I have never visited a mosque. In fact, my experience with Islam throughout my life has been limited to the few resources I have read and the few documentaries I have seen about the religion. Considering a goal of my “I have never...” year has been to experience the major forms of faith in our world, I made a commitment early in my year of new experiences to visit a mosque and to experience Islam in practice for the first time during my “I have never...” journey. As a result, I set to work finding the best location for such and experience within traveling distance from my hometown of Madison some months ago. Eventually, this effort eventually led me to the Islamic Society of Milwaukee, an organization committed to assist those in need, provided a central place of worship for Muslims, and to promote good citizenship and community in and around the city. With a large and growing congregation and a mosque at the center’s location, I knew the Islamic Society of Milwaukee would provide me a memorable and authentic experience with Islam. In turn, I contacted the center to confirm I could attend one of their prayer services and scheduled time to visit the mosque.
When I first contacted the mosque to explain my hopes of attending a prayer service, I was greeted with openness to the idea that astounded me. After explaining the reason for my visit, the woman answering the phone confirmed I was more than welcome to attend a service and immediately offered to set up an appointment with the local imam and a member of Islamic Society leadership to provide me a more comprehensive first experience with the faith. Understanding the meetings would provide me an opportunity to get some background on Islam and to better understand the proceedings during the prayer, I happily accepted the offer. With that, the woman put together a schedule on my behalf and provided me some instruction on getting to the mosque on the day of my visit. At that point, there was nearly a month left before I made the trip, but I was already floored by the warm, accepting nature of the Islamic Society of Milwaukee. Such a first impression was more than I ever expected, which left me hopeful my first experience with Islam would have a lasting impact.
With my visit to the mosque scheduled to begin late this morning, I rose early today and left my house with plenty of time to make the trip to Milwaukee. As a result, I arrived to the mosque ahead of my scheduled appointment. Hopeful my timing wouldn’t interrupt any other events at the center, I quietly entered through the Islamic center’s main doors and into an empty, quiet space. Near a doorway in front of me rested signs asking visitors to remove their shoes and directing people to the mosque entrance. In response, I slid off my footwear and placed it on a nearby shelf before slowly walking past the breach of the mosque doors. In the space outside the mosque relics and artwork containing designs foreign to me lined the walls. Their rhythm was only broken by the periodic posting of flyers that made mention of religious group meetings, events, and the center’s impacts on the local community. In silence, I read about the Islamic Center of Milwaukee’s outreach and its mission to spread peace and knowledge to its fellow citizens. The consistent focus on betterment was obvious, which was enough to put a smile on my face.
After taking a quick look at the mosque interior through a series of nearby windows, I walked back toward the mosque entrance and heard some soft voices from a hallway around the corner. Realizing that likely meant there was a reception area on the second floor, I put my shoes back on and ascended the stairway where I was met by a man and two women carrying on in conversation in a nearby office. Doing my best not to interrupt, I introduced myself to the group. With a smile, one of the women responded to my remarks. “Yes, Caleb, I remember your voice. I was the one that spoke to you a few weeks ago. Please come in.”
|The mosque doors|
I acknowledged her remarks with thanks as I entered the room and took a seat at a nearby table. Explaining the imam was not yet at the center, the woman offered to see if the executive director of the center was available to talk with me before offering to get me a glass of water. Despite my early arrival, it was clear the Islamic Center of Milwaukee was happy to accommodate me, which made me feel comfortable from my first few minutes in the office. Explaining my desire not to interfere with the schedules of others, I told the woman I was happy to wait as necessary, which caused her to reply with understanding. “Well, you can wait here with us for a little while, and when the imam or the executive director become available I will let you know,” she said with a warm, helpful tone. I nodded my head in understanding and thanked her in response before turning my attention to the glass of water now resting on the table in front of me.
I sat in the office for a few minutes sipping at my glass until a man emerged from a room behind me and called my name. “Hello, Caleb?” he said as I turned in my chair to meet him, “I’m Othman, the executive director of the Islamic Society of Milwaukee. I understand you are interested in learning more about Islam?” I confirmed that was the case as I rose from my chair and extended a hand to meet Othman’s. “Please, come into my office, and we can talk for a bit,” he said with a gentle tone and a smile. “I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have.”
With that, Othman guided me to his office and offered me a chair in front of his desk. Taking a seat in front of me on the same side of the desk, Othman began our conversation simply. “So, what brings you here today?” he asked with sincerity. I replied with a brief explanation of my “I have never...” journey, which made Othman respond with a look of surprise and a healthy degree of curiosity. After fielding a few of his questions about my experiences, our conversation led into my intentions to learn more about the faiths of the world and my desire to gain more experience with Islam.
My remarks were met with acceptance and understanding, which led Othman to give me a brief background on the origins of the religion and the main tenets of the faith. Explaining Islam’s ties to Christianity and Judaism before it, Othman took time to explain the life of Muhammad as one of many prophets among Jesus, Abraham, Moses, and others that have significance in Islam. From there Othman expounded on the focus placed on the works of Muhammad, which exist as the most direct and wholly intact prophetic works among all messengers from God. Given the Muhammad’s physical task of writing his own words and the efforts to meticulously transfer these works without interpretation, Othman explained Muslims see Muhammad’s words as the most pure form of the message Muslims believe all prophets were sent to deliver. This message, Othman clarified, was centered on peace and love for all mankind to foster one on one, personal relationships between each person and God. Continuing, Othman advised me that belief is the reason why true Islam relies only on scholars to interpret Muhammad’s works and refrains from instilling any form of hierarchy to act as mediators for God.
His explanation was full but concise, and it revealed more insight about Islam in the first few minutes of our conversation than I had obtained on my own over the first 30 years of my life. Following his introduction, Othman and I spent nearly an hour and a half talking about the core of the Islamic faith, the role of modern Islam, and the perversions of the faith that have led to anti-Islamic perspectives. Othman’s openness to discuss and address such topics was apparent as we spoke, with reason operating as the anchor of our conversation. Together, we discussed modern historical events and the role of politics in manipulating the tenets of the faith for the personal gains and aspirations of corrupt and greedy individuals. I listened as Othman cited and summarized passages from the Quran that contradict such actions outright and tied back to the concepts harmony and oneness in faith that we had discussed earlier. Like other forms of religion, Othman pointed out, the people the use faith for personal gain are often ignoring the faith for the sake of personal or political gains. “Those people,” Othman said, “The ones that use Islam to dictate, to fight, and to kill. They are Muslims in name only. True Muslims believe in peace and believe in helping people in need. Muslims do not serve themselves, they serve humanity.”
His words caused a sense of discovery to swell in me. Although I had always known the tenets of Islam focused living good, full lives devoted to faith and love, the realness and passion with which Othman spoke made me see those forces in action for the first time in my life. I followed his remarks with a few of my experiences struggling with the hypocrisy of some in different forms of faith, which caused Othman to respond in kind. “In the Quran it says, ‘to kill one human is to kill all of humanity.’ Groups that distort religion to hate and to kill are not religious groups, they are murderers. It is that simple.” That perspective made me realize that even in my best efforts to avoid anti-Islamic perspectives, I had fallen victim to the western tendency to ascribe a crime committed by a Muslim to their faith instead of ascribing it to the person. Realizing the folly in my ways, I responded to Othman. “You’re right, many people in our country, myself included, are more likely to see a crime committed by a person claiming to be a Christian and define them as a bad person, whereas they see a crime committed by a person claiming to be a Muslim and they immediately attribute it to the person’s faith. I’m sorry for that.” In response to my comments, Othman looked at me with a slight smile and shook his head, “There is no reason to apologize, Caleb. We are not perfect. It is our intent that matters.”
As our conversation drew to a close, the local imam stopped by Othman’s office for a visit. Apologizing for his tardiness, the imam explained he has spent the morning helping some foreign visitors get from Chicago to Milwaukee, which I understood was a much higher priority task than meeting with a curious stranger from a little more than one hour away. Expressing the same degree of graciousness and openness Othman has showed me for the hour and half prior, the imam asked how our meeting had progressed and if I had any questions he could answer. Understanding the imam was likely busy with the tasks that had occupied his morning, I thanked him for his offer but stated I would simply attend the service as to not occupy any of his time.
|The mosque interior|
The imam nodded his head and smiled in response before leaving Othman and I to bring our time together to a close. As Othman offered me some final thoughts on our conversation and Islam, I retraced our conversation. Through that process I knew Othman’s words and perspectives would likely stick with me for the rest of my life. The light he shed on Islam and the compassion he showed for all people in the 90 minutes we spent together reflected what I had hoped to find during today’s experience, but the went beyond simple statements. Othman’s heart was in every word he spoke, and that heart was built on devotion to his faith. I didn’t need anything more to know that true Islam was built on benevolence and good principles, I could see all those things in the man sitting before me. Still, I knew I wouldn’t be able to gain the full experience until I attended a full prayer service, a fact Othman called attention to as we wrapped up our conversation. Acknowledging we had spent a significant amount of time talking, Othman pointed out the fact there was only minutes before the prayer was scheduled to begin. As a result, he provided me a little guidance on what to expect and gave me some directions to the mosque. With that, he showed me to his office door and gave me another handshake. “I’ll see you down there,” he said with a smile.
After thanking Othman for his time, I found my way down to the mosque and took a seat against a wall toward the middle of the sanctuary. Around me, men were steadily trickling into the space and going through their ritual prayers as the entered and found a position in the vast carpeted space. As the crowd grew, the imam took to the front of the room and began speaking about a variety of topics all focused on being better people, better citizens, and better neighbors in the name of God. His message expressed the universality of such topics and the need for all people to try to be better in each aspect of their lives. Drawing directly from the stories and passages in the Quran, the imam tied the ideas of humility and humanity back to the words of Muhammad and closed with a final message of love for all those in attendance.
The imam’s message continued to resonate through the mosque as a man approached the front of the room to begin the call to prayer before a room of people now filled to capacity. The beautiful sounds of Middle Eastern melodies carried through the space, prompting all those in attendance to rise for the collective prayer. As the mosque fell quiet with the end of the call to prayer, I watched as each person in the room around me simultaneously committed a series of actions leading into a bow. As quickly as they reached the ground, the group rose back to their feet to complete the prayer to God with a final act of praise before the ceremony came to and end. Stunned by the act of devotion I had just witnessed, I stood silent against the wall near the back of the room for some time as the mosque slowly began to empty. Outside in the hallway, sounds of laughter and spirited conversation filled the air, but the mosque remained quiet but for the imam giving a few final words and the murmurs of prayers being said around the space. The entire experience was surreal but somehow uplifting. There was no question it had touched me.
Eventually, I moved my way toward the door and found my way back toward the mosque entrance. With the afternoon hurrying along and some unfavorable weather scheduled to move in, I decided I would start my journey home. On my way out of the Islamic Center, I parted the crowd of jovial men and women to find Othman once more. Catching him between conversations, I thanked him once more and did my best to express the impact my time at the mosque had on my perspective. Othman immediately expressed his joy at the fact the experience had been so positive and proceeded to offer me his hand for one final handshake. As I grabbed his hand I shot him a smile and gave him one last remark, “I want you to know this is a day I won’t soon forget.” The remark caused a smile to cross Othman’s face before giving me a quick reply. “I’m happy to hear that, my friend. I hope to see you again.” In that moment I knew it went without saying, I shared the same hope as him.
As I pulled away from the mosque a single, unexpected tear gently rolled down my cheek. Although I still don’t fully understand why, I knew it had meaning. My first experience with Islam had struck at my hear, the consistent focus on peace and love I had encountered throughout the day left me feeling a true desire to be a better person. While I doubt that means I will convert to the faith anytime soon, to know that today’s experience had that kind of impact carries a lot of weight in my mind. I know my “I have never...” year to date has helped me become a better person in a lot of ways, but the altruism and openness I encountered at the Islamic Society of Milwaukee shows me I still have some work to do. That takeaway wouldn’t have been possible without the graciousness of the center and the sacrifice Othman made to spend time with a complete stranger for an hour and a half during the middle of the day. Realizations like that give me a lot of perspective, and they make the value in going out and experiencing something new abundantly clear.