…is a mosque.
A friend from my Episcopal parish (local church) shared an event on Facebook about Atlanta Visit a Mosque Day. We went to one of sixteen mosques that advertised open house on Saturday, January 23, 2016. Al-Farooq Masjid of Atlanta is a large, beautiful, well-funded building built in 1990. From 1980-1990, the community worshiped in a smaller nearby location.[i]
I had heard Muslims talk about the multicultural, transcultural nature of Islam. I knew that Islam is practiced on every continent and has been for centuries. Still, I was taken off-guard by the ease with which the members of African, Asian, Arab, Indian, Turkish, and European descent treated one another with warmth and respect. In Christian churches, even within the same denomination, 1) you do not find ethnic and cultural diversity like that, and 2) if you did, you would not find ease among people with different heritages.
When Alix, Irene, and I entered, a man greeted us and directed us to the shoe storage cubbies. Scarves were laid out for women who did not bring one. I knew very little about what to expect, but I did think to wear a long skirt that would allow me to sit on the floor, long sleeves (it was cold anyway), slip-on shoes and a neck scarf that could be tossed on my head if that was the right thing to do.
I thought we would be directed to a women’s area, but for this event everyone was invited to the main floor. The imam gave a short talk about the seven articles of faith (things to affirm, such as the oneness of Allah and the surety of a Final Judgment) and the five pillars (things to do, such as pray and give alms). He described the Friday services and pointed out key architectural features. From where I sat, I saw about 150 visitors filling about a third of the space. Among visitors, men with yarmulkes accompanied women whose head scarves did not slip off. Mine slipped off. I wasn’t the only woman who didn’t have the hang of the scarf thing.[ii] One woman, clearly a member who had her scarf act together, had a black head covering that draped her forehead, hair, shoulders, and face. All I could see were her happy brown eyes and a tiny bit of graying black hair. Another woman, who was speaking from the front and helping the imam call on questioners, had just her hair and neck covered. She commented that she was Arabic but most Muslims are not. I also saw a few people I knew from various Episcopal parishes, including a priest.
Alix, Irene, and I tiptoed out of the main room to look around. The man who greeted us pointed out the stairs to the women’s section (and the snacks). Up we went. A young woman who had just graduated from Agnes Scott College led us to a spread of pakoras, delicious deep-fried fritters made by her Pakistani mother. This seemed like an OK day to be all fascinated by head coverings; the young woman’s was a taupe affair held in place with a headband with small silk flowers, a pretty combination. She mentioned that her family attended a different mosque until they moved closer to her college (how’s that for supporting her education?). I asked how the two mosques were different, and she said the teachings were the same, but maybe the other one had a slight advantage because it had a basketball court. She had to think about whether she liked one mosque better than the other.
Lemme tell you: if you asked any Christian whether they liked this local church or that one, you would get a thorough weighing of merits of each church’s preaching, music, architecture, demographic profile, friendliness, programs, youth group, and parking lot. The imam had said that Muslims of any culture could worship together. In most American Muslim congregations, he said, you would see people of different ethnicities practicing different customs during worship, but with basic harmony in prayer and Quran recitation. Chatting with the young woman upstairs, it was plain that the universality of Islam was part of her view of the world.
While we were admiring the women’s prayer room, the woman with the full black head covering came in and deftly shifted her face covering away. Our young guide introduced us to her: her mother, the blessed maker of the pakoras! The same warmth was repeated in the mother’s demeanor, and she asked us to come anytime, but especially for the Ramadan meals. We will.
In fact, each person we met asked us to come again. The vibe was not proselytizing or display; it was pure welcome and friendship. I left with a copy of an English rendering of the Quran, a small booklet of Quranic selections for children to learn, and, because the man at the literature table put it in my hand, a pamphlet about Shariah law.
I would like to attend a Friday service, because I know little about Islam. I’m not sure whether I can pray the same prayers Muslims pray; I need to pray about that, given that God in Three Persons has claimed me as Christ’s Own Forever (see The Book of Common Prayer, p. 308). I’m not sure about some matters of theology and piety, but I am sure that the people at the Al-Farooq Masjid held out a hand of friendship to me not for conversion or to convince me that we worship “the same God” (I’m not sure all Christians worship the same God), but, as best I could detect, because they believe that we stand in human dignity before a transcendent, Compassionate One. No doubt the Atlanta Muslim community is responding to the contempt directed toward them from many angles. But they are not responding with fear or contempt. They are not closing their doors to remain safe, nor are they returning the suspicion or viciousness to which they are subjected. They are opening their doors, asking me to see and listen and perhaps pray and perhaps become friends.
[ii] Note to self: bring bobby pins and a more textured scarf next time.