This I Believe

Willard - York, South Carolina
Entered on November 2, 2006
Age Group: 50 - 65

Walk In Another Man’s Shoes…(Or At Least Inspect Them)

Driving down the road to the mosque itself seemed rather lonely. Although there were many residences, with many signs of life, e.g. cars in driveways, porch and yard lights on, and lights aglow from rooms, it still seemed rather lonely. Even more so, for some strange reason, it seemed somewhat out of place.

As I drove the last 100 yards or so and encountered the long privacy fencing, the narrow and simple gate entrance, and what appeared to me to be a very functional ‘campus’, it seemed rather cold. I am really not sure why this appeared so. Maybe, in my mind, I had expected grander things of Middle Eastern décor that would invite us into a new ‘world’. (And just maybe, I’ve been watching too much TV).

Our first encounter seemed to return me to and even strengthen the negative perceptions that I had of Muslims and the Islamic religion before taking this class on Islam. The gentlemen’s reluctance for us to enter the mosque without someone’s “authority” that was greater than his struck me. The fact that this reluctance was only due to the fact that we were in mixed company (women included) strongly challenged much of the emphasis of equality that the religion is touted to embrace. His directions for entrance, if we did have to enter before “…someone with authority arrived…”, women one place, men another, seemed equally disturbing.

At that time, and probably for the first time in my life, I truly understood and sympathized with how the women of our group might feel discriminated against. Equally disturbing to me was the stark difference between this religion and my own as a Christian where I am free to invite anyone, any race, any gender, any ethnic group into my House of worship. The “authority” that I have as a member of my church is equivalent to those who lead. And the members with whom I do enter and worship can be by my side, not relegated off to another room.

As we experienced the prayer service itself, I began to feel much more accepting and understanding, even though I could not understand a word of Arabic. I recalled the sections in our textbook of the poetic nature of the linguistics itself. Without understanding a word, I began to feel at peace, a solitude, and even a closeness with God myself in that place.

As a young child, but not so much in the adult life of a Presbyterian, the act of kneeling and the placement of one’s hands while praying was emphasized. Observing the participants’ ritual body movements, hand gestures, bowing, and kneeling with face to the floor were comforting. In some respects it even left me feeling that I was missing something by losing touch with those simpler gestures I learned in earlier years, but have since relaxed.

Our closing discussions with Amr, our ”guide” for the evening, and the imam brought even more tranquility and understanding with this religion. I found it interesting, but not surprising, that the most common topics encountered on previous visits were 1) the wearing of the hijab, 2) women’s rights and roles in general and 3) some of the fundamental differences between the Christian and Islamic beliefs.

As he first tackled the issue of the hijab and burqa, I was impressed that he thanked all the women in the group for honoring their tradition by wearing the hijab and also with his approach on explaining this tradition. It was interesting that he presented this in the context women’s beauty as a gift and even more interesting to me in the context of the man’s (male) weakness. As I listened to him, I recalled all the publicity that has arisen recently on this same subject around the world. I asked myself, “Do I personally view these women any differently”?

I realized that indeed I did view them differently. Not that I am ogling the women in our class, and maybe being too honest for my own good (or protection) I will continue. There are women that strike me more than others; the way they wear their hair, the jewelry and clothes they wear, the makeup, etc. As I looked across the room in this mosque, much of this “adornment” was concealed. To me that “beauty” was more equalized and drew less attention to outward appearance and more to their intellectual involvement and participation in the discussion. There was truth in what Amr was saying and the beliefs we previously explored relative to this in our class.

As Amr and the imam began to discuss the differences between the Islamic and Christian faiths, I never felt challenged or offended. He shared his beliefs on the Prophet Muhammad, the Quran and the hadiths, of God, Jesus, and the end of time with great conviction while still honoring those of ours. I felt at ease but more importantly, more compassionate, understanding and accepting of this religion that so recently I had been so questioning.

As we continued our discussions, I increasingly felt more comfortable, respectful, and actually in awe that as individuals we are more alike than different. These two men and those few Muslims that joined our group began to feel like old buddies. They were warm, hospitable, and most apparent, devout in their faith. The fact that their faith was different than mine melted away into obscurity.

Our visit was a requirement for a course on Islam. Similar courses on other religions, races, or ethnic groups may require the same type encounter. It ought to be a requirement, not of a course, but of citizenship itself to visit and encounter others different than ourselves, especially those with which we might have overbearing negative feelings due to the events of the past.

We might all share this surprise that we are more alike than different.

Although I could not actually walk in their shoes, on inspection, they looked pretty much like mine…..