Today, I entered a mosque for the first time, purely on whim. Well; preplanned, but whimsy is what started the trip, which gave me plenty of food for thought. Hence, I find myself writing down what I’d heard, fresh from Masjid Ibrahim Mosque.
I had been doing some reading last week on the proposed mosque/community center that is (perhaps) going to be constructed in NYC. Now, normally this would not be too big of a deal; certainly not a national issue. But, as you are probably well aware, the building intended for the mosque is less than two blocks from Ground Zero of the 9/11 attacks. And so, perhaps understandably, a lot of people feel that this is in bad taste, at the least, to a monument to terrorism, in more…Extreme arguments. At any rate…I was reading up on the issue and it occurred to me that I’d never before been in a mosque before, and really I did not know much of anything at all about Islam other than the very skeleton of their beliefs. They prayed five times a day, fasted once a year, once a lifetime, a trip to Mecca was expected…Very basic stuff.
So I turned to the magic of the internet and lo, and behold, Google informed me that within less than a few miles of my house, a mosque existed. And they had a website. The website proved to be somewhat underwhelming and a bit…Dilapidated. However, there is information on a get-together for non-Muslims every Saturday during this month of Ramadan. They offer free food, goodies, and hearty discussion on the nature of Islam and what it means to be a Muslim (this week’s topic)! So I decided to give it a try; seemed perfect for me. Especially the free food part. I managed to get my friend and co-worker Megan Helton and my friend and roommate Michael Lesh in on it too and we all met outside of Masjid Ibrahim only two and a half hours ago, at 8:15 pm. And were immediately separated, as women and men have separate entrances.
Michael and I were equally tentative in entering; after all it was a religious building and there is often protocols and procedures to be observed. The first was obvious: a shoe rack. Off came the shoes, and we saw a couple of men lounging against the far wall reading from the Qur’An. A few children were running back and forth, tumbling and giggling, only to stop and stare at us; unabashedly direct as only children are willing to do. A common protocol for religious institutions is silence during certain periods…So Mike and I started signing; asking if it was ok for us to enter, could we read a book, sit here, etc…In short order, a balding, short, dark skinned arabic man in a half buttoned shirt and white trousers came over and introduced himself as Radwan Dalu. He was curious as to how we’d found out about the meeting; apparently they don’t get too many visitors. We exchanged a few pleasantries…And eventually conversation shifted to a large wall-mounted listing of times with labels beside them: Fajr, Sunrise, Dhurur, Asr, Maghrib, and Isha. Our host explained for us the basics of praying at the appropriate times, and, interestingly, only in Arabic. I did not press him as to why since it seemed a self-apparent question. Mohammed was Arabic, after all. Radwan was very eager to answer my many, many questions; particularly about Ramadan and how the fasting works. So in reality; Muslims do not NOT eat; but rather, only eat and drink during the evening, once the sun goes down. Alcohol and pork remain forbidden (as always), and sex is forbidden during the entire month.
During this entire time of discussion, more and more people began to filter in, many of which were politely curious in their glances, but had nothing really to say to Mike and I. But the feelings of distance quickly left as we began to settle in, and cups of water and dates were given out. Radwan informed us that this tradition dates back to how the Arabian tribes would break Ramadan; it is proven (according to him) that date sugars are the easiest for the body to process and turn into energy and that dates even have anti-cancer properties. After everyone (except the two of us) went through prayer and obesiance in the direction of Mecca, a nice dinner spread was laid out on sheets of plastic. Some sort of curried beef on a bed of rice, spiced chicken, a potato fritter, and shredded lettuce with dressing was offerred in a generous portion. I wasn’t overly hungry (the yoghurt I’d eated two hours earlier to hold me over stuck to my ribs better than I’d expected), but I also wanted to be a proper guest, so I made sure to clean my plate. At first, I was very prim; especially when the Sheik, Omer Ahmed, came over to check in with us and welcome us to the mosque. Omer was a tall man and fairly broad. Easily intimidating had he been a bit more muscular, with broad hands and a direct demeanor. He had facial features of both African and Arabian descent and was from Sudan, he said. He was dressed in a full length mauve robe and wore a thick, slightly curly beard. Omer was happy to answer more somewhat basic questions on the five pillars and what it meant to be moral as a Muslim. I was saving my more involved questions for the discussion; plus I really wanted to get a feel for the environment and what would be proper to talk about. And I was seeing already that a lot of my more…Politically charged discussion matter was not too appropriate for a more community get-together. Or maybe I was just paranoid. But really it was a group of 30 people, all a close-knit community, who get together to pray often. It did not seem proper to ask about their opinions on the contention on the mosque near the 9/11 memorial.
BUT I did get some very interesting responses to the question of "what do you think of the term ‘Muslim-American?" See, Muslim-American is the only label that I can think of that applies creed first over ethnicity. Jewish-American is not necessarily a good counter, because to be a Jew is an ethnicity as well as a faith. But there are no Christian-Americans, no Buddhist-Americans…But Muslim-American is not uncommonly used. Omer suggested that the term came from Muslims themselves; he told me that to be a brother in Islam supercedes all other bonds or divisions. Which is why, he says, that Mecca is such a beautiful city; Muslims from around the world are allowed to enter irregardless of their political, ethnic or national affiliations and unite as brothers and sisters in faith during Haji. Radwan, as well as a few other men who had since entered our discussion, also agreed with this.
As we were talking, I made sure to use my best manners. My mother would have been proud…I cupped my hand under my fork as I lifted it to my mouth, used my napkin and leaned as far fowards as I could (we were sitting cross-legged on the floor) to keep food from scattering about. Meanwhile, Omer managed to speak quite clearly, despite his accented English, as he shoveled rice and beef into his mouth with sticky fingers. I couldn’t help but note the dot of curry on his cheek that stayed there the entire conversation. So I put down the fork and relaxed a bit into our discussion.
Omer gave a short, succinct talk on Islam and what it meant to be a Muslim. "To be a Muslim, to follow Islam and the Qur’An," Omer stated, "is to submit, to be a slave to Allah, our Creator. Who created us?" An actual question Omer directed towards Mike. Mike responded with "God did." "Why did he create us?" was Omer’s next question, again directed towards Mike. Mike had no idea…"To worship him," Omer said. And so, to submit, to worship and serve Allah, is the highest calling and path of the Muslim faith. During our discussion, it occurred to me that while there was talk of immorality, blame had yet to be placed on the Christian standby. So during the question and answer phase, I asked him whether or not Satan existed in Islam. He responded that Satan was a creation of Allah who refused to submit to God’s glory, and so was swept into the fires of hell. And during the Day of Judgment, when Allah makes His return, his test will be to demand that people enter the fires of hell. Testing them much as he tested Abraham (Abrahim). The true to Allah will readily step forwards, but will be saved; for they were willing to obey God’s command to the end. Submission to, and obeying the word of Allah and the ritual and procedure laid down by his prophets insure a moral life and please Allah enough to get one into Paradise.
I paraphrase a bit; there were other questions I, as well as Megan, asked…But to expound on EVERYTHING would take most of the night. Also, I decided early on NOT to use my notepad like I’d intended. I decided it would remove me; distance me from the people and make me seem more like a reporter than a curious fellow human being. So my memory, as patchy as it is, will have to suffice. I did ask "Why does God require worship," "I hear a lot about submission…Is there love between God and his creations," and Megan asked "Why do you pray five times a day," and "is the fundamentalist movement based more on faith or power…" Megan’s questions were phrased from behind a white curtained off area of the small meeting room. Her disembodied voice caught me by surprise as the curtain had been there all night and I never saw or heard the women trickle in, which I assume was intentional. A well-phrased question addressing something I’d given up on. Omer’s response was less than satisfactory; I think his English was a bit limited. He told us about the power of faith and the glory of Allah but a few of the community members that had lived in the US for longer answered Megan’s question better. I wish I could say more about this but I can’t recall; I think I was distracted by the pain in my knees. Not enough time spent meditating. Omer gave us his phone number, as did Radwan, if we ever had any more questions and said we were more than welcome to come by anytime we liked. Also, a community member brought us a small package with a Qur’An translated into English, as well as some CD’s to explore at our leisure.
After the meeting, Mike, Megan and I met behind the mosque and discussed what we learned and our individual experiences. Megan found that the women were not at all repressed; cloistered away, but not at all obedient little servants. They laughed, gossiped and did or did not wear their headscarves as they saw fit. Only a few wore bhurkas. Megan spoke with one woman there who hadn’t worn a headscarf for most of her life. She said that she reached a certain point in her spiritual growth that she saw it as an additional step to be taken in the veneration of Islam; a personal choice she made freely. And, we all agreed, it has a definite beauty to it, a mysterious allure as a garment. From a western perspective; the garment seems (and can be) oppressive; a denial of a woman’s beauty and individual character. In fundamentalist regimes, it takes on a far more sinister cast and legions of black shrouded ghosts crowd the streets. The women here suggest to me, through Megan, that either a head scarf or bhurka is a mark of devotion to an ideal, rather than a method of control. I’m not sure; I’m not a Muslim and, more importantly, I’m not a woman, so my perspective is undeniably skewed. I really want to be present for the talk on Women and Islam, but alas, I will be out of town on spike in Oklahoma that week, the last of Ramadan.
SO. Finishing up this epic post…The meeting was informative and I learned a lot about how Muslims function in day to day life and what it means to follow the path of Islam. I might call up Omer or Radwan if I find something intriguing about the Qur’An…Which is entirely possible. According to both Omer and Radwan, the Qur’An is very easy to memorize and take in. Omer attributes this to the divine nature of the book (naturally). Megan thinks the layout of it; being a collection of moral guidelines, rather than stories, fables, and anecdotes mixed with guidelines like the Bible, allow this to be so. And, might explain why there seem to be less major schisms in ideology in Islam, as opposed to Judaism and Christianity. Granted, I’m certainly NOT minimizing the conflict between the Shias and Sunnis (which reminds me…I didn’t even ask to which branch I was eating with; damn..) but there are far fewer branches in Islam, perhaps because there’s less to interpret and misinterpret as one sees fit. Hm; a question for another day, assuming I sit and read this book.