I was the passenger guest who traveled with a couple. After parking, we approached the house of prayer. He mentioned that it was odd … visiting a mosque … knowing that in the US, four mosques were recently bombed.
Even before replying to this brother’s remark, I saw the police vehicle. It was a ‘K-9’ unit.
There was no question in my mind as to why that particular unit was there. K-9 units are not used to direct traffic. While many worshipers did attend for the day of Jumu’ah [Friday noon prayer], that ‘K-9 unit’ was there as a precautionary measure should explosive materials be brought to the area.
The one time the place where I prayed was deemed a potential target for attack happened the day I was at a mosque. I reflected on the irony that such an attack might be executed in the name of ‘Christian’ faith.
Our group consisted of five women and six men, one of which is an Episcopal priest. The women took their entrance; I and the other men followed the Rector into the men’s entrance. We left our shoes in the designated area and entered a large, attractive room furnished with thick carpet. Chairs were also available.
In the men’s area, we sat on the carpet. I was not long there when my back began explaining that I would soon regret deeply the punishment I was heaping on it.
A warm voice behind my ear invited me to take a chair against the back wall. I turned to see a older gentleman [meaning about my age]. He said that my position is very uncomfortable, especially for those who are not used to it. I didn’t argue.
This kindly, soft-spoken man is from Damascus. He came to the US years ago. Eventually, he tired of people telling him that he should go home. So he did. When civil war came there, he returned to the US. He said that he has no where else in the world to go. I thanked him for coming to the US. He expressed gratitude for my attending Friday noon prayers.
Then came the Adhan [call to prayer]. All talking stopped. An atmosphere of respect settled at once. No forgiveness need be sought for being moved by the melody of haunting sorrow and soulful hope of a well-sung Adhan. It is arresting. The focus of all present was fixed on the call to prayer.
In Arabic and then in English, the Imam [the scholar/guy upfront] warned against three, soul-corrosive sins that faithful Muslims will avoid. These are the sins of greed, self-will and arrogance. As grounds for proper pride, the preacher upheld the accomplishments of hard labor and diligent study. But any presumptive pride or supposed superiority whether based on color or race or nationality or ethnicity or education or wealth — all that the preacher held in complete disdain.
The Imam said that the practice of peace was not only for those who are ‘like us’ but for all peoples. He commended his listeners to the practice of alms-giving and justice as conditions needed for peace and community.
Some words were directed to youth, who were reminded that God sees and knows all things, including the use of modern technological devices and apps, as well as our thoughts and deeds in private.
It occurred to me that if anything said seemed unfamiliar to Christians, it’s unlikely they’ve spent much time in church lately.
After closing prayers, my friend from Damascus again thanked me for my presence there. People began making their way back into the world.
Few present were ‘well-dressed,’ though mid-Eastern or African clothing was not uncommon. One very articulate man was impeccably dressed in western clothing. He asked if I was a visitor or from a church group. I said that I was part of an Episcopal group. With great sincerity, he expressed deep gratitude for my presence. While retaining his composure, his eyes eyes and quiet manner pleaded with me to return. I learned later that he spoke similarly with other men in our group.
Outside, we met with the women. Their experience was remarkable. They were thanked repeatedly for joining the gathering for prayer. They were showed around the facility. One woman shared her cell number should any of the visitors later think of questions they’d like to ask.
Reflections on the Gathering for Prayer:
Our group returned to the Episcopal church. Some were able to follow the Rector to a local coffee shop to discuss the experience. I was among them.
The Rector deeply respects Islam and has studied it for years. He saw a few rolled eyes and knows the reasons for it. I didn’t, but in today’s climate, what would one expect? He explained that at a time when their community is vulnerable, politically astute Muslims much desire Christian attendance. They want non-Muslims to know that far from being political extremists, they are normal people who lead normal lives. I recalled my friend from Damascus and the well-dressed gentleman near the main door. I understood. And yes, ‘normal’ that is what we saw and heard.
What we heard are staples in many sermons. The emphases of peace and the universality of the message of peace were more progressive than what one expects in many an Independent Fundamental Baptist sects, where flag-waving and national chauvinism set the order for the day.
For me, grace did not figure prominently in this message. I’m sure that the Imam would affirm that Allah is merciful. But the directive to give alms for the needy seemed to be the extent of the discussion of grace. That is, unless one regards God’s message of peace as a gift of grace. But again, I could not help but think of how many graceless sermons I’ve heard. And I thought of the graceless discussions about grace in sermons I’ve heard.
After outlining the thoughts I wanted to include here, I looked for a sung Azan to post as a sound file. As I did, I found an article by Hussein Rashid, adjunct professor of religion at Barnard College on the abuse of the Azan, the Islamic call to prayer. Professor Rashid writes:
‘Perhaps one of the most egregious abuses of Hollywood in its portrayals of Islam is the use of the azan, the call to prayer, as a soundtrack for violent acts. The call to prayer is a beautiful sound when it is performed well. Unfortunately, this part of Muslim beauty is used as the ambient sound for violence on TV, in movies and even on the radio.’
Reading that, I found myself astonished and incensed that a call to prayer would be associated with a philosophy directly counter to what I heard. Then Rashid’s article made this point:
‘That Muslims can be fully human, can feel and think in ways that resonate with other humans, is too foreign an idea for many of us.’
I wondered to what extent public attitudes toward our neighbors rests precisely on the failure or refusal to reckon with that fact. Then I reflected on the Imam’s words: we must not presume ourselves better than others because of who we are, our race, ethnicity, nationality, place of origin, etc.
Perhaps the real problem here is that this visiting Imam spoke more truth than American ears are accustomed to hearing.