Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Visiting a Mosque

Last spring one of the unusual things Bill and I did was to visit the Newcastle Central Mosque. We were invited to a community event by a lady with whom Bill used to work, Afru. They've stayed in touch on Facebook over the years. 




We had the impression that the Muslim community was trying to reach out to non-Muslim people in order to explain their religion and help people feel more comfortable with them. It was a fairly amazing experience. The Mosque was, to be fair, in the midst of some renovation but my first impression was that there was very little money in that 'congregation' (if that's an appropriate word). There was a variety of carpeting in different colours spread throughout the meandering halls and stairs, but no underlay, just a cover for the concrete floors. There were no luxurious furnishings at least not in the part we saw. 

That said, they fed us a delicious, more than generous meal. The starter of various Asian foods would have sufficed, but then the main course and side dishes and even two kinds of dessert came around. Before that we watched a bunch of men and boys file in and kneel for their evening worship. It was a bit surreal standing at the back of the room with a bunch of rear-ends sticking up, but the man singing the call to worship had a beautiful voice and I remember feeling I was suddenly standing somewhere in Arabia or Persia or somewhere exotic instead of chilly, damp Newcastle. The prayer ritual looked fairly demanding, physically  - lots of up and down and bending in half - though it didn't take very long. It made me think a bit of choreography, watching the unison movements. I wondered if they thought it odd we were watching, but no one seemed self-conscious; in fact it was as though we were invisible to them. Perhaps we were.

The back of the room was filled with large posters, each explaining an aspect of the Muslim faith. I was sure I had taken photos of these to read later on, but apparently not. I wasn't sure about the appropriateness of photos initially, though no one seemed to mind. I have somehow only the one. Perhaps because I was so fascinated by what I was seeing and hearing I didn't actually remember to use my camera more?

After that we went upstairs (taking off our shoes) and were served the meal. Bill's friend sat with us along with her sister and, funny enough, a friend I used to work with - name Faith (you couldn't make that up, could you?) was also there. Faith is a Quaker, an intelligent and intellectually curious woman, which makes her excellent company. It didn't seem very surprising that she would attend something like this, though I did admire her coming on her own.

After the meal we had a 'quiz' which frankly tackled some of the commoner myths and misunderstandings about the Muslim religion. I'm sorry that I'm writing this nine months later and can't remember more details. Faith got the top score on the quiz, I remember. Then we had a 'sermon' of sorts by the Imam, a young-ish man perhaps in his 30s or 40s. He explained about Mohammed the Prophet and about some of the harsher laws coming straight from the Old Testament, about their guidelines for tithing and all sorts of things. Then another man stood up and we were invited to ask questions. Faith asked the question most of us had in mind, to ask about the violence committed in the name of Islam. He said some people perverted the religion to serve their own ends, in much the way some so-called Christians do and have done. It didn't mean that their actions were representative of the Muslim community as a whole. I thought it was as reasonable an answer as any. 

I had the impression that they would let me join the Muslim faith if I wanted, but that wasn't their primary purpose for that evening. It was more about showing people who they were. Everyone I encountered was incredibly soft spoken and kind. Afru was very upbeat and fun while her sister was a bit more serious. I remember admiring the scarf the sister wore covering her hair; it was a beautiful, lush fabric. Bill pointed out to me that Afru had divorced her husband and had not been chastised by her religious community. She is a professional woman raising her two children on her own now, very much a part of the modern world.

When we left we were given gift bags containing a scented candle, some pamphlets and a copy of the Quran. I had good intentions at the time, but came to realise I was never actually going to read it. The last time I saw Faith, however, she had and reported that it did indeed have a lot in common with the Old Testament. Bill often points out the parallels between some evangelical Christian ideas and those of extremist Muslims and I can't disagree.

We were both very glad we went, even though it started out a bit uncomfortably - I was just nervous is all. Bill wanted to support his friend and I felt it was one of those things that didn't come along that often and that I would regret not going if I didn't.  If you are ever invited to visit a Mosque I would recommend you go. Take an open mind (like I take to any religious venue) and listen to their take on things. I think you might learn something interesting.

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