One Mosque, Many Faiths

Ten American students, a Pakistani professor and an Indian journalist — we all sat in a circle to explore the space where divides end, and our unity begins.

We all sat in a circle, surrounded by the tranquility of a richly decorated mosque in Washington, D.C. We were for once away from all schisms–of religion, faith and nations. Ten American students, a Pakistani professor and an Indian journalist–we all sat in a circle to explore the space where divides end, and our unity begins.

For these students at American University, the experience was a novel one-–for most of them, it was their first ever visit to a mosque. Our group was a concoction of identities–Native Americans, Roman Catholics, Moroccan Jews, and me, a Sikh from the Indian side of Kashmir.

The visit was scheduled to give students an experience of a mosque and to clear misperceptions about clashes of faiths. We chose to visit the Islamic Center in D.C., a mosque designed by an Italian architect and constructed in the 50′s. The imam at the center led us through the prayers and explained the three categories in Islam- a Muslim, who may or may not be truly spiritual; a Momim, a believer who practices his belief faithfully; and the highest category of a Muhsin, who is benevolent, charitable and a humanitarian to all mankind. For him, spreading education or ilm met with the highest category- a reason why he often addressed Professor Akbar Ahmed as Muhsin. Imam Abdullah M Khouj, who is from Mecca, became a Hafiz, or someone who memorizes the entire Koran, at the age of 11. He clearly held high reverence for scholarship and service, perhaps even greater than just practicing beliefs.

Imam Khouj, who has been the head of the mosque for over 30 years, discussed how Islam teaches a respect for differences, “If God wanted all of us to be the same, He would have made us the same.” For most of us, who were not so familiar with the Koranic verses, he quoted a verse, “To you your religion and to me mine.” This is a phrase missed out in the entire “clash of civilization” debate.

For the students, the experience was varied. For some it was humbling. For others, enlightening –a reminder of how similar, yet different the ways of God are.

Casey Wilson, a Catholic American, says it was just a reminder of the similarities between Christianity and Islam. “They may have different pillars and practices, but the passionate belief in God resonates.”

Lareina Montoyo, a Mohawk from Six Nations, left the mosque with these similarities bundled up with her. “ We, the Native Americans, do not call our traditions a religion, but rather view it as a way of life. We have always been taught tolerance, community service and to contribute towards the larger good of the mankind- the ideas which are very similar to what I heard at the mosque.”

While the similarities were celebrated, we also gained a respect for differences. Sandra Mekler, a Jew from Morroco says that in her tradition, she was “taught that we did not bow, as we did not idolize.” But, she adds, “when I saw the prayers, as men bowed and prostrated together in perfect unison, I thought it was a touching act of humility.” “Shoeless, modest and humble,” she sums it up.

In the mosque, under the magnificent bronze Egyptian chandelier, we sat together in a circle as teachers and learners. We discussed why women pray in separate spaces, why religions have sectarian divides. We explored how humility and submission are at the core of spirituality, how various faiths were connected with a common thread.

When we were about to leave, I turned to Imam Khouj and told him that the holy text of the Sikhs, the Guru Granth Sahib, repeats the name Allah 46 times. Our professor reiterated that the fifth Sikh Guru asked a Muslim Sufi saint, Mian Mir, to lay the foundation stone of the Holiest Sikh shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Here we were, a Pakistani professor, an Indian journalist and 10 American students, attempting to find bridges between faiths. My mind raced back to the raging battles between nations, to the gunfire on the borders, to attacks on places of worship, to condemnation in the name of faith. Far away from these clashes, here we were as a small group, dissolving divides that we had known, finding common spaces.

As we all walked out of the mosque on a sunny autumn afternoon, I could only hope that this microcosm of togetherness spreads around. That we all begin by seeing a part of ourselves in the “other.” It was a bright, warm autumn afternoon. We said a little prayer. For warmth, and, for unity.

Image courtesy of Shahrukh Hasan.

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  • CCNL

    Some 21st century reality about religion in general for the new members of this blog:

    Putting the kibosh on all religion in less than ten seconds: Priceless !!!

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Moses i.e. the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated/reborn Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    • A constant cycle of reincarnation until enlightenment is reached and belief that various beings (angels?, tinkerbells? etc) exist that we, as mortals, cannot comprehend makes for a no on Sikhism.

    Added details available upon written request.

    A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

    e.g. Taoism

    “The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother’s womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. “

  • be_reasonable1

    I think your post need edits. As far as you know or you can tell…..

  • CCNL

    As requested:


    Joe Smith had his Moroni. (As does M. Romney)

    “Latter-day Saints like M. Romney also believe that Michael the Archangel was Adam (the first man) when he was mortal, and Gabriel lived on the earth as Noah.”

    Jehovah Witnesses have their Jesus /Michael the archangel, the first angelic being created by God;

    Mohammed had his Gabriel (this “tin-kerbell” got around).

    Jesus and his family had/has Michael, Gabriel, and Satan, the latter being a modern day demon of the demented. (As do BO and his family)(As do Biden and Ryan)

    The Abraham-Moses myths had their Angel of Death and other “no-namers” to do their dirty work or other assorted duties.

    Contemporary biblical and religious scholars have relegated these “pretty wingie/horn-blowing thingies” to the myth pile. We should do the same to include deleting all references to them in our religious operating manuals. Doing this will eliminate the prophet/profit/prophecy status of these founders and put them where they belong as simple humans just like the rest of us.

  • cold666pack

    Before this beautiful piece and it’s thoughtfulness gets lost under the weight of the haters of anything that even remotely suggests there is beauty in Islam, Sikhism and Hinduism as opposed to only Christianity and Judaism, I just wanted to convey my gratitude and say Well done. Your piece really moved me.

  • Abey

    The verse “To you your religion and to me my religion” that the author seemed bedazzled by was written in the early stage of Mohammad’s ministry when he was alone and weak. Later when he had a large following he abrogated (cancelled) this verse. He replaced it by “The only religion accepted by Allah is Islam”. You furthermore did not tell us how the Imam explained the fact that men and women pray in different parts of the mosque.