Saturday, March 24, 2012

Visit to a Mosque - A Student's Perspective

Last semester, one of my students was kind enough to grant permission for me to share one of her reaction papers here.  It was on the occasion of her visit to a mosque in Orange County, California.  So without further ado, I will post the paper in its entirety, unedited, with many thanks to Erica C., the author.  I shall be posting other such papers in the near future.

Dr. Arik

Erica C.

Theology 180


Experiencing Islam

            Throughout my entire experience and reflection after, I realized the vast amount of information that I was unaware of and how misperceived Islam truly is. I am very glad that I was able to attend this service and grow closer with my long time friend who I was fortunate enough to attend the service with. Very proudly, I can now say that I am enlightened and have cultured myself to another religion and am eager to continue to do so with other religions.

            My best friend is Muslim and was more than willing to invite me with her to attend a Friday prayer service held near UC Irvine. Since the service was held at around 1:00PM, we were only able to attend the service in between her classes. The service I attended is called the Jumu’ah which is a group prayer and a sermon. Due to the location, the service was mainly held for local students and the Islamic mosque was relatively small with one general area that lead into a large empty room designated for prayer. The room had no pictures or sculptures and the floor space was filled with prayer mats that were faced toward the front where there was a small podium all facing in the direction of Mecca, the Islamic holy land. Before Jumu’ah began, everyone had to cleanse themselves by washing their feet, hands, and neck. Taking their place on the mats, I noticed that men were lined up in the front and women were aligned behind them. The few children that attended were usually at their mother’s side or on the ends of the rows.  The service began with a muzim, the prayer leader, leading adhan, a call to prayer and statement of faith.  Then, individual prayers done and another adhan is recited before the Jumu’ah actually began. The khatib is the designated man who gives the sermon which was given in a mixture of Arabic and English to cater the variety of the people present.  After the sermon, the khatib says the dua, a connection to God, and then the khatib, acting as the iqama, continued to lead the group prayer consisting of two rakahs. Prior to the service, I asked my friend the specific names given for the prayers and the order, so I could follow along with the service and therefore have more insight while conducting my observation.

            After the service, I was able to meet Yasmine, who served as my guide and was in charge of maintenance for the mosque. She was able to provide more information about the purpose behind this particular service and why it was conducted in such manner. During the chaotic cleansing process, I wondered why it was necessary to wash right before prayer instead of at home. I learned that the cleansing process was very important because, like the introductory prayers which served to clean the mind, washing served to cleanse the body physically.  In Islam, worshipers address their deity through prayer and they believe that they connect with God. Therefore, they need to be clean in all aspects before inviting God into them. I now realize that the physically cleansing is just as important as mentally cleansing because of the tangible finality it provides. One of the first things I noticed was the lack of decorative wall fixtures or shrines. Jasmine explained that the plainness was done purposely because in Islam, God is not meant to be pictures and they do not want to seem as if they are worshiping a portrayed image.  

Curiosity also led me to question the purpose of the prayers before the Jumu’ah and Jasmine explained that it was to center everyone’s minds and reclaim themselves for God before beginning the Jumu’ah. This was very comparable to the reciting the Mystery of Faith that I practice as a catholic which serves the same exact same purpose—reclaiming oneself for God.             During the service, I noticed that the khatib said the sermon at the podium, but to lead the prayers he joined the people. The khatib serves as a sort of interpreter of God’s word, but is not to be put at a higher level and therefore he prays on the ground next to the fellow worshipers. I found this to be very assuring because it creates a visual sense of unity in prayer that is not as clearly found in my catholic religion. The arrangement of men in the front and women behind them struck me as odd because it seemed to establish hierarchy with men above women. However, I quickly learned that this arrangement was not meant to show power, but to show respect to the women. Since the prayers involved a series of kneeling and standing, women were placed behind men, so men would not be disrespectful by staring at the women and women were not put in a position of disrespecting their bodies.  Due to this arrangement, the space was more longitude based and had a vertical gradation of the people. Reinforcing the sense of unity, this gradation was not meant in any way to show power and there is no “front” meaning that every single person is praying equally and being at the “front” does not make your prayer stronger or more meaningful than a person’s prayer in the “back”.

            Thanks to in-class discussions and my friendship, I always had a sense of what was visually done in a prayer service, but it was not until now that I learned the associated meaning. I had many presumptions and questions about the gender hierarch that seemed to be shown because initially I thought the row organization was to show that men were closer to God.  From these assumptions, I was influenced to believe that only women are made to show modesty and I assumed this meant that only women needed purification and restrictions. However, I was blatantly wrong. Men show modesty through more internal control and through their respect of women and women demonstrate their modesty more visually through clothes and hijabs. The relationship between men and women was perhaps the greatest thing I have learned from this experience and I feel very ignorant not knowing beforehand.  

            Another main lesson that I took away from this experience was the strong similarity between my personal catholic faith and the Islamic faith that I was fortunate enough to experience. Again, due to my friendship, I always just assumed that Islam was an older faith because of the very traditional and conservative aspects that I had heard about or witnessed. However, in class and throughout the service, I realized many similarities between Islam and Christianity. The most obvious similarity was the sermon given by khatib and the homily given by the priest. The sermon’s purpose is to teach a lesson for that particular prayer service and from what I was told there is no set topic for each sermon. Since there was primarily youth worshipers, the khatib made the sermon very relatable by taking a story from his personal life and current events and putting it into a religious perspective.  The main difference is a homily usually relates the designated readings to everyday life and in the sermon the topic is more freely chosen, but the purpose of the two is to relate something back to a faith in God. The message that was said in the sermon was something that I could have easily heard about in a homily at mass. It is a shame that the media has led to a large misunderstanding of Islam when in reality it is very similar to widely accepted faiths.

            After the service was done, it was very mind stimulating to discuss with my friend the similarities that I saw and how there are the same basic intentions with our faith.  I am now enlightened to the fact that Islam is not what the media portrays it to be and want to share this insight with others.

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