James is taking an introduction to world religions class at Northern Virginia Community College this semester. He has a natural and deep curiosity about the world and it’s really satisfying, after years of limited education, to see him have access to a wide range of subjects. This assignment was called an “experience paper”. He had to visit a service of another faith and write about it. He chose to go to a local mosque to the noon prayer service. (A heads up–this is a long paper!)
On November 3, 2017, I attended Jumah, or Friday prayer, at 1:30pm at Dar Al-Hijra Islamic Center located at 3159 Row St. Falls Church, VA 22044. Dar Al-Hijra is a place of worship known as Masjid, which serves the Muslim community. I am Catholic, but very available to learn about other faiths. I attend mass every Friday and Sunday with my father. I have received my sacraments and have found a great sense of identity and purpose because of my faith. My mother, who is also Christian, is not Catholic. Having two faiths in my household has led me to be eager to learn about the many religions of the world. I chose to attend a Muslim service because a lot of negative attention is received by the Islamic community. I wanted to learn more about the faith and make my own thoughts based on my experience. Upon arrival at Dar Al-Hijra, it was obvious that there would be a lot of people at the service. We had to find parking in a nearby neighborhood and walk to the entrance of the building. The building was gated off and there were several armed security officers walking around the exterior of the building as well as in the main lobby near the entrance. The building was large, but not tall like a cathedral. There was an architectural piece that stood separate from the building. It was narrow and tall and had a crescent moon at the very top of it. I was educated on the significance of this piece of architecture after the service. It is a minaret and has traditionally been used as place where holy men climbed to the top in order to call out the call to prayer. I was told that the noise ordinance did not allow for the traditional use of the minaret, and an intercom system was used instead for the call to prayer. I also noticed a few vendors just outside the entrance doors selling some religious items and informational material. In the main lobby, there was a table with lots of packaged food stacked on top of each other. I quickly noticed that everyone surrounding me were men. We were greeted and asked to wait for our guide. I could hear that a service was already going on.
To begin the service, there was a call to prayer over an intercom system. At this point, we were guided to a large common area room with rugs covering the floor. I joined hundreds of men in removing my shoes and finding a spot in the room. I chose to sit in a chair, while my communication assistant and most other men kneeled. There was an older man, the imam, with a microphone standing on the front stage area that began to talk and give a sermon, in English. The imam was wearing a long robe and a cap on his head. He addressed everyone through a microphone. There was another room of men who also listened to his message through a video and audio system. He spoke about religion and it being a guide in our lives. His message was one about family, equality, and compassion. The care for children was discussed and also the role of men and women in the family. It was urged to value young daughters and to not overlook their importance in the family. He preached that many times boys are valued as more important members of the family as they grow older in to young men, but that women are the caretakers of the family and will one day be the ones to step up and take care of parents in their old age. Throughout his message, everyone was very quiet and attentive. There was very little movement or direct involvement from the men listening to his message. The general atmosphere was of extreme reverence and respect. After some time, the imam began to speak in Arabic and everyone stood. At this time, I stepped to the side and observed their prayer ritual. As they chanted, everyone stood in reverence, then bent forward, then kneeled. Each position there was prayer in unison. They repeated this three times. Once the service was concluded, everyone retrieved their shoes and began to exit, greeting each other and giving blessings to each other as they left. Many people bought lunches on their way out, as they were on their lunch break from their work day.
The experience of attending Friday prayer at Dar-Al Hijrah was eye opening and informative. Through attending the service directly, I noticed many familiar aspects. The standing, kneeling, and bowing during the final prayer were familiar to me. It resembled the kneeling prayer that I participate in during mass, before receiving communion. It was immediately evident how important this service and prayer was to all that participated. I could see that the faith and religion held a high priority in the daily lives of its members. There were men from what seemed to be many different walks of life. Some were dressed in suits, some long robes, some in work uniforms, and some were students. This service was during a weekday, in the middle of the day, yet hundreds of men came on time to participate. We were also shown an area in the bathrooms that was used to clean hands, mouth, and feet prior to attending the service. Our guide explained to us that this was an act of respect. Cleaning and doing so in the name of God was a very important step in participating in the prayer service that they hold to the upmost importance.
There was definitely an overt distinction between men and women. I did not actually see any women, beside our guide, in the duration of our visit. I was told that women use a separate entrance and participate in the service in two separate rooms. One room is for women, and the other is for women with children. Both rooms are much smaller and have far less participants than the two large rooms for men. I understood this to reflect the very traditional beliefs and roles that have been taught in the Islam faith. It was evident to me that tradition is very important to the lives of Muslims. Roles and expectations of men and women are intertwined and directly impacted by the teaching of their faith. Unlike other religions, the traditional values and conservative nature of each service is very important. Expectations of reverence, obedience, and order seem to be an unspoken truth among all members. This is clearly passed down to their daily living, as it was preached during the sermon.
Another important interpretation I gathered from my visit to Dar Al-Hijra came directly from my interaction with our guide, Fazeia. She was extremely helpful and passionate about educating us and answering any questions we had. She gave us important information about the traditions of the faith, the service, and the expectations of the daily prayers. However, what stood out the most about her leadership was her desire to educate for the purpose of creating tolerance and equality among different faiths. She was direct about her mission to unite people and help rid her community of prejudice and hateful behaviors. She quickly described many, many services that are provided by Dar Al-Hijra to the community, regardless of their faith. Some of these services include a weekly food bank, juvenile delinquent mentors, tolerance information sessions, family counseling, tutoring, homework help, and much more. It was eye opening to hear all of the work that is done by the Islamic community to support not only each other, but everyone. As she pointed out, it is rare to hear about the positive things that are done by a Muslim Community Center. Instead, the public generally associates acts of terror and violence with such faiths. Fazeia explained that so much negative and untrue information is shared about their faith by the media, that they have a “green screen” in the library for television interviews that are so frequently needed to address public situations. Fazeia definitely provided me with another perspective of the Islamic faith and helped me to understand the community on a more personal level.
Overall, I am very grateful for the opportunity to learn about another faith. The experience allowed me to observe, participate, and ask questions. I saw some similarities in rituals between Islam and my own faith, Catholicism. I also saw some very different traditions and was able to learn about their origin and purpose. Most importantly, I was able to connect with someone who explained that the pride and importance of their faith is just the same as anyone else’s. I would hate to have to constantly be defending my faith and its members from false or generalized accusations. I take away a new perspective from this experience as well as some valuable information.