By Tyna Ek
Seattle Indivisible was warmly welcomed into a Redmond Mosque this past Sunday where our Muslim neighbors shared their beliefs, dispelled stereotypes, and extended their hands and delicious in-house-made falafel in friendship.
Our visit on this beautiful sunny afternoon began with a guided tour of the Mosque at the Muslim Assoc. of Puget Sound (MAPS) in Redmond. The inside of the mosque was much simpler than I had imagined, with plain white walls and ceilings throughout. A few tapestries and plaques hung on the wall, mostly with revered statements from the Q’uran. We learned that the Mosque, while primarily a place of worship, is also a center for education and daily life activities. MAPS has a library, a restaurant (and coffee shop), a clothing store, a salon, and free legal and health clinics. Their doors are open to anyone who wishes to visit. They only ask that visitors be respectful, modestly dressed, and observe a few rules of etiquette if they wish to go inside the prayer room.
The highlight of the evening was an illuminating 30-minute tutorial on Islam by the effervescent Aneelah Afzali. Aneelah, a psychology major and Harvard Law graduate, practiced law for 10 years before dedicating her life to Islamic outreach. She is the Exec. Director of MAPS-AMEN (Muslim Assoc. of Puget Sound--American Muslim Empowerment Network). Aneelah and MAPS-AMEN believe that the best way to counter the fear and stereotypes that drive Islamophobia, is for people to meet Muslims who live in their community so they can discovery for themselves that they are peaceful people whose core beliefs share common roots with Judaism and Christianity. So armed with nothing but PowerPoint slides, Aneelah gave her 100+ guests a crash course on Islam 101, bursting a slew of myths and stereotypes in the process.
Aneelah explained that Muslims believe there is only one, almighty God. While their name for God is Allah, they believe this is the same God Christians and Jews worship. They do not worship Muhammad, but rather believe Muhammad is the last great prophet sent to share Allah’s teachings. They believe that over the course of 23 years during the 7th century, God revealed truths and teachings to Muhammad that supplemented the teachings sent before through earlier prophets such as Adam, Moses, Noah and Jesus. Many of us were surprised to learn that Jesus is mentioned more times in the Q’uran than Muhammad; and that Islam, like Christianity, teaches Jesus was born of Mary through a virgin birth, performed miracles throughout his life, shared the direct word of Allah, and will come again at the approach of Judgment Day. But they believe Jesus did all of this through the will and power of Allah. They do not believe Jesus was the son of Allah who, in their belief, has no equals or partners.
Aneelah explained Muslims’ basic beliefs and practices. She outlined the five pillars of Islam (creed, prayer, fasting, charity, pilgrimage), and the reason for certain Muslim practices, such as how and why they pray five times per day. She agreed that stopping everything five times per day to pray and going without food and drink from sunrise to sunset the entire month of Ramadan can be challenging, but explained that this is exactly the point. These practices teach discipline and restraint, and remind observant Muslims throughout their worldly day that their faith is of preeminent importance.
Aneelah unmasked one stereotype after another during her presentation and the half hour question and answer session that followed. For example, did you know that only 20% of Muslims are Arab? Or that there are three times as many Muslims in Asia-Pacific than there are in the Middle East? That American Muslim women are the 2nd most educated religious group in the U.S.A.? Or that the word Islam comes from the root word Salam, meaning peace?
Aneelah invited us to ask anything we ever wanted to know about Islam or Muslims and we didn’t hold back. We asked Aneelah to explain the meaning of Jihad, infidels and sharia law, and why some Muslim women wear the hijab (headscarf). We were even invited to stay and observe a prayer service if we wished. I did, and learned that the reason Muslims touch their head to the floor during prayer is not only to show submission to Allah, but also so that their heart is above their head. I also learned that an Imam is not ordained like a priest or minister. Anyone who leads the prayer is an Imam; in the home, this might even be a child.
After our primer on Islam, our hosts shared a meal from their own restaurant. We continued to talk and share and ask questions as we enjoyed our delicious falafel sandwiches.
Three hours flew by, and I left feeling like a curtain of mystery had been lifted to reveal a community with which we had so much more in common than we’d realized when we arrived. And perhaps more importantly, as famously said in the movie Casablanca, this just could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.