Who was that “mosque man?” A review of my visit to the heart of Islam.

April 17, 2009

Razi Hashmi, Executive Director of CAIR (Conference for American Islamic Relations) has been a friend for a couple of years. I have pestered him for some time with regard to visiting a mosque.  Why you may ask?  First, I have an insatiable curiosity about the world we will in, and secondly, one billion people sharing a religion is a large number by anyone’s reckoning.

I am always proud to admit that I have many friends of the Islamic faith.  I also have friends who are Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Hindu and at least one or two practicing atheists.  All are nice people, urbane, generally sardonic  and very tolerate of my plethora of blemishes and occasional odd peccadilloes. With regard to my Muslim friends, let me point out that I have found each to be without exception -  considerate, uniformly polite and remarkably kind.  Does this small sampling represent the temperament of every Muslim in the world?  Of course not.  On the other hand, every Fundamentalist Christian isn’t a homicidal maniac just because Rev. Jim Jones (People’s Temple) passed out the Kool-aid to several hundred innocent people in Guyana one tragic afternoon in 1978.

Razi and I had tried on a couple of occasions to make my visit happen, but invariably, I had schedule conflicts. Finally, last Friday, April 10, 2009, I was able to attend the 2 pm Prayer Meeting at a mosque located near N.W. 36th and Portland.  It is called Masjid An-Nasr or for those of us language-challenged types, the Islamic Society of Central Oklahoma City. The Center  boasts an impressive membership of around 600 and is one of five mosques in central Oklahoma.

As I entered the mosque, I tried to muster all of the composure and sang-froid that I could, after all,  I was literally a stranger in a strange land. Fortunately, Razi was there waiting inside to welcome me with great warmth and genuine hospitality. I felt very special until I realized that that is how he greets everyone. It is his essence and his unbridled gift to everyone he encounters.  Razi gave me a brief tour of the facilities.  In many ways, the design and function of the building  reminded me of Northwest Baptist Church, which I attended growing up in Oklahoma City.  After the tour, he introduced to me to the Senior Imam; Imad S. Enchassi PhD.

Obviously, a very intelligent and articulate man, Dr. Enchassi featured a large beaming and highly infectious smile. When he inquired if I wanted to see where they kept the “weapons of mass destruction? ” . . . I immediately knew with that kind of quirky sense of humor, we were kindred spirits.

I knew enough about the Islamic religion to leave both my shoes and my predisposition for practical jokes at the door.  Needless to say, all of the years of negative conditioning from television, movies and numerous awkward, hysteria laden e-mails from paranoid high school friends who are convinced that Islam is out to rule the world (you know who you are and why you are being followed) , all weighed heavily on my subconscious.  Still, I pride myself in being the bold type, and obviously, the less-than-secret disconcerting knowledge that ice cream will make you fat has never kept me away from Braum’s.

Back on point- I must admit that at first blush, most of the members of the mosque didn’t look like me.   The majority sported some variation of brown or black skin. This should have come as no surprise since the afternoon  prayer session was like a mini meeting of the United Nations.  I am a member of the Foundation for Oklahoma City Public Schools and not long ago this startling statistic caught my eye:  today over a hundred different languages are spoken in Oklahoma homes. For those who haven’t noticed, the world and our fair city have changed and will continue to change demographically in the future.

Finally, 2 pm arrived.  The men proceeded to their own prayer area, which was the main hall.  The women attending the service had a separate prayer area.  Members of the mosque continued to trickle in throughout the service until the hall was completely full.  Many of the men were working class, but I also met  doctors and successful-looking businessmen.  One thing that was striking was the sincere joy and happiness that each shared as they greeted one another.   From the opening moments to the final conclusion, most of the men spent the time on their knees.   Too many years of flag football and side-yard basketball conspired to making spending much time on my knees a bit challenging, but I gave it my college best.

The sermon by Dr. Enchassi lasted about an hour and was in English most, but not all of the time.  Accent, foreign words and passages from the Koran, all conspired against me from time to time, often leaving me even more confused than normal.  Still, the point of the sermon came shining through like a shaft of light piercing through dark storm clouds:  Treat others with respect.  Don’t bear false witness against those that you dislike or have done you harm.  And finally, the main theme of the of the thought-provoking sermon:  truth is greater than justice.

In discussing the often fickle nature of justice, Dr. Enchassi stressed that the very concept of justice can be deceptive, varying in degree from individual to individual, country to country, century to century.  One the other hand, truth is everlasting and unfaltering.  And of course, God is Truth.  Heady stuff.  Uncomplicated.  Meaningful.  And most of all, relevant.  He passionately stressed that truth is what life is all about and what we should above all, strive to obtain.

During the sermon, there were a few references to the common discrimination that without question, most, if not all in the audience have had to deal with during their lives, probably on a daily basis.  Although it certainly was not the intent, the ugly reality of this made me embarrassed to be an American.  To judge others based solely on the color of their skin, their religious beliefs, or their ethnicity certainly flies in the face of what we proclaim as our national values.  This hypocrisy is particularly stunning when one looks back at the long, dubious history of white America’s treatment of people of color.  If confused on this point, talk to any Native American, Hispanic, African American or Asian.

Now, let me be clear on one point – my history of tolerance is no better than anyone else when it comes to bigotry and prejudice.  Maybe even worse.  I often wonder if it is actually not wiser to live in ignorance than to gaze too closely into the stark mirror of reality.  To do so, one runs the risk of realizing that what we see reflected often isn’t very pretty.  Most of my ignorance, like many other Americans, is directly attributable to lack of knowledge or fear of the unknown.  I read an interesting quote once that advised:  “He that fears something gives it power over him.”  I suspect that our ignorance and our fears are intertwined like the two cords of a rope.  The trick is somehow cut that rope.

I left the service more certain in the fact that Muslims, despite the trivial trappings of clothing, customs and often tongue-twisting names, are pretty much just like the rest of us.  The guy next me during prayer was probably worries about being to make his next car or house payment on time? The man next to him might be in a twist over the friends that his kids hang out with after school.  Or, the person in front of me might have been concerned about whether the steel-belted tires at Goodyear will still be on sale next week?   Yes, the same mundane, pebbles-in-a-shoe, nagging problems that so often monopolize my daily thoughts.

I have always loved the line at the end of the movie “Bladerunner” when Harrison Ford ponders about the “replica” who had just “died” in front of his eyes moments before.   Ford notes in the voice-over that the replica wrestled with the same basic universal questions as do humans (regardless of race, creed, religion or color):  “Where did I come from?  Where am I going?  How much time do I have?”  Even for an something as alien and different as an android, life is a precious thing, the most precious thing, and too short to waste wallowing in the quicksand of hate, jealousy bigotry.

Rather than over-react the hate and fear hysteria created by scurrilous media hype (FOX & MSNBC), I think that we would all do better simply to look into the other person’s heart, and not stop at trivial differences. During the service, I meet people who only want to live in peace, to see their children grow and prosper, and to worship their God as they see fit.  Many important worldly scholars, doctors and scientist are Muslim.  Yes, so are some nutty, awful, murderous terrorists who compose about 1% of 1% of 1% of the one billion Muslims around the world.  But, that is probably about the same percentage as the Catholic and Protestant murderers Northern Ireland represent of their respective religions.  Or the same percentage of Southern Baptist membership in that All-American hate group known as the Klu Klux Klan.

In closing, it is easy to intolerant,  easy to argue a point of view without being hobbled by trivial things such as facts, easy to succumb to our cultural fears, and to let anger dictate our emotions or color our judgment.  It is only by our willingness to cross over the river of ignorance are able at last to embrace the truth.  Last Friday, I went wading.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Dave Chesak  |  May 6, 2009 at 3:45 am

    Very interesting. I am getting a lot of fear-based email from friends. Your visit certainly paints a different picture than the one I am being presented with. After 9-11, a Muslim neighbor walked through the neighborhood passing out invitations to visit the local mosque, in Richardson, Texas. I took the tour, but due to a very busy time for the mosque, did not get the in-depth tour that you experienced. None-the-less, your story reminded me of that visit. If more of us were as open-minded as you are, we just might have fewer problems.


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