Saturday, May 12, 2012

My first visit to a mosque, and resulting thoughts about putting Islam in a more accurate cultural perspective

With interfaith groups and out of my own curiosity, I’ve been to various Christian churches, synagogues, Buddhist temples, and pagan drum circles, in addition to having witnessed an Native American wedding and a few traditional pipe ceremonies.

For some reason it’s taken me this long to get around to visiting a mosque, so I was thrilled that the women’s interfaith group WISDOM chose the Islamic Center of America as one of the destinations for its houses of worship tour series.

The Islamic Center of America is the largest mosque in the United States. Located in Dearborn, Michigan, it is ironically placed on a road that was established by Henry Ford for the dual purpose of housing only Christian churches, and serving as a racial barrier.

The road (and its first churches) were established during the time when the metro Detroit area was being carved up along racial lines. Our host gave us this tidbit of fascinating and disgraceful history, but thankfully was able to conclude the story on a positive note. Not only a mosque but churches of ethnic groups and denominations that Ford would probably have rather kept out have sprung up on Altar Road. This diversification has helped pave the way for the diversity now prevalent in what used to be one of the whitest cities in the United States.

Our host was Najah Bazzy, author of The Beauty of Ramadan: A Guide to the Muslim Month of Prayer and Fasting for Muslims and non-Muslims, and long-time attendee of the Islamic Center of America. Unfortunately the tour didn’t include a discussion with the head Imam as the visit’s agenda had indicated, especially after Ms. Bazzy spoke so highly of how progressive he is regarding reconciling Islam to twenty-first century America. In his absence, Ms. Bazzy gave a good introduction to Shi’a Islam and clarified some important misconceptions several guests had.

One of the most important misconceptions she addressed was the confusion of cultural practice with Islamic practice. Anyone who’s ever heard anything about Islam in the mainstream news has probably been disturbed and confused by the horror stories regarding the practice of “Shari’a Law,” which it became evident to us that few outsiders—especially Westerners—really understand.

True Shari’a Law is one thing, and Shari’a Law warped by culture is quite another, Ms. Bazzy pointed out. The same phenomenon can be found in Christianity: Christianity varies so much from culture to culture, I’ve actually heard people describe a gathering of several different denominations of Christians as an interfaith gathering.

As disturbing as that is, what’s perhaps more disturbing is the hypocrisy many people demonstrate when they slam Islam—past and present—for the same traits and tendencies they ignore in Christianity’s history. For example, Islam is often stereotyped as being very oppressive to women—and I can think of at least one denomination of Christianity that has at least as bad a historical reputation.

Whether this reputation of either religion is deserved or not (in some cases it is, in some it isn’t) is irrelevant to this argument. The point I’m making here is, if people are going to slam one, they should slam all who demonstrate the traits they condemn. If they accept such traits in some groups but not in others, then they have no business slamming any of them.

Incidentally, what I’ve observed firsthand about the experience of Muslim women is contrary to the stereotypes. Since long before I heard Ms. Bazzy talk about how women are treated in Islam when Islam is not contaminated by sexist cultural overlays, every Muslim woman I’ve met personally struck me as quite empowered.

The Muslim women of WISDOM are an excellent example of this. Every woman I’ve heard respond to questions about the hijab said she wears it by choice. I’ve also met Muslim women who don’t wear it at all. The Muslim women I know go to school, work outside their homes, strive to empower both themselves and other women, and speak of their husbands as their partners rather than their masters.

Since our most powerful basis for forming our judgments about a group is our personal experiences, then my personal experience shows that Islam is a religion that is no more or less detrimental or empowering to the well-being and progress of the women and men within it than American Christianity, Judaism, or secularism are.

Whether I agree or not with their practices that differ from my own—such as marriage customs, sex segregation during worship within many congregations, and so on—I can appreciate that they are certainly not what the mainstream American news would have us believe about them, which is a very good thing.

The same is true for the much-maligned Christian denomination that came to mind earlier—Catholicism. There are always some people within a group who fit whatever the negative stereotype is, but there are probably more who demonstrate the opposite: that their religion or culture really is and has been useful to society.

Most of the Catholics I know personally are, like the Muslim women I know, quite empowered and useful to society.

I’ve also been intrigued that many of the amazing women I’ve read about in such books as Blessed Are the Peacemakers by Daniel Buttry (which I blogged about a couple entries back) and The Feminine Face of God come from Catholic backgrounds.

Whether they’re doing what they’re doing within the context of the Catholic faith or have since broken with it, it can’t be a coincidence that so many of these women were raised Catholic. This demonstrates to me that there has to be something very good in that religion and its teachings to have enabled it to turn out so many amazing and truly beneficial-to-society women (and men) throughout contemporary history.

The same is true, of course, of Islam.


Orchid illustration by Karla Joy Huber; Colored pencil, Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker

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