“As-salamu alaykum, What’s up, Bro?” — The Many Graces of Allah

“As-salamu alaykum, What’s up, Bro?” — The Many Graces of Allah April 27, 2015

Masjed-e_Shah_0I have been in many mosques, including four of the most “amazing mosques from around the world.” Then there’s the retired imperial mosque of Hagia Sophiain Istanbul — which made a decent Christian basilica, or so I’m told — wherein I once ‘stowed away’ after hours and spent part of an evening by myself marveling under its magnificent Byzantine domes. On several occasions, I have been awoken from slumber by the morning cry of the muezzin atop minarets in such exotic locales as Petra and Ephesus. If that isn’t embracing Islam, I don’t know what is.

But I have never truly been to a mosque—not as a worshiper of God.

I know that I’m not supposed to wear shoes inside and that I should enter right foot first. But I’ll be honest: I don’t have a clue what to do when a congregant pats me on the shoulder and breaks the air of meditation with a solid, “As-salamu alaykum! What’s up, Bro?”

Back in February, I was extremely disturbed by the fire, likely arson, that destroyed the Quba Islamic Institute in southeast Houston. The tragedy prompted me to start thinking about the Islamic center that I pass twice daily during the workweek. I wondered what it must be like to be a post-9/11 Muslim in a Deep South capital city. After all, the South Carolina State House grounds, which are less than one mile from the mosque, insensitively sport a Confederate Flag plus a statue of a former Governor and U.S. Senator who once said of African-Americans:

“We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it … and we eliminated, as I said, all of the colored people whom we could under the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments.”

My current state of residence isn’t exactly a poster child for open-armed ecumenism. Sorry, but wrought-iron pineapples atop millionaire mansion gates don’t count.

I made a good faith effort to reach out to a neighbor family that had recently emigrated from Iraq. Could there be a more complex immigrant situation than a family from Baghdad trying to make a go of it within bugle range of the largest U.S. military combat training center? I was fairly certain the family practiced Islam; there was a Quran prominently displayed in their home; the mother wore a traditional hijab. But I wasn’t positive.

I worked into our conversation my travels throughout the Middle East, including the fact that I had once visited Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Also, I used words like “hajj” and mentioned that I had seen The Prophet’s beard hairs in the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul—during Ramadan, no less. (I left out that I spent a good portion of that holiday torturing Turkish businessmen by openly smoking while crossing the Bosporus every morning by fairy.)

“Oh and hey I see that Quran over there. Mind if I attend Friday service with you?”

I’m not sure if there’s an Arabic term for “double take that inflicts bodily harm.” But the wife’s eyeballs nearly shot out of her skull. The husband paused long enough to consider whether I might be a government spy, then with Mesopotamian gusto embraced my self-invitation, “Sure!”

And that was how I came to attend my first Muslim worship service. I arrived to the Friday Jumu’ah 20 minutes before my neighbor. I was greeted in the parking lot by a few lifted eyebrows and one guarded, “Can I help you?” Yet one school-aged boy eagerly approached me; he was hawking Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup for some charity and clearly marked me as a high-risk chocolate target.

I entered the main door and left my shoes in a foyer cubby, then looked for signs to indicate where large men of Scandinavian descent were supposed to convene. I was one of only two Caucasians at the service; however, I was amazed by the near-total representation of the non-Caucasian cultural spectrum, from Ivory Coast to India to Indonesia. The modest congregation provided a perfect image of Islam’s global reach.

In the worship space reserved for men, I sat crisscross applesauce on the carpeted floor against the back wall. Soon an African-American man with a huge smile and Bronx accent approached me. He appeared to be the official community greeter of Scandinavian infidels—though I never had the sense of being damnably judged by him or anyone else. Instead, he presented me with a folding chair and insisted that I make myself more comfortable. He stated several times that this mosque and its imam do not espouse extremist, jihadist viewpoints.

Frankly, I was surprised by how many people—including the imam—prefaced their conversations with the nonviolent intentions of the community. For the first time in my life, I understood what it must be like for Muslims merely to exist—let alone practice their faith—in the United States. They assume that outsiders are entirely predisposed to think of Islam as a religion of violence. But I wasn’t the only one who needed convincing—the congregation itself apparently needed reminding.

From the pomegranate-decorated pulpit, the imam proclaimed, “Show me anywhere in the Quran where it says to go and kill people with machine guns!”

At times, the imam’s khutbah reminded me of Evangelical messages I had heard growing up. He also despaired that no one in the congregation was helping out with the food bank and other administrative duties. And he preached about the incredible religious freedom that exists in the United States compared with the “best Islamic nations” of the world.

One of the imam’s maxims that really stuck was, “Rush with good deeds before the trials come!”

We perhaps do not think of Islam as a religion of good deeds, of praxis. But we should.

Overall, I was floored (pardon the pun) by how peaceful the service was. There were neither pews nor chairs, except the folding chairs reserved for the elderly and those of Viking descent. (I ultimately ditched my folding chair for a more comfortable carpet seat.) Aside from the imam’s rousing khutbahs and the occasional “as-salamu alaykum,” we meditated. Other than select Eastern Orthodox Masses, I’ve ever attended a Christian service so intentionally prayerful.

At the end of the service, the congregation lined up shoulder to shoulder—this was the one part of the service in which I was not allowed to partake. The perfectly aligned rows of men conducted a series of genuflection prayers. I stood in the back and observed, and it occurred to me that the service didn’t include any obvious rites—an Eucharistic equivalent, as it were. I wondered in a rather Christian way at what point during the service were we all “made right with Allah.”

When the salat prayers were over and the service concluded, I was plied with handshakes. It felt like the Catholic sign of peace on steroids. I spent some time chatting with the imam, who was very friendly and filled my arms with literature about Islam. I was clear that I was a practicing Christian and was attending as a gesture of solidarity—that I stood with their community and supported their vision of peaceful service to God.

The imam replied, “Allah has a lot of graces.”

“He certainly does,” I agreed.

Two weeks later, I was driving to work and noticed the imam walking down the sidewalk. I rolled down my window and shouted, “Peace be with you, Imam!”

The imam ducked, as if accustomed to drive-by lexical jeering. He didn’t recognize me, and I didn’t have time to shout that I was the large Christian Norge who had invaded his mosque in the name of solidarity a few weeks back. (Maybe I’m not as memorable as I think—a lesson in humility.)

The light turned green, and I was on my way. And he on his.

For what it’s worth, my way will now include the services of a few other religions. It’s time to go to Synagogue. To the local Bahá’í Temple and Hindu Mandir. Maybe I can even find some Southern Shintos if I look hard enough.

I’m discovering that it’s one thing to embrace the idea of God in other religions—and another thing entirely to worship God in the context of another religious service.

Again, “Allah has a lot of graces.”

She certainly does.


Image: Wiki Commons

Arik Bjorn is a writer who lives in Columbia, South Carolina. His educational background includes archaeology, ancient languages, and biblical studies. He has run the gamut of Christian experience, from Evangelical to Orthodox catechumen to live-in Episcopalian sexton to Roman Catholic. Follow Arik on Twitter @arikbjorn and on Facebook. And check out his website, Viking Word.

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