Monday, September 14, 2009

Come, let us break bread together...

I made beguni today for iftar and it was delic...Image via Wikipedia
I'm sure you're familiar with the (snippet of a) Bible verse, "Come, let us reason together." Isaiah 1:18.  Instead of reasoning, last night  I broke bread with our Muslim neighbors. Last night, I had the privilege of attending the Iftar dinner at the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati.  During the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from dawn until sundown, having no food or water.  There's more to Ramadan than that.  But, I'll keep this short.  At sundown they break the fast with an evening meal called Iftar.  Annually, the Islamic Center reaches out to the community by inviting Jews, Christians and others to join them for this evening meal and last night, the family and several people from Nexus went to the dinner.

We gathered in their community room and met our hosts.  On the tables were pitchers of water and  plates of dates.  Dates are traditionally the first thing they eat to break the fast, at the appropriate moment. I had considered fasting myself yesterday just to see what it was like and to really get the feel of breaking the fast. But, it was opening day for the Bengals and I had to have wings during the game. You can only be expected to give up so much for spiritual purity. But, what I found interesting in just the few minutes sitting there staring at that pitcher of water is I really wanted a drink of water.  I felt a lot thirstier than I knew I really was simply because the water was sitting there and I knew I couldn't have it.

It was a little odd pulling into the Islamic Center.  They have a large gate into the property.  It's a beautiful Center with a community center, a mosque and a school for children (of all faiths) up through eighth grade.  But, with the relations with the Muslim community over the last 8 years now, when I saw the gate my first thought was "Security.  The gate is there to protect them from us."   I hate to admit it but seeing all of the Middle Eastern looking men, many with long beards and wearing the traditional long robes and prayer caps made me a little nervous.  How sad is it that I associate men wearing those outfits with terrorism.  I was ashamed of myself.  But, it's something I cannot deny.  The images burned on my brain from not only the news but from popular media tell me that this is what terrorists look like.  The young man who came to sit at the table with us was not very talkative at first.   It did make me just a little nervous.

After an introduction, we were invited to take a tour of the mosque. On the way over the director of the school gave us a hard sales pitch on why we should send the girls there.  But, I'm pretty sure that won't be happening.  We were surprised to learn though that they teach the Lakota school curriculum (our local school district), there is free transportation for students in the district and it's not solely a school for Muslim children.    The mosque is a beautiful place with stained glass and Arab calligraphy all around.  We saw on the prayer rugs in the mosque while our tour guide gave us a very quick, very brief overview of Islam.  Then, we were invited back to the community center for a reading from the Koran and some words from Catholics, a Rabbi and others.  I was most impressed to learn that when the center was dedicated 15 years ago, the Rabbi who spoke to us last night was invited and attended.  I was impressed to learn just how involved the Islamic Center and CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) were involved in interfaith efforts in the Cincinnati community.  CAIR sometimes gets a bad rap because they, like the ACLU, are often involved in civil rights affairs. 

After the speeches, since one guy who was supposed to speak didn't show, we had some time before we could actually eat.  You don't break the fast around sundown.  It's timed down to the minute. So our hosts had to wait before they could eat.  So, we had some time to talk to the young man who had joined us at our table.  We learned that it was actually a sacrifice for him to be there as his wife and young sun were celebrating Iftar somewhere else.  I felt honored that he had chosen to spend his time with us, strangers and "non-believers" (even though I have Muslim friends and now know Muslims do not consider Jews and Christians at all).  We talked for a while then it was time for the evening prayer and the breaking of the fast. We all ate a date to break the fast.  Then, some of us began eating and some of us followed our hosts back into the mosques to observe their prayers.  The prayers only take a few minutes and it was really cool to actually see them being done.  I didn't participate with the prayers or the prostrations (standing, bending to touch your knees and kneeling alternatively). But, the girls and Ty did (upstairs in the balcony where the women were).  The prayers are in Arabic.  I was reminded of the old Catholic masses in Latin. Since the Imam leading the prayer faces the wall leading the prayers in Arabic rather than English, the language the people actually speak.  After prayers it was time for the feast and it was a wonderful feast of hummus, a tossed salad, several types of rice, a casserole (not sure if it was eggplant or not), chicken, roasted lamb, etc. etc.  

The girls loved the whole evening.  They loved wearing the hijab (the scarves Muslim women wear to cover their heads). They took great care picking out their outfits for the evening.  We learned the women wear the scarves because their hair is considered to be part of their beauty and it's a modesty issue.  I have to say the women we saw there were very beautiful and had gorgeous hair (my wife said so, so it's OK for me to say it too).  When we left, Kayla gave her top reasons for being Muslim.  The beautiful mosque, the Ramadan feasts and wearing the hijab.  I'm pretty sure that was the right order.

It was an enriching experience attending. If you ever have the chance to tour a mosque or an Islamic center, I would encourage you to take it.  Personally, I didn't learn a lot about Islam that I didn't already know because I do have some Muslim friends and I read this great book "A Deadly Misunderstanding" on Islam and the misunderstandings most Christians have of it.  But, I'm glad I went and that Ty and the girls got to go and I plan to participate with other events with the Islamic Center in the very near future (beginning in two weeks).  Very cool!

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Don said...

Sounds like a fascinating time. I, as a history teacher, had studied Islam twenty or more years ago, before terrorism changed the world as we knew it and our opinions of Muslims. Anything we can do to help us all understand each other better is certainly a step in the right direction.

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

Brian, thank you for this wonderful, honest, and moving post.

Anonymous said...

Brian, I'm happy that you and your family had the opportunity to experience the Iftar and tour the Mosque. Although the prayers are recited in Arabic, especially Al Fatiha(opening prayer) every Muslim understands its meaning regardless of their national language. On Fridays,(Jummah), Imams, before prayers, give the Sermon(Khutbah)in
English. Qu'ranic passages within the sermon are recited in Arabic then explained in English.
I hope that you will take the opportunity to visit the Mosque on Jummah(Friday around 1pm) and also a Mosque which has mostly an American congregation, to have a better understanding of Islam, without the media projected image.
Peace & Blessings

Brian said...

Anonymous (my Muslim friend, Brenda), thanks for taking the time to comment. Yes, I know intellectually that I should not distrust Muslim men. But, I would be dishonest if I denied the sight of some Muslim men does provoke an initial reaction which I don't like in myself.

I guess I didn't mention this. But, the reading from the Qu'ran (in Arabic) was followed up by an English translation. The reading was done just before the fast was broken. My observation about the prayers and readings being in Arabic wasn't meant to be a criticism, just an observation. I realize the original language of the Qu'ran and the Prophet (PBUH) was Arabic and I understand the desire to keep the language.

The Islamic Center locally is mostly an English speaking mosque and my understanding is the sermon is in English. I probably will visit some Friday to observe.