What do you do when a mass of gun toting citizens, self-anointed guardians of some misbegotten fantasy about the way things should be, gathers outside your place of worship with the explicit intent of being as obnoxious and offensive as our constitution allows? Invite them in.
When this happened at a mosque in Phoenix recently, the president of the congregation, Usama Shami, did just that, inviting people to join them in prayer. Two, both wearing t-shirts bearing profane insults to Islam, accepted the offer. They found the experience of observing devout Muslims in prayer transforming. Removed from the vitriol of the demonstration outside, they were almost surprised to realize that Muslims were people. One reported, “It was something I’ve never seen before,” the other left saying “I promise, the next time you see me, I won’t be wearing this shirt. I won’t wear it again.”
Recently, I had a similar experience observing Muslims in prayer, though, since I entered with less prejudice, it was not as transforming. I had been involved in an interfaith dialog entitled “Rooted in Abraham”, a set of weekly get togethers among Christians, Jews, and Muslims. It was hosted alternately at the (Catholic) Centennial Barn, the Valley Temple, and the Clifton Mosque.
The so-called protest in Phoenix (it might have been just a money making scheme on the part of the organizer) points to the value of having open paths of communication between the faith communities, so that a mutual, coordinated response can be easily organized if it is needed. However, for now, this was just a group of interested people getting together, sharing their experiences, learning from each other.
Of course, this is a self selected group: we who attended were willing to share our experience without insisting that others agree with a particular theological tenet, and were, for the most part, willing to listen and perhaps learn from people with a different point of view. Some were thoroughly grounded in one of the traditions; others were more loosely affiliated with a faith community or frankly seeking guidance for their own spiritual journey. Those more concerned with orthodoxy, whether Jewish, Muslim or Christian, did not choose to participate. For example, Christian evangelists might have thought it a waste of time, because there would not be much opportunity to turn anyone to Christ, and they typically do not think that other religions have much to teach them.
The format of the dialogs is one that has been honed over the years. A topic, such as “Extremism” or “The Role of Women”, was chosen for each session. The evening began with a representative of each faith speaking for about 10 minutes. Then there was a short intermission, with snacks, before we reconvened in groups of six to twelve people. These small discussion groups worked well, except when one person was inspired to speak at length, showing little interest in what anyone else had to say.
The emphasis was on our shared humanity. In such a setting, we tend to see our differences as superficial, less important than perhaps they actually are. The tone was reasoned and cordial rather than passionate or fervent.
For me, the most memorable evening was the one held at the mosque. The topic for the evening was “extremism”. The small group session that I was in was particularly lively. Some in our group were disappointed that it ended so soon, but it was time for evening prayer, the ṣalāt al-maġrib.
We visitors were allowed into the sanctuary behind the men who were gathering for the evening prayer. The women prayed in the balcony upstairs. The men stood in a row, shoulder to shoulder. The prayers were led by an Imam with obvious skill and devotion. At the appropriate times, all bowed together, putting their heads to the floor, in total submission to God. I attempted to follow along in the back, but the movements were too unfamiliar and too distracting for me to achieve any sense of reverence while doing them. However, I did come to an appreciation for the formal daily prayers of Islam.
When they pray in this formal way, they orient themselves to their place in the universe: where they are on the surface of the earth in relation the sun and to Mecca, their point of reference. The time of the prayer is determined not by the clock but by the natural cycle of the day, different at each time of the year and each place on the globe. They pray with their entire body, indeed, with their entire being. Five times each day, they reestablish their connection with the universe and with the greatest good that they know. It is easy to understand the continuing appeal of this tradition in our modern world that so often seems rootless, disorienting, and distracted from those things that we profess to be most important to our lives.
My local meeting, Eastern Hills, has been hosting a monthly interfaith prayer service, jointly sponsored by Greater Anderson Promotes Peace. Our suburban location, far from any mosque or synagog, led to limited participation from some faiths, but a couple of Muslims occasionally attended.
The format of these gatherings is based on the unprogrammed worship in the manner of Friends. For one thing, this is what we know how to do, and for another, we imagined that this is free from dogmatic content. Our idea is to bring people together and ask them to pray for peace, in whatever way they found most meaningful.
Having witnessed Muslims praying formally in their home sanctuary, I think we were right that praying together is a key to a deeper connection with others, but that we were naive in thinking our format was flexible enough to really accommodate people from such a different tradition. We are coordinated by the clock, not the position of the sun in the sky. We are oriented to the center of the room, not to our place on the globe. The arrangements of our chairs interfere with praying with our whole body. One Muslim woman adapted, and offered a prayer, but it was not the same experience that I later saw in the mosque.