Wednesday, December 5, 2007

A Day with Islam

We covered Islam on one of the last days of my World Religions class. We discussed the Hajj, or the trek to Mecca that every Muslim is encouraged to complete at least once in their lifetimes. He spoke of this trip with great enthuisiasm, saying that he himself would like to go one one. He said that the sheer numbers of Muslims completing the trip every year was breathtaking in itself, and seeing all of them completing their salaat together as one was awe-inspiring. I looked up the Hajj on YouTube, I saw videos of thousands of people praying all together, and yes, it was impressive, but I couldn't grasp the same enthusiasm that gripped my professor. It took a trip to the Islamic Center of Riverside to really understand how he felt.

The visit to the Mosque was a requirement for my final group project. I drove myself and two other partners through a horrible rain storm to get there, but it was worth every risk. We showed up to the Mosque about forty-five minutes before the Friday service began, so I had a chance to ask the director a few questions. He said that this week was a week where much of the congregation was on holiday. He said that they usually fit 1000 to 2000 people in the Mosque every Friday afternoon. I thought this was completely unrealistic. From the outside, the Mosque doesn't look very big at all, let alone big enough to hold thousands of people. When I got inside, I was surprised that it was bigger than I first thought, but still, two thousand people is the size that my high school was, and we had a hard enough time jamming all of those kids into our big gymnasium for pep rallies.

I was taken in by a gentlemen who volunteered to be my guide, and I sat on a chair in the main "sanctuary" or 'room" or whatever they call it, while my guide completed the first to rakats of his noon-time salaat. The second two, he said, would be led by the guest speaker after his lecture. This main area we were in was actually seperate from the entrance from where I came in, but this entrance was actually another large hall, and carpets had been laid down on the tile floor to accomodate more people. As we sat and spoke, I noticed more and more people gradually entering. There were almost no chairs in the entire building. There were some of course in the back, for old men, and that is where I sat through the lecture, but the far majority of the congregation sat on the carpeted floors. As the guest speaker entered and began his lecture, I looked around fully for the first time: there were literally hundreds of people just in that main room! It didn't look like that many, but they were all shoulder to shoulder sitting in even rows facing the speaker. I looked behind me out into the main entrance hall, and there were even more people out there. This was the moment I understood that the director was speaking the truth. When the lecture was over, everyone stood (except me) and waited for the speaker to lead the salaat. When these prayers are done privately, they are usually done silently, but when the guest speaker lead them, he chanted in Arabic, and the entire congregation chanted along with him. I never thought I could be taken in by such an event, but my professor had been right. Everyone was chanting in tune with each other in low voices that vibrated the room (take in mind that the hundreds of people around me were all men, the women were upstairs). Each part of each rakat was done by the congregation simultaneously, as one, all facing north. The only thing I can relate it to is "the wave" that the fans do at Major League Baseball games. It's difficult to depict the awesome site of all this to someone who has never experienced this. All I can say is that as I sat there, engulfed by the surround sound of hundreds of chanting voices, watching all around me as a wave of men prayed as they had done their whole lives, I felt a tingle and a shiver run through my entire body. It's something so intence that it makes you want to join them, even if you don't believe in their religion. I didn't of course, and I probably never will, but it's just a feeling that I'm trying to put into words. There are many things about Islam that I disagree with, but I can understand now why so many practice it. If nothing else, it allows the opportunity to be a part of in extremely intence experience, and it occurs in a time as simple as a Friday afternoon service.

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