Representative Keith Ellison, the US's first Muslim American elected to Congress, wept today as he shared the story of Mohammed Salman Habdani, a young Muslim-American who died at the World Trade Center on 9/11.
I have been writing a lot about Islam lately and my last post was about 2 young New Yorkers, Aman Ali and Bassam Tariq, who are currently traveling to 30 mosques in 30 days. I have been fascinated by their journey and the controversy surrounding the proposed Islamic Center near Ground Zero. I realized that while I write about Islam, have Muslim friends and have been to mosques before, I have never actually attended a prayer service at a mosque. So, I decided it was time to experience this. I contacted Aman and Bassam to find out where they’d be on the east coast and I managed to meet up with them at the Masjid Ash-Shaheed in Charlotte, North Carolina (US) on August 17th. Here is my interview with these 2 delightful guys. Please check it out and then read on to hear my thoughts on my experience breaking fast with them and the congregation at Masjid Ash-Shaheed.
(Please note that any edits in this interview are simply to cut out my voice or any of Aman or Bassam’s verbal “hiccups”; no content was cut from this interview.)
I didn’t take any photos of the mosque or the people I met. I interviewed Aman and Bassam and then put the camera away. I felt it was important to focus on my experience, my thoughts, observations and feelings. I didn’t bring in my notebook or pen. I wanted to experience this visit to a mosque as I’ve experienced religious services at churches and synagogues over the years with friends and family.
I put a pink scarf over my head and entered the mosque, which as Bassam describes in the video, was a small, one level structure. From the road it looked like a little office building). The women were putting out a beautiful display of food for break fast in the small lobby area. I was warmly greeted by several women (who had no idea who I was or why I was there. It appeared to be a primarily African American congregation. Many men were also in the lobby and shared kind greetings. But the sisterhood definitely prevailed here; the women hugged me and introduced me to other women. I offered to help in the kitchen, but they were all set, so I gravitated toward a little girl who reminded me of my niece. I have often found in my life that children are our best teachers. She was 8 years old and proved to support my belief that when you want information, ask a kid! I told her it was my first time at a mosque for prayer and asked if she could help me. She told me that there was a prayer room with white lines on the floor and that we take off our shoes and go in and stay behind the “boys” and we line our toes up along the white line. And then she relayed the movements for the prayer including the kneeling/bowing and the expressions in Arabic that I should listen for. She told me to put my hands upon my chest, but that my right hand should be over my left. (I later asked an adult why this was important. She indicated that there is some evidence that Mohammad prayed this way, or with his hands to his sides.) Then the little girl quickly switched subjects, telling me all about her school, her friends and how her bus stop is not super close to her house but around a corner. Ah, from the mouths of babes…. 🙂
When the call for prayer came, the congregants moved to the table of water and dates. They each sipped some water and ate a date, then took off their shoes and headed into the prayer room. One of the women came over to explain to me that when breaking fast, it was important to eat something “natural” first. The women entered the communal prayer space through a different door and we lined up along the white line in the back of the room. The men lined up in the front. The women coached me to stand close together, with our arms nearly touching. I simply followed along, as the prayer was in Arabic, so I was simply mimicking what I observed around me. There was some standing, some kneeling, some bowing, some hand gestures, some repeating of phrases. Yup, it reminded me of a bit of church but without the pew….and a bit of the synagogue, as I didn’t understand the language there either! But I knew that there was something being said that was resonating deeply with the congregants and that was giving them peace and strength. Toward the end of the approximate 10 minute prayer, a women explained to me that the congregants were repeating some silent phrases about God and counting the number of times that they said them on their fingers (using their thumb on the right hands to touch their other fingers to keep count.) At the end we all cupped our hands in front of our faces to pray and then took our cupped hands and ran them over our head, faces and down our bodies. The woman explained that the prayer was washing away sins and that the good of the prayer was in our cupped hands, so we were to wash it over our bodies. I later asked someone what the prayer was about – and because I left the journalist in me outside the mosque, I can’t tell you verbatim what was said. However, I do recall that the gist of it was thanking God and taking time to be close to God.
When we were done, the brother leading the prayer announced that Aman and Bassam were part of the 30mosques.com project and he welcomed them and wished them a safe journey. And then he joked about their New York accents and everyone had a good laugh. And he giggled as he told us that his stomach was growling, so it was time to eat!
We left the room and the men set up tables in the same space for us to break fast. We all served ourselves from the huge buffet that was prepared by the women before our arrival. Several congregants also brought covered dishes and non-alcoholic drinks. I sat with a group of women and we talked a lot about the same things I talk about with friends at home. At one point, we were hysterically laughing about our common experiences dropping our cell phones in water (including one woman’s story about going to the bathroom and hearing the phone plop into the water…and literally saying out loud “oh no you did NOT just fall into the toilet!” We gabbed about how we have all had to figure out how to dry out the battery when that happens (rice in a bag was the agreed upon best method.) We talked about recycling. We talked about shopping at Walmart. We talked about work. It was life. Every day conversation. Except this time my new friends and I were all wearing scarves to cover our heads because Islam believes that the headscarf is an outer manifestation of an inner commitment to worship Allah – that is it a commitment to piety. As a visitor to this mosque, I was fine covering my head, just as I’d be covering myself while visiting a more conservative church or synagogue. I did catch myself, a couple of times, having to check that the scarf was still on though. I’m clearly not well versed in the beautiful craft work required to cover my head completely with a scarf – but I did okay considering I’m no fashionista!
In the interview, you heard Aman and Bassam offer me sage advice when I asked them about the role of women in Islam. I took this advice and asked several of the women about their role and the perceptions of how women are “treated” in their faith. One women shook her head gently and told me that her faith doesn’t oppress her at all. She said it gives her the strength to be a good mother, her most important role. She said that men and women inherently are different and that Islam simply recognizes this. She said if someone feels oppressed, it is because they allow themselves to be. Another woman told me that women praying behind men is simply a way to avoid any distraction. She said it allows her to focus on her prayer and not feel self conscious of others looking at her. My sense is that the women had a very strong sisterhood and that any issues with gender were mostly from outsiders, not internal.
Based on our conversation about the subject, one of the women I met with did give me a pamphlet about the status of women in Islam. It closes by saying: “There does exist a gap between the rights of women outlined in the Qur’an and the prevalent reality in the Muslim world. However, images of Muslim women as ignorant, oppressed and submissive are stereotypical. They do no justice to the large number of Muslim women whose conviction in Islamic concepts of family, cohesiveness, happiness and individuality ensures their sense of self- fulfillment.” In my experience at this mosque, the women that I spoke with appreciated their roles and contributions in their religion, embraced the sisterhood and valued their religious community. No one was forcing them to be there; they were there because they have deep faith and feel comforted by it, similar to what I’ve experienced congregants in churches and synagogue services.
I did have a conversation with one woman who felt that there is a huge challenge for women in the faith. She said she has been to mosques that have a separate entrance for women and that it makes her feel less than valued in the structure. Having traveled to Muslim countries, I had a sense of what it feels like to not be treated the same as a woman would be in the US. But I also recognized that I was not in the US, and shouldn’t expect things to be the same. I don’t go to a mosque regularly and I’m not Muslim, so I don’t feel that it is right for me to tell a Muslim woman how to feel about her faith. Each mosque has its own norms and I can see from reading the 30mosques.com site that there is a wide range of experience within each community despite the common denominator of Islam. Clearly, it is a sensitive issue – and perhaps Aman and Bassam say it best in the video above – if you have questions about this issue, ask a Muslim woman. I’m really glad that I did.
Personally, professionally and spiritually, this was easily one of the most beautiful learning experiences that I’ve had on my life’s journey. I am grateful for the opportunity and thank the people of Masjid Ash-Shaheed for welcoming me with such open arms. I’d also like thank Aman and Bassam for taking the time to speak with me and Melibee readers – and for allowing me to tag along for this leg of the journey. Be sure to check out their overall journey as we can all learn something from their bird’s eye view! Meanwhile, I look forward to your comments.
(By the way, if you would like a good laugh, check out Aman’s stand up comedy web page. He and Bassam are very talented outside of their 30mosques.com lives!)