Sunday, August 7, 2011

Two Visits to a Mosque

Ah-Salaam-Malaiku. My mispronunciation of the standard Muslim greeting probably went unnoticed as I mumbled it under my breath to the man who held the door open for me. At least I knew I was getting the “Salaam” part right, having said it many times to Arabs I had met in Israel. Peace be with you.
Last Thursday night I attended a Ramadan gathering at a mosque. I had visited this same mosque three years ago and started the beginning of a blog post, left incomplete. Here’s the full result of what I had written then:

An evangelical Christian walks into a mosque…
Not a typical Friday.
My heartbeat quickened as I approached the door of the mosque. A seventeen-year old boy who had come of age in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I could not help but be nervous. I resolved to leave my prejudices -with my shoes- at the entrance.
            The whir of fans and the lush carpet beneath my feet
The imam’s message, while of course devoid of the “salvation by grace” theology characteristic of my church, had many points I found myself agreeing with. His criticism of American materialism and overconsumption came off not as that of a militant cleric but as a frustrated, chiding leader. More like Barack Obama than Pastor Ray, I decided, especially as the word “hope” peppered his sermon.” [End of Transcript]

My visit on Thursday was tempered by nearly five months in the Middle East and a greater exposure to Islam and Middle Eastern culture. Yet unlike the Palestinians I had met, the Muslims at this mosque were of either Southeast Asian or African-American background. It struck me that Islam, like Christianity, is a ‘universalist’ religion that does put a priority on proselytizing: the religion is not for a chosen few, but intended for everyone.

In this way, I almost connected more with the service at this mosque than I had at Jewish synagogues. My last name notwithstanding, I am not Jewish and thus cannot become a part of that community unless I choose to undertake a lengthy conversion process. Islam, on the other hand, would take me as quickly as you can say the “Sinner’s Prayer”. ­

Also I have to say that Ramadan, a month of fasting, seems like a really cool practice. The whole community comes together for dinners for a whole month, praying each day together instead of just once a week. The rhythm of fasting, while strenuous, certainly provides spiritual and mental discipline. Modern Christians who have lost the art of fasting have much to learn from our cousins (first cousins, once removed). Fasting deprives the suicide machine of modern life its fuel, necessitating a pause for reflection and meditation.

Breaking the fast, though, is of course probably the more fun aspect of Ramadan. I welcomed the eclectic mix of Kennedy Fried Chicken, Pasta, and these tasty fried dough patty spicy-Arab food cakes and downed them heartily.
“Brother!” an older African-American gentleman called down the table. “Have some more chicken!” I declined, stuffed already. Looking around, there seemed to be little integration between the African and Asian populations. Each group kind of sat on its own. I could pick up the words of dads speaking in Indian dialects to their children, but other than that conversation in the room was muted. At least there was a mixture of races there, I must admit. That’s something to be said for the mosque.

Perhaps I was only witnessing a quiet night, but maybe mosques are less conducive to the forging of community than the way I picture an ideal religious community. Another example is that during prayer and the meal men and women were separated entirely. I imagine in Mohammed’s day the mosque was simply an extension of the surrounding community. But here in America, mosques (like churches), face the difficult task of trying to bring together people who may have no contact with each other except on days of worship.

I think that is partly why I’ve connected a lot recently with the theology of modern Christian Anabaptists and the Emerging Church conversation. Among other things, these movements focus on creating space for community to grow. In post-modern America, life is fractured. I think that churches have a unique place and opportunity in society to provide a way to bridge gaps and reconcile people. I don’t think Islam has yet dealt with this problem yet: Islam in America predominantly remains a religion of the immigrant populations. If it hopes to grow, it will have to engage in the difficult, messy task of learning how to create mixed communities. The mosque I visited had some of the pieces in place: it was relatively welcoming to outsiders, people were friendly, and food was provided. But it will take more than that to bridge the economic and social divides of our local area. It will be interesting to see how Islam in America evolves over the coming decades, and what the reaction from their conservative leaders in the Middle East will be.
Mosque in Hebron, Palestine called the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Where Abraham, Sarah, and others are said to be buried.

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