Sunday #18 – Muslim Children Education & Civic Center, 5281 Casa Bella, San Antonio, TX
I had strong intentions of visiting a mosque in San Antonio before the Texas heat could squelch my resolve to attend. While a silly idea to most Texas-based Muslims who have learned to dress in loose, all-cotton, draping fabric that breathes, this non-Muslim arrived back in Texas with very few long sleeved, high-necked garments. And, you’d be hard pressed to find one tunic in my entire wardrobe.
However, the recent reported kidnapping of 275 Nigerian schoolgirls by Islamic militants who have threatened to sell them into the sex trade fueled my determination to understand what it is about the Islamic faith, or in this case the twisting of the Islamic faith, that could generate such cruelty in the name of God, or Allah. While I didn’t gather the complete answer (I’m afraid Muslims and Christians still struggle to understand the underlying causes of such horrendous acts in light of the values predominant throughout the Qur’an: righteousness, forgiveness, justice and the value of human life.)
What I learned yesterday from the Muslims I met, is that this display of violence in the name of Islam is not Islam. Comparing the two would be like saying all Christians are the same as Eric Robert Rudolph who was responsible for a series of anti-abortion and anti-gay-motivated bombings that killed people in the late 90s. As with most non-extremist Muslims, Christians know this is not Christianity.
Preparations for a Mosque Visit
When I started this journey I knew that attending services from all of the world’s major religions would be necessary, even though some would be quite foreign to my own worship experience. I’d previously spoken to several Muslim men who shared that men and women worship in different areas, that I would need to cover my head to enter the Mosque and to dress modestly. Yet, I’d not met a Muslim woman to confirm all of this.
Earlier in the week, I received a wonderful gift from God. As I drove into a parking spot at the local library, I saw a Muslim woman walking through the library doors. I silently asked God to provide the opportunity to speak to her and ask a few questions. As I walked through the library entrance, I glanced around searching for this woman, but didn’t see her. I walked to the back, grabbed a DVD, but didn’t see her there. Then, I walked to the rack of CD’s to pick up the next set of Jazz music. Once I had three in hand, I turned to my next daily library stop – the juvenile Spanish book section. There she was! I swallowed my fear and asked if I could ask her a few questions about attending a Mosque. She smiled and said, “yes.”
From there, I learned Nazneen grew up in Columbia, South Carolina, brought to the U.S. at the age of 9 when her father (a surgeon) did his surgical residency in South Carolina. Nazneen spoke perfect English and shared that her father had also exposed she and her brothers to most every religion. They visited places of worship and attended services because they had the opportunities. Nazneen says she is thankful to her parents who never thought this would be a threat to their own beliefs. Nazneen said the questions she had were about the requirements of the faith, not the foundation of her belief. She went to a Buddhist temple, worshipped with Catholics, Methodists, Mormons and so on. She then recommended a Mosque nearby, shared her business card and said if I ever wanted to go, she’d be happy to take me, as she often gave tours to others. So blessed to have met this beautiful woman donned in a headscarf and sporting the most disarming smile, and to realize we were both kindred souls, I took her card, turned and silently pumped my fists to quietly whisper “YES!”
Then it was on to “what do I wear?” and “how in the world do these women wrap these headscarves around their head?” As so many of you know…..all knowledge can be found on YouTube! I search for “how to wrap a Muslim headscarf” and not only learn how, but also the many different ways one can be tied. Also learn that they are called “hijabs.”
With the help of YouTube, I skillfully secure my hijab with pins and I’m off to a service in a Mosque. I did get quite a few stares while driving. Hard to say whether it was the hijab or the Smart Car. Even after five years, I still get people staring at the car and asking me questions, so curious and perplexing stares no longer bother me.
Preconceived Ideas about Islam and Muslims
Going in, I’m not sure if I’ve ever seriously considered my preconceived thoughts about Muslims, though I’m sure we all have developed them through news reports. Here are a few that I quickly came up with:
- Muslim women are covered from head to toe while out and about, though burkas are not the typical attire worn by Muslim women in the U.S.
- From all the reports I’ve heard, Muslim women remain subservient to men. That concept didn’t sit well with my view of how women should be treated. I’m not a feminist, but I certainly believe strongly in the rights of all people and that we are all equal.
- Muslims are devout.
As I pull into the packed CMECC parking lot through iron gates, I immediately notice quite a few cabs. First thought: WOW. Muslims must really be devout if they take cabs to the Friday service. Second thought: <pounding my forehead with the base of my palm> Many cabbies in my experience, are either Hindu or Muslim. Duh! Of course, this is where they would be on a Friday.
I weave through the parking lot to find a space near the back, then see a number of policemen. First thought: Oh, that’s nice. They must be here to direct all the traffic, like they do at Cornerstone Church along 1604. Second thought: <tapping my index finger to the corner of my mouth> Wait a minute! Like Cornerstone Church that stations bodyguards at the base of the pulpit where Jim Hagee preaches, these gun-toting guys in blue are here for protection of Muslims from other Americans! Third thought: Sad world we live in, if that is the case.
As I turn off my car, I grab my purse and notepad, but suddenly see something on the seat of my car that sends a “you-are-such-an-outsider” shiver up my spine, much the same way as when I drove into the Mormon church parking lot and saw that I had left a CocaCola sitting in the cup holder. No, I didn’t have a beer in the car (Muslims don’t drink alcohol). Instead, I see the jazz CD “Body Language” by Benny James sitting on the seat beside me. With horror, I look to see an almost naked woman’s body splayed across the CD cover. Anyone who might pass by my car would immediately know that the person driving this itty bitty car didn’t belong in a Mosque. I quickly swat it to the floorboard, where it lands upside down. PHEWWW!
Since Nazneen is running a few minutes behind, she phones and tells me enter through the women’s door and to take a seat in the back of the room where I’ll find several couches. Thank Allah for Nazneen. I would have been totally lost about what to do. As I enter behind another woman, I notice that she slips off her shoes, so I follow in step. I then see the couches and take a seat. From my vantage point, I can see women sitting on a large rug, one with a baby in her lap, another young boy bobbing up and down and all around. Other women sit in a line of chairs near the front.
The service has already begun when I arrive. As I sit down, I note the disembodied voice over a loud speaker. Terrible, terrible microphone and someone should really sell them a new sound system. Other women stroll in during this time, kick off their shoes, walk to the rug and begin their traditional Muslim prostrations.
As I watch from behind, I immediately think of yoga. On my birthday earlier this week, I made resolved to do a yoga tape every day for the next year, so I could arrive at my 55th birthday with much more flexibility. As I watch these women stand up, sit down, go into “child’s pose” then lean their head to the floor and repeat this several times, I decide that if I were simply to become Muslim, I might not need to do yoga every day. This thought quickly passes, as I listen to the imam’s harsh rhetoric over the loudspeaker. I struggle to make sense of what he is saying. I catch a few words about the “son of Adam,” but for the most part his quick switches between English and Arabic, have my comprehension flipping back and forth like a fish out of water.
Then, Nazneen arrives. Ahh – someone who can make sense of this for me. She walks in with a friend from Pakistan and sits beside me. A few minutes later, she motions for us to follow her. We walk beside the rug and through some doors that lead up several flights of stairs. From atop, she opens a door onto an expanse of ornate carpet and I quickly note a large three-sided glass enclosure.
She motions me to follow and takes me to the middle of the glass enclosure and gestures for me to sit close to the glass. From above, I can finally see the imam, dressed in black with a shear white cape drapped around him. He delivers his message while standing in a small alcove with a round awning jutting out from above. In front of him is a semi-circular table made of granite; behind him is a large office chair. The bearded imam gesters and points to the men below (I can’t see them from this vantage point). Again, I struggle to understand what he is talking about, but I can’t understand anything with all the back and forth between languages. Then, the imam delivers a prayer. I sneak a peak to my left at Nazneen and to the woman sitting to my right. Both have their hands cupped in front of their bodies as if receiving blessings.
After that, Nazneen motions for me to follow her outside onto the balcony so we can talk, while the second half of the service takes place. Outside she does a brain dump of Muslim information on me. She smiles and apologizes for giving me so much information at one time, but I tell her it’s okay and that I’ll absorb as much as I can remember. She shares that women are not supposed to come to the Mosque if they are on their period, because it is considered unclean. Apparently cleanliness is a big deal to the Muslims. A few minutes later she and I tiptoe down some back stairs, past the women on the first floor who are lined up in prayer. We walk outside where she points out where the men wash themselves before attending the Friday service. This is in addition to their showers or baths in the morning at their own home.
Nazneen then shares more Muslim information about cleanliness and its importance, then looses me with details about “intention.” She shares that in the Islamic faith, intention is very important. “God/Allah honors intention and rewards intention,” she explains. “Let’s say I have the intention to call someone who is sick. If I have that intention and for some reason don’t follow through, God/Allah still rewards that,” says Nazneen. “Of course, the deed is always better to do and is rewarded higher, but intention is rewarded, as well.” I had a hard time wrapping my head around that concept, so I let it drop. I realize from my past studies that intention is a powerful concept, but my head is swimming and it isn’t the time to explore it further.
Nazneen wanted me to see everything, so as the men file out, she takes me inside the men’s entrance. We kick off our shoes again and she walks me into the room that I had seen from above. Nazneen is such a strong woman and I ask her about her feelings in having to worship separately from men. She says they pray behind men because men are weaker; they are more easily distracted [by womens presence]. (I know this for a fact, after watching what happened during the recent Easter service from the back of the room. That’s the funny thing that occurred that I didn’t previously share, due to the risqué nature of the incident. Call or email me, if you want the full story in private. It carries some inherent wisdom.)
From this room, I re-learn that Muslims pray five times a day and always face Mecca when they do so. This is to demonstrate unity, which is very important to all Muslims. Apparently though, the prostrations are different lengths throughout the day. Nazneen shared that there are only two prostrations in the morning when Muslims are busy getting ready for work, but four at night, when more time is available.
I learn that Muslims think of God/Allah all day long. She says they wake up thinking of Allah. Before they go to work they think of Allah. They pray five times a day to Allah. They say a small prayer before each meal. Pretty much all day, they think of Allah. Nazneen talks a bit about the holy month of Ramadan and how they fast during the day, all month long – no drink, no food, no sex with your spouse from sun up to sun down. Nazneen tells me that Muslims are very disciplined people and after hearing this, I don’t doubt her word.
We step into a corridor and she shows me where Muslims give back to the community. Within a cut-out in one wall, I see five slits with different names. Nazneen shares that Zakat would be considered the tithe in the Christian church and is the only one required. Unlike Christians who are instructed to tithe 10 percent of their income, Muslims are instructed to pay all their bills and obligations, then it is between the Muslim and God as to what percentage is given, but it should be on a regular basis. During Eid (like our Christmas), a Muslim can’t enter the Mosque, if they have not given their Zakat.
Post Service Commentary
After the service, Nazneen, her friend and I go to a restaurant to chat further and to get the rest of my questions answered.
Me: What is the difference between Islam and Muslim? I seem to use the words interchangeably and I know that’s probably wrong.
Nazneen: Islam means “submission to the will of God.” A Muslim is one who submits to the will of God.
Me: Okay, I get it. Kind of like the difference between Christianity and a Christian.
Me: What is the role that an imam plays in Islam?
Nazneen: The word “imam” means “a leader in prayer.” We pray in a straight line and the imam is like the straight chalk marker to guide us in the Islamic faith. We believe we are all created equal in the eyes of God and only through our good deeds do we attain higher status. The imam is usually more learned and well read in the faith and he leads us in prayer and guides us in honoring God.
Me: If you don’t speak Arabic, how do you understand what the imam is saying?
Nazneen: My native language is Urdu, so I do not speak Arabic. However, many of the Arabic words spoken during the prayers are the same, so I understand some of it. I’d like to take you to another Mosque sometime that is done all in English, so it would make more sense to you.
Me: I’m game.
Me: Are all imam’s like this one with such a harsh delivery?
Nazneen: No, each one is different. You’d find many differences between each imam.
Me: Okay, so some rant and rave their messages like pastor John Hagee or the pastor at Greater Love Missionary Baptist Church that jumped up and down on a chair, while others have a teaching style like David Jeremiah or pastor Bobby Martin from the Church at Creek’s End? Got it!
Then before we left the restaurant, Nazneen handed me a copy of the Qur’an. I was so excited. I have a desire to collect and read all the religious texts available, but I’d not had my hand on a Qur’an. I’m too frugal to go to Barnes and Noble and pay full price, so I’d been looking at Half Price Books. Unfortunately, all the Qur’ans are under lock and key — another sad commentary on our world.
To understand even a portion of what goes on in a Mosque or a Masjid, as Nazneen refers to it, please ask a Muslim to accompany you, if you decide to venture in. I’m so grateful that God gave me the opportunity to meet someone like Nazneen, who could provide some context to what I witnessed and answer many of my questions.
Don’t know anyone that is Muslim? Just ask. God always provides what you need.
Those that know me also know that I rarely get on my soapbox about much of anything, but this is important. As parents, there is no greater responsibility to your nation, your world and to your children and their future, than to teach them respect for other people, including their religious beliefs. Nazneen shared that growing up and going to school in South Carolina was difficult. She was called a “brownie” and other derogatory things just because she looked different.
Nothing pains me more than for parents to allow their children to make fun of other people for their weight, large nose, skinny legs, extra height, skin color, buck teeth, protruding ears, missing arms and legs, social status, economic status, religious beliefs or any number of other things that make us absolutely unique in a larger pool of sameness.
Children pattern our own behavior, that’s how they learn. Children denigrate another person, because they learn to do so from parents, or learn to do so from friends whose parents castigate others.
If you don’t think one remark can shatter a person’s ego, think about this. In the sixth grade, a young man for whom I secretly had a crush, stood with me in the lunch line. He made a rather innocuous comment about my sister, yet one I took to be quite derogatory toward me. I never forgot that comment and it stuck with me in the classes I had later in the day. After school, I carried that comment home with me; I turned it over and over in my mind, thought about it constantly, fusing it to my psyche like SuperGlue to paper. I allowed that comment to affect me for all of my young and most of my adult life, using that comment to confirm what I erroneously thought of myself. Years later, I spoke to that man about the comment (I consider him a good friend to this day). He profusely apologized, but said he didn’t even remember uttering those words.
How is it that one person can unleash a thought so quickly forgotten, while the other person accepts what is verbally given, then carries it for the rest of their life, until one day when finally realizing the comment does not define them? It takes great maturity to realize that you are not what another person thinks of you. Most children do not have that maturity and therefore will carry those little remarks made to and about them throughout their life. Words are powerful. Teach your children and grandchildren to use them wisely and judiciously.
Hate is prevalent from east to west. Until we take personal responsibility for building people up instead of tearing them down, we are destined to create an environment that spawns more violence and horrific acts, like the ones we are now hearing about in Nigeria. I ask that we all pray together for these girls’ safe return and for their captors. who are in dire need of understanding, instruction and much education. <<jumping down off my soapbox>>
Since I had to process so much new information from the Islamic faith, jumping into something equally new like Hindu would probably overload my circuits, so I’m thinking Lutheran, Anglican or Quaker next week. Please feel free to share your thoughts on that below. Or, please feel free to share what you may have been teased about, so we can all know our experiences while different, are still the same. Share your thoughts about bullying, or anything else you feel could help others. That’s what we are hear for.