Always ethereal, always eclectic, I write as the mood strikes, when there intrigue reveals itself. Usually that means something controversial or adventure of some sort.

I've tried really hard to be unprovocative, but have as yet been unsuccessful.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

صلاة الجمعة - An Etic Perspective

Listening to Tasha speak last weekend, I was struck by how effortlessly she shared about the strange culture that is Islam. By strange, I don't mean something negative, but rather different- it is different for most Americans. And in studying it for so long, I've grown used to it, so that I don't fully see it's difference. Islam feels more comfortable, like an old slipper. So I described it less while I was in Morocco. And those few times I was able to enter a mosque, all happened before I began blogging. So there was never the opportunity to share with my readers what the experience is for a Christian to worship in a mosque with Muslims. Until now.

It was difficult to tell from the Idriss Mosque website when the sermons began, so I arrived a half-hour early. The Idriss Mosque is the largest and most authentic-looking mosque in the Seattle area, and I find it very architecturally beautiful. It has the classic dome and a small unused minaret (for there are no public calls to prayer in Seattle). Some of us went out and helped with the mosque's security shortly after 9/11, and I have off-and-on attended in the years before I went to Morocco, but I have had no opportunity to come on a Friday since I returned.

Upon entering I removed my shoes to indicate that this is holy ground, and went and sat in the back. There were few men who had arrived yet, variously involved in voluntary prayers and reading the Qur'an. One man older was staring at me, and I greeted him in the tradtional manner, with the hand to the chest. The women enter from the back, and go upstairs, sitting behind a tilj grating, so they can see the Imam but no men can see them. I heard an automated recorded Qur'anic recitation from upstairs for a few seconds, and that was the last I heard of anything from upstairs.

I sat and observed for awhile, contemplating and praying. The room is large, for this is no store-front mosque. A few columns divide the front from the back, and there is plush blue carpeting throughout the room, with white lines to indicate the rows that men should be in. I was surprised to see the mihrab, the depressed niche in the wall indicating the qibla, the direction of the Ka'aba, in Mecca, a black cube building towards which all Muslims pray. I wasn't surprised to see the mihrab, but rather it's placement, indicating towards the northeast. Of course, this makes sense. In the traditional method of reckoning qibla, the quickest way from Seattle to Mecca is by to the northeast. But I still have in my mind a Mercator map projection, where Mecca is to the southeast.

Next to the mihrab is the minbar, the raised pulpit. As is often the case, this was covered with beautiful tilj, a thatched intricate artwork of wood, expressing beauty without forbidden images. It rises up a few steps until you reach the pulpit, separated from the steps by a crossbar.

After sitting for awhile I headed downstairs for wudud. Wudud is the ritual washing that occurs before prayers- again, a reminder that you are entering into the holy. It involves washing the hands and wrists, the mouth, inside the nose, the face, the right and left arm, the top of the head, the ears, and the right and left feet. Everything is to be washed three times. The facilities for washing were very convenient, with something like sinks at ankle level.

Upstairs men were starting to filter in in greater numbers. I think I may have been the only white American, and so probably stood out. But it was a heady mix of the world's population, with African-Americans and immigrants from Eastern Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Clothing was a vibrant mix of Western and various ethnic styles, with jallibiyah, a full-length male dress, predominating. English was the most widely spoken language, but there was also Arabic and languages I didn't recognize. Initially those entering were quieter, but as the room filled up, the volume of conversation increased.

At a certain point the Imam, the pastor, climbed the minbar to speak. He read a chapter from the Qur'an, of which I recognized a few words, and then he translated it into English, the common language for most present.

His sermon initially discussed how all things are possible with God. He shared a true story of a man who felt called to be a martyr in Medina. When asked how this would be possible, when Medina is populated by Muslims, the man said, with God all things are posible.

Then the Imam moved to how we should look to Mohammed (pbuh) above all others, and love him before anyone else. His example should be followed in appearance, in actions, and 24 hours a day. He taught us how to leave the negative example of the Jews and the Christians. There was a time in early Islam when the example of Mohammed (pbuh) was taught just as much as the Qur'an, and children were expected to be as family with what he did as they were with what the Qur'an said. We go astray when we look for happiness and satisfaction in other places, but we will stand with Mohammed (pbuh) on Judgement Day and go to Paradise, if we follow his example in all ways to the utmost.

Frankly, the focus on Mohammed (pbuh) surprised me. I'm not sure if all Muslims would agree with this hagiolatry of Mohammed (pbuh), where we should love him more than all others. I know for certain I have heard Muslims speak against such an idea in the past. And the Imam's ideas of copying Mohammed in the style of the beard and how one uses the restroom- I have heard these ideas before, but usually from more extremist groups, like the Wahhabi or Ikhwani. Truly, the idea of loving Mohammed (pbuh) is very similar to the Christian teaching on Jesus- but Christians justify it only because we believe Jesus to be God. Indeed, this is why some groups preach against a hagiolatry of Mohammed (pbuh)- it is too similar to the Christian teaching on Jesus, and, for these groups, amounts to a divinization of Mohammed. I also found it interesting that some words in the sermon were not translated into English- God, martyr, Jews, and Christians. Almost as if the Imam was wary of having non-Muslims understand his meaning at certain times, as it would run contrary to the attempt to portray Islam as a liberal, more universalist religion. (An idea often encouraged by Imams in America.)

The sermon lasted about an hour, and then the Imam climbed down the stairs and sat down on the lowest stair, for a moment of communal selah. He climbed back up for a brief continuation of the sermon, but I think he was mindful of the clock, and that, in America, Muslims can only go to payer during a lunch hour on Fridays.

So we moved to a beautiful call to prayer, done by the mu'ethin, almost always different from the Imam. He walked into the mithrab, and sang in Arabic,

God is great.
God is great.
God is great.
God is great.
I say there is no god but God.
I say there is no god but God.
I say Mohammed is the prophet of God.
I say Mohammed is the prophet of God.
Come to the good.
Come to the good.
Come to prayer.
Come to prayer.
God is great.
God is great.
There is no god but God.

The men gather in rows, with a verbal reminder every time to stand shoulder to shoulder with toes touching, so that there are no gaps. The mu'ethin calls out Allahu akbar, God is great, and we raise our hands, repeating after him, and clasp them to our stomachs, right hand over left. The prayer involves a series of bows and full prostrations, with each cycle called a raka. For juma'a prayers, Friday prayers, there are the fewest number of rakas, with only two. (For the five prayers done each day, there are a different number of rakas.) After the prayers are done, while kneeling, we greet the angels on the right and left shoulder, one angel recording bad deeds and the other good deeds, and greet those near us, as the Imam does any announcements. As I don't believe there are angels on both sides, for me, I consider it a greeting to those on either side of me. But I appreciate the reminder that all of our deeds are constantly recorded and God is aware of them.

While I am not Muslim, I find great peace in this form of worship. There are some aspects I don't theologically agree with, but everything said in the worship itself I am in agreement with. Much comes from the Fatiha, the opening chapter to the Qur'an, which expresses theology in concordance with that of Christianity. My Arabic tutor was asking me what I get out of it. There is nowhere else in Seattle where I can be so immersed in Arabic Islamic culture. But more than this, there is something so very holistic in this style of worship, where I can use my whole body to worship God. True, the Eastern Orthodox do this, but we have largely lost it in the West. It is also a time where I can affirm with my Muslim brothers that we worship the same God, and express my love and joy in Him together. And there is that which is powerful in the unison of action, as we affirm the greatness of God.

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