This blog article will be of a lighter nature than my usual fare. Instead of commentary on Bible or Qur’an verses, or political commentary, I’ll comment on my first visit to an Islamic Mosque.
I’ve been telling myself for some time that I need to attend a Mosque service and actually make the acquaintance of Muslim believers; but I kept ‘chickening out’. Finally last Friday (5/6/2011), after arguing back and forth with myself all morning (“I will; no I won’t; yes I will; no I won’t”, etc.), at the last minute I decided to go ahead. I drove about 30 miles to a Shia Mosque for the Friday prayer service.
I decided to go to that one for a couple of reasons. I had recently come across a Shia web site when I was searching for information on Muslim eschatology (the coming of the Mahdi). I read one article defending the idea of the ‘occultation’ of the Twelfth Imam (the idea that this descendant of Muhammad and Ali [peace be with them both] has been in seclusion somewhere on earth – observing events, but himself unobserved – for the past 1200 or so years; awaiting the proper time to reveal himself and bring to pass the promise of the righteous inheriting the earth). I found it so fascinating that I decided to read more about Shia beliefs. (I found it fascinating – but that doesn’t mean that I’ve been convinced. I have a lot of questions to consider before I adopt Twelver Shiite belief.) Anyhow, I started reading a Shiite version of Islamic history – from the birth of Muhammad to the death of Ali (Muhammad’s first cousin, adopted son, and son-in law).
While I was reading this history – which I found very interesting, and which to me makes more sense than certain other material I’ve read – I decided to see if there is a Shia Mosque anywhere nearby. When I found one, I began to debate visiting it.
There are Sunni Mosques closer to me, and in fact I had written an e-mail to one of the Imams at a relatively close Mosque. I explained a little about myself, how I became interested in Islam, and my current desire to visit a Mosque; and I asked for any information I might need prior to making my first visit. Unfortunately, I had not had any response after a couple of weeks (and still haven’t). I’m sure there must be a very good reason; I sincerely doubt they make a habit of snubbing prospective converts to Islam! 😆 Nevertheless, I began to wonder if perhaps there was a Providential reason behind the lack of response: perhaps I was supposed to visit the Shia rather than Sunni Mosque.
I don’t know for sure about that ‘Providential’ business, but last Friday I decided to go ahead and visit the Shia Mosque.
Their service was from 1:00 to 2:00 P.M. I wasn’t sure how long it would take me to get there, and whether I would have any difficulty locating the building, so I left plenty early. I wound up arriving about 30 minutes early. There were 3 people outside talking: 2 young people about college age (I later found out they were indeed University students who had just finished their exams) and an older man about my age. (That is, not exactly “as old as Methuselah”, but no “spring chicken” either.)
I screwed up my courage, and walked over to greet them: “Peace be with you” (in English, since I didn’t know how to say it in Arabic). They smiled and responded with “Peace be with you also”. Then the older man (Harun, or Haroon – he didn’t spell it, just said it) befriended me. I explained that this was my first visit to an Islamic service, and I didn’t know much at all about the proper procedures. About all I knew was that I had heard that one was supposed to remove one’s shoes upon entry to the Mosque. So Harun (which he explained is the Arabic equivalent of the English ‘Aaron’) said not to worry; just follow him and he’d walk me through everything I needed to know or do.
One of my concerns had been my need for a chair to sit on during the service; if I got down on the floor, it’s unlikely I could get up again due to my neuropathy. Harun assured me that there were chairs available for visitors – especially for the elderly or disabled. So there was a chair near the door to sit on while I removed my shoes, and he placed a chair for me to sit on for the service.
The congregation, which was not very large, was very friendly. I think I was introduced to most of them, but I certainly don’t remember all of those ‘strange sounding’ names. I remember a ‘Hasan’ and an ‘Amir’. There was a “Mike”, though – even though he was originally from Iraq, he had taken an English name apparently.
I stood out like a sore thumb. Most everyone else was dark skinned (various shadings), while I was ¾ “WASP”. I’m definitely “White Anglo-Saxon”, but “Protestant” hasn’t applied to me for a long time. (Neither has “Catholic” been applicable to me). Despite this disparity in skin pigmentation, though, there did not appear to be any discomfort on anyone’s part. As I said, they were very friendly people.
The service was certainly different from anything I’ve ever experienced. 🙂 I’m used to very non-ritualistic Christian services (Baptist and rather informal Presbyterian, as well as extremely informal Pentecostal meetings), where the only real ‘ritual’ is standing to sing a few hymns – and those were in English, my native language, with hymn books to read the words and music. If there was a “responsive reading” (where the pastor reads a statement, and then the congregation responds), it was printed out in the back of the hymnal so the ‘uninitiated’ could follow along with no trouble.
At the Mosque, everything was highly ritualized; and there were no instructions for the ‘uninitiated’. The prayers were all in Arabic, so it would have been impossible for me to follow along even if they had been printed out. There was nothing to tell the newcomer when to stand, bow, or kneel and prostrate oneself. I was completely clueless! 😀
Nevertheless, it was interesting to observe. And I actually found that I did recognize a few isolated words and phrases in the Arabic prayers. I guess it is obvious that I would recognize the phrase “Allahu Akbar” which was repeated many times. I also recognized the “Bismillah” – also repeated many times – with which every Sura (except one) in the Qur’an begins. The transliteration of this phrase, as it appears in my Muhammad Asad English version, is: Bismillah ir Rahman ir Rahim. It is rendered in English as “In the name of God [Allah], the Compassionate, the Merciful” or something similar in meaning.
I also recognized the phrase “Al Haqq” which means “the truth” – or as a name of God, it would mean “the Truth”, “the (supremely) Truthful One”, or “the (supremely) Trustworthy One”. In addition, I recognized the names “Muhammad”, “Ali”, and “Fatima”. (Fatima was Muhammad’s daughter, and the wife of Ali – the cousin of Muhammad. Peace be with all of them.). Shia Muslims have great respect for the family of the Prophet, and believe Ali is the one who had been designated by Muhammad to be his successor. (This is one of the primary differences with Sunnis, who deny that Muhammad appointed any successor, much less a somewhat hereditary succession within his family.) Therefore, they mention the names of Ali and Fatima in their prayers. (Obviously, they wouldn’t be addressing their prayers to Muhammad, Ali, or Fatima; but out of respect they would be invoking God’s blessing on these outstanding leaders of Islam).
The talk given by one of the leaders was in English so at least I could understand that part of the service. Even then, though, references to the Qur’an were given in Arabic first, usually followed by an English interpretation. The talk was in two parts. First was an emphasis on the necessity of trusting and serving God ALONE – something with which I very much agree. Nothing and no one else can help us at all, without God’s permission; and nothing and no one else is worthy of our worship, service, and dependence. Second, in light of recent events concerning the (supposed) killing of Osama bin Laden (and they seemed to accept his recent killing as a reality, contrary to my “conspiracy nut” theory that he has actually been dead since December 2001), the leader spoke about what true “Jihad” is – in contrast to the ideas of extremists. The ‘greater Jihad’ is our personal struggle against our own lower nature; the struggle to subdue our own selfish desires in submission to the will of God. This Jihad has nothing at all to do with armed conflict. And while Islam does allow for armed conflict as a defense against the aggression of evildoers, it only allows fighting against combatants; indiscriminate killing of noncombatants, and especially women and children, is simply not permitted in Islam. Therefore, assuming that those terrorist activities which make the news so much are in fact being carried out by ‘Muslim’ extremists, there is nothing ‘Islamic’ about it at all. It is a flagrant violation of the most basic principles of Islam. It is condemned by all who follow God and his Prophet (or Prophets), whether they are Sunni or Shia.
I agreed wholeheartedly with everything which the leader said in his talk (at least everything he said in English. 😀 I assume I would agree with the Arabic portion if I understood it.)
It was all very interesting. But while I would very much like to go back at least to get to know these fine Muslim people with whom I share at least basic beliefs, I don’t know that I’m ready for regular attendance when I’m unable to actually participate. And I don’t know that I’m up to learning Arabic and memorizing the prayers and proper ritual motions. So I don’t know whether or not I’ll start attending Mosque services regularly.
Perhaps I’ll attend a service at one of the relatively nearby Sunni Mosques before I make a definite decision.