Islam: A Christian Encounter

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Introduction ~ Preparations and Entering the Mosque

Out of the three planned visitations, this was perhaps the one I most looked forward too. I have developed a number of relationships in my community with Muslims and while through conversations I have learned much, this was an opportunity to speak with an Imam and experience a place of worship in their community. Sadly, out of the three, this became rather one of the most disappointing experiences.

I spoke several weeks ago with my barber and friend Mo, who is a Muslim, about visiting a mosque and he was able to get me a phone number to the Islamic school here in Calgary where they have prayer services every Friday between 1 pm and 2 pm. Phoning ahead, I contacted them this past week and arranged to attend their prayer service this past Friday. They were open to me being there and even expressed an invitation to stay and experience a funeral that was planned for after the service but, they seemed apprehensive on the phone and so I questioned them if it was still ok to visit. They confirmed and I prepared to attend.

Arriving at the mosque, it became apparent that their parking lot was rather full and there were not really any accessible spots. As a result, I ended up parking two and a half blocks away at a government building while wheeling there and “j-walking/wheeling” across the street to get to the mosque.

There really weren’t a lot of directions to the ramp and those around didn’t really offer much help but, I was able to soon access the ramp up to the doors and as I entered the foyer, there was an elderly gentleman standing in front of me dressed in a suit. He wasn’t really a tall man and he was obviously Middle Eastern in ethnicity. I don’t think he really expected me and may have been wondering if I was lost as he just stood there looking at me for a moment. Finally he approached me and spoke something in Arabic. “I’m sorry sir,” I explained, “I don’t speak Arabic.” He smiled and nodded saying, “It’s ok, I speak.”

I explained who I was and why I was there and he offered to help me into the prayer hall. With the crowd of shoes around, I asked if I should take my shoes off. He said yes and bent over to help me take them off but, the Imam had come over and interjected while asking me who I was again. I explained and he said not to worry about my shoes and I could just go right in. After saying something in Arabic to the older man again, the gentleman took me into the hall and found me a place along the far south side wall.

Becoming Familiar With the Environment

The hall was really not all that big. It was obviously used as a gym space for the school as you could see a set of facing basketball nets on the north and south sides. Thin prayer rugs had been rolled out over the entire floor space however and with an archway in the center front of the eastern wall and what looked like a pulpit with a banister beside it, this space looked very much like a place of prayer and devotion. On the eastern wall was three Arabic symbols of calligraphy which I could not understand but imagine they are referring to Allah in some form of way. There was also a number of banners around the room depicting more Arabic writing and words which resembled values such as ‘Honesty’, ‘Cooperation’, and others.

There were no chairs and as only men were allowed in this space, the floor was quickly filling in with congregants in age of 6 years old and up. Most sat on the floor while some of the elder group would take up chairs along the wall. Some would just be sitting on the floor with their cell phones while others were praying and bowing their heads to the floor.

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This is when it began to get uncomfortable. While there was probably close to 400 people now filling in the space, a middle eastern man wearing a medical mask over his beard (his mouth was still exposed) came and sat right next too me. He was praying quietly to himself, rocking in the chair next to me while clicking on an electronic device that was wrapped around his finger and resembled an “attendance counter”, all while checking his watch every 5 to 10 minutes and rubbing his chest.

Now I was trying very hard not to profile this gentleman but, with the events that are going on in the world today, Calgary being known as one of the environments in which “home grown terrorists” and ISIS militants have been developed, and the thoughts of this mosque lacking Nathan’s police security, I began to feel rather exposed and uncomfortable. I lowered my head and began to try and breath meditatively while praying for God’s peace and attention to why I was there. Slowly, I was able to put this distraction to the background of my thoughts.

Service Begins and the Imam’s Message

Soon a man stood up at the front and everyone else stood up in rows. The gentleman at the front began to melodically shout in Arabic what I interpreted as a liturgical Islamic prayer. Everyone followed in response and bowed. This continued for a few minutes with the bowing and kneeling to a prone position with their heads to the ground until everyone sat back down and the Imam step up into the pulpit looking stand.

Much of the Imam’s message was in Arabic but he did share a degree of points in English so that I could understand some of it. What I really noticed however was that his tone and shouting made the communication seem more like a rebuke or scolding upon the congregants. I thought to myself that I don’t think this is just a Islamic experience as I compared it to a “fire and brimstone” message within a Christian church. Still, as a new comer, it felt rather uncomfortable while also my fellow seat mate continued his prayers, time checks, chest rubbing, and “number clicking”.

Domes of Worship
Domes of Worship

From the English I gathered that the Imam began by exclaiming we are to not be concerned of the events of the past, but rather see the present as a time to prepare for the future. From there he touched on “not taking what was not ours to take”, nor stealing, and story of an Imam or Islamic leader that was only paid 72 cents a day, and that although “we” might not agree with Shi’ite leadership, we might learn from their position.

Looking about the congregation, there seemed to be a few who had their cell phones out videoing the Imam speaking. I wondered if this was a regular practice or if the Imam’s rather abrasive preaching tone was receiving a congregational reaction and response.

Closing Prayers and Leaving

When he had finished his message, everyone stood again while in rows. There was more melodic prayers that were chanted from the front with the communal response and bows. Then everyone began to file out the western doors. With the crowds, I thought I would wait in the hall and see if anyone might speak with me. Sadly, no one came up to me or seemed interested in talking while I also sensed what seemed like a communal tension “in the air”.

Reflecting on the afternoon and what seemed like an obvious labeling of myself as an “outsider”, I thought it best just to leave at that point. Slowly making my way out the doors, no one really stopped me or spoke to me and I made my way back to my vehicle and left.

Mo and an Uplifting Conversation

After the events of the Friday prayer service at the mosque, I was eager to visit with my Muslim barber and friend. So the next day I stopped by the barber shop and Mo was in. Over the course of the next hour and a half, Mo cut my hair while we conversed over the experience and the questions that I was left with. I’ve known the guys in this shop for some time and over the years they have shared their stories with me from immigrating from Iraq and Lebanon, to there faith and Islamic backgrounds, and the health and family. It was really great to be able to share openly with them as a group of community friends.

Mo admits that he does not attend the mosque frequently and often puts more time towards his family then the mosque. Yet he is wise in the Islamic faith as he shares often with me regarding Quran writing and Islamic beliefs. This day would be perhaps the greatest depth of conversation we’ve had to date in those regards.

We spoke about the Islamic understanding of the Holy Spirit – that Allah/God is one and no other being, particularly created being, can be God. Yet the Holy Spirit is more like an angel that is a servant of God. This left us comparing the similarity to the Jews understanding of Shekhinah.

Touching on the Abrahamic traditions, we spoke about whether he believed Christians and Muslims worshiped the same God. He shared that he felt we do and that as a Muslim he needs to see Allah’s love for all people regardless of their belief. I compared it to the Christian understanding of the imago Dei.

Mo and I chatted for so long that I didn’t even realize the time and Bonnie was messaging me to return as our tribe was coming over that evening to watch the movie ‘Spotlight’ and talk about it. Still, I felt greatly uplifted by Mo’s willingness to talk and he encouraged me to contact the Imam again. I told him about the fact that as a Christian my deepest desire is to reflect the imago Christi and while I’m not sure he recognizes it this way but, perhaps he was reflecting a form of the imago Mohammad and if he was an example, I’d really like to get to know this man named Mohammed more!