Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Adventures in Islam, Part I

For my Anthropology class, I looked into the practice of Islam in my community. I found it very interesting to understand more about another religion, especially one with whom my faith shares such a complex and emotionally charged past. I thought that I would share this here for any of you who are interested in reading it, and as it is part of a rather significant research paper, I'll cull the more interesting parts, and share them in shorter (though likely still fairly long) segments here. Here is part one: my visit to the mosque.

One of the most fascinating facets of the community of Islamic believers in [my city] is its ethnic diversity. In the scope of my interviews, I interviewed Muslims from South Africa, Pakistan, Kosovo, a young man born in India who was raised in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, and one from Saudi Arabia, and I was told that the mosque was also spiritual center to individuals from Malaysia, Egypt and Libya. The Muslim community in [my city], as I saw it, appears to be made up entirely of immigrants from all over the world, each with their own unique story and perspective on life and Islam.

When I first inquired if anyone from the Islamic community was available to speak with me, via the electronic mail address on the [redacted] mosque website, I was invited to attend one of their evening prayer services. I was at first startled at the late hour I was told to arrive, nine o'clock in the evening. I later learned that the hour was due to the prescribed times for prayer, based on the Islamic lunar calendar and the rising and setting of the sun. When I arrived at the house that is currently serving as the mosque, no one immediately answered my knock. I stood on the verandah worrying if perhaps I had gone to the wrong house. Eventually a few other cars pulled up, but none of the young men who approached spoke to me, though one wished me Salaam, and none invited me in, nor would they meet my eyes. At the time, I did not know the reason for this. After a few minutes, one of the men let Faisal, the man who had responded to my e-mail inquiry and invited me to the service, know that I was there. I was welcomed in and instructed where I could and could not wear my shoes; I had already asked in my e-mail if I should wear a head covering, and was told that yes, that would be appreciated although not strictly necessary. I was shown the women's area of the mosque, but as there were no other women present, I was invited to observe the prayer service from the back of the men's prayer room in the basement. An 8-year-old boy held the heavy fire door for me as I entered, and I was given a plastic deck chair to sit on.

The men gathered near the front of the room, sitting or kneeling along diagonal lines delineated by alternating colours of carpet. I later learned that this was arranged to point towards Mecca, as Muslims traditionally do when they pray. In the front corner of the prayer hall, there was a small arched alcove, which contained a rug on the left and what appeared to be an altar of some sort on the right. After a few moments, from the back of the room Faisal began the call to prayer, opening with the only words I understood for much of the evening: “Allahu Akbar”. I observed the men, noting that most were young, under 40, other than one older gentleman and the aforementioned young boy. I smiled as I watched the boy squirm and struggle a little to focus his attention, as would any child in such a solemn adult context. As the prayers were said, the men rotated between sitting, kneeling and standing in the traditional prayer positions. Faisal and another man, whom I was informed is a [local university] professor who serves as imam, or leader of the mosque, when he is available alternated in leading prayers. Some of the men wore head coverings, some did not, but all had removed their footwear – other than the older man who wore some sort of white slippers or booties that were obviously not his street shoes. Their pant legs were rolled up a few inches so that their hems did not touch the ground. In the midst of a pause in the prayer, someone's cel phone rang. Once more, I smile to myself, because this is a common occurrence in my Christian church as well: everyone aims to be respectful and turn off their cel phones during a time where Allah or God is meant to be the primary focus, but in the modern age of constant digital accessibility, sometimes the “mute” button is forgotten. Many of the men, slightly nervously, checked the screens of their own phones to ensure that they had remembered to turn their phones to silent mode.

Continuing their prayers, the imam moved to the rug in the alcove and all the men to the front “row” of the diagonal carpet lines. Once more, they prayed, this time in a responsive format where the imam would say a line or two and the men would answer. They stood, kneeled, bent at the waist, all in accordance with the prayers they were saying at the time. Then they sat, and a young man in his 20s stood and removed a volume from the bookshelf on the front wall of the room. He opened it and read the same passage several times, in both English and Arabic. The men then returned to their original positions throughout the room, and after a few minutes gathered again at the front, this time sitting in a circle for some visiting time, a casual “male circle” – a slightly more formal version of which the mosque runs on Saturday nights after the last prayer. The “female circle” occurs on Mondays. I was told that more women attend the Friday services with their families. When the women are present, they pray in their own room, upstairs, and the prayers are relayed to them by a speaker system from downstairs. As several of the men continued to visit at the front of the room, I began my first interview.

Stay tuned for part two :) I interviewed a young father, a doctor from South Africa.


Tirzah said...

This is surprisingly interesting to me...I was sure it was going to bore me to the point of tears considering that I know nothing of Islamic importance but this is good stuff Heather! =) I can't wait for Part II!

Anonymous said...

i actually really did enjoy reading this keep writing the way you are and you'll impress plenty

Anonymous said...

i really appreciate your efforts and like the way you talk about Islam.being a Muslim a don't expect a non-muslim to be pessimistic towards Islam unless he knows about it. I will love to read it's second part.