Unmosquing Islam

(I’m sorry this is long, but press on through — it was a super insightful experience!)
This Saturday some of our Wesley Foundation women’s small group (Katherine, Chelsea, Emily, and I) arranged a day trip to the Greensboro Islamic Center with the agenda to learn more about spiritual discipline and observe the systematic ritual of prayer in the Islamic faith. We also realized in discussion that we did not know as much about the faith as we thought we did, so this was to be a huge learning experience for all of us.

I. Our Endeavor:
Our trip began with a bit of awkwardness as we arrived at the Islamic center around 4:00 to realize that we could not enter the facility to speak to the Imam because we would have to walk through the male side of the building but did not have head scarves. Wanted to avoid any disrespect or conflict, so Katherine called her friend from the area who frequents the mosque when she is home from college. Katherine is close with her friend’s family, and we were informed that the father would meet us at his grocery store, which sells Arabic, African and Indian-Pakistani products. We met him there and explored the contents of the store with wide-eyes, discovering items like orange-blossom water, Turkish delight, and tons of spices we never knew existed. Chelsea and I purchased some couscous, and the father gave us each a free beverage that he had chosen for us – nonalcoholic apple flavored beer.

Very interesting choice, but we were all grateful and eager to try new things. He invited us to a wedding celebration that was to occur at 7, and Emily kind of flipped out with unsuppressed excitement (she’s a sucker for weddings). We returned to the mosque with the reassurance that we would be fine without head scarves because we would be conversing primarily with women.

We removed our shoes at the door and followed some women inside to a small upstairs room with green carpeting, marked off with black electrical taped lines to indicate the location of Mecca for prayer.
Several women and children were in the room, a couple older ones reading the Qur’an while the the children played and the younger women blew up balloons for the later celebration. We sat down with the young women and helped blow up balloons while asking questions about how they came to the Islamic faith. We befriended two high-school aged ladies, Che—– and Su—-. Che—– was raised in the Moravian church and converted to Islam after researching and exploring the religion. Su—- said she was born Muslim, which compelled me to ask the question, “Did you ever question your faith and decide that Islam was right for you?” She said no, she hadn’t questioned it, because her mother advised against doing anything disobedient against Allah. Su—- did not express this as a concern, and I did not press her to answer my question any further.

II. What is Islam?
As Chelsea, Emily, and Katherine conversed with these two, I turned to speak with a knowledgeable elder of the community, Me—, to gain some deeper philosophical insight, and boy did I find some. I started by asking what makes a person Muslim – if it is heavily based on ritual or the state of one’s heart. She said that it begins with the heart, and then leads to the 5 pillars of Islam (which you can look up if you are curious). She said in order to be Muslim, one must believe 2 things:
1. There is one creator over everything, and only one, in the form of God the father. There is no holy spirit or immaculate son (though Jesus is accepted as a prophet), just the father.
2. Muhammad was God’s last prophet.
She explained that in order to get to paradise, or Jannah, one’s good deeds must outweigh one’s bad deeds. In prayer, people go through a cycle of standing, kneeling, and bowing in prostration. When prostrated, your head touches the floor as an act of complete humility. She said that this is the closest anyone can ever get to God, and every time your head touches the floor is a good deed in your favor. She also told me that I should start using the name “Allah” instead of God, because I was beginning to stack up some bad deeds. Oops.
Chelsea asked what the role of the Imam was, and Me— told us that his job was to recite prayer and readings as well as give knowledgeable advice on the Qur’an and Sunnah. The Sunnah is a book of interpretations and instructions revealed by Allah to the last prophet Muhammad. The Imam is chosen as the leader of the mosque based on his knowledge concerning these books.
I asked Me— about her relationship with God and she explained that Allah is an all-powerful, merciful, and loving God. You cannot have a personal relationship with God, but you can pray and worship him using the instructions he has provided. I found it interesting that prayer is never improvised through personal thoughts, but that it is a ritual of reciting verses provided by the holy books, because Allah knows what is best in all things, even in the words that should be prayed to him.
Then I asked Me— a question that even many Christians struggle to find the answer to:

III. “Why do bad things happen to obedient people?”
She said that Allah created people to see who does the best good deed, and that life is a big test to see how you handle different situations. She said everything that ever happens is created and approved by Allah. “If I am given lots of money, it is a test to see what I spend it on – charity or selfish parties. If I am made sick, then it is a test to see if I remain patient and devoted throughout the illness. Everything is a test.” I was intrigued by this answer, and asked her, “If Allah is loving and merciful, why does he do things that cause us pain and grief?” She said that Allah makes bad things happen because he knows that something good with come of it, because he knows what is best. I asked her if this meant she was not allowed to grieve, and she told me that there are certain prayers in the Qur’an that ask Allah to take away her sorrow and to allow her to accept all of Allah’s plans as good and wise.
This made me consider my own Christian perception of why bad things happen to obedient people (You are perfectly fine to disagree, this is just my own personal conclusion). I have struggled with the question in the past, and through the reading of scripture and the insight of several elders in my church, I have come to the conclusion that God is so good, so perfectly holy, so merciful, and so loving, that he must be the exact opposite of pure evil. Evil delights in misfortune, in  pain, in tragedy, in sorrow, in anger, in sin, and in abandonment of God. Surely nothing evil would intentionally be caused by The Almighty loving Father? However, the reality is, bad things happen, not just to obedient or disobedient people, but to all people. Additionally, all people have free will, and all people have sinned. God’s desire for us is that we will love and worship him with all of our hearts, willingly choosing to surrender everything else and deem it as insignificant in comparison the the Lord of all creation. He allowed free will so that humans can make this choice willingly, but in order to have free will, there has to be a capacity for both good and evil. God is the creator of all good things, however, evil exists in the world as an inevitable attachment to free will. One cannot have free will without being able to experience evil things. This may sound hopeless, like we have a God who simply sits back and watch, but that is not the case at all. Though evil things happen, God is loving and merciful, and he does answer prayer. I’ve experienced that firsthand over the course of several years in a powerful testimony that I’ll try to write about some other time. The beauty of Christ’s death and resurrection is that God took the horrendous practice of crucifixion, indented for the torture and death of criminals, and transformed it into a righteously awesome and beautiful gift — the gift of forgiveness and new life. In the same way, God transforms our current situations of hopelessness, anger, and despair into a more beautiful creation than the original. Out of the ashes he brings up new forests, glades, streams, and fresh botany that are even more beautiful than the creation that existed before the fire. God does not cause evil, God defeats evil. Is pain really a concern if it leads to more joy than there was before the pain?

IV. Salvation
Continuing on with my questions, Me— explained that if a  family member dies and was obedient to Allah, she prays to be relieved of her selfish sorrow because her family member is in paradise. I asked her what she prays if a family member was disobedient to Allah, and she said that one could lift up their good deeds in their family member’s name, so that they might be able to have paradise as well. I found this extremely interesting — that the Islamic faith seems so strict on methodical obedience, yet it is still possible for people to completely rebuke Muslim traditions and still end up in paradise if their family member was obedient for them.

Katherine and Chelsea

I know this is long, so I’ll draw it to a close. The rest of the evening was lighter chatting, and we received some absolutely delicious yet somewhat unidentifiable food.

However, what was identifiable was the feeling of a deeply-rooted community. In these religious observances I saw socialization and spiritual discipline as the same thing, which is something I need to learn how to facilitate better in my own life. Meaningful and genuine conversation leads to meaningful and genuine friendships. I believe that proclaiming Christ to be my largest priority is not a proclamation that can be contained within a single sentence, but should be present within all my sentences. Being “spiritual” and reverent is not switching into a mood whenever it is prayer or worship time, but it is a placement of the heart. I need to constantly realign my heart, for it likes to stray.
If you want to hear more or want to have some other genre of conversation, please do!

Emily (center) and I

Also, man, I’m really proud of you for reading this whole thing.