In late September, my colleague, Professor Amir Hussain (a scholar of Islamic religion and a practicing Muslim himself), helped me to make contact with Ahmed H., a board member of the King Fahad Mosque in Culver City, California, as a potential contact who would help arrange a field trip for my students to visit his mosque. Ahmed, a medical doctor by profession, and a recent immigrant from
, met me outside the mosque on a Monday evening. A tall, slender man with a light beard, he was having a brief conversation with fellow worshippers prior to the evening service when I walked up and introduced myself, finally putting a face to the voice that he had spoken to on the phone. He and the other men were very hospitable to me. Ahmed took me inside where I removed my shoes and joined him in an administrative office adjacent to the prayer hall, or musalla. Egypt
We talked for about twenty minutes prior to the Ishaa—the final prayer of the evening, at around 8:15 PM. I followed him into the prayer hall, where I sat on a folding chair in the rear of the laterally very wide room, just inconspicuous enough not to disturb the service. The men gradually gathered in several tightly packed rows at the front of the hall, some coming in very late, but being welcomed by their brethren making room for them as they all stood shoulder to shoulder during the prayer.
After the brief, perhaps fifteen minute prayer service, Ahmed came back to where I was sitting and led me back to the office in which we had talked earlier. We spoke for about another 30 to 40 minutes about my desire to bring a large group of students there to the mosque so they could have a first hand experience of what Islamic worship was like, and to meet Muslim people face to face, hopefully dispelling many myths about them. Ahmed was very eager to help my cause and mentioned that in the short time he had held his office (director of religious education and outreach) at the mosque, he felt that there should be much more of an effort toward interfaith dialogue and outreach activities such as the one I was proposing. My presence there served both our causes. It became apparent to me that we both were deeply committed to helping to educate the public about this frequently misunderstood religion, to helping bridge the gaps between faith communities for the greater good of society, and helping promote tolerance and collaboration. I left with a fairly firm game plan to bring a group of students there in the next few weeks. I also left with a warm, fuzzy feeling about the entire experience. I felt as if I was on the verge of a beautiful new friendship with a community of honorable, Godly, faithful people who had been largely misunderstood and marginalized in this, their newfound land, primarily due to the misdeeds of a few rogue representatives.
After a few emails to finalize the logistics, Ahmed and I agreed to have an organized visit with about 30 of my students on Thursday, October 13th, 2011. I was very excited in anticipation of this event. Some of my students were unable to attend that night, so they made separate arrangements with Ahmed to come separately on a night earlier that week. As it turns out, a total of at least 15 to 20 of my students attended on different nights, every single night that week, so eager were they for the experience that they would be missing that Thursday. And all in all, we had a roster of 53 people who signed up for the Thursday visit. When I first told Ahmed that we would likely be exceeding the original number of 30 which we thought would be a comfortable and efficacious number of attendees, I could tell that it would complicate things a bit further, but Ahmed was eager not to leave anyone out who was willing to make the trip and visit with an open mind. And rightly so. One of my students even asked if she could bring her mother, an open minded woman who wanted to learn a bit more about this religion that was so foreign to her experience. I told her that I would have to check with our hosts, but Ahmed immediately and unhesitatingly approved. He did not want to miss an opportunity to educate and to prove that his was a peaceful and worthy faith.
So on Thursday, October 13th, I arrived at the mosque to find a large group of my students, male and female, waiting on the street out front, near what they erroneously perceived was the main entrance. I gathered them and brought them to the main entrance, adjoining the parking lot in rear of the building. I was so proud of them, open minded enough to attend; I felt as if they were my children or younger siblings as they followed me into what would be a very rewarding and edifying experience for every person in that mosque that night—even the usual worshippers, having had the chance to meet a host of university students who were now their instant allies.
We were led into the building in two separate groups, through separate entrances—one each for males and females—to satisfy certain Islamic traditions about keeping men and women separate during prayer so as to avoid any distraction or impropriety. This, of course, immediately raised some eyebrows among some of my students, many of whom were burgeoning feminists. But they all were willing to cooperate for the good of the experience and they all soon had the opportunity to ask questions about these traditions that were so strange to them. We all gathered again upstairs (men and women alike) in a classroom to initiate a brief orientation prior to witnessing the actual prayer service. Of course, the issue of separation of men and women was at the top of their list of questions. It was explained to us that traditionally, it is thought that men and women are inherently attracted to one another and that having them near each other during prayer could cause distraction during what is supposed to be time devoted entirely to God. And having spent much of my time, when still single, looking at the women nearby me at various religious services I attended, I knew that this to be a valid concern.
Ahmed and one other man, Habib, were our initial guides, orienting us to what we would soon witness and giving us some background for the journey. Shortly after, 8:15 PM was near and we were asked to go to the respective places of prayer, the main ground floor prayer hall for men, and an upstairs balcony overlooking the main hall for the women. As a man, I accompanied my male students downstairs and all sat either on the floor or on folding chairs in the right rear of the large room, opposite where I had witnessed my first Ishaa just a few weeks prior,. These 15 to 20 young men with me were enthralled by what they saw and I was pleased at their good manners and behavior, truly befitting young ambassadors of their university. I perceived that the prayer took about 20 minutes. And when we returned upstairs, many of the worshippers noticed our presence and shook our hands, welcoming us warmly, grateful to have outsiders come and see that they were as normal and trustworthy as the rest of us.
Upstairs in the classroom, the men and women rejoined one another. We were also joined by an additional man, Omar, and at least four young women, all of the latter wearing a hijab, the traditional headscarf donned by many Islamic women.
Each of these women was more outspoken than the next, showing fierce passion and tremendous pride in their religion. None of them were “shrinking violets,” as many westerners have misperceived Islamic women to be. The stereotypes of the oppressed and cloistered Islamic woman were dashed on the rocks by their characters. The men and women alike spoke about what touched and inspired them in their faith. Many of them talked about their lives and why they felt called to be as observant as they are. Some of the women had come from less observant backgrounds. One of the women, though culturally Islamic, had not been brought up as religious and felt the need to proclaim her faith now that she was an adult and a college student. All of them spoke about how “covering,” or wearing the hijab, makes them feel liberated as a woman—much to the surprise of many of my students—in that they are not judged by their sex appeal, but by their minds and for their faithfulness as a woman of God. One of them said, rather bluntly, that she would rather be seen this way than be viewed as a “hot babe”. Her crude honesty was charmingly revealing and refreshing; her point was obvious to us all. One other young woman said that she felt the hijab served her as a constant reminder of her faith; that even when oppressed or mistreated by people, she was always being scrutinized as a representative of her faith; that she must act in an exemplary manner, beyond reproach, an ambassador for her religion. It surprised many of my students to hear that Islam reveres both Jesus and the Virgin Mary as important figures within the faith as a whole, even while bearing certain differences from the traditional Christian view of them. And specifically, the modesty and morality that Mary is believed to embody is what these Muslim women claimed they are trying to emulate in their modest appearance. Many of my students found this to be extremely refreshing and, with many of them coming from Catholic backgrounds, very much something that they could relate to. It struck me as well as my students that every person standing before us, sharing information about their Islamic faith, was extremely passionate and observant. None of them was secular in their practice of religion. And a central theme in their presentations was that Islam urges them to be better people, to live the example set by Muhammad, and demanded by God. This was highly inspiring to all of us, regardless of our particular faith.
The final topic of the evening was the most controversial. Ahmed and I spoke ahead of time about wanting the students to feel comfortable to ask about any topic. He felt, as I do, that it is best to address the most difficult topics head-on. At my encouragement, one of the students asked about the parallel topics of Islam’s views on violence and how it relates to terrorism. In response, every one of the speakers reminded us that the Koran condemns senseless violence, paraphrasing Surah 5:32 in that for anyone who commits a murder, it is as if they had murdered all of humankind; conversely, for anyone who saves a life, it is as if they had saved all of humankind. This is not merely an empty platitude for those who spoke to us; it is a very deeply held belief. The common sentiment among them regarding terrorism was that none of them was a terrorist nor did any of them know any terrorists. They stated that it is just as shocking to them as it is to the rest of us that anyone would conceivably do something as egregious as the acts of 9/11. They asserted that it simply does not represent Islam, but only a small group of misguided people who are hijacking the message of Islam. Habib said something very telling. He reminded us that the issue of suicide bombings and terrorism in the name of Islam is something that the world has only seen in the last half century or so, certainly not something integral to Islamic belief and practice, and that it has more to do with the socio-economic conditions of certain countries than Islam itself. He reminded us that any country with such desperate conditions will produce people of desperate actions.
Even the had its Timothy McVeigh. We have to look at the conditions that these individuals come out of (either the 9/11 attackers, or any other extremist in the U.S. Middle ), viewing their violent tendencies as indicative of their upbringings, not of Islam. He asserted that out of 1.3 billion Muslims in the world, there are very few who are violent; it is the prominence that the media gives them that makes it seem as if it were programmatic of all Islam. East
I left that night feeling much pride in my students for having asked such excellent questions and having been open-minded enough to come. As I thanked Ahmed and his associates, both male and female, I was struck with such utter glee at having met these new friends.
Even though my culture is very different from theirs in many ways, since I come from a very secular Jewish and Christian background, steeped in several generations of residence in America, we are all searching for the same thing—religious freedom. This is the same thing that our Pilgrim forefathers (to use such quaint terms) came here looking for. This is the same thing that many of our ancestors emigrated here for. And all of these new friends share my passion for religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue. Perhaps they stand to benefit from it the most, as people who are highly scrutinized for their beliefs and more than occasionally oppressed. But we all benefit from each other’s well-being. If any one of us is unfree, then none of us is free.
After I left, I thought about the various friends of mine, several of whom hailed from middle America, from conservative Christian backgrounds, who had erroneously stated that they believed all Muslims were trying to kill us (“us” being either Americans or Christians—I’m not sure what), sounding sad and dejected, but resigned to that fact. I could not imagine of any of these, my newfound friends from King Fahad Mosque, desiring to kill me. It was inconceivable. The love that I felt exuding from each of them—for God and for the guests in their presence—was unlike any that I had felt in a long time at any other religious service. It was unconditional, knowing that we are all children of the same God, regardless of how we express it. There was no judgment among them. They made no attempt to convert us or to strong arm us into coming back to worship with them. They knew that we were primarily there to learn, and peacefully so. They knew that by representing themselves well as Muslims, they would be better and more effective ambassadors for their faith than if they had attempted to cajole us into saying the shahadah—the central faith statement of Islam, the pronouncement of which is the decisive step toward conversion.
For the next week and a half, I read the papers that students turned in, covering their first visits to a house of worship. Nearly 75 of my students chose the mosque as their first field experience, and one attended a different mosque as her first assignment.
Every single paper that I received from any of the students who attended the mosque, either that night or one of the other nights on their own, bore the same experience and the same sentiments. They all found the experience incredibly edifying and enlightening. And I fully expected at least one—a statistical likelihood—to have expressed a rare negative experience, still unwilling to let go of prejudices and misperceptions; as they say, “there’s always one!” But not a single one had anything to say but the utmost praise. Each and every one seemed to repeat the same story: that they were shocked to see how kind and “normal” these people were; that they had initially entered the experience with some trepidation and uncertainty of what they would find, but were pleasantly surprised; that they all experienced one prejudice or misconception after another fall away and be shattered by the logical and open explanations given to them by their hosts. I was tremendously proud, once again, of these students of mine. I felt as if I had done my job well and contributed just a little bit to my life’s mission of promoting religious tolerance, interfaith dialogue, and collaboration. These students, coming away from their visit with a newfound respect for an oft-misunderstood religion and culture, would now go out into the rest of the world, one by one, and preach about the kindness of their hosts, about their normalcy and their worthiness of being called friends. One student very tellingly mentioned as we were leaving the mosque, that he was going to have to go home to his conservative (and evidently bigoted) roommate and explain the experience to him. There was as much trepidation in his voice about carrying out this daunting task as had been felt by many of the students prior to coming to the mosque this evening, as expressed in their papers. But just as the latter discovered that the experience was fruitful and enlightening, hopefully this one student’s experience with his roommate would be equally successful. It has dawned on me in my short time on this planet that those who do not know each other often fear each other irrationally, but that once they meet face to face and find a few commonalities, they have all the makings of fast becoming friends. It is this principle that I am counting upon and employing when I bring students to houses of worship such as this mosque. I am attempting to change the hearts and minds of people one at a time. Hopefully, they will each tell one or more people about their experience, helping to dissuade and disarm future bigotry and misconceptions.
In the future, I will continue to bring my students to that mosque, having garnered a new friendship with that community. It was an extremely successful trial run. But this trial run with my students will serve as the inaugural experience to a long-term program. I would like to institute a program by which our Institute arranges field trips attended by not just college students, but people from all walks of life, to this mosque and other houses of worship. A sort of exchange program between different faiths is the key to garnering understanding and trust. Our Institute’s wise and talented secretary had originally helped to inspire this idea, with a suggestion that focused on providing people a first hand experience of other faiths, and a set of educational guidelines about what one should know “before you go,” so as not to insult or injure one’s hosts. I believe that this is an excellent way for us to begin work at our organization’s inceptive phases.
Even more important than reaching out to clergy and theologians, the general public is the most crucial audience that we must reach in our attempt to promote tolerance and dialogue. Bringing goodwill ambassadors face to face with one another, sending delegations of representatives from one organization to another—from churches to mosques, temples to gurdwaras, synagogues to monasteries—is the best way to create lasting friendships.
I hope that this is something that sounds like fun to you, because I cannot wait to do it again!
L. Arik Greenberg, Ph.D.