Sunday, August 29, 2010

Fasting and Feasting During Ramadan

I promised to say a word about my visit to a local mosque. The month of Ramadan is a sacred month to Muslims. The days are spent fasting. They abstain from water and food from dawn until dusk and then they break the fast each day with a meal, iftar, after evening prayers are said. The local Muslim community has for years used this time to invite those outside their faith to come and share a meal and learn about Islam. There were about twelve or fifteen of us guests the night I attended. Our group included Baptists and Presbyterians who were there to listen and learn. We were welcomed by our Islamic hosts and given some time for a slide presentation and question & answer time prior to evening prayer.

Not All Are Arab

I should hasten to say, especially since my last blog post referred to my learning more about Arabs, that “Muslim” does not equal “Arab.” This fact was emphasized during the presentation were heard at the mosque. The gentleman leading the discussion told us that he grew up Muslim in a non-Arab country. The most populous Islamic country, we learned, is Indonesia. Of course, there are large Muslim populations throughout Africa and Asia as well as Europe. Islam is a world religion and an international faith. Actually, Arab Muslims constitute only 20 percent of the Muslim population worldwide. Because Arabic is the language of their sacred text, the Quran, faithful Muslims will study the language in order to understand the words as they are heard in public. A faithful Muslim, we were told, must know enough Arabic to say the basic prayers offered in worship.

Sharia, Women and Islam

Because there has been some public fear and recent news items regarding sharia law, there were many questions regarding sharia. Our hosts tried to explain to us a few aspects of sharia, emphasizing that while there are practices and customs for faithful Muslims which are prescribed by Islamic law (e.g. no consumption of pork or alcohol, no gambling, and no charging or payment of interest in monetary matters); it is also the duty of faithful Muslims to abide by the laws of whatever country they live in. It was obvious that our Muslim hosts wish to live peaceably among us and to promote an understanding of who they are. They are distressed by the fringe elements who commit terrorist acts and even do things that are against Islamic law (such as killing innocent people) in the name of Islam.

There were some Muslim women there, at least one of whom was an American convert, who shared with us about the role of women. We learned that Muslims do not date, that marriages are arranged, with the woman having final say. The women speaking told us that they had more security with this marriage arrangement because if there is a problem, there is the larger extended family to intervene. Also, if there is a marriage prospect in a man, brothers and uncles of the woman will do all they can to know what that man’s true character is before any plans are made. The women sharing with us also stated that the traditional Muslim dress was liberating to them. They do not have to worry about conforming to the highly fashion-conscious and sexualized images that are so predominant in Western culture, but were instead free to be themselves. Moreover, they don’t have to worry about a “bad hair day” with their traditional head coverings.

The Worship Space

During Ramadan, Muslims will first break their fast with water and dates. We were offered some dates prior to entering the mosque for prayer. Men and women enter from different doors and are separated by a screened partition during worship. When I attended iftar last year, it was at the Islamic Center which is a multi-use facility that includes a prayer room. This year, we were at a mosque located on the other side of town. The building had been a Christian church at one time and had been remodeled to accommodate Muslim worship. The most obvious difference in the layout is that there are no pews. The sanctuary is a large, carpeted space where people gather to say prayers. I almost forgot to mention the other most obvious difference between a mosque and a church is that shoes are removed prior to entering the sanctuary. There are shelves at the doorway on which every person entering may place shoes before proceeding to prayer. Of course, any Christian or Jew who has heard the story of Moses and the burning bush would readily understand the significance of taking off shoes.

The other difference in the worship space we encountered at the mosque is that it is oriented to ensure the facing of Mecca during prayer. There are lines within the carpet that allow worshipers to align themselves so that they are geographically facing Mecca. In the back of the sanctuary were some folding chairs where we non-Muslim observers could sit while prayers were offered. We observed five brief cycles of prayer. The prayers were in Arabic, and there were three basic postures taken by the Muslims at various points in the prayer: standing, kneeling, and prostrating. The prayer leader was located in an alcove at the front and center of the room. The marble alcove had an archway with Arabic writing in a very clean, aesthetic script.

A Surprising Connection

After the prayers had ended, our host gave us a tour of the sanctuary and explained the elements of the room. I was astounded by his explanation of the alcove in front from which the prayers were led. It is called a Mihrab, or prayer niche. The Mihrab, which is located in many mosques, is in honor of Mary, the mother of Jesus! The words in Arabic over the Mihrab were from the Quran. An English translation of the text reads:

"Every time that he entered (her) Mihrab to see her, he found her supplied with sustenance. He said, 'O Mary! Whence (comes) this to you?' She said, 'From God. For God provides sustenance to whom He pleases without measure.'" (Qur'an 3:37).

The text refers to Zacharias, a priest in the temple at Jerusalem who was assigned to care for Mary, according to Islamic legend. He would enter the temple and find Mary in her prayer niche, and she was sustained by God.

Islam, as you may know, does not allow images, but displaying sacred texts is allowed. As I stood there in the mosque, hearing our host explain the Mihrab while looking upon that beautiful white marble structure with Arabic writing, I was amazed. There are two churches where I ordinarily pray. One is a Roman Catholic Church. There is a large Hispanic population there, and in one part of the sanctuary is a beautiful statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Also within the church is a more European version of Mary in a simple wooden statue. The other church is Episcopalian which holds to an Anglo-catholic tradition. At the front of the sanctuary is the Lady Chapel. What I like about this church is that the chapel door remains open during the worship service allowing full view of a beautiful statue of Mary in her more “English” representation. How remarkable that Mary became a common bond as I stood there in the mosque! It was as though in my head I was seeing Rome, London, Mexico City, and now Mecca all coming into alignment in honor of Mary.

I have no illusions of any kind of “one world religion” where everyone sings “Kumbaya” and goes happily on their way (nor do I think that would even be desirable). For me, though, that night, the sudden visualization of Mary within the context of prayer and worship was something to celebrate. If you read my essay from my Ramadan experience last year, you will know that the commonality I felt then was that my host and I were both former Baptists. As I said then, you celebrate whatever commonality you can find while respecting and honoring the differences.

Let's Eat!

As we left the sanctuary, we were escorted back to where our meal awaited. The feast spread out on the table before us included meatballs in tomato sauce, manicotti, garlic bread and tossed salad. I had been expecting something in a curry, or a Mediterranean cuisine. "What is this, Italian Night?" I asked. Our host who had been leading our discussion prior to the prayers said, "Yes! My wife is Italian and she prepared this for us!"


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