The month leading up to the tenth anniversary of the September 11th tragedies felt like a mental pummeling as the media reminded us incessantly that we should be remembering something that would take severe measures for anyone to actually forget. Most of the “coverage” was successfully ignored, not read, and not watched, but one item I felt compelled to read was a revisionist piece claiming that there was no increase in anti-Islam sentiments after 9/11. My own experiences prompted me to question such claims.
On September 12, 2001 a former relative publicly mocked any and all names that sounded Middle Eastern. In the weeks following, I remember driving behind a pickup truck in Manchester with “Nuke the towel-heads” painted on the back windows. Thinking perhaps there was not a spike in ignorance so much as already hateful individuals feeling empowered to air their beliefs, I looked further.
In 2002, there was a reported 1600% increase in hate crimes against Muslims from the following year. This trend continued. Even in Hartford, thinly-veiled anti-Muslim attitudes emerged when the City Council planned to start one of its meetings with an Islamic prayer; the outrage over Muslim-led prayer rivaled only that of business owners’ anger over revaluation.
It can not accurately be stated that there was no spike in anti-Islam sentiments after 9/11, but fortunately, there are non-Muslims who have been and are seeking to understand and relate to their Muslim neighbors. Besides co-hosting an interfaith memorial service on September 11, 2011, the Muslim Coalition of Connecticut coordinated open houses in eleven mosques around Connecticut on the evening of September 10, 2011; two centers in Hartford participated: the Bosnian American Islamic Cultural Center on Franklin Avenue and the Muhammad Islamic Center of Greater Hartford on Hungerford Street.
To prepare for this visit, I studied up on mosque etiquette, as there is a difference between ignorance and willful ignorance. Covering my hair and remembering not to attempt to shake men’s hands seemed most challenging beforehand. As it turns out, when the norm is to have one’s head covered, doing so does not seem strange anymore. But after walking ten minutes, the scarf did make me extra sweaty until my body had time to cool down.
The Muhammad Islamic Center of Greater Hartford is located in a house on a street comprised of law offices, homes, a health care facility, and a shelter. It is not immediately obvious that the building near the corner of Grand Street is a masjid. Like a number of urban churches, they use the space that is available to them.
When we arrived, a man standing on the front porch talking on his cell phone opened the door and directed us to go upstairs. As we stepped inside, we found two large racks to the left of the door where our shoes needed to go. On all the etiquette FAQs that I read before my visit (I read several, but found that the one provided by the Muslim Coalition of Connecticut was the most useful), the one item treated with equal seriousness on all lists was that of shoe removal. Spiritual reasons aside, nobody needs to bow down in prayer and find that her face is touching or next to something nasty tracked in on someone’s shoes.
I was under the impression that we would simply be attending a prayer service and then have time to ask our inane questions after. The open house was far more comprehensive than that. At the top of the stairs, two men were describing some basics about Islam to visitors. When Imam Kashif Abdul-Karim arrived, the men stepped aside. After receiving a very basic tutorial in Islamic greetings, we were led downstairs to the main space for worship.
There are no pews. The only chairs are portable and reserved for those who physically need them. Decorations are also minimalist. There are some tapestries and other wall hangings, but mainly, the space resembles a rec room.
The imam described himself as a “revert,” explaining that the belief is that everyone is born a Muslim. Imam Kashif described the ways in which the language barrier creates misunderstandings about the faith. The word “muslim,” he said, refers to one who submits to the will of God. Those who would identify as the latter, readily, do not find themselves so able to identify as Muslims. And why not? Language. Another example given of how language complicates understanding of Islam is the word “Allah.” Some have taken “Allah” to mean “the Muslim God,” but Imam Kashif explained that this is not the case. The word means “the God.” That’s all.
Although some differences between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity were pointed out, emphasis was placed on where they overlap. Since I was not taking notes and would do injustice by attempting to paraphrase Imam Kashif, I will turn to what The Illustrated World’s Religions: A Guide to Our Wisdom Traditions says on the same subject:
God created the world, and after it human beings. The name of the first man was Adam. The descendents of Adam and Eve led to Noah, who had a son named Shem from which the word Semite derives. The descendents of Shem led to Abraham who married Sarah. Sarah had no son, so Abraham took Hagar for his second wife. Hagar bore him a son, Ishmael, whereupon Sarah conceived and likewise had a son, named Isaac. Sarah then demanded that Abraham banish Ishmael and Hagar from the tribe. Up to this point the Koran follows the Bible, but here the accounts diverge, for according to the Koran, Ishmael went to the place where Mecca was to rise. (146)
The discussion at MICGH reinforced the idea that Islam encompasses many of the same beliefs as the other major Abrahamic religions; this is a not-so-small detail that many are ignorant about. The absence of Original Sin, however, is one way that Islam differs from Christianity. To summarize the Islamic belief: there is nothing wrong with what God has created. Another difference is in how Jesus is viewed. Islam teaches that Jesus should be respected as a prophet, but not elevated to the level of God.
But the similarities among these three major religions abound. Muslim women cover their hair, but so do many Orthodox and Conservative Jewish women. All three believe in charitable acts, including some form of financial donation. All three have themes of peace woven into their congregational meetings. In Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, prayer meetings/services contains singing/chanting and lecturing/preaching.
Knowing that there are so many commonalities, it is difficult to understand why some who identify with the other Abrahamic religions fear and/or hate Muslims.
The imam paused the “Islam 101″ discussion when it became time to pray. While Christian churches select mass/service times somewhat arbitrarily, Muslims have a prescribed prayer schedule. At this time, visitors were asked to move to the very back of the room; those remaining to pray were divided into two sections — men in the front, women in the back. Prayer was conducted in Arabic, but explained later in English. Nearly every photograph depicting Islamic prayer features Muslims in prostration; however, the prayer cycle also includes standing, bowing, and sitting. After completion of the prayer, Imam Kashif picked up where he left off and tried to answer questions from visitors. From there, visitors were invited upstairs for refreshments– bean pie, grapes, cheese and crackers, and cookies were set out. Men sat on one side of the room, women on the other. Here, I learned that women are not permitted to pray or fast during their menstrual periods, but this does not mean they fast any less than men; they simply have to make up for it later. Though the imam encouraged us to ask the women how they felt about their head scarves, none of the visitors, to my knowledge, did so.
After the refreshment period, there was another call to prayer. Though invited to stay, it appeared that all visitors left at this time. One woman invited me back several times, reminding me that I only live a few blocks away. Though the language barrier would certainly be an issue, MICGH felt welcoming. The language of equality (“brother” and “sister”) seemed to oppose the stereotype of Islam as promoting the subjugation of women, and while women were told to sit toward the back of the room, the tone of this sounded more like an invitation than a commandment.
Stronger Points: Very welcoming. Those who spoke with me used language of respect and equality, rather than talking down. Without trying to convert me to Islam, they warmly welcomed me to return. The language and sense of humility is beautiful. The take on “original sin” was refreshing.
Weaker Points: For those who do not understand Arabic, part of the service may prove frustrating. This is more of a neutral observation, but I did not get any sense of how open and affirming they are of the GLBT community.
The Muhammad Islamic Center of Greater Hartford is located at 155 Hungerford Street. This is a short walk from Park Street (bus line); there is a parking lot accessible from Grand Street.