Sunday, September 28, 2014

Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar: My first time in a mosque

On Friday, I went to the evening worship service at Khadeeja Mosque in West Valley City (a suburb of Salt Lake City). This was the first time I'd ever been into a mosque. I've studied Islam for years and know quite a bit about it, yet somehow had never found my way to a mosque.

A little background on Islam:

Though most people know what Islam is, very few in America really know anything about it. A lot of Americans, fed by the media's paranoia with Islam, assume it to be a violent religion hellbent on world domination and the enemy of Western culture. Most know it was started by the Prophet Muhammad, and that it's a religion originating in the Middle East. But few know much about it.

Islam was started in the 7th century in the Arabian Peninsula by the Prophet Muhammad, a member of the Quraysh Tribe in what is now Saudi Arabia. Muhammad, like his fellow countrymen of the time, was a pagan worshiping a multitude of gods, including the high god of the Arab pantheon, Allah. Allah simply means "the God" in Arabic. It was believed by many Arabs at the time that Allah was the same God worshiped by Christians and Jews. However, the religion of this area was not monotheistic and not related at all to the religions of Judaism and Christianity.

Muhammad claimed to receive a series of revelations from an angel named Jibril (Gabriel in Judaism and Christianity). These revelations claimed that Judaism and Christianity were once revealed religions of the Book, but had been led astray. Allah was now to restore the true faith through Muhammad. Muhammad called this faith "Islam," meaning "surrender," "peace," and "submission" in Arabic. Its followers became known as "Muslims," which means "one who surrenders."

Muhammad's revelations caused unrest in his home city of Mecca, and he and his followers were exiled to a city to the north of Mecca called Medina. There Muhammad claimed to continue receiving revelations. He ended up receiving a revelation which told him to return to Mecca and conquer those in power reclaiming the city and its holiest shrine (the Kaaba, more on that later) for Allah.

Muhammad and his followers went through with the revelation and conquered the city for Allah. Within a couple centuries, Islam spread to be the dominate religion in the Middle East, North Africa, and other parts of Asia.

Today, Islam is the second largest religious tradition, Christianity being the first, with 1.6 billion followers around the world present in virtually every country on Earth.

Muhammad's revelations were memorized by his followers and later written down in a book called the Qur'an (often spelled Koran) which means "the recitation" in Arabic. This is the holy book of Islam and considered to be God's Word.

Some misconceptions about Islam:

In the West, there are a number of misconceptions about Islam. I wanted to address a few before I go into what Muslims believe.

1. Muslims are all terrorists and extremists. This is blatantly not true. Most Muslims do not belong to nor endorse any organization labeled as a terrorist group.

2. Islam is a religion that promotes violence. While Islam can be expressed violently, it is not more conducive to it than say Christianity or Judaism, both of which have violent pasts. Christianity in the Middle Ages, for example, tortured, murdered, and imprisoned many accused of witchcraft, heresy, or Jews. Many of these people were lit on fire or tortured for weeks at a time. The Holocaust was carried out primarily by Christians with antisemitic leanings. All of these things and many more atrocities have been done in the name of Jesus Christ. Islam's modern extremists do tend to be more violent than Jewish or Christian extremists. This is true, but the same sorts of agendas can and have been teased out of Judeo-Christian scriptures. Extremism in religion often has less to do with the religious tenants and more to do with current societal conditions.

3. Muslims hate Jews and Christians. This depends largely on which Muslims you ask. It's hard to paint a worldwide religion with 1.6 billion followers as only one thing. Some Muslims are very antisemitic and equally hostile to Christianity and Western culture. Still others are very accepting to Christians and Jews and see them as People of the Book (a term for those of older faiths responding to the previous revelations of Allah who may be afforded God's salvation. I.e., Jews and Christians.)

4. All Arabs are Muslims and/or all Muslims are Arabs. Again, blatantly not true. In fact, only about 15% of Muslims worldwide are Arabs. Many more exist in East Asia, Europe, other Asian countries, and Africa. Many Muslims don't speak Arabic other than the words of prayers and some of the Qur'an. Incidentally, there are significant portions of the world's Arab population that are of other faiths, like Arab Jews, Lebanon's sizable Catholic population (nearly 40% of the population), etc.

Teachings of Islam:

Islam is a diverse religion, but all Muslims agree on what are called the Five Pillars of Islam. These are the five tenants of the faith that all Muslims are obligated to abide by in order to achieve salvation. They are:

  1. The Shahadah: A person becomes a Muslim by saying this phrase with conviction, "La ilaha illa Allah wa Muhammadun rusulu 'llah." Which in English means, "There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is Allah's messenger."
  2. Salat: Ritual worship of Allah done five times a day: once at dawn, once at noon, once in the afternoon, once at sunset, and once after dusk. This is ritualized worship and includes set prayers delivered in Arabic and involves bowing and a full prostration in which your head touches the ground. These prayers are done while facing Mecca no matter where you are in the world.
  3. Zakat: Donating a portion of your income to the poor.
  4. Sawm: Fasting from sunrise to sunset during the entire month of Ramadan.
  5. Hajj: A pilgrimage to the city of Mecca that must be performed at least once in a Muslim's life if they are physically and financially able to do so. They make a pilgrimage to the city and perform several ritual actions over the period of about a week. These rites end with the ritual circumambulation of the Kaaba, the holiest place in Islam. It is believed that this shrine was built by Abraham and is the first house of worship to Allah ever constructed.
Additionally, Muslims must believe in these six things:
  1. God (Allah) is one and the only God.
  2. Must believe the angels exist.
  3. Must believe in the Books of God: The Qur'an, but also the Torah, Gospels, Psalms, and Scrolls. Muslims, however, believe that of all of these, only the Qur'an remains true to the original revelation and all the others have been corrupted by mankind.
  4. Must believe in the Prophets of God. These include: Muhammad (considered to be the last of the Prophets), Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.
  5. The Day of Judgment will come where all mankind will die and be resurrected. From there all will be judged by their works and sent to Paradise or Hell.
  6. All things are by the will of God. Therefore the good and bad in life should be seen as part of the divine plan. Humans have freedom of choice, but their choices fit into the Divine Plan as mankind doesn't know the will of God.
There are two major sects of Islam: Sunnis and Shias. These two sects split over disagreement about the leadership of Islam after Muhammad.

Sunnis make up the majority of Muslims, a little under 90% of Muslims worldwide. Sunnis believe that the consensus of the Muslim community (the Ummah) is the source of Muslim leadership and guidance. Sunni Muslims are guided by the Qur'an as well as other writings such as the Hadith (sayings or deeds said to be from Muhammad) and the Shariah (the Islamic religious law).

Shia Muslims are the minority of the major sects. The Shia believe that Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali, was designated to be the leader of Islam after Muhammad. Ali is seen as the first of the spiritual leaders known as the Imams. Imams were not considered prophets, and didn't receive revelations. Instead they were seen as defenders of the faith and clarifiers of teaching. It is believed by many Shias that there were Twelve Imams, and that the final Imam was taken to Heaven and will return on the Last Day to deliver mankind. He is known as the Hidden Imam.

Within both of these sects, there are various factions and schools of thought. To say that either of these branches is just one thing would be quite ignorant. Islam is just as diverse of a religion as Christianity.

The mosque I went to seems to favor the Sunni expression of Islam and describes itself as an open and moderate version of Islam. So what was worshiping with them like?

Atmosphere:

First of all, a little rant about finding the place. Dear, Apple, I don't know why your mapping of the entire city of West Valley is as messed up as it is, but using your navigation system, we almost ended up in two different locations in two entirely different cities trying to find this place. Once we used Google maps, we ended up getting there within only a few minutes. It's not a hard location to find, but it was made nearly impossible to find with your GPS.

That being said, the exterior of the mosque is gorgeous. It's a red and pink brick building with onion domes topped with crescent moons. I didn't think to snap a pic of the outside when there was light out, so I didn't get any.

The interior of the mosque is lovely, very simple, but very elegant. The floor is covered in very thick carpeting done in the pattern of prayer rugs.


Above the main prayer area is a lovely dome with a chandelier and seafoam green paint job. Around the base of the dome are plates with Arabic writing from the Qur'an.


The walls were fairly plain except for the occasional gold accents over the windows.


What was impressive was the central feature of any mosque, the Qibla. The Qibla is a niche in the wall that faces Mecca. It allows the worshipers in the mosque to know exactly which direction to pray. As such, it's often the most ornate thing in the mosque. This one is no exception.


One thing I noticed is that only men were in the mosque. I asked them if women came to the mosque, knowing full well they do. He explained that the women had a section in the upper balcony. If I hadn't have asked, I wouldn't know as the women were not seen nor heard from the entire time. The women even have a separate entrance from the men.

I was told by one of the members that this is so that the women don't distract the men from worship and cause them to sin while praying. As a westerner with a strong feminist background, this upset me quite a bit. The idea that women are just so sexually provocative that they would distract a man from worshiping God because he just can't control himself is really objectifying of women and enforces negative gender stereotypes on men and women. I had this exact same issue when I visited the Orthodox synagogue which had the women separated by a curtain from the men for the same reason.

Like the Orthodox synagogue, all of the important stuff, the Qibla, the microphone to sing the call to prayer, etc. was on the men's side. Then they told me how they're egalitarian, that anyone can lead the prayers and that they're all equal in the house of the Lord. But I wouldn't see a woman leading the prayers nor even associating with the men. The message is clear in an environment like this to a woman, your role is secondary to the privileged role of a man.

I am not a Muslim, but by the mere happy accident of genetics that I have a Y chromosome, I am able to go into the main area of the mosque, worship with the men, approach and even touch the Qibla. But a Muslim woman cannot do any of these things because she may possibly distract a man from worship and inspire lust in his heart.

Other than my issues of the women being segregated from the men, I really liked the atmosphere of the mosque. It was like stepping into another world and a completely different culture from the one I grew up in.

The People:

The people were very kind to us. Nobody seemed really off put that we were there. In fact, from the parking lot, a man named Mohammed greeted us and gave us a tour of the mosque. He was very friendly and answered all of our questions. He was quite wise and had a way of explaining the concepts of Islam in a very direct and accessible manner.

Besides him, there were a number of other men. Me and my friend seemed like we would be the only white people for a bit, most of the others being Arab or of some African descent. But then there ended up being a white man who showed up as well. He was a taller white guy with a full beard and dressed in traditional Middle Eastern garb, which was quite the site to behold and I think says a lot about our assumptions of individuals. Most of the men and young boys wore traditional Middle Eastern garb with traditional hats, though a couple were just dressed in jeans and t-shirts.

After the worship service, we were talking to Mohammad, and one of the men brought over this jasmine perfume and asked if we wanted to wear some. We obliged and he rubbed it on our pulse points so I smelled of jasmine for the next little while. It's interesting to me that men in this culture wear floral perfume, something considered so feminine here. I actually really enjoyed seeing and experiencing that.

Overall, the people were very kind, very welcoming, and very accommodating, I never once felt like they were judging us or upset that we were there. In fact, they were happy we were. We were told we were welcome back anytime and that they weren't going to try to convert us, but were happy we were coming to learn about their faith.

The Service:

The service was only about ten minutes long. It consisted of a man going to a microphone in the Qibla and reciting the Adhan, or Call to Prayer. This is similar to church bells in Christianity, which summon the worshiper to prayer.

Me and my friend then sat in a couple chairs in the back while the men lined up in a row in front of us. They then said the prayers following a prayer leader in front of them. It involved several gestures, a few Arabic phrases, some bowing, and then a full prostration. This was followed by them sitting up on their knees and saying a few other things. This was repeated several times. Then they looked to their right and their left saying a few phrases in Arabic, then it was over. Most of the men stuck around for a few minutes of silent contemplation and Mohammad came and answered a few more of our questions.

Overall, I liked how short the service was, I liked that there were no hymns, no complex liturgy, and that it was so simple even the small children could follow along.

The Message:

There was no sermon. Mohammad said that the worship five times a day isn't a prayer like we think of in the west. It's worship. Prayer he said can be done at any time and is selfish in nature. We ask God for things, but that five times a day, we're to stop and acknowledge his glory and repent. 

He said that it is what's in our heart that matters. That we shouldn't judge others because we don't know what's in their hearts. Only God does. We don't know how sincere our neighbor is in their prayers or what they're going through. and it's not our concern. What is our concern is our hearts and our relationship with God.

Overall, the message I got was that everyone should turn to God and worship him, but that we aren't to judge others for not doing it or not doing it the way we think they should. I liked that message. I hope that message reaches much of the Muslim world because it's better than a lot of the intolerance we see in much of it.

Overall Experience:

This was very fascinating to see culturally. It was quite different from anything else I'd experienced. It was all at once exactly what I was expecting, yet very different. Different mostly because of the tone. The tone was very individualistic and very reverent, which isn't what I was expecting. I'm not sure what I was really expecting with tone.

I definitely enjoyed my time at the mosque and really enjoyed the people and culture.

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