Visiting the Islamic Center in Kansas, A Christian Woman's View
Are We So Different? No.
Not long ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Mosque in Manhattan, Kansas. The purpose of this visit was to observe a typical Friday service. I did not have any preconceived ideas of the service but was curious about the message and the one delivering it. My main curiosity was if the Imam would sound like a preacher in the context of many Christian preachers or if he would sound more like a teacher. My other curiosity was the content of the message and its application. This is because of my interest in religious history. Because I am not sure if the local leader would be called Imam or not or of his exact title, I will refer to him as Imam.
Being a woman, I entered into the side door to the ladies worship room and there, I took off my shoes. I liked taking off my shoes because it symbolically leaves all the world outside the door and this is a practice I use in my own church sanctuary, though others in my church do not.
Once inside, there were two doors, one to the ladies worship room and one to a library, which also appeared to double as an informal health care clinic. This impressed me because of two reasons. The first being that a basic clinic provides the opportunity for the women to get the immediate care they need for their children. Obviously, this is important because, at the least the day I was there, the Mosque consists of many people who are not native to the United States. This means that English skills may not be developed, that they are unable to get health care for their children through traditional doctors and/or the clinic can help women learn to take care of basic needs that do not necessarily require a doctor’s care. Coming from another country that may not have some of the same over the counter drugs that the United States does or the directions being in English, I could see the benefit of the women helping each other. This visit, there was a women helping a mother administer children’s Tylenol. This to me was a wonderful service that was provided. There was a need and it was met. Interesting as well, was the wonderful library in the same room. I assumed that any woman would have access to it, but when I took a small step in and commented on the great library, one of the women met me at the door with a smile and guided me away from the room. This may be because there was something else going on in the room that was private between some of the women. Either way, I was not offended.
The women of the Mosque were very friendly and welcoming when I entered. They were from all over the world. The ladies worship room was sparse with some cassette tapes on the wall and two chairs. One woman offered me a chair, but I was more comfortable on the floor, which seemed to surprise her. There were immediate benefits that I could see having the women and men separate during services. The first was that the children were free to play without disturbing the Imam’s message. The women without children are able to tune out the disruption and that is something that most men do not have experience doing. The freedom to play made the service more enjoyable for the children, who also imitated the women during prayer. I thought this was a wonderful way to train the children by example rather than by insisting they pray. I did note that there were no male children in the room and at one point, a young boy came into the room to get his mother for a minute. So, I assume that the men have some responsibility for taking care of the children during the service as well.
The other thing that I liked about the ladies worship room was that there was a one-way window. The ladies could see the men’s worship room and the Imam speaking but the men could not see the women. As an observer, this gave me the opportunity to really watch what was going on. I am not sure of the exact reason for having a one-way window, but I think it gives women the freedom to worship and pray without worrying about what the men think about them or without them attempting to take care of their particular men’s needs, which is a commonality of women all over the world--that is, being caretakers even when it’s not necessary at the time. If the women didn’t want to pray the whole time, they didn’t have to. If they wanted to pray the whole time, they could. If they wanted to reflect on the message or discuss it, they could. In essence, the privacy of the one-way window allowed for the nourishment of a woman’s relationship with God without her relationship with a man getting in the way. I did see one man briefly trying to look in. As a woman, I could see the comfort that some of these women might feel being able to see the men during the service. Of course, I think the main point is to see the Imam, but there is a certain comfort in seeing that your man is a Godly man when you are not around. One woman explained to me that the women are allowed to go into the men’s worship room with a male family member, but they have to stay behind the men. I do not know the reason for this and didn’t want to seem rude asking. Later I found that it was modesty’s sake. Muslims do a lot of prostrate praying and it is more modest for a woman’s “rear-end” not to be in the face of the man behind her. She also explained that while there are times they might want to do go to the men’s worship room, the women do prefer to be in the women’s room with the other women.
The women were for the most part dressed in traditional formal and pretty ethnic clothing. There were some women who came in jeans and some who had their “western clothes” under their Middle-Eastern dress. All wore a head covering. I met a woman who was introduced to me as a doctor, but I did not get her name. There was no feeling of being subservient to men at all. I did not expect there to be a feeling of women being subservient, but I mention this for the sake of confirmation.
The men’s worship room was as sparsely decorated as the women’s room was. There was no sign that there was any preferential treatment. (As an aside, I did notice that the outside door leading to the women’s room was rusty and not given as much attention as the front of the building. While that is typical to all buildings, it struck me that the door used as the main door for women should be taken care of the same as the front door.) The podium looked exactly like a typical Christian podium, without the Cross décor. The lmam was modestly dressed and had a soft-spoken voice. It was interesting to me that there were a series of clocks showing the time in each part of the world. I wondered to myself of the awesomeness of connecting with others of like mind at the same time. Even though I go to church every Sunday and in my heart know that there are other Christians around the world going to church at the same time, I do not have any visual connection with them, so it is easy to become self-centered during church service. The clocks in the Mosque provided that visual connection and I was amazed to consider that at the same time we were in the Mosque, there were others all over the world doing the same thing. There was a power in this.
I was excited about going to the Mosque but a little nervous. My nervousness did not stem from what or who I might encounter but from not wanting to offend anyone by my actions or questions that the members would consider common knowledge. That is, distinguishing between cultural practice and religious practice, or if there was even a noticeable difference between the two. I also considered whether they would know the difference between the two. My nervousness quickly subsided and I was greeted with warmth from the ladies. One thing that I did think was different than a Christian church service was that in the parking lot, entering and leaving, there were men outside that did not notice or acknowledge that a new person (woman) had come. In a Christian church, the men would have probably said hello and shook my hand. There was one man that caught my eye when I was leaving and I smiled at him because, to me, it would be rude not to. He quickly turned away. On one hand, this lack of acknowledgement was good because it allowed me to feel comfortable and to come and go without worrying about the confrontation of a lot of people asking me why I was there, especially men. On the other hand, this would be hard for me to do on a regular basis because I tend to be more outgoing in unfamiliar territory and I tend to relate better to men when communicating. This always has some potential for misinterpretation, so I enjoyed the lack of acknowledgement. What was interesting as, at least with my limited contact with a Mosque setting, these same men in an outside setting, such as a business, educational or social setting, would talk to me. I think I would need to go to the Mosque a few more times before I could make an accurate analysis.
The service itself was not unlike going to a charismatic Christian church. The singing of hymns was in Arabic, it was subdued and liturgical without instrument, and sounded similar to monks singing. However, during the sermon, people would periodically stand in prayer, bend in submission to God, stand again and sit down. I noticed hands in the air as in charismatic Christian churches and there was no formality to these actions. The Imam referred to the people as brothers and sisters in Islam.
The women explained to me that religious training, at least for girls, begins at age ten. However, one woman started her religious training at age seven because she was excited to learn, and her mother felt she would understand what she was doing. There is no hard rule for the age of training. It is the mother’s decision, but it generally begins at age ten. In the home, many husbands, wives and children pray together. There is the concept of praying in a group of at least three. I am not sure of the reason behind that and wonder if it is a similar concept to the Bible which states “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them. Matt 18:19-20 (NIV)
The message that was given was very interesting, enlightening and empowering. If I understood correctly, it was based on Sura 30 Ar-Rum (the Romans) (Quran). One woman called the speech a taqwa , which means spirit. My thought is that this would be to teach or preach the spirit of the Quran. She explained the purpose of Friday’s service by using the word nafal and used this example: a student can study for a test to pass it or she can study to learn it forever. I thought that was a good example.
While it was difficult for my ears to understand the quick change from Arabic to English to Arabic, I was able to pick up the spirit of the message. The message consisted of three different principals that worked together, those are a) belief in God, b) showing others that believe through actions in love and 3) advising others to do the same. This was a useful life applicable message that was also non-condemning towards its listeners or others.
The Imam began by talking about what belief in God (Allah) is and what it means. The example he used was if you are sick you should believe that God can heal you and you should utilize the means he has given to be healed, i.e., medicine, etc. However, in this belief must come the recognition that the healing is according to God’s Will for your life. This is why some people are healed and some are not. The Imam also told a story of a man who held a stick that became a snake. To be afraid of the snake is human nature, but we should not be afraid of the snake, we should hold it because it will become a stick again. The lesson was to have faith in God because both a stick and a snake can be harmful but they can also be useful, depending on how they are used and the purpose for which God intended. I am not sure if this story is from the Quran or simply an example. He did use examples of various prophets who endured trials and that we all have trials yet we must keep our belief in God. The snake was an example of how we can be tempted to deviate from a straight path, by fear, and that we should deny that temptation. This is a similar Christian teaching.
Next, the Imam spoke of good deeds. At first, I thought that what he meant by good deeds might be to do things in our own righteousness to please God and “get to heaven”, but this is not what he meant. He spoke of humanity being in lust for things of this world and because of that we can be selfish people. However, by performing good deeds, we are continually reminding ourselves not to be selfish. It was unclear what the Imam was quoting when he said “if you love God, you will follow me (God)”. If you love God, there is no option but to follow him and you do this by loving others. This was the proof, the criteria, of following God. It is not through knowledge but through this following by love that counts in life. It should be reflected in our lives, inside and out. There are two extremes, being restrictive and being holy. This too is similar to Christian teaching, except in Christianity there seems to be a striving for learning to act in love to show God’s love to others and in Islam it seems to be non-compromising, i.e., if you love God, you follow him by loving others, period.
Finally, the Imam gave an example of knowing that a neighbor needs milk and providing it for him. This example he called giving alms of good deeds, or Uma . We should do these alms in spite of the obstacles that get in our way and the struggle to do the good deed. We should pray and “put out the darkness of ignorance”. Again, this is similar to Christian teaching. However, I was impressed by the depth of this teaching. The Imam said that you should provide the milk and when the neighbor says he is full, provide more until he absolutely has no more need of the milk, when he is completely filled. Then, and only then are you to partake of the milk. That is, after you have given all that is needed to the one you are helping, then you may meet your own needs. This was a powerful message for me because that really is the call of God and we humans forget that sometimes. It is also important to note that it is one step beyond typical Christian theology.
Overall, I had a wonderful experience at the Mosque and was honestly surprised that the wonderful experience came from the message itself. I guess I did assume that it would be a message that I would not understand on some “spiritual level” not being Muslim. But that was not the case. I am comparing this to my only other real monotheistic experience, which is Christianity. It is the Christian belief that Jesus is the son of God who died for our sins so that we may be forgiven by our father and have eternal life through his grace and mercy. Islam does not have that belief in the deity of either Jesus or Muhammad, but believes in their different roles as prophets of God. Islam does however, stress showing God’s love through our own love in how we behave towards others. This is a belief that true followers of God through Christianity and Islam share. I really think that if we (Christians and Muslims) could realize that together we could create a peaceful environment to work towards helping all of those whose needs could be met in love. What a progressive and effective way to worship and honor God that would be.