Visit a Mosque, Read the Quran, Pray Together, Share a Meal

Carolyn Homer makes an exceptionally strong case that we have a religious duty, as Mormons and as Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (and these are two different things), to mourn with our Muslim brothers and sisters, to comfort them, and to share their burdens. I agree wholeheartedly.

And I am willing to go further still. I believe that we have a responsibility as both Latter-day Saints, and as citizens of a pluralistic democracy, to get to know our Muslim neighbors better, to understand them as we want them to understand us, and to love them as we want to be loved.

We have this responsibility with all of our neighbors, of course. It is basically what “the Gospel” means. But I believe that this responsibility is greater when it comes to those who practice Islam. There are several reasons for this. Here are three:

  • The position of Muslims in American society today is eerily similar to the positions of Mormons at the end of the 19th century. At that time, Utah had been granted statehood, but Mormons were regarded with deep suspicion by most of the country. They were often subject to physical violence, and they suffered greatly at the hands of the law. Attempts were made to restrict their immigration into the country and to prevent them from holding political office. Whether they realize it or not, Mormons who repeat anti-Muslim rhetoric employing 120 year old Anti-Mormon rhetoric and changing the name of the religion. The fact that it has happened to us, I believe, gives us a special responsibility to keep it from happening to others.
  • Close to 1/4 of the world’s population practices Islam, and there is as much difference in Muslim belief and practice as in Christian belief and practice. Most Americans don’t understand the varieties of religious experience in Islam, nor do they understand enough about the general principles of the religion to understand what those differences mean. Understanding some basic things about Islam is a way to better understand a huge portion of the human family. This is an inherently good thing to do.
  • Extremist behavior is not the same as isolated behavior. An extreme is a statistically predictable extension of a center, and if the center is misunderstanding, mistrust, and anger, the extreme will always be violent aggression like we saw in Christchurch. We have to change the center, and the center is most of us, and most of our Muslim neighbors, not knowing each other very well. I don’t know if friendship can save the world, but I am quite sure that enmity will destroy it.

So, here is my four-point plan, pretty much all of which is contained in the title of the post. Everything else is just a report on my own experiences, which I report only because I want you to know how profoundly my spiritual life has been touched by our local Muslim community.

Visit a Mosque
The first time I was ever scheduled to visit a mosque was September 12, 2001–the day after the World Trade Center bombings. It was the Massachusetts Avenue Mosque in Washington, DC. I and another teacher were scheduled to bring a group of honors students to visit the mosque and learn more about Islam.

It didn’t happen. The mosque was closed that day. But we rescheduled about a month later, and had a wonderful visit. Everybody thanked us for coming, and they made sure to make us feel welcome.

I did not know at the time that this is pretty much always the way it happens in the mosques of America. The people who worship at these mosques are usually proud Americans and members of their communities. They WANT to share their faith with their neighbors because they are smart people who watch the news and know perfectly well that most of those neighbors have mainly heard negative things about Islam. They want a chance to correct those impressions. They will welcome you like the brothers and sisters they know you to be if you will give them a chance.

I started attending Friday prayer services at the Evansville Islamic Center soon after the first travel ban was announced. I went the first time to express solidarity. But I have kept coming back for two years, whenever my schedule permits, because I feel the presence of God. I don’t know how to say it any other way. The services are simple–a brief sermon and about ten minutes of prayers offered in various positions (standing, kneeling, genuflecting).

When I am in a room full of people who love God and want to express this love directly. I want to talk to God too, to communicate with the divine and to be part of the communal experience. Nobody has ever asked me why I was there. The other worshipers go out of their way to make me feel comfortable. On the days that my schedule does not permit me to attend the service, I feel the absence in my spiritual life.

Read the Quran
Like most important things in my life, I came to the Quran first as a teacher–selections from it were on the syllabus if the World Literature class that I was assigned to teach when I became a professor. I ended up reading the whole NJ Dawood translation published by Penguin. Dawood was an Iraqi Jew and a lifelong scholar of Islam, and his translation introduced me to a version of God that I could never forget–one who was stern and loving and huge and small and busy and absolutely still–all at the same time. It was a formative moment in my understanding of the possibilities of God.

Years later, I read the Quran a second time in a new translation: the Harper Study Quran–a mammoth scholarly project that footnotes nearly every ayah (verse) with a portion of the extensive commentary that has grown out of 1300 years of Quaranaic scholarship. Here is my review if you are interested.

I now own six translations of the Quran–four of which were gifts from my friends at the mosque. (Muslims, like Mormons, love to give people a copy of their most sacred book). I have just started to read it for the third time in a new translation–a gift from a Muslim physicist with whom I have had many long conversations– in which a Muslim and a Christian scholar join together to footnote the connections between the Quran and the Bible. We have so much to learn from each other that we need to get started now.

Pray Together
Prayer (Salah) is one of the five pillars of Islam, and observant Muslims pray five times a day. Every Friday that I can, I join with one of these prayers in the mosque, where prayer is an important community event. In my very limited understanding, a communal prayer service captures the essence of Islam–a community comes together as a community to make God the most important thing in their lives. Prayer is at once an at of submission and an act of fellowship. I find it both beautiful and true.

As a male, I stand shoulder to shoulder with other males to recite the prayers. As they are in Arabic, and I don’t speak Arabic, I use the prayers to say my own prayers, in my own way, to the God that we are all worshiping together. (It is vital to understand that Allah is not the name of the Muslim God, but the Arabic word for God. It is the same God). It took me a while to get comfortable with the portion of the prayer service that involves genuflection. Like most Mormons, I don’t usually genuflect. It seems so submissive. But this total act of submission to God, done in a communal setting, is important. The fact that it seems so submissive is actually the point.

Share a Meal
And let me tell you: mosques are great places to share meals. In the first place, the food is really, really good. And I have never seen it run out. Last year, I was invited to the community iftar–an evening meal held during Ramadan when all meals have to be eaten when the sun is down. So, an iftar basically means that you have to eat all three meals at once because it is the only chance you are going to get. And, believe me, they take it seriously.

Our mosque also hosts regular community meals as fundraisers for local food banks and other charities, and they participate regularly in our interfaith community’s dinners and receptions. The citizens of Evansville have many opportunities to share a meal with their Muslim neighbors, and I suspect that it is the same in most other places with active mosques.

I will admit that I love food, so maybe my attraction to this fourth point is a little bit self-serving. But I also believe that sharing a meal with somebody different from you is the most important thing that you can do to build fellowship in the world. Eating is elemental. It is necessary. And it is at the heart of our oldest rituals and community festivals. Meal sharing is at the heart of the human drive to make communities. To share a meal with somebody is to commune with them, to hold basic necessities in common, which makes us part of a community–and part of each other.

Getting to know my Muslim neighbors has been profoundly important in my development as a person of faith and as a citizen of a nation that honors religious freedom. Your mileage may vary. You don’t have to do these things, but please do something. The recent events in New Zealand–and similar events all over the world and in our country too–have made it clear that it matters how we act as friends and neighbors.

I do not know if the world will end in fire or in ice, with a bang or with a whimper. But I sincerely believe that it may be saved with a meal and a prayer. Love your neighbors. All of them. Our children’s lives depend on it.

Comments

  1. Of course this is wonderful and important, and I agree to the extent I have capacity or experience to draw from.
    But I also want to say that it makes me think even better (than I already did) of you, Michael Austin.

  2. Mike Harris says:

    Beautiful. Thank you.

  3. Be careful when sharing a meal because they might not be able to accept meat dishes. I enjoyed learning about how muslims butcher animals.

  4. The underground man says:

    I think that reading the doctrine and Covenants prepares one to read the Quran. People often compare the Book of Mormon to the Quran but it really resembles doctrine and Covenants. Maybe I will give it a try

  5. Amen, has to be one of the first Mike Austin posts I can wholeheartedly agree with.

  6. Michael,
    I had the chance to interview one of the editors of the Study Quran on my radio program and asked him if and how the project had affected him. He said no one had asked him that before, but that studying the word of God for the ten years the project was in preparation had blessed him and his family by helping them get closer to God. I can’t recommend this version highly enough.

  7. HughinKC says:

    Our stake has a standing agreement to host an iftar each Ramadan, and Laurie and I have enjoyed meals in Muslim homes both in KansasCity and Turkey. I say amen to your insightful post.

  8. This made me tear up as I thought about my wonderful Muslim friends. I had to call Haroon and Khadija after reading your post to let them know I was thinking of them in this time of tragedy. Thank you for the reminder of how to mourn with those who mourn.

  9. I have not read the Koran but would like to. What version would you recommend for a neophyte?

  10. Michael Austin says:

    DeAnn, my best experiences with the Quran have been with the N.J. Dawood version (linked to in the OP). This translation was created explicitly for non-Muslims and is often used in college courses, so it is easily available. I like the way that it uses language. Dawood understands the poetry of the text as well as its message.

    You can also get a free copy of the Quran shipped to you on this website:

    https://www.islamicity.org/free-quran/

    The version that they send is called the Saheeh International Translation, which was created by three American women who converted to Islam and now live in Saudi Arabia. It is a fascinating story itself, which you can read here:

    https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-three-american-women-translated-one-of-the-worlds-most-popular-qurans

    I have referenced, but not entirely read this translation, though a lot of people like it a lot.

  11. KerBearRN says:

    I learned so much reading this. I have been woefully ignorant of my brothers and sisters. And of our common Allah/God. Thank you so much. I may take my kids to the local mosque tomorrow. At the very least we can leave some flowers and cards. Thank you.

  12. I live in the UK and in a community that has become increasingly Muslim as the years have gone by. I have welcomed them as brothers and sisters and we often discuss our religious beliefs, Like you , we eat together and sometimes have them some to church with us and we have been to mosque with them. It seems to me , from what the media portrays, that the US is a much more divided society or maybe its just me who is more open.

  13. HughinKC: do you recommend any specific mosque in the KC area? My husband and I are interested in visiting one and would welcome any advice.

  14. Yesterday morning I felt impressed (I believe by the Holy Ghost) to visit the local mosque. That didn’t make sense to me, because I thought the nearest mosque was on the other side of town. Turns out that there is one in my stake boundaries. I mentioned this to the stake presidency, and they immediately decided they wanted to visit too. Problem is that the mosque doesn’t have a phone number listed, and when we passed by, no one was in. Any thoughts on the best time to catch someone there? Do we need to wait until Friday?

  15. Michael Austin says:

    Dsc,
    Yes, Friday for afternoon prayers is the best time to visit a mosque. There are other events there throughout the week, just as there are in LDS Chapels. But Friday afternoon prayers are the time when you can bet on it being open. They are at 1:15 here, but can be any time after noon.

  16. 😍😍😍

  17. Michael Scott says:

    If I understand my Muslim friends explanations, if a ‘kaffir’ comes with you to your masjid (mosque) prays with you and shares a meal, then in Allah’s eyes they are now Muslim and have tacitly renounced their previous religious faith. Oh, and if you are an uncircumcised male, then you will need to see that operation is performed as soon as possible.

  18. It’s true. That’s also why I encouraged non-Mormon friends to come swim in my pool growing up. We gotta get those baptisms somehow.