Growing up in the place where almost everybody was atheist, I have become increasingly curious about Islam, as a religion and the culture that comes along with it. As someone who has traveled and studied abroad, I always feel excited with meeting people from different backgrounds. But sometimes I sense that my lack of knowledge in some religion-related culture makes me hesitant in opening up topics during my discussion with foreign friends. Islam is a great religion with large number of followers (estimated 1. 57 billion) (CNN).
Although often underreported, China (my home country) actually has a sizable Muslim population living in Muslim neighborhoods across the country (Armijo). You cannot fully understand your country without understanding a major demographic group in the country. After the tragedy of 9/11, this religion was somewhat misunderstood by a proportion of public and media in some parts of the world. This also gave rise to the so called “Islamphobia” (Haddad). As someone not really interested in politics, I just wanted to get to know a culture that is seemly so different than mine but could be found right around the corner of my neighborhood.
I hoped this would also give me a very different perspective about life and the world. Eventually, I chose a Friday Muslim prayer service to attend with my Muslim classmate. Coming back from such first-time experience, I would say this religion feels foreign but also familiar to me. I was shocked by the strong and genuine faith the followers showed, the genius creation of literal and architectural works in this religion, and the rich traditions they have kept for a long time. At the same time, I realized my daily life actually has something to do with this culture. Some of my favorite foods come from Muslim cuisine.
The followers, once out of the mosque, are simply the nice neighbors I know. The event The whole thing started with a random discussion with my new classmate, Jing. He was a Muslim hailing from Northwestern China. I just realized that he regularly attended the Muslim Friday prayer at a mosque not far from where we lived. Although I did not know him well, since we were both Chinese students in a foreign country, we shared a lot of experiences and had a lot to talk about. But when I realized that he had some restraints on diet due to religious belief, I felt that my understanding of certain spectrum of Chinese society was far from enough.
My curiosity kept building up. Finally my courage pushed me to ask him if it is appropriate for me, as he knew was an atheist, to attend the prayer service. He blinked his eyes, kind of surprised, not by the request but by the way I asked. “Why not? ”, his response was straightforward. He added, “you can find some friends who are also foreign students living nearby. You know it is a great venue to meet with friends, and they welcome everyone no matter what their religion is”. His answer quickly diffused my worry. So I made up my mind to spend a Friday noon with a meaningful activity.
But wait, do I have to prepare anything? Do I have to follow some rituals mandated by this service? This took patient explanation by my friend, which made me feel I was like a child going to school for the first day. I also had many sources to resort to, such as the internet. But it turned out the learning could become endless search since the background of Islam seemed so complex and there were even many fractions within it. My friend simply calmed me down, “relax, not very one is that religious. Most of us are moderate followers.
On top of all these, we know you are the guest, so just do the way you feel comfortable”. As I learned from the internet, the Friday prayer is also called “Jumu’ah”, where Muslims gather every Friday just after noon to pray and listen to the speech of an imam (Wikipedia). There are guidelines on how to attend a Friday prayer. Some steps include: take a shower or bath; dress in clean, modest clothes; remove the shoes; enter the prayer area with right foot first; sit quietly and listen to imam; greet other people. For first-timers, these sound too much. Nevertheless, these “rules” also whetted up my appetite.
So after the Friday morning classes, Jing and I left the library and headed for a mosque not far from the campus. This mosque, as we believed, was built a couple of years ago when the growing Muslim community needed a place to pray. The building did not look remarkable. Maybe it is just a small mosque. When we arrived about twenty people were already outside the entrance chatting. The prayer was going to start in five minutes. I found three of students who had taken the same class with me in the university before. They recognized me immediately, a little surprised, and patted my shoulder, greeting me.
I greeted back to such warm welcome. Looking at all the faces, I guessed most of the prayer goers were foreigners, but some of them might had been living here for many years. Then I saw several women passing by the crowd and going through a door other than the main entrance. It looked like those women knew nobody here. I later learned that women have to pray in a totally separate area with men because the presence of men other than their husband will make them uncomfortable. This immediately added a strange taste to my experience that so far looked more like party going.
As the imam was about to take the stage and lead the prayer, my friend asked me if I wanted to join the prayer or simply stand by as an observer. Since I did not think I could follow correctly the steps of prayer I said it was better for me to observe the whole prayer from near distance and asked if this is appropriate. He said no problem and it is their tradition to welcome observers from other faiths. Suddenly I became alone when the prayer really took place. The messy crowd suddenly turned to well organized mass in the praying area. They were lined up shoulder to shoulder and spaced perfectly.
This made four lines of them. Then they started the formal process of the prayer. I guessed they had practiced many times, although some were only teenagers. The timing of their steps was simply perfect. They bowed, kneeled, and stood up in the same second, appearing in perfect uniform. Their chanting made them look like an orchestra. I did not understand what they chanted, and it looked like they were reciting something they memorized from a book, maybe the holy Koran. For certain periods, silence dominated the area and you could hear the drop of a needle if it happened.
I checked every face I could see and wondered, what was in their mind? Were they thinking about mostly the same thing or things totally different? Ten minutes into the prayer, the imam began to speak. This time everybody’s face started to look more relaxed. He started with something I really did not understand, although it was mostly in English. There were so many terms in his speech that are specifically used in Islam that made his speech look more like in Arabic. Then he sort of ended the formal ritual and started talking about their small Muslim community. His talk covered education, safety, and integration.
What really drew my attention was his mentioning of social networks like Facebook and how religion should be placed in the digital age. When I looked around I saw the response from the crowd was not unanimous at all. Some of them, especially teenagers, looked around, did not seem to be listening. It is said that sometimes the imam’s speech could be dreadfully long. Fortunately this one ended up after twenty minutes. Finally it looked like the formal part of the prayer was finished. Even some of them were staying there praying, some started to leave and some came out and started talking with each other.
My friend asked me how I felt. All three of my former classmates came up to me and started talking with me about a variety of things, like life, study, jobs, but the prayer or religion. So in a very quick manner I wrapped up my prayer experience. I did not really pray this time and I do not think it is likely that I will ever change my atheist belief. But I do like the Islam religion and the way the followers keep their faith. So the night following that I searched for some articles online to read, just wanted to make more sense of this experience.
I browsed the web and found a large collection of pictures of Islamic architecture. Those grandiose mosques simply look spectacular and keep fascinating me. Their talent in calligraphy made me realize there is another great calligraphic tradition in the world that can parallel the Chinese calligraphic tradition. When I was a kid I liked to read the tales of “One thousand and one nights” which has many fascinating stories (Penguin group). But I did not know it came from Islamic origin and is considered the most well known fiction from Islamic world.
When I looked at the Islamic culture in China, I found the food pretty much everyone in China knows and has tried, Lamian, a kind of noodles that takes stretching and folding to make. Since I had Lamian for lunch almost every week when living in China, I thought I already had intimate contact with this culture for a long time. Afterthoughts This is by no means a deep exploration of a religion and its culture foreign to me. But from the observation and interaction with people I think I would have a lot to think about. It was not a visit to a new place.
It was a visit to a totally different spiritual world. Basically, my questions in my mind can be categorized into three groups: (1) do we need religion, which is the question an atheist like me always likes to ask; (2) what are the people looking for when they go to the prayer. Are they for the common purpose? (3) what role should a religion play in this fast-changing modern world. I admit that I have had some stereotype perception on religions before. I even associated them with superstition. Almost everyone recognizes the importance of faith in one’s life, no matter it is religious or not.
From my observation it looks like religion provides a spiritual home for many people, in this sometimes complex and confusing society. It also brings people from different backgrounds together. This is especially important when you live abroad and have few friends to reach out to. But many atheists like me would say we can still go by without any connection to a religion. My experience tells me that even you are atheist, attending a prayer service, whatever religion it belongs to, could give you a brand-new perspective, purify your mind, and calm you down.
This is very helpful when we are often facing mounting pressure dealing with life and work. Maybe I will never have the answer about what all the prayer goers looked for. It is more likely that everyone had something different in his mind because of different situations and experiences. Some may find this ritual simply mandatory in the culture where they live. Some could find it a place to get away from real world and take a spiritual bath. A religion is like a society where people share things but also maintain differences.
It looked like they were taking a break from busy life. Maybe once they are out of the mosque, they are not talking about their faith much when they are in the crowd that does not understand their religion enough. But they might have another home where they can feel more comfortable to talk, to share joys or vent frustration. Maybe I should not answer the last question that what role should religion play in the society since I don’t think I am big enough to make statements on that. I have seen sometimes heated discussions on this topic online.
Some people think religion cannot catch up with the fast development of our society. More negative views include that religions now are more of an impediment since its doctrines will restrict people’s freedom to make breakthroughs. After spending some time pondering on this, now I hold the view that religion and modernization can complement each other. They can exist alongside harmoniously just like we need diversity in our society with multiple voices. At some point of our rush in development, it could be better to sit down, reflect, think about our faith, and see if eligion can help.
The Friday prayer service gave me a lesson exactly like that. Summary Maybe the greatest thing about this experience is not what I have learned, but the way I learned it. I opened my mind to new ideas from a culture very strange to me. Afterwards, I started to think independently, which I was not used to do. So I would say this experience is both exciting and thought-provoking. I would like to share this experience with my fellow students and remind them to be always open to new ideas, and be bold to reach out.