A group of us from U3A visited the Masjid Abu Bakr (Masjid means Mosque) in St Marys, Southampton. St Marys boasts three mosques within 150 yards of each other. This one caters for 1000 of the 1.9 billion Muslims worldwide.
Why would a group of elderly Christians visit a mosque, particularly in times like these? All of us were brought up in the Christian tradition, some practising, some C of E by default, some, like the author, with no religious belief and others hovering between – the agnostics. Curiosity united us. We were invited to remove our shoes and the ladies covered their hair.
We were met by the ‘verger’ who explained the five pillars of Islam; the obligatory rituals and practices of all Muslims. The Shahada – the creed “I bear witness that there is no deity but God…” equivalent to the Apostles’ Creed. Salah – the practice of prayer, five times a day while facing Mecca. Zakat – almsgiving, set at 2.5% of what you have remaining after meeting your household expenses. Sawm – fasting during the month of Ramadan and, finally, the Hajj – a pilgrimage to Mecca to be made once in a lifetime by all who can afford it.
Islam and Christianity
There are parallels with Christianity in that we share many of the prophets, Adam is the first of them, and the Qur’an has a creationist narrative similar to that in Genesis. Jesus is one of the prophets, but Mohammed is the last and most important of them. Angels feature highly, Gabriel being the chief. The verger told me that it (angels do not have bodily needs like food and sex so should one use a personal pronoun?) Gabriel has 600 pairs of wings, which can sometimes be seen stretching from horizon to horizon. Their function is as God’s messengers and they can morph into human and other forms.
Muslims have a heaven and a hell, and you will finish up in one or the other after the day of judgment. They have a system of law, Sharia, which penetrates more deeply into society than our Canon law.
There were three rooms in the mosque, which do not feature in our churches. A large room for ablutions with rows of taps and stools for worshipers to sit on while they wash their feet. Hands, face, hair, noses and mouths are also cleansed in a ritual because one must appear clean before God. The verger demonstrated the ritual of thorough washing before going to pray.
The next room surprised us all; it was a morgue. It is the Muslim tradition to bury the dead as quickly as possible. The morgue provides a place where the body can undergo a ritual cleansing before being shrouded and promptly buried in a portion of the municipal cemetery set aside for Muslims.
There was an excellent kitchen and dining room. All the food is vegetarian except the chicken. We were served excellent chicken curry with rice and the best and freshest nan I have ever tasted. To call it nan bread is a tautology because nan means bread.
I was interested to learn about the hierarchy in Islam because we never hear an Islamic spokesman (and it would be a man,) comment on political activities or some of the atrocities perpetrated in the name of Islam. The verger said there is no hierarchy in the mosque. ‘Who is your boss?’ I asked. ‘My wife,’ came the answer, quick as a flash. He explained that the mosque has an Emam who is a teacher. There is no hierarchy of curates, vicars, parsons, deacons, deans and bishops. Incidentally, who knows the difference between a vicar and a parson?
The Emam serves only to teach. He is not an intermediary between the worshiper and God. He does not take confessions nor give blessings. Islam insists that your relationship is directly with God. There are no intermediaries, like Jesus, Mary or Mohammed, who are messengers. The Emam noted that Islam would never condone any kind of violence, and I am sure that holds on a personal level. However, there are terrorist groups, such as Hamas, claiming to operate in the name of Islam. The Emam would recognise no connection with them.
To emphasise the social cohesiveness of Islam, one prays shoulder to shoulder with the next man. Our tendency is to find space, a maximum distance between ourselves. In the mosque, worshipers stand close to the next man so that the front of the room is always crowded, and the back is empty. On a more practical level, there is a tight social network that can step in and help out those in trouble. Togetherness is important.
We asked about the different sects of Islam, and the verger explained that, in his opinion, the Shia had interpreting God’s message in a different way, but I did not understand how.
I have asked many churchmen why Western Christianity split from the Eastern Orthodox, but, if they could answer, it was not one I understood. The verger did not tell us anything about the Ibadis, Wahhabis, Sufists or any of the other sects. But how many of us know the difference between Presbyterians, Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Unitarians etc?
What about the women? we asked. They are a distraction, and come between man and his God, is the short answer. Readers will have their own opinion on that, but we must acknowledge that no religion treats women as equal to men.
Mosques have no imagery and no music. Any image made by man would be imperfect and, therefore, an affront to God. They had the finest architects, however, to build the mosques. Here is a big difference from Christianity, which encouraged the best artists, poets, musicians and sculptors to produce some of the world’s finest art. At the same time, the Christian Church repressed scientific thought. Islam led the world in science, mathematics and medicine until the end of the Middle Ages when the Age of Enlightenment began.
It was an illuminating visit, and we appreciated being welcomed into their place of worship and the heart of their community. I hope I have not expressed any major misunderstandings in this article. Corrections will be welcome. Perhaps we, in Chandlers Ford, can arrange to return their hospitality soon.
|I believe in God the Father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived of the Holy Spirit…
Twelve articles in all.
|There is no deity but God alone; He has no partner with him; Muhammad is the Messenger of God.
From the inscription on the dome of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem