We removed our shoes in the entryway of the house-turned-mosque and peered through blinds to see hijab-wearing women praying silently. The door to the main room was shut, and space inside seemed sparse at best. I suddenly felt nervous. If we opened the door, would we be the only Christians in a tiny room filled with bowed Muslims? Just like me, I thought, to lead my friends into total awkwardness.
It had all started when my university’s president put his foot in his mouth—something of a pastime for him. He didn’t mean it, but “End those Muslims” had been the big headline, and in context or out, it weakened the already weak relationship between Christians and Muslims. I had contacted our local mosque to emphasize that Christians love our Muslim neighbors, and to gain a better understanding of Islam for myself. The best way to understand ideas—especially religious ones—is to meet the people who believe in them. I decided that if I wanted to know Islam, I should get to know Muslims.
It had all started when my university’s president put his foot in his mouth
Maqsud, my contact with the local mosque, had been glad to hear from me and promised to set aside seats at a worship service for me and a couple of friends. But he also said to show up at 12:20 P.M., and we arrived at 12:24 (GPSs are horrible at finding house-mosques.) Maqsud was already inside, and we were beginning to realize that visiting a mosque could be a very uncomfortable thing for Christian college students to do.
My friend cracked the door and I ducked my head in, trying to avoid notice. Thankfully no one seemed to see me, and I spotted three open chairs against the back wall. We sat down and watched as devout Muslim men clothed in western attire silently prayed through several cycles of standing, kneeling, and kissing the ground. When a stylish thirty-something stood up to lead the Arabic Call to Prayer, the men knelt down on black diagonal lines drawn on the floor. I mentally traced the direction they faced: through the walls, through Virginia, across the Atlantic, the Sahara, the Red Sea. Salat tuajih Makkah al-Mukarramah. Pray facing Mecca.
A sermon about patience followed the prayer, and I was surprised to hear little distinctly Muslim content in the message. While it drew support from the Quran, its primary focus could have come from a Southern Baptist. I took mental notes of shared beliefs: Patience is a virtue. Check. Living impatiently harms our spiritual and physical lives. Check. We have been commanded to be patient in every part of daily life. Check. Allahu Akbar (Allah is great.) Okay, similarities end here.
We were the only non-Muslims in the room.
Midway through the service I had a strange realization: I’m not remotely uncomfortable. The differences between me and the Muslims around me were great, but I felt welcome in their place of worship. The singular difficulty in my visit had been opening the door. Now my friends and I felt at ease, even though we were the only non-Muslims in the room.
There was one exception to this—only one part of the service made me and my friends uncomfortable: there were no women.
The women in hijabs we’d seen from the entryway window had actually been in another room. A dividing wall separated them from the men—the wall we sat against. Maqsud later explained that men and women could normally worship in the same room, only there wasn’t enough space in this particularly small mosque. Yet even if there had been space, the women would have had to stay in the back, worshiping from behind. Men and women are equal before Allah, but must be kept separate. After all, Maqsud asked, couldn’t it be distracting to have a woman bending over directly in front of you while you worship? Well if it is, I thought, that’s not the woman’s fault. It seemed to me that in Islam, female beauty is viewed as a liability.
I tried not to let this seemingly repressive inclination towards women color my entire experience at the mosque. Clearly the women were freely choosing to worship according to the laws of Islam. Still, it left me with a strange feeling.
After worship, Maqsud invited us to eat with the congregation. Everyone was exceptionally friendly and seemed genuinely happy that we had taken interest in watching them worship. When it was time to go, we put our shoes back on and Maqsud handed me an English translation of the Quran. He told me to treat it respectfully—to wash my hands before handling it and not to set it on the floor. I promised that I would. My friends and I left the mosque and drove back to our college dorm.
The differences between religious camps are not trivial
In my brief experience at a Muslim worship service, the things that stood out to me the most were my similarities—not differences—with the Muslims around me. Much of what Muslims and Christians do on a regular basis, even when they worship, is the same. Yet I would do a disservice to both Islam and Christianity if I blurred the boundaries between them. The differences between religious camps are not trivial; both believe that they are right and that the other is wrong. The pillars of faith that separate Islam and Christianity are vital to each religion, and we should never try to compromise them in the name of unity. They form a wall that separates distinct ideas from each other, and these kinds of walls are good and necessary in a rational world.
Yet I do suggest that when we come to any doors in these walls, we open them. When we see opportunities to meet and learn from each other, we take them. When we hear people expressing their genuine beliefs, we listen to them. Opening doors can be uncomfortable at first, especially if we have grown used to being closed-off to the world around us. But engaging with people of different faiths is absolutely necessary if we are to live full, well-balanced lives. More importantly, it’s a powerful way to show love to a world that dearly needs it.
“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” – Leviticus 19:18