Thus began the letter that was slipped through our mail slot a few weeks ago. It went on to assure us that great effort would be taken to keep parking on our street from being intrusive, and made one point particularly clear: "The neighbour holds a special status in Islam." I was fairly impressed. But what sent me for a tailspin was the fact that the letter closed with an open invitation to join them for the nightly dinners that followed the Maghrib prayers (after sunset)--their only meal during Ramadan.
I've never lived near a mosque, and I've never known a Muslim. I have always tried to think past the stereotypes and caricatures (worsened by terrorism), but must admit those are mostly all I've ever really known of Islam apart from the occasional positive movie portrayal. Now my sons have some good friends at school who are Muslim and I walk past a mosque at least twice a day on my way to school (where I study the Christian doctrine of reconciliation). So I knew I pretty much had to take them up on this invitation.
Ramadan came and went pretty fast, and before I knew it I had one day left to follow through. An elder and friend from my church was up for it, and so together we went.
During the day the thing I worried about most was how we would enter. I was nervous. Much of that was the usual nerves, of course. A month or so I went alone to a church I'd never been to before for their evening service, and I kind of dreaded walking up to and into the place. I don't know, maybe I'm weird that way. I don't like feeling out of place and having people notice. Much of my anxiety on this occasion was of that variety, except with the addition of a whole lot of mystery, that's all. I can pretty much guess what I'm going to come across in a church. Despite the open invitation, I had no idea what the people in this Mosque would think of me, let alone what would be expected.
Add to that the shenanigans going on in North America right now. I personally felt that the uproar over Christians burning Korans and the controversy over the Mosque near ground zero had no bearing on my visit to the Mosque on this occasion. I was going because I was invited and I was curious and because I wanted to show respect and neighbourliness. But I wouldn't have blamed people for raising their eyebrows at me when I walked in, or for wanting to inquire of my feelings on such matters over dinner.
Upon arrival, my friend and I stood outside the door, wondering how to proceed. We decided we'd wait for someone to walk up and we'd ask them if it was okay if we came in as observers for the prayer and then took part in the meal. Just then a van pulled up and a half dozen guys jumped out. They began bringing in food and asked us to help. I tried to introduce myself and make my queries about our presence inside, but the guy I was talking to was handing me something to carry and was all smiles--as if my questions were unnecessary. Moments later we our shoes were off and we were inside.
Cross-legged on the carpet, I watched for awhile as men shuffled in and found a place. There was the setting up of little plates of food on the floor, and at sunset they gathered in small groups and, beginning with dates and moving on to fruit and some battered vegetables, they broke their fast. We were signalled by the nearest group to join them, and though I had not been fasting, I had the first date I'd ever tasted in my life, and enjoyed a few slices of food with them. I felt like it was gracious of them to share this food with us. They seemed hungry. I had just eaten supper.
During all this time we had been greeted by smiles and handshakes by a few, and the rest went about their business seemingly undisturbed. I caught a few wondering glances in my direction, but no more than when I walked into that new church the other night. I felt pretty at ease. Mostly I was just concerned with how they would perceive my non-participation in the actual prayers.
The room was full. In English the Imam instructed them to stand without any spaces between them, and then in what I assume was Arabic he proceeded to lead the prayers. It all lasted about 15 minutes. A couple guys came in during the prayers and joined the back row. At that point I kind of felt in the way, sitting on the floor, but it all worked out. Near us a young child sat playing with what appeared to be her (his?) grandfather, eyes twinkling. There were a few older boys around at the beginning but I can't recall if they took part in the prayers. I never saw any women.
When the prayers were over we stood up and wondered about leaving. I wasn't sure if the food we had already eaten was the meal or not. As the men mingled about, however, we were invited with friendly persistence to come downstairs to eat dinner.
Downstairs we sat in four long rows on the floor and had plates passed to us that were stacked with food. If I hadn't regretted eating before, I sure did now. I had read that they try not to leave leftovers, so I was determined to finish my plate. Another man walked in at this point who was obviously a visitor. He sat in the corner where we were, and as it turned out he had lived right next door for forty years and had never been inside since it had been changed from a bank to a mosque. He couldn't finish his plate of spicy curry, and they prodded him to do so much the way my Grandmother prods me to take seconds and thirds of her roast beef. I couldn't tell whether they were offended or not. Didn't seem like it.
There was pleasant conversation. I always hate these conversations, no matter where I am. I just find introductions and pleasantries inherently awkward. Nonetheless, we found out that we were sitting with a man from Malaysia who operated underwater equipment for an off-shore oil rig, a man from India who had lived in Aberdeen for decades, and a Palestinian nurse who had come to Aberdeen from Jordan to get his PhD and had stayed to work in the hospital.
When I was asked what brought me to Aberdeen I of course explained that I am studying forgiveness in the theology department of the school of divinity. The one man who asked sort of smirked at that, as if he had now figured out why were there, but I have no idea what he thought, and he had a kind of smirk on his face the whole time anyway. He wasn't unfriendly though, heck, our presence was a bit unusual. He was sure to invite us to the celebrations going on the next day at the park, explaining that it was like "their Christmas".
I had decided I wasn't going to do anything that could be taken as debate, so I didn't ask any of the thousands of questions that were running through my head. At one point, however, the Indian man was telling us about when some Jehovah's Witnesses came to his door, and he said he asked them if they knew that Jesus is a prophet in Islam too, and when they said no he told them to go study it for awhile before they came back to talk to him. He was laughing and smiling much the way I could imagine him laughing and smiling to them. I laughed too. I guess Christians and Muslims have this in common: They like to tell stories about the JWs coming to their door.
During the meal we were singled out and greeted warmly by the Imam. He seemed intelligent and friendly, and invited us to return any time. I would like to talk to him again. When everyone had eaten, the room cleared pretty quickly. Our corner was the last to get up to leave. I offered to help clean up, but they would have none of it. So, we said a few thank-yous and were on our way.
I have to confess that I was a bit taken aback at how natural everything felt. I did not feel any more out of place than if I were the only Christian having coffee with a group of atheists. I actually didn't feel as uncomfortable as I have felt during Christian sermons and altar calls in the past. Granted, if I were to return and try to continue fellowship with these Muslim men I know we would have much to discuss, but I now feel this a possibility, and so I am very glad I went. I definitely think that Christian responses to Islam in the West which are governed by fear are not helping one bit, besides not being particularly Christian to begin with. We are thinking of inviting their Imam to visit our church sometime.
These are merely my impressions. I have not been consciously doing any comparative religion here. Certainly, there were some things I found unsettling, such as the absence of women or children. There were also things I found attractive about their religious practices--especially meeting for prescribed prayer that involved physical activity with a group of other people more than once a day. But I was not there to evaluate; mostly just to be a neighbour and to listen.
I will mention one thing in closing, however. I had been thinking during the Maghrib about whether or how it is that a Muslim imagines prayers are mediated to God. So when I was back in my own church on Sunday morning I must say that I was struck by the opening song in which we sang together: "In Christ alone, who took on flesh, fulness of God in helpless babe!" I know there would be plenty of discussion to be had between a Muslim and I about the believability or the necessity for this, but it remains for me the most compelling and central thing about Christianity. It is also a profound motive for neighbourliness.