaving the hospital any minute.” Spinning on his heels, he left us abruptly, out the door this time.
“Good,” said Zainab, relieved. “Now, please just do the blessing right now. Can you do it?”
I had made up my mind to do whatever Zainab wanted me to do, despite my furtive glances at the door. It would be my first Muslim blessing, and to say I was a little shaky was an understatement. At first, I was gripped by a familiar fear −I’ve always hesitated to tell my right from my left. I tried not to show my ineptitude, but it was a challenge to determine which side was the baby’s right ear, since both ears were hidden beneath his little cap, and his head was turned away from my direction. Finally, I settled down and carefully placed my nose near his head, as it rested on Zainab’s shoulder, and whispered the “call to prayer.” My one consolation was to smell the angelic, newborn aroma that emanated from Tommy’s head. He was blessed.
But as I spoke my last words, I looked up to see a solemn-looking, handful of people enter the room. Thankfully, Zainab’s husband was not among them. This was the family come to retrieve Zainab and the new baby. A grandmother-type was wearing a headscarf. There were some middle-aged men and women in the group—but none were smiling, as they cautiously and quietly came toward us, sitting on the bed. Were these the Muslims in the family? I didn’t’ dare to greet them with the Muslim greeting (peace be upon you). Instead, I stood up and nodded a greeting. I actually felt guilty and sad for my part in this drama.
Zainab also stood, but first, she whispered hastily to me, “Did you do it?”
“Yes,” I said without hesitation. I leaned towards her, to reassure her, “Your baby has been blessed as a Muslim.”
For the first time, Zainab smiled, “Good,” she said. I could see that she was grateful and relieved. As she turned toward her family, over their heads she mouthed “thank you” to me.
I stayed only a second longer, to see one of the women carefully lift the baby from Zainab’s arms. Suddenly, the smiles spread like wild-fire across the faces of the extended family. As they regrouped around the baby and Zainab, I seized the opportunity to back out of the room, as gracefully as I could.
As I was leaving, Zainab glanced at me once again, and gave me another nod of appreciation. I nodded back, trying to leave her with a smile. I ran immediately to my supervisor, for consultation, validation, and comfort!
Blessing newborns were the most meaningful and rewarding experiences I had as a hospital chaplain. After that first experience, things did improve. Even when I offered to arrange for the imam to do it, generally 8 out of 10 young parents insisted that I do the blessing.
At the hospital, I saw every type of Muslim. Some were “Muslim” in name only, like people of other faiths. Many were “unmosqued,” and had no affiliation to an Islamic Center, imam, or community. Some even came to the hospital to give birth as unmarried couples. I think they never expected t to have an opportunity for a newborn blessing at a secular institution. But that’s the beauty of the hospital chaplaincy program.
There are also many young people like Zainab, leaving their country of origin at an early age, and holding only vague memories of important traditions, such as the blessing. They seemed to want to uphold at least one tradition. Moreover, I found that these young couples had no objection to a woman doing the blessing. In fact, many videotaped me giving the blessing, while I held the baby.
Following the tradition of the Christian chaplains, I would write a short prayer for the baby, on the fancy stationary (provided by the hospital, primarily for Christian blessings). I placed it in an envelope and gave it to the parents as a souvenir. At the bottom, the paper read: “This baby, _______, was blessed at ___________Hospital by Chaplain Mary Lahaj, on such and such a date, and signed by me.