Sharing the mosque experience: one trip, four perspectives

Last week, one of The Tony Blair Faith Foundation’s Faiths Act partners in Sierra Leone, Imam El-Haji Teslim, invited the four Sierra Leone fellows for a Jummah (Friday) prayer at his local mosque. The invitation was offered at the request of Aatif Baskanderi; as a Muslim himself, he really wanted the other fellows to have a mosque experience, one which they had never had

before though they were interested.

Aatif – A mosque is one venue that, no matter where I am in the world, I am extremely comfortable. However, this visit was different due to the fact that I was now accompanying my faithful friends to share in the experience who, like many others, happen to be Christians that have never visited a mosque. Prior to the excursion, we had the opportunity to have discussions about how some people feel hesitant to enter a mosque as opposed to a church.

Many see mosques as a black box (pardon the pun) that lacks transparency and hence limits the comfort of a stranger to enter, an issue that mosques in Canada always had to engage with. Muslims constantly advertise that if you want to learn about Islam, just walk into your local mosque, yet people remain hesitant.

My only desire for this trip was to demystify the mosque for my friends, just as living with each other has been an interfaith incubator that has demystified so much more about our faiths. I hoped to share my feeling of how many mosques around the world are accepting to strangers who sincerely seek knowledge, and as Faiths Act obliges so, via direct action.

There were other major aspects about this mosque trip that should have excited my mind the most, such as hearing Teslim’s amazing khutbah (sermon) about the faithful duty to tackle malaria in your life or myself addressing the congregation post-prayer by explaining what the Tony Blair Faith Foundation’s Faiths Act Programme is, yet my primary concern was how the other fellows were taking in the experience. This was also exacerbated by the fact that they are women and, as is the case with many religions, Islam does have particular gendered aspects, especially inside the mosque, which “outsiders” may engage with differently. I will allow the other fellows to explain a bit about their experiences, a commentary I keenly sought throughout the day.

Annette – The idea of visiting a mosque was far-fetched for me when I was in the Philippines. I always wondered what was inside the mosque out of curiosity but I never imagined that would actually visit the revered place.  In my home country, Christians are not welcome to go to the mosques, or at least that was my general impression. The night before the visit, I was both excited and worried. It was a good thing that Aatif, another Faith Acts Fellow, provided helpful tips on how to prepare ourselves, how to dress properly and who would accompany us during the prayer. As I was getting ready with my head scarf, long sleeved blouse and long pants, I started preparing my thoughts and my feelings as well.

The first thing I noticed when we entered the mosque was that men and women stayed in separate rooms with the men in front and women at the back. I found the arrangement a bit strange but Aatif explained that one of the reasons for segregation was to ensure that there will be lesser distractions during the prayer. I also noticed that everyone was dressed beautifully; Teslim earlier explained that when attending prayers, each one dresses up as if he or she is going to meet an important person like the president of the country, only he or she is going to meet the most highest and supreme being that is Allah.

What struck me most was the warm and welcoming atmosphere I felt when we were inside. Aatif was almost certain that people knew we are not Muslims. But people smiled and talked to us. They told us to line up when the prayer started and shook our hands when it ended. Children came to us to ask if we could be their friends. That made the experience very touching. I was expecting to see a totally different people, strange practises and hostile environment but instead I found myself being embraced warmly by the community.  I never felt alienated. In fact I am convinced that while we were inside the mosque I felt a connection with a Higher Being – the same serene feeling I have when I am in my own church.

Banke – My only experience of being in a mosque had been a school trip to a mosque in North London, however I still was not sure of what to expect, aside from feeling that I would overcome preconceptions I had about Muslims and worship in the mosque. Upon entering the female section of the mosque, the first thing I noticed was the bright array of colours worn by females. The second was that the people were very friendly and welcoming. Though I was more curious than apprehensive about the session, I felt more comfortable by the time the prayers started.

I was surprised to find similarities with the worship in a church. For example, at a point in the service, we were told to greet each other with the sign of peace, an action which is commonplace in a church service. I was happy to observe that during the sermon, Teslim had the full attention of the worshippers, as he talked about malaria prevention. Overall, visiting a mosque was a positive experience, with a pinch of humour as Annette and I unknowingly joined in with the prayers, but were luckily shown the movements by a friendly neighbour.

Josephine – I had always wanted to visit the mosque but like many Christians women, I thought it was not possible. So I was really surprised when Teslim agreed to invite us to his local mosque for Friday prayers! All we had to do was dress appropriately in clothes that cover arms and legs, cover the hair and follow the women to their section. While it was so obvious that we were visitors, the women were very friendly, welcomed us and were willing to guide us.

During the sermon, I spent a few minutes reflecting on my own misconceptions about worship in the mosque that had been fuelled by hearsay. It was fascinating to hear Teslim incorporate the malaria prevention message in his sermon. Although I could not understand the prayers, I felt very comfortable following along because we were praying to the same God. Reflecting on this experience, I am grateful for Aatif’s encouragement.

Faiths Act Fellows, Sierra Leone

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