My introduction to Sunni Islam
I chose to visit a mosque in order to learn more about Islam. I believe that Islam is very much worth examining in order to have a better understanding on one of the worlds most complex regions: the Middle East. To maximize my insight I acknowledged my own personal biases; as an American and as a veteran in a post 9/11 period. It was important for me to make a genuine effort to put aside any ideas or judgments I had about Islam before taking on this project. The results have been wholesome. My understanding of one of the worlds biggest religions has expanded greatly and the importance the role of this religion plays for millions of people in the world has become much clearer.
For my site visit I went to two sites, the first was a short visit to Islamic School of Miami Masjid al-Noor. This visit was short because there was no one present at the time I went. I simply wanted to take a look around and familiarize myself with a mosque. This was productive, indeed. It was here that I saw the separate entrances for men and women, and signs posted showing what dress code was expected. I also saw places to wash your feet and bins to stow shoes away in before entering the mosque. Inside the mosque I saw an intricate carpet. This prepared me for my visit to Mosque of Miami where I did actually enter the Mosque. I was able to come prepared with the appropriate attire (head covering for myself and my daughter) and more questions to ask.
Upon arrival Imam Anwar greeted me, I explained I was a student and wanted to learn about Islam and it immediately became clear that he had a process down pat. He noted that my attire was appropriate to enter the mosque and led me to the entrance. I was instructed to remove my shoes. I expected to enter through a separate entrance after seeing the very clear signs at al-Noor mosque, but I was able to go in through the same door he did. I imagine this is separation of what is profane and sacred. Because I was not actually a part of this community perhaps it just did not matter that I go through a different entrance. Once I entered I was introduced to Imam Anwar’s assistant, Mohammad. Mohammad unfolded a couple of chairs, quickly explained that prayer would begin shortly and I would observe quietly and would later have the opportunity to ask him questions. He explained that he had to step outside to call for others to come to prayer. I followed him and listened while he chanted, and took the liberty to record the chants on my phone. The call to prayer lasted about two minutes and we went back inside the mosque.
Imam Anwar began leading a group prayer, and over the next 10 minutes or so, men trickled in, one at a time to join until there was about 8 men altogether. Following group prayer some men left while others stayed to continue praying on their own. Part of prayer was kneeling, standing, and bowing down on the knees with the forehead touching the ground.
I noticed that there was a room divider of some sort, many shelves with dozens of Qurans. There were also printed out postings: DO NOT STACK ANY BOOKS ON TOP OF THE HOLY QURAN. Another printed out poster read: IF THE FBI CONTACTS YOU, CONTACT US.
When Mohammad finished prayer he approached us, pulled out another chair and began with an introduction of his church. He revealed Mosque of Miami was the first mosque to open up in Miami to serve Muslims. They had been there, in the same location was actually originally a residential home for over 50 years.
One of my first questions for Mohammad was if women were supposed to be in a separate room. He confirmed that this was correct and added, “you are allowed here to make observation as a student to observe, otherwise yes, you must be in separate room.”
I also asked Mohammad what the intricate designs on the carpeting inside the mosque served a purpose. He showed me that each one was a allocated space for an individual to use to pray when mosque was full, especially on Fridays.
Mohammad was very thorough in talking about the five pillars of Islam. The most surprising aspect of Islam for me was the revelation that being Muslim is not only a religion but a way of life. I was Catholic during my early childhood years; this meant church on Sundays and “persinar” (make a cross) when you passed a church. For Muslims the religion is embedded into their daily lives through the five pillars of Islam. Mohammad went on to talk to me about each of the pillars. The first, Shahada (faith): the acknowledgment that there is no other god but Allah and that Mohammad is the true prophet. Salat (prayer): this is the daily praying which takes place five times a day. Zakat (charity): unlike my Catholic upbringing, there isn’t a big emphasis on percentage based requirement to five to the mosque, more so Zakat asks of faithful Muslims to give and be charitable in their daily lives, it is not defined as a sum or percentage. Sawm (fasting): the most notable time of fasting is during the yearly Ramadan holiday, but fasting can be practiced at any time if a Muslim feels the need to do it. The last of the pillars is Hajj (pilgrimage): this pillar asks that all Muslims who are physically and financially capable to complete a pilgrimage to Mecca: the most holiest site in the world for Muslims. Mecca is located in Saudi Arabia and the Hajj is done at a specific time during the year. Islamic holidays go by a lunar calendar so the dates of Hajj can change.
I noticed before prayer each man touched their temples or somewhere near there. I asked about this and Mohammad explained that this was a symbolic way of separating himself from all things wordly, and again, I thought to myself, this is another way of separating the profane from the sacred.
I asked Mohammad about Shia Muslims, and if they were welcomed into Mosque of Miami even though it was a Sunni mosque. This was the only part of the interview I felt Mohammad was a tad on the defensive side. He said Sunnis welcome anyone who wants to pray and said Shias were the ones who insisted in separating themselves from other Muslims.
The most important part of my conversations with Mohammad was a personal question I asked. I asked him what some of his experiences as a Muslim were after 9/11. He was very open in answering this very difficult question. He began by explaining some people are willing to learn and others have a one-track mind. So he begins… following the terrorist attacks people protested outside of his mosque and called for it to be burned down. He told me how his wife and him began to be shunned in public; they would go to a market place or shopping center and people would turn away from them in fear. He expressed how the media negatively impacted the image of Islam, his suspicions about what really happened on September 11th and that the terrorists were not true Muslims as the media claimed. Mohammad told me that during the Bush administration when everyone was in fear, that even he was afraid to go back to his own country, Pakistan. He was trapped between being a Muslim in America, being looked at daily with suspicion, and fear of visiting Pakistan because he was also an American.
This last portion of the interview moved me the most. Through all misconceptions, biases, misinformation and prejudices made on my own or through exposure to media I came to head with a very clear truth: Islam was being prosecuted unjustly. What I learned through my own research and with my talk with Mohammad was that this was a religion with wonderful purpose. As an International Relations major focusing on the Middle East all variables or the region are examined, to include religion. Developmental theory implies that poor countries are less likely to experience democracy, but looking at countries that are majority Muslim but non-Arab we see that although there is a very low GDP for some of these countries they still experience varying degrees of democracy. This tells us that although many academic analysts had insisted that Islam is not conductive to democracy, the numbers show that this is not true. Perhaps many Western ideas and theories on Islam as a whole are incorrect. I think that the most important lesson here was to remove all preconceived notions we have about Islam and Muslims and listen.
An “Arab” More Than a “Muslim” Democracy Gap
Alfred C. Stepan, Graeme B. Robertson
Journal of Democracy, Volume 14, Number 3, July 2003, pp. 30-44 (Article)
Published by The John Hopkins University Press
Freedom in the World: The Annual Survey of Political Rights and Civil Liberties, 2001–2002 (New York: Freedom House, 2002)
CIA World Factbook (www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook).