The imam’s words echoed through the Sultan Hassan mosque on a blistering hot Friday afternoon as I sat amongst hundreds of Egyptian men practicing the sujud (where one’s head touches the ground as he recites subhana rabbiyal a’alah [Glory be to my Lord, the Most High]). I had called Ustaaz Lo early in the morning to ask him if I would be allowed to attend the first Friday prayer of Ramadan with him, and to my delight, he agreed to take me. I was awestruck by the mosque; its beautiful, massive marble ceilings with intricate and colorful designs full of writings from the Qu’ran, the incredible sense of community amongst the Egyptian men around me, and the words of the imam’s salat (Friday prayer) ringing through the air. I was entranced as I bowed my head to the ground and chanted along with the salah (prayer). It was an out of body experience.
The imam spoke on two points: 1) Ramadan and the principles of fasting and 2) Syrian refugees in Egypt. The imam discussed the lessons on fasting: learning patience, to restrain desire and self, and share experiences with those who have none (for instance, the poor in their daily struggle with food). Ustaaz Lo later told me a story that the imam had told during the salat. The imam explained that any man who sleeps with a full stomach while his/her neighbor is hungry is not a believer. This story drove home the point of the fasting teachings. Secondly, the imam insisted on Egypt’s obligation to shelter and feed the thousands of Syrian refugees who have sought haven in Egypt. The stories of these Syrian refugees’ suffering and leaving behind everything they have earned were meant to evoke compassion amongst the Egyptians. The imam asserted that Syrians without a place to stay or NGO to support them need help, and the Egyptians must provide that help.
It’s no secret that Americans are largely Islamophobic, and the horrific events of September 11, 2001 intensely propagated this fear. But the fear is largely skewed. The mesmerizing words of the Qu’ran were soothing, and as I bowed with those around me, I felt a connection to the people, the words, and the higher power that they all worship. Despite the heat and blaring imam’s voice in my ears, it was oddly peaceful. All religions offer their own problems, and Islam is not immune to this; for instance, Taylor, our site coordinator, went to the mosque with us, but was not allowed to pray in the same area we were. I am well aware of the extremists groups that have become the predominant connotation of Americans’ thoughts on Islam. But I stand firm in my belief that the Islamic religion is absolutely incredible, and no more frightening than any other religion. Christian and Jewish extremist groups are not immune to violence or sexism, but this often goes unsaid. Groups including the Irish Republic Army, the Orange Order, and the Jewish Defense League are all examples of extremists groups being just as dangerous as their Islamic counterparts.
I am astonished at the Western media’s influence over the way this incredible belief has become tarnished, and that feeling hit me extremely hard when I felt such peace during the prayer. I wish I could explain how welcomed I felt into the mosque (we were invited to multiple Iftars during the prayer, the evening breaking of the fast during Ramadan), and what it meant to be a part of such a powerful experience (the fact that it was the first prayer of Ramadan made it even more special). But it’s something you can’t know until you feel it yourself. I will forever remember that moment.
The tension between the American perception of Islam and the Middle East’s insight into America’s views is a vicious cycle. Throughout the trip, I have become more and more frustrated just thinking about how America feels about the Middle East as a region, and the exceedingly incorrect stereotypes and generalizations it has made. How could they believe that these people were dangerous and venomous? These people who have welcomed us with open arms, and opened our eyes to experiences none of us thought possible. But this week we visited Al-Azhar mosque, the oldest institute of higher learning in the world, and were greeted with some hostility. As we entered the mosque, a man confronted us, angrily shouting: “Israeli wa American akhrog!” (Israeli and American leave). I think we were frankly shell-shocked. This was our first experience being unwanted, and we were too stunned to respond. Ustaaz Lo eventually came to our rescue, and calmed the man down, ushering us inside. But some of us were pretty shaken up; how could a mosque, a place of worship and acceptance, attract such people?
We all pondered this thought as we left Al-Azhar to have a forum at the Arab African Research Institute, and couldn’t seem to find an answer. Dylan raised the question amongst the researchers there, and they struggled to answer our question. What they told us was now, more than ever, mosques are the place that incidents like that will happen. As the revolution and government have evolved, places of worship have become havens for Egyptians with these views. The doctors insisted that they were our allies against people who speak unjustly of America. They explained that mosques attract many uneducated people who are more likely to speak ill of Americans.
They assured us our frustration was not unfounded, but much of Egyptian’s angst stems from America’s perception of them, America’s unwavering support of Israel, and their view of the American government as constantly intervening in Middle Eastern affairs. Without overt American intervention in Middle Eastern affairs and Islamophobia, much of the Egyptian’s people’s uneasiness would not exist. Both parties are misunderstood, and the lack of large-scale dialogue will perpetuate the problem. The walls between these two regions that have so much to exchange–culturally, economically, and politically–must be shattered to end this damaging cycle. There is a saying that a circle is round and it has no end. I am anxiously waiting for this saying to be proven wrong.