A Khaleej Times report that more than 4,400 inmates in Dubai prisons have joined the Inmate Holy Quran Memorisation programme since it was launched in 2002 got me thinking... about what I see around me every day.
This year 13 inmates – two of them women – memorised the entire thing, some having 20 years of their jail terms mitigated, according to Ibrahim Bu Melha, an adviser to the Ruler of Dubai for Cultural and Humanitarian Affairs and head of a Quran award organising committee.
This isn't really all that surprising, although I am in no way suggesting that memorising any part of the Quran is a walk in the park. I for one would spring into action if meant I could significantly trim a hefty prison sentence. And really, what else is there to do? I doubt they are showing episodes of MTV's Jersey Shore in there.
What does amaze me is the level of devotion I see all around me here. It's not just men streaming to mosques five times a day, washing their feet outside, bending and bowing together; females nipping off to corners unseen and rooms tucked away for their own rituals. There are the men bearing a zebiba, worn dark from years of touching their forehead to the earth. And others with their henna-dyed beards and hair, a sign they have been on Haj.
The Quran is everywhere, too. Whether it's the guys working in the laundry near my house reading it on their break; or it's being read aloud on the channel the television in the falafel shop around the corner is always tuned to or inscribed on the CD dangling from the rear-view mirror of a passing Mercedes, the taxi driver listening faithfully – all day long.
The surprising part, for me, is that at no time in the last two years has anyone trying to proselytize, to judge overtly, to deign to tell me that in their eyes, I have chosen the wrong way. That is interesting, I think, and so different from my experiences with believers of a different stripe back home.