I was raised in a Protestant church. The services we had stressed an introspective way of looking at things (i.e., “What is there about me which could use improvement?”). Others will disagree with me on this point, but that’s what I got out of it.
As a result of a girlfriend, I spent three years going to Catholic Mass. The mood there was that we were all going to hell because we just weren’t good enough. The congregation had been hearing this for years and moved by their hundreds in and out of the church, on schedule, to make way for people coming to the next service. In many ways, their religion stopped at the door to the church.
I was part of the National Guard for 7 years and, while in basic training, had opportunities to go to services of religions I wouldn’t have otherwise had a chance to experience. The first service I went to at Basic Training changed from the usual sedate type I’m used to, to a spirit-raising, “Thank you Jesus, I’ve been saved!” service when the reins were handed over to a Southern Baptist minister.
At least he couldn’t force us to stay for the usual 4-hour (or longer) service. That was the only religious service I’ve ever been to which I would call obnoxious, though there were a few Southern Baptists in the group wondering why we weren’t as excited as they were. I guess that, in the end, your preferences are your own.
One of my best friends at Basic was a Jew, so one week he took me to a Jewish service. The service I went to was quiet. I liked that. It’s easier to contemplate your place in God’s universe when people aren’t shouting.
When I went to Mormon services, I announced I was there just to learn something. They promptly smiled and called me an “investigator” (Oh good, two minutes in and already I have a label!). The people were friendly though, and weren’t there to convert me (if they knock on your door at home, that’s a different story.)
Not too long after Saddam Hussein decided Kuwait would make a nice 19th province, I found myself in Al Khobar (Saudi Arabia) when I heard the call to prayers for the first time. A friend and I ducked into a small clothing store and asked if it was OK for us to look around. The man there wasn’t praying and said we could. My companion, a chaplain’s assistant, decided this man’s failure to pray proved that the whole religion was bogus. I thought several things regarding my companion, none of them complimentary.
During our stay in Saudi Arabia, we were ordered to avoid contact with the locals, as the government didn’t want us contaminating their culture. By the time I got there, it was already too late. One fully covered – and I mean fully covered – woman in a cluster of women said ‘Hi!’ to me then started to giggle. Each of the very few personal interactions I had with Muslims there were with very friendly and generous people.
I then decided it would be beneficial to me to get more first-hand experience with Muslims and Islam.
After a failed first attempt to contact the nearest mosque, 60 miles away, a Muslim military colleague of mine suggested that the next time I was near the next closest mosque, 150 miles away, I should just sort of walk in around noon or one o’clock and say “Hi!.” On the next Good Friday, that’s what I did.
I parked in the large, almost empty, parking lot. I think I saw two signs saying this was private property – a little different for a house of worship – but, all things considered, it was quite reasonable. Things were going well so far.
There wasn’t much activity upon entering the front doors, so when a man came by, I stopped him. I explained I was an infidel who was there to learn something. He was very nice and told me to put my shoes in the empty rack, then to sit in one of the chairs in the back of the room. There were probably half-a-dozen people in this very large room, one of them reading a Qur’an.
At about this time I started wondering why my brother-in-law, who is usually up for anything new, didn’t want to come with me. This was as innocuous a setting as I’ve ever seen. The size of the room told me that, at some times of the year, there must be a large group of people who come here. That’s the way things are at my own church. Besides, small numbers offered a better chance to talk to people, maybe even the Imam (if there was one). By about 12:30 probably another dozen people had wandered in. An older gentleman moved to the front of the room and started the service, alternating between English and Pashtu.
Speaking of American shirts, the ones that advertise alcohol should not be worn in the mosque. Remember how you were complaining about your neighbor behind his back? This is NOT Islamic. If you are going to say something about your neighbor, say it to his face. Have you ever learned to do prayers correctly? Do you finish before the leader? If you never learned how to do prayers correctly, learn. If you don’t remember what you learned, ask for help. When you come to prayers, park between the lines in the parking lot. Showing common courtesy is part of Islam.
I kept thinking to myself, “This guy has got problems just like anybody else.”
Next he said, “And if the FBI wants you to inform for them, you tell them ‘No’. If any Muslim is acting in an un-Islamic way, you tell ME.”
OK, so he has a few problems I don’t. I would have told everyone it was OK to talk to the FBI, but make sure they get paid first, whether they had anything to say or not. I would have kept the part where people were supposed to tell him about anyone acting in an un-Islamic way though. As the sermon progressed, more and more men, and a few children, wandered into the room. At about 12:50 a young man came to the front of the room and started singing the call-to-prayer. I like the call-to-prayer. I’m not sure if the song is the same everywhere, but everywhere it appeals to the musician in me.
By one-o’clock the place was packed to overflowing, with more men coming in all the time. Another sermon started, and this time there was talk about people around the world who called themselves Muslims, yet did very un-Islamic things like blow themselves up. These are BAD people. These are NOT Muslims. This is NOT what Allah wants.
By the time prayers started, there were more men in the room than I could have imagined, along with calls to go to the basement if you were standing in the hall. It occurred to me that if this room was so filled with men, there was likely another room just as packed with women. I also noticed that the chair I was sitting in was most likely intended for an elderly man, like those sitting next to me, who would have had difficulty doing traditional prayers. Maybe being required to sit with the infidels is part of growing old in Islam.
It was getting to be about 1:30 and I had no idea how long prayers were going to last. Meanwhile I had an anxious wife, sister, and parents all waiting for me to return from they-didn’t-know-what. I was going to have to leave soon or risk upsetting a large part of my family. I did my best to quietly get through the doorway, which was jammed well past what the fire code allows, and back into the entry area. Now where did I put my shoes?
The shoe rack must have had 6 pairs of shoes in it when I arrived, now there were closer to 200. I wasn’t going to be finding my shoes any time soon. The man I met when I first came in was still there herding men into the basement. I explained the problem with my shoes and asked if I’d be able to get back into the building later in the evening to retrieve them. Instead he pointed to a pile of shoes on the floor and suggested I take a pair from there. I took this as being very generous, and would likely be agreed to by anyone there.
Maybe his wife would think it was OK for him to come home with the wrong shoes, but mine wouldn’t. It took a little doing, but I convinced him that I found it acceptable to wear my socks home without any shoes, then come back and find my shoes. Next I had to get out of the parking lot, which was now jammed. At least I wasn’t fighting with other traffic trying to leave.
I went home with the story about how I was quietly welcomed into the mosque, but needed to go back for my shoes (A co-worker later warned me that a “Christian who enters a mosque risks losing his soles”). I thought again about my experiences with the services of the various religions and found that, at the mosque, I was comfortable with the people and the message. And, as if to return the favor, I went back to the mosque the next morning and found my shoes to be one of the two pairs which were still there, neatly placed side-by-side.
(Photo: Mike Stenhouse)
Andrew (fester) Zielsdorf is a former National Guardsman and a veteran of the the first Gulf War. He currently fixes industrial machinery in a small town between New York and Los Angeles.