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Praying at the Mosque
July 10, 2009
Bethlehem — Every day at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset and at 9:30 p.m. the Imams go to their microphones and in a loud melodic voice call everyone to prayer. Five times a day men and boys gather from their homes and places of work for ten minutes of prayer – a total of nearly one hour per day.
God has used those calls to prayer to speak to me about my own Christian prayer life. “These folks[Muslims] are praying a lot more than I am!” I told myself.
One evening, I cautiously responded to the sunset call and went to the local mosque to pray. I slipped off my shoes at the doorway, as is the custom, and took a lone seat in the back. I began to pray to God as I know him in Jesus Christ. I prayed a prayer of adoration and thenconcerning my character traits, my family, students and neighbours.
After prayers, I was welcomed by those around me. Are you a Muslim? No, I am a Christian. Do you want to become a Muslim? No, I am very happy in my faith. Do you know how to pray? Yes, I converse with God and find it very meaningful. But you don't pray the right way… can we teach you how to pray?
While it is highly unusual for a Christian to go to a mosque to pray, that is what I have been doing about twice a week for the past three months. Needless to say this has led to many interesting discussions and friendships. After prayers, I get invited to their homes for coffee and discussion or I invite them to our home. When I was away for a week, worshipers at the mosque asked, “Where have you been?” It feels good to be missed.
One day when I kneeled down in my chair to pray as we did in my home church, a man came to me out of concern, asking, do you want to go to hell? No, I am going to heaven. But you can't pray like that! He was concerned that, instead of my face, I was turning my backside towards Mecca. He demonstrated what he felt was the right way to pray.
I have become convinced that most of the men who come to pray do so out of deep devotion. They begin by standing reverently before God, seeking to free themselves of all selfish emotions and distractions. They bow before God recognizing that he is great and he alone is God. They kneel and touch the floor with their foreheads in submission to his will.
“We ask God to forgive us,” they tell me. Like me, they recognize that they are sinners who need daily forgiveness and guidance from God. They end their prayers by wishing “Salaam” to the persons beside them. Many stay for a period of silent reflection and personal prayer.
It has been a good time of learning and dialogue at the mosque, in their homes and in ours. To watch and talk with committed Muslims has helped me to understand that many have much more than a religion of ‘works.’ Like me, they are truly seeking to give full respect and obedience to God.
A common perception in the West is that Muslims are adversarial, confrontational, even militant. This may be so in some parts of the world, but in my experience, it is not so here in Bethlehem. The reverse is also true. One Muslim asked me where I was from. When I said I was from America and now living in Canada, his response was, “But you wouldn't shoot anybody, would you?” He may have been thinking of the American Jew who killed 70 Muslim worshippers in the Hebron mosque some years ago.
One day I took 20 visiting students with me to the mosque. After prayers, a dozen men gathered around us to answer our questions and, of course, to try to teach us how to pray. In our dialogue they shared their perceptions of Christians. It was rather sobering to hear them say, “Christians have killed millions of people in many wars. They are obsessed with sex and are very shallow in their faith.” We had to admit that there was some truth in their perceptions.
As our conversation continued,I shared how badly I felt about the slaughter and plundering that happened during the Crusades and then looking intently into their eyes said, “On behalf of my people I ask for your forgiveness for what happened during the crusades. That was not in the spirit of Jesus.” They appeared touched. It gave us an opportunity to talk furtherabout the nature of Jesus and what it means to follow him.
After about 45 minutes of conversation, I asked if I could close our time together with prayer. I prayed to our great and only God thanking him for revealing himself to us and for the friendship that he was making possible between us. I asked God for forgiveness for our many sins and asked him to “bless this place and these people with your love and understanding.” I concluded “in the name of Jesus.”
The men around us were silent for a bit and then one said, “That was a good prayer.”
As we dispersed,we were warmly invited to return at any time. I also warmly invited them to any of our gatherings or to visit my classes.
Among all the shoes at the door I mistakenly slipped into a pair of shoes almost identical to my own. I wore them for a day before realizing that they were not my shoes! The following night I went back and after prayers met the owner of these shoes. I apologized profusely. We had a good laugh together as we exchanged shoes. “It happens all the time,” he said.
As I walked the two blocks to my home, I reflected, “Maybe it was meant to be that I should walk in the shoes of a Muslim for a day to get a sense of how it feels.”
Palmer Becker wrote this reflection while he and his wife, Ardys were on a MennoniteChurchCanada teaching assignment in Bethlehem from Jan. 10 – June 15, 2009.