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The day dawned gray and chilly, a portent of winter’s proximity. It was also a reminder that we often enter a state of gray chilliness when confronted with folks who do not share our culture, heritage, educational and life experience.
So I bundled myself up in warm clothing as a clean image for me to be warm and welcoming to any “strangers” in my midst this day. Off I went, happy to be able to drive again...with a renewed sense of freedom, though Hubby Dear has been a consistently gracious chauffeur, bearing a book or two to while away the time while I did my errands or went to appointments.
Arriving at the parking area of St. Brendan Church, I joined a group of women from that church, St. James the Fisherman Episcopal Church, and Calabash Presbyterian Church to begin our individual Ramadan experiences, as we traveled to participate in Friday worship service at a Wilmington mosque.
For most of us, this would be a venture, an adventure, into the unknown. We had been reminded to wear long sleeved garments, head scarves, and slacks or long dresses. Additionally, we had been told it would not be a lack in hospitality if the men did not attempt to shake our hands in greeting before the service. Instead, we would be showing reverence regarding their observation of purification. Handshakes would happily occur after the service.
Before entering the mosque, we shared a sacred time with one of the members who had been the contact person for our visit. Pertinent questions were asked and received, courteous responses given with great smiles. Perhaps the most significant bit of information offered was the Islamic belief in the equality of the prophets. I thought Muhammad was the greatest prophet for Muslims, giving a lesser spot for Jesus, John the Baptist, or any of their predecessors among the Hebrew prophets. Our host indicated all were considered equally prophetic and that the Islamic people always pursue equality as expressed in the five pillars of their religion.
Those five pillars, demonstrated in voluntary submission to the will of Allah, are: profession of faith; prayer, five times daily facing Mecca; fasting that binds all in thankful awareness of the Qu’ran and the poor; almsgiving to support the poor; and pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in one’s lifetime if possible. Expressed differently, but equally valid and crucial, the pillars can be found in both Christian and Hebrew religious traditions, as one can discover in the beatitudes and the Torah.
With this readiness, we entered the mosque. We had been advised that men and women would enjoy separate spaces, but I was not prepared for the fact the spaces would not simply be divided by a screen, but would be entirely separate rooms. Men could not view the women; nor women, the men. Only the poignant call to prayer and subsequent physical responses in sacred movement would connect them—and us.
The language of the worship was another hindrance for all who are not conversant with Arabic. Prayers and sermon, alike, were delivered in Arabic. However, in deference to English-speaking guests, Imam Abdullah gave a synopsis of his talk in English, with an African accent. Attentive listening was required and we complied.
Imam Abdullah’s smiles widened as he spoke to us, responding to the many questions that arose when the worship had ended for the day. It would be difficult to “bottom line” his message without doing it a disservice. At the same time, it is not so hard to state his sincere desire for unity among God’s people.
His personal background is one that celebrates diversity, making it easier for him to speak reverently of the many expressions of faith in God. In the Imam’s family there are Catholics, Protestants, Charismatics and some whose faith affiliation is sketchy. As he grew older, he decided he must choose among the many models of religion and faithful living presented by his relatives. He chose Islam and became steeped in its traditions, learning as much as he could within his major field: Islamic studies.
I smiled as I listened to his impassioned affirmation that we are chosen people. As God’s people, his plea was we remember the essence of our call to submit, to surrender to God’s will. There is a discernment process, to be sure.
We cannot know God’s will in its perfection in this life. We can only pray, listen attentively, and know there is no bargaining with God. The Imam reminded us of our scriptural models, especially in Abraham who did not deny God’s presence despite the trials he endured. Abraham believed, trusted and was patient no matter that he and his wife remained childless for so many years.
With a smile, Imam Abdullah continued to say, “Abraham was patient and was given a son. When he was tested by God and was asked to kill the child he had awaited, his steadfastness did not diminish in the face of God’s strange request. He didn’t ask for a different test of faith. He simply submitted to what he knew to be God’s will.” The example spoke volumes and was taken seriously. It underscored the Imam’s proclamation that we cannot serve two masters. We have only one God who is master of us all.
His statements were viewed everywhere in the classrooms that adjoined the worship space. There were posters on the wall that proclaimed, “Think before you speak,” “If you expect respect, be the first to show it,” and “Remember then move forward.”
His hope was that Christians, Jews and Muslims would get together to share peace as they seek justice. His young daughter exhibited that hope as she prayed in the manner of her elders, silently and solemnly, giving her entire attention to the God she called Allah.
Can we not do the same? Can we not pray as we can with the steadfast hope, the profound faith, and the grace-filled love exhibited in the young and not so young, who met as one in the simply sacred space of a Wilmington mosque?
My day had ceased being dismal and gray.