Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Trip to the Mosque

So as I noted in a previous post I was going to visit a nearby mosque. So this Friday I went to visit English-language services at the Islamic Cultural Centre's mosque. Before I went I spoke to my Muslim colleagues about any type of preparation and dress code:

1) wear pants, do not wear shorts if they go above the knee
2) you don't have to wear anything fancy like a suit and tie, you can wear a T-shirt and jeans if you like
3) do not wear a shirt with pictures on it, especially representations of people (?? Not entirely sure why that is an issue but okay)

That was about it. So I went in a nice golf shirt and slacks. I took an English-language copy of the Qur'an with me to read while I was there and in case they referred to any specific verses. The service wasn't going to start until sometime after 1130 but I've been told to get there at 11 so that I could get a space inside the mosque. Apparently the place fills up and the overflow goes into other rooms where there is video feed of the Imam.

The mosque was a large carpeted room that could seat about 300 to 400 people. There was a small alcove which indicated the direction you had to pray, although it was pretty apparent from the carpet as well since it had rows perpendicular to the alcove for people to line themselves up at. (I believe this is a common feature of all mosques, and is why when you see video of people praying at mosques they all seem to be lined up perfectly with enough space in between the rows to bow). The only furniture consisted of a small platform in front of the alcove from where the Imam gives his sermon, and around three plastic chairs in the back corners, probably for elderly worshipers or people with back problems. Around the walls were numerous small bookshelves with copies of the Qur'an in various languages. Each bookshelf had a small sign indicating the language of the Qur'ans on it and I could see: English, French, Turkish, Somali, Albanian, Philippines, Thai, Hindi, and at least four or five other shelves that were too far away for me to read the sign.

When I got there the room was maybe one third full, men only, most of them either reading from a Qur'an or doing their prayers. I sat up against the back wall so that I could have a bit of back support and be out of the way. I spent the next half hour looking through my Qur'an and watching the men come in. It was a truly diverse crowd. I noticed Malaysians, Filipinos, Chinese, people from Central Asia (possibly Afghani), Nepalese, Pakistanis and other people from South Asia, some Turks, Africans (both West and East Africa), a few Arabs (odd because I would expect them to go to Arabic-language services), and about a half-dozen Caucasians. Sure enough the dress code varied widely, ranging from national dress to jeans and T-shirt. One guy even had a baseball cap on backward. As soon as anyone entered they found a spot and started doing their prayers. By about 11:30 the room was 90% full and there wasn't much space to move around. All the spots against the back wall were now taken and I had what seemed to be a Thai or Malay man to my right and a Nepalese man to my left.

A man approached the microphone and started doing the call to prayer, which reverberated throughout the centre and surrounding area via speakers throughout the building. More people came in and the room was full. Then the Imam took the podium and started his sermon. While giving the sermon many latecomers continued doing their prayers.

The sermon did not refer to any specific passage in the Qur'an, but touched upon the golden age of Islam (around the 10th to 14th centuries) and how the Qur'an encourages people to wonder and think about the world. [I did a blog post probably a year ago discussing the golden age of Islam and what likely lead to its decline]. He also mentioned about how scientific discoveries have reconciled with what is said in the Qur'an -- I later read in the Islam section of the newspaper the same topic so maybe he does the newspaper articles as well. His sermon was done in about 30 minutes, after which he said something in Arabic and everyone turned their palms upward and started reciting something that I didn't understand. Then everyone stood up and I stood up with them, figuring that was it. . .

Then the Imam said something and everyone started bowing - the beginning of a set of standard prayer movements (bow, kneel, press your forehead to the floor etc. ) I was a little unprepared for them to do that and needless to say I was the only one still standing. Looks like I was the only non-Muslim in the room! The guys to the left and right of me clearly noticed I hadn't bowed yet. (I had been found out! Will all the non-Muslims please stand up!) Rather than standing there like an idiot I just imitated what everyone else was doing. After a couple minutes of bowing/kneeling etc. we were done and people started leaving. All in all the whole thing took maybe 50 minutes, shorter than most Christians Sunday services. No hymns or singing, just a short sermon and a couple of prayers.

The Malay guy next to me asked if I was new. I told them I'm not a Muslim but that the Islamic Cultural Centre invited me to attend the services as part of learning about Islam. He seemed kind of happy with that.

Then I left the room with the others, got my shoes, and headed out.

That was an interesting experience, I was kind of surprised that it was shorter than a standard Christian service. I did like the multiculturalism, it really did have people from all over the world and seemed quite inclusive. Thankfully no one seemed to be upset with a non-Muslim being there.

I have a vacation coming up soon, I think after that I will sign up for the Centre's mosque tour.

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