I have written before about how I have been a spiritual seeker all my life. While I feel that I have now connected with a philosophy and set of teachings that address my spiritual needs, I remain very interested in learning about the beliefs and teachings of other religious and faith practices. My perspective is that any experience I receive will only help me develop increased understanding of (and compassion for) people who are different than me. Additionally, should my own personal views get challenged through these explorations, I will have to examine my beliefs more closely – and I will either affirm them, or amend them. Either way, I can hardly “lose”. In my opinion, new information can only be helpful to my human development.
As a child, I did know people who participated in a variety of faith traditions. I got to attend many different Christian-based services with numerous friends (everything from Mormon to AME, from Baptist to Adventist), as well as a little exposure to non-Christian faiths (like Judaism, Native American, and Unitarian). My mom was even friends with a Muslim family, so in talking with them I learned the very basics of their religious practices (i.e., they prayed five times a day, they couldn’t eat pork products, they weren’t supposed to drink alcohol, they fasted during the day for a whole month every year, their spiritual text was called the Quran…) – but I had no idea what any of this actually meant. The Muslims I knew seemed like very loving, peaceful people – so I assumed the God they honored was a loving entity [and that terrorists who use the name of God as a weapon are 1) wrong, and 2) in the minority]. But, how did these Muslims pray? And what did they pray for? And what did it feel like to attend one of their religious services? I was incredibly curious – yet I didn’t feel like I could ask them to take me to their mosque so that I could check it out. Something about “Muslimism” felt sacred and private, and that it shouldn’t be shared with outsiders who had no intention of converting – that to do so would somehow minimize the holiness of it.
Of course, I was literally a child when I had those thoughts; as an adult, I know more and I know better. Yet now, living in Minnesota, working in a large corporate environment, engaging in hobbies like yoga and blogging, the diversity among my network of friends is minimal. I no longer have close connections with people across a variety of races, economic statuses, or ages. I no longer know any Muslim people with whom I feel comfortable enough that I would be willing to ask them to let me ‘tag along’ to a mosque. So how was I going to complete item #27 on my 101 list?
Well, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: when I put an honest desire out to the universe, the powers that be hear me – and respond. Sometimes the response takes a while – but if I’m patient, a response will come. Though I made this request to the universe two years ago, apparently now was a good time for some wheels to be set in motion to get the request addressed. For those of you that are curious, here’s the quick story of how finding a Muslim connection came to be. (And if you’re not curious, skip ahead six paragraphs and resume this post form there.) 🙂
My sweetie works on a project team that actively partners with people who work in India. (That way, the projects that this group work on can move forward literally around the clock.) Every so often, some of the people who live in India come to the U.S. to spend some time at the corporate headquarters, to (hopefully) gain a better sense of how we work on this side of the world. Right now a few people from India are in town; to help them feel more welcome and comfortable during their multi-week stay, one of my sweetie’s colleagues hosted a dinner party. My sweetie and I attended the party, along with four other Americans and six other Indians – and we all had a fun time sharing stories and learning more about the various cultures present in the room.
On our drive home, my sweetie and I compared notes about the different conversations each of us had, and he made a comment along the lines of, “You know, S’s English is so good, and his understanding of American culture is so strong, that I often forget he wasn’t born and raised here. When I saw his wife tonight, I was confused for a split second when I saw her in a hijab – and then I remembered, ‘Oh yeah, that’s right – S is Muslim’.”
My ears perked up at this comment. What? S is Muslim? Does he pray and fast and do everything that the religion requires? (Yes.) Does he attend a mosque? (Yes.) Sweetie, I think I’ve found my connection for #27 on my list! Can you ask S if it would be possible for me to attend the mosque with his wife one day?
After a few weeks of pestering my sweetie, I finally received S’s contact information – and I sent him an email explaining my 101 project, and asked him if it would be possible for me to accompany his wife to the mosque some day in the next few months. S responded that he found my project very interesting, that he would be happy to take me to a mosque to help me complete one of my tasks, and suggested that he and I meet for coffee to discuss the details.
A week later, S and I sat down to create a plan to help me complete #27. I think S was genuinely flattered that someone was interested in learning more about a very important part of his culture (and life), and he clearly wanted to do everything he could to make the experience as comfortable for me as possible. He presented me with a variety of options:
- Attend a Muslim prayer service at the local hospital. The upside is that the location is very convenient; the downside is that I wouldn’t get to go to a mosque (as the prayers at this location take place in the hospital’s all-faiths chapel). I wanted to go to a mosque, so I passed on this option. [This made S happy; I could tell he wanted me to visit a ‘real’ Muslim space.]
- Visit a mosque during non-prayer hours. The upside is that I could take my time exploring the space, and not feel overly uncomfortable being in the presence of a lot of other people; the downside is that I wouldn’t get to experience a prayer service. I wanted to have an experience, not a tour; so I passed on this option. [This also made S happy; I sensed me wanted me to witness the important part of Islam – which is the spiritual connection with God, not hanging out in a room where people come together to make that connection.]
- Attend a mosque during prayer hours. The upside is that I would get a holistic experience of a Muslim community prayer session; the downside is that I would need to modify my attire and actions to conform with Islamic rules (which S was concerned might make me uncomfortable). I assured him that I had no difficulty adhering to the “When in Rome” principle, and that I would arrive to the mosque fully covered in appropriately shapeless attire.
With our plans in place, S and I exchanged cell phone numbers, and marked our calendars to meet at the Islamic Cultural Community Center the very next Friday at noon.
The morning of our planned gathering, I reviewed the mosque guidelines:
“Since the Center is a place of worship, we ask our visitors to kindly observe the following etiquette:
– Ladies should dress modestly and should cover the hair with a scarf.
– Shoes should be removed before entering the prayer halls.
– When greeting, men and women in Islamic faith do not shake hands.”
S had assured me that I didn’t have to wear a floor-length skirt to the mosque – floor-length pants were just fine. He also said that I didn’t have to wear a bulky (shapeless) sweater to the mosque – I could simply thrown on a light spring jacket over my shirt before entering the building, so long as the jacket covered my hips. Finally, S confirmed that I didn’t have to purchase a special head covering to attend the worship service – any scarf that was big enough to fully cover my head and wrap around my neck would work. Heeding his advice, the morning of my visit to the mosque I put on loose-fitting black pants, knee-length socks (just in case my pants shifted when I sat down in the prayer hall), a t-shirt, the baggiest and longest jacket I possess (it’s one size too big, which is actually perfect for this purpose), and pulled a simple black shawl from my closet. After dressing, I began to feel uncomfortably warm almost immediately. The previous days had seen near 90-degree [F] temperatures; and while this morning stayed at a more reasonable 75 degrees, my body was not used to wearing this many heavy layers during summer weather. As I drove to the mosque, I wondered how Muslim women tolerate being fully covered under so many layers of clothing during extreme conditions…?
S and I were to meet at noon at a Middle Eastern deli across the street from the mosque, where he would then walk me to the cultural center and show me the entrance to the women’s prayer hall. Promptly at noon, I received a call from S, apologetically informing me that he was running late – he expected to be at the deli in about 20 minutes. I grew concerned: was it okay to enter the mosque that late after the service had stared? S assured me that it was. Apparently there are two portions of the service: the sermon, and the group prayers. While the group prayers are mandatory (and a person cannot join them after they have begun), the sermon is optional – and people do arrive anywhere from 1-25 minutes after it begins. “We only need to enter the prayer hall before the group recitation begins,” S assured me. At this point I set aside my rigid Western notions of time, tardiness, and ‘responsibility’, and encouraged myself to embrace (or at least acknowledge) the looser Indian interpretations and implications of time as a function of daily life.
During the 20 minutes that I sat in my car across the street from the mosque waiting for S, I watched person after person walk into the building. Nearly every man I saw wore classic Muslim garb, and every woman I saw donned an outfit like the one I pictured above. Even the smallest children wore gender-appropriate Muslim attire – and as I witnessed each non-Western individual disappear into the mosque, I started to feel uneasy. Out of place. One look at me in my pants, jacket, and shawl, and it would be incredibly obvious that I didn’t belong to this community. So should I be ‘allowed’ to witness their events at all? At this point, I felt my stomach start to stir a bit – and I was genuinely surprised by my increasing nervousness. I’m a semi bold, confident, independent woman, and rarely do I have issues with placing myself in unfamiliar settings or amid people who are different from me. Yet, I think if I had approached this particular task on my own, I would have lost my nerve and abandoned the plan before my hand ever touched the mosque’s door – so I was very grateful that I was being led through this experience with a kind soul who knew what he was doing.
Just as I was beginning to seriously second-guess myself about entering the mosque, S arrived. He breathlessly apologized for being so tardy, and asked me if I was ready to enter the prayer center. Setting aside my anxiousness as best I could, I smiled confidently at him, nodded, and cheerily replied, “Absolutely!” With that, I wrapped the shawl over my head and around my neck, making sure the fabric covered all of my hair as well as draped my shoulders. But the second I covered my head, I felt exponentially more uncomfortable. Now not only did I feel out of place among the “real” Muslims who were entering the mosque, but I also felt like a ‘target’ for all the non-Muslim people walking by.
Yet at this point S and I were within steps of the mosque’s door – and the next thing I knew I was following S as he weaved amid many Muslims who were just now entering the center, then walking up a narrow flight of stairs and arriving at a foyer area littered with hundreds of pairs of shoes and sandals. S pointed to a side door where many women sat just inside the entryway, and I quickly kicked off my sneakers and walked into the room while S removed his shoes and walked to the men’s prayer hall.
Nearly 100 women sat in the large room, along with another 10-20 children. Floor space was scarce, so I quickly moved to the right and found a small open square of carpet next to the wall. The sermon (given by the male Imam in the prayer room adjacent to this one) was being amplified through a large set of speakers just a few feet away from me. While the lesson was primarily delivered in English, the Imam did use Arabic words quite freely as well – and between my lack of comprehension of the foreign language and my difficulty to understand the speaker’s thick accent, I didn’t really digest what the topic of the talk even was.
But that wasn’t much of an issue, as the talk only continued for a few minutes after I sat on the floor. As I strained to follow what the Imam was saying, he abruptly stopped – and in the very next moment, the women who had all been half-listening (and half-relaxing) suddenly sprang to their feet. Startled, I also jumped up to standing. In the next second, a woman who was covered from head-to-toe in black began sternly directing the other women to specific spots on the floor – and within one full minute the hundred or so women had formed ten perfect rows, each one just three feet behind the next.
It was like a well choreographed dance – but I didn’t know the moves, so I remained standing, but kept myself off to the side and hopefully out of the way, my back almost flush with the wall.
Another minute later, the Imam’s voice resumed through the loudspeaker, and the mandatory prayer portion of the service began. The rows of women stood, then a minute later everyone folded at the waist and bowed in unison, staying in an inverted “L” shape for about five seconds. Simultaneously, everyone stood upright once again – then about a minute later, everyone dropped to their knees and folded over in a quasi child’s pose, and stayed with their forehead touching the floor for another few seconds. Everyone then sat back on their heels with their knees still on the floor, and remained in this kneeling posture for about two minutes. Then everyone stood, and repeated the sequence again. At the end of the second round of kneeling, everyone remained silent for about 30 seconds – then stood, and ‘broke formation’. Some women started shaking hands with people around them and began to socialize, while others made a beeline for the door to collect their shoes and attempt to beat the crowd downstairs. I assumed this was the end of the service, but waited for about 20 seconds until I saw that a good portion of women had exited the hall. (I wanted to make sure this really was “the end” of the prayer portion of the gathering). Once I was confident the service was over, I exited the room, stuck my feet back into my sneakers, descended the narrow staircase, and left the building out a side door, where I immediately removed the shawl from my head and waited for S to find me in the parking lot.
A few minutes later S did find me, and he immediately wanted to know what I thought about the service. I didn’t have a good answer for him – it all seemed very fast, and kind of confusing, but also rather interesting. After fumbling for a few seconds, S tried a different question, asking, “Well, how did it compare to what you thought it would be like?” Again, I struggled to articulate a response. “S, honestly,” I began, “I didn’t really have any idea what the mosque would be like. So, I mean, I guess, it was just as it ‘should’ have been, I suppose…” My voice trailed off.
Slightly disappointed, S began talking with me about Islamic religion at a less granular level – and it was through this exchange that I learned quite a bit about Muslim faith, and various nuances of Muslim culture from one society to the next. Here’s a very brief summary of some of the more interesting points from our conversation:
- We discussed the items of male and female attire that are “compulsory” (mandatory, required) versus optional. Basically, men have to have their legs covered somewhere below the knee, and women have to have their bodies covered from ankle, wrist, and head in a manner that is ‘modest’ (i.e., a Lycra bodysuit would not be a suitable covering, even if it only exposed a woman’s hands and feet). Yet some individuals choose to take the requirement to be modest in appearance further, opting to wear gloves, veils, very loose robes versus more form-fitting pants, etc.
- We also discussed beauty rituals, and what men and women can and cannot do. In short: a man cannot take any actions that would make himself “beautiful” (i.e., no body piercings, no tattoos, no wearing gold [as this is a metal that women use to adorn themselves]); however, women can take actions to make themselves beautiful. They can wear gold, wear makeup, get their ears pierced, style their hair… the only catch is that they can only make themselves beautiful for their husband. So when out in public, women have to be fully covered and ‘shapeless’, lest they draw attention from another man. Interesting…
- We talked about when a child transitions from getting to opt out of various religious practices (like fasting during Ramadan, engaging in the Friday community prayers, etc.) to being required to participate in them. S explained that when a child “reaches adulthood”, they are then required to follow all of the mandatory rules of Islam. A female child “reaches adulthood” when she has her first menstrual cycle; yet I couldn’t get S to sufficiently explain when a male child “reaches adulthood”. (After completing some research online, I learned that a male child is considered to be an adult when he reaches puberty – which is defined as when he is able to sexually reproduce. Yet I also learned that all Muslim children are considered to be ‘adults’ [in the eyes of Islamic religion, anyway] when they turn 15 years old, regardless of what their physical bodies can or cannot do.)
- We discussed various marriage and divorce customs for Indian Muslims vs. Arabic Muslims vs. African Muslims – and I found the contrasts fascinating. The summary: All Muslim men and women get to choose who they want to marry. Additionally, every Muslim woman gets to name a “price” a man must pay if he wants to marry her. She can demand money, a house, gold, cattle, or whatever else she wants. If the man cannot afford the ‘dowry’ the woman demands, she doesn’t have to marry him. But if he can pay the price she commands, then she does have to marry him. Indian women typically request smaller dowries, because they view marriage as a family support structure designed to last for a lifetime – whereas Arabic women usually request very large dowries, because they view marriage as a vehicle to improve their social status. I asked S if divorce was allowed in Islam, and he responded that it’s as common in Muslim societies as it is in Western ones. I had no idea.
- We talked about the role of parents in Muslim culture – and S explained that according to Islamic beliefs, if a parent is unhappy with their child, then “there is no room in heaven for that person [the child]”. In other words, if you don’t keep your parents happy in this lifetime, they can (and will) condemn you to spend eternity in hell. That’s one reason why so many Indian families are multi-generational: the adult children want to keep their parents happy right up until the moment the parents die. S explained that if one day his parents called him and told him they wanted him to leave the U.S. and return to India immediately, he would have no choice but to quit his job and get on the next plane home. Wow.
- We explored the rigor of certain rituals in Islamic faith, including fasting during Ramadan, where/how to fit the five daily prayers into a modern life, what religious mandates were non-negotiable versus which ones were open to some leeway and personal interpretation….
S and I stood on the street outside the mosque and talked for almost an hour, me asking a variety of questions about Islam, Muslim culture, and the differences between Middle Eastern and Western approaches to life, and S patiently and honestly responding to each of my queries. As our conversation slowly drew to a close, S summarized the distinction between religious beliefs and cultural views this way: “What’s between you and God is very flexible; what’s between you and your society is very rigid.” In other words, God doesn’t care where you pray – but your government might. God doesn’t care how modestly you dress (beyond what is clearly outlined in the Quran) – but your fellow citizens likely do. God doesn’t care that you conform to optional rules and regulations – but the people around you will often go to great lengths to ensure you do so. I’m not sure that S even realized the profound wisdom in his statement – but it’s a truth I have felt all my life. To hear it literally from the mouth of an Indian Muslim man only affirms for me that we humans really aren’t so different from one another, and further solidifies my belief that God wants us all to come together in peace and love – even if our respective societies don’t always agree.