Growing up, I also had opinions. I knew what I believed about gay people, religion, teen moms, poverty, and any other controversial issue. Once I moved to Dallas and met people who fit into every category I had already formed opinions about, my thoughts and opinions began changing. I began learning that everything is not as it appears on the surface. As a result, I have tried to challenge myself to be involved in various situations (that are sometimes uncomfortable). Invariably, what usually happens is once in the situation, I realize that the things we form such strong opinions are much different than we have created in our mind. I have learned to love these new experiences and love how they challenge my own opinions.
I started my New Year off right by going with a friend of mine to the Mosque. Since I had never been before, I wasn't sure what to tell people I was doing. I mean, I usually tell people I'm going to church if I go to a religious function. So, I asked my friends, "What do you guys say you're going to?" To which they replied, "We're going to mosque." Duh. It's no different. Just a different word.
My friend's wife allowed me to wear one of her abiyas. Some people wear western clothes with a head covering, but the majority wear the complete abiya, which is a beautiful dress-like covering that has a wrap that goes over and around the head. All women must have their head covered.
It didn't occur to me that we would be separated into men and women so I was really glad that my friend's wife was going as well. Otherwise, I would have had no idea what to do! When we walked in, we removed our shoes at the door (there is a place for shoes). We (the women) went in a different entrance than the men. There was a cleansing place for people who haven't done their ceremonial cleansing before prayers. I learned there is a very specific ritual that goes along with that cleansing. We walked up the stairs to sit in a room that had lines taped to the floor so we would know where to sit (no benches or seats). Most people were kneeling already. Some were praying in preparation for the service. My friend's wife and I sat in the back since she had a child. She was great about explaining everything to me.
Though the service was done in English and Arabic (though many people in the mosque don't understand Arabic any more than I do), I started realizing, "Wait a minute! This sounds like the sermons I heard growing up!"
The preacher, priest, speaker (...hmmm...I don't know what he was called) talked about the daily prayers Muslims are expected to do. He challenged the audience. "Do you even know what you're praying?!" and challenged them to not just allow prayer to become a ritual but that they really be meaningful prayers.
I remember sermons like that! In our church, they used to talk about how the service had become so ritual...two songs, prayer, sermon, two songs. They challenged us to take to heart the words of the songs and not just sing what we had memorized from childhood.
As we were leaving the service, we stopped because someone was saying something over the speakers. My friend explained to me that someone was just converting to Islam and was saying the standardized vows.
We have that, too! At the end of each service, people are asked to come forward and repent or convert. When they do, they are asked specific questions, "Do you believe in the son of God?" I can't remember the other things they tell them, but it was very similar to what we were listening to over the speaker!
As we walked out, people were hanging out talking with each other and catching up with their friends.
On the way home, my friends asked me what questions I had. We talked about some of the things that occurred and I will probably ask more questions as I think about them. If I want, the mosque is open on Sundays from 1:30-2:30 specifically for people to go in, ask questions, and learn about Islam (there's a sign in front of the mosque saying this).
Though there are some differences (like wearing head coverings and separating men and women...which makes a lot of sense to prevent distractions), the biggest and most important thing I learned from my experience is that "mosque" is not that different from "church." My friends are people of faith just as I am. The difference is the venue we choose, not the faith we profess.