A week ago I entered a mosque for the very first time.
My visit was part of an effort by a local organization made up of everyday activists, like me, to be the progressive change we want to see in the world. The meeting of folks from my group and the mosque was part of an ongoing program to “Meet Your Muslim Neighbor.” The mosque routinely opens its doors to the community for an afternoon of education, prayer service, and fellowship.
Can you imagine in your own house of faith, routinely opening your doors to explain to your community that everyone who practices your religion is not a terrorist?
Before my visit I knew very little about Islam or Muslims except that it was a peaceful religion (anyone can radicalize anything if they’re looking for a reason to do bad things), their faith was different than the one I grew up with in terms of culture, and they were the subject of a lot of hatred that I didn’t understand.
Still, I’d be lying if I said I’d never been a bit anxious sharing a plane with a man of Middle Eastern descent. I consciously chose to not let fear, stereotypes, and popular culture win the fight against reason in my brain. But still, I can’t deny I had those thoughts, as fleeting as they might have been.
Luckily, I have since then tried to educate myself about Muslim religion and culture. I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a presentation on Islam by a local professor of Islamic Religious Traditions. From this brief presentation I learned the following:
- Muslims believe in only one God, the same God of Jewish and Christian faiths.
- They pray 5times a day.
- Sunni Muslims make up 85% of the faith. Shia Muslims make up 15%.
- Sunni Muslims are more like Protestants in that they rely on text for spiritual guidance.
- Shia Muslims are more like Catholics in that they believe in an Imam, a sort of Papal figure.
- They pay a charity tax of 2.5% of their income.
- Any Muslim culture that adheres to Sharia law for the faith community, does so acknowledging the country’s law supercedes it. In other words, the legal structure of the country in which a Muslim lives is the ultimate authority even if the religious community follows religious law within its faith.
- The head scarf worn by some Muslim women, the hijab, is usually a cultural choice made by the women who wear them. Not all women who wear the hijab are being forced to do so. In fact, many Muslim women wear it as an expression of femininity. Egyptian women wear it as a source of power.
That was the extent of my knowledge of Muslims before my visit to the mosque. That and the fact that several Muslim households live on my block. Since the election, I’ve often thought that I should reach out to them, let them know that they are welcome and all the hatred expressed toward them in many places is not representative of me and mine. I never acted on that urge to reach out to my neighbors out of fear that I would offend them somehow, me being fairly ignorant of their culture. What good would it do to reach out in peace and then be offensive or seem self-serving?
So I did nothing.
But I did go to the mosque. I went for me, to learn, but also to support the Muslim members of my community who, yes, even in Lexington, are being targeted for harassment by ignorant idiots that are a waste of my Oxygen.
The mosque we visited is a new one, built in front of the old one on the same property. It’s not super-fancy on the outside, but it is brilliantly gold and round and shiny. Inside, though, while tastefully decorated, it was not fancy in any way. There were separate areas for men and women to store their shoes, as shoes do need to be removed before entering the prayer hall.
Why do Muslims remove their shoes upon entering a mosque? They do it to keep their prayer hall clean. When Muslims pray, they bow and then they kneel, or prostrate, on the ground. They simply want the area where they come in contact with the ground to be clean.
I knew the mosque did not require visitors to wear the hijab. We ladies all brought a scarf just in case and while I did not intend to wear mine initially, I did have a friend help me with one before the educational presentation began. It just felt like the right thing to do.
Modesty in dress, for both men and women, is a key belief in Islam.
The prayer hall in the mosque was oriented toward Mecca, with windows all along the other walls, providing a very light and open worship space. Our educator for the day, a converted Muslim who is a professor of Islamic studies at another university in town, stood at the front of the room while visitors sat on the floor around him. He was very folksy and funny and honest about Islam.
I learned new things about Islam from him (and I apologize if I flub some terminology here):
- Muslims, Jews, and Christians are all religious descendants of Abraham, believing in one God.
- Muslims study Jesus as a prophet, just like Mohammed.
- Where Muslims believe Christianity erred is in elevating Jesus to the divine. They believe there is only one God, only one divinity, the one worshipped by Muslims, Jews, and Christians. They do not believe in the Trinity of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.
- Islam puts an intense priority on how Muslims treat their neighbors. I’m paraphrasing here, but a lasting idiom in the faith goes something like, “better you die of hunger than to have food and not share it with your starving neighbor.”
- Muslims pray 5 times a day, scheduled to coincide with breaks in the day where you should stop and acknowledge God in your life. If Muslims can come to the mosque for prayer, that is encouraged, but they are taught to pray wherever they are.
- Prayers are recitations of the Quran, to be spoken melodiously, which is why sometimes they resemble songs or chants. If a Muslim is at a mosque, the prayers can be led by a faith leader. If a Muslim prays someplace else, the text spoken in the prayer is up to the individual.
Our educator was sure to tell us, though, that there are no prayer police that punish Muslims for not praying 5 times a day. They sort of go on the honor system, a concept I’m sure those of us in other faiths can understand and appreciate.
Just like in any religion, there are certain scriptures, certain texts, that can be taken out of context and twisted into whatever teachings madmen need to use to motivate extremists to do their bidding. Muslims don’t drink and believe in modest dress for both sexes. The 9-11 terrorists who got drunk in strip clubs and boasted about their 77 virgins…these were evil, misguided men who were not following the tenets of Islam.
Answering a question from the audience about the treatment and place of women in Islam, our educator answered that while Islam is a slow-evolving faith, most American women Muslims have the same rights as and are considered equal to men. American Muslims are intensely aware of women’s issues and are having conversations to further women within the faith. Disclaimer: this is one of the areas in which I hope I am not butchering our educators words or intent.
As our educator enthusiastically answered our questions, I wondered how exhausting it must be to have to explain your faith over and over again, even if to such a well-intentioned audience as ours. No matter how excited he might have been to explain his beliefs, the context that he was doing so, at least in part, because some people believe all Muslims are terrorists, was inescapable.
As someone who grew up in a progressive Baptist Church, only realizing when I went away to college that all Baptist churches were NOWHERE NEAR as progressive as mine, I can’t fathom what it must be like to encounter those misconceptions on a daily basis. Even now, when I say I attend (sporadically) a very progressive Baptist Church, I must explain what that means because most people think of Baptists as extremely conservative Southern Baptists and that’s not remotely who we are. The frustrations of our Muslim neighbors must be mine times infinity.
Our educator told us the story of how he and his wife can gauge what’s going on in the world by a trip to the grocery store. His wife wears the hijab and if she notices more dirty looks than usual while shopping, they can be guaranteed when they get home there has been a terrorist event somewhere in the world.
How sad is that? These are people who live with this every day of their lives. These are peaceful people, faithful people, living in our community. People who give them dirty looks because they look Middle Eastern or wear hijabs is unacceptable to me.
Islam is the second largest community of faith in Lexington and while I am proud of my multicultural city in so many ways, it’s so apparently obvious we have a ways to go.
After the presentation was over, we were invited to observe prayer services. While it was interesting and beautiful to watch our new friends pray, I also felt like a gawker who was observing something private and sacred. I was happy they invited us, but when I attend again, and I will, I hope to be more participatory in some way and less someone staring at something I’d never seen before.
Our hosts invited us for food and fellowship after prayer. For someone who grew up with pot lucks in the Fellowship Hall basement, this was nothing new to me. Sure, I had the best falafel I’ve ever had IN MY LIFE, and you don’t get that often in Eastern KY, but the only thing different about socializing in the mosque was that we walked around in our sock feet. The same laid-back, easy conversation talking about faith and culture and customs…while the subject matter was new, the act was not. The congregation was as welcoming, as funny, as real and true and personal as any church I’d ever been to. They even had to shoo us out of the reception area as they got ready for a congregational family night (we were invited to stay for that of course). I don’t know about you, but during my traditional Baptist family night gatherings, goodbyes took a looooong time and involved lots of shooing.
Later that afternoon, after my visit, I was thinking about the toll it must take on the health of the mosque members to be constantly on edge and wondering (they must be, I would) if they next time they open their mailbox or the door to the mosque that a bomb might go off. Being constantly on edge, constantly on alert, is not good for the human body. It raises our cortisol and inflammation levels and prolonged stress to the body can lead to an early death. I’m not exaggerating here…can you imagine having thoughts of hatred and bombs every time you enter your house of worship or simply because you look different than everyone else when you go out in public?
And even later that night, I found out the mosque I had just visited, the congregants I’d just met, had received a bomb threat in the mail. A bomb threat received for no other reason than the misinterpretation of a faith.
I felt sickened. Literally, physically, sickened. I could not believe this magnificent day in which I learned so much, met so many wonderful people who were like me in so many ways, during which I’d hoped to provide a bit of support for my neighbors, ended with a cowardly, misinformed act of hatred.
I WAS FURIOUS. How dare these people? These idiots? These losers? I get riled up just thinking about harm coming to the people who had just opened their doors to me when they never know if the person they are letting in is intent on killing them. I’m reminded of Charleston, SC, where 9 people studying the Bible opened their doors to man full of anger and hatred and consequently lost their lives.
After learning of the bomb threat, those of us who visited the mosque sent letters and notes of support. Today in the mail I received a hand-written thank you note for my supportive card. The note said they’d received so many and were so appreciative. The mosque has displayed them on a wall to remind them that they are loved and welcomed in this community.
So, one day this week or maybe next, my children and I will make some chocolate chip cookies and walk down to the end of the court and offer them to our Muslim neighbors. On the way, we will talk about how we are kind to everyone whether or not they look, dress, think, or talk like we do. We will talk about acceptance, and appreciation, and judgment. And we will begin a conversation.