One of my most treasured funny experiences was the day I went with a chance acquaintance to visit a mosque. It went like this.
One day, while taking the train into the city, I sat opposite a lovely Muslim woman who was passing the time on her trip by doing exquisitely intricate Arabic calligraphy. I complimented her on it, and she told me that it was a verse from the Koran, and that this style of art is a form of reverence for the Scripture. We got chatting, and I expressed my regret at my own ignorance of Islam; I had a copy of the Koran, but I found it difficult to understand (I think the translation assumed a lot of knowledge). She invited me to visit her mosque with her; it had a bookshop attached, and it would be her privilege to help me find a version of the Koran which I found easier to understand, and to make a gift of it to me. I was hesitant at first, but she seemed to really mean it, so we exchanged email addresses and agreed to arrange a day.
Naturally, we chose a day which turned out to be extremely hot – over 40 degrees – and as I got dressed in long pants, long sleeves, and tried desperately to find a way to wear a headscarf which mirrored the easy elegance of so many Islamic women, I wondered if this visiting a mosque thing was really such a sensible idea. But I was committed, so off I went; and I was glad I had made the effort when I reached the mosque and my new acquaintance didn’t immediately recognise me because “You look like a Muslim!” (I should hope so, that was rather the idea!)
After a tour of the mosque, and a lot of chat about various aspects of Islam, we got to the bookshop. Here my companion asked if I’d mind browsing for a while; it was the time for afternoon prayers, and she’d like to say them while we were there. Sure, I shrugged. I’m in a bookshop. I’d be happy for hours. Go, I’ll be here when you get back. What I didn’t realise was that, being the time for afternoon prayers, all the other customers had also left, as well as the sales assistant. Thinking that the shop was empty during prayer time, he carefully locked the door behind him. So there I was, a Christian woman, locked in an Islamic bookshop, and none the wiser because I was too fascinated by the books on fasting and comparing Islamic spirituality to Christian practices such as Lent. But when my companion and the sales assistant returned, they were frantic with worry that I would have been upset or frightened at being effectively trapped.
Perhaps in part because of this, I left the mosque that day loaded down, not only with a new translation of the Koran, but with several other books as well; in part the gift of my companion and in part a gift from the store. I was impressed; I knew all too well how costly quality Christian books could be. Imagine if our bookstores practiced this level of hospitality and generosity!
I enjoyed my visit, the experience of the trip there and back in hijab and having a chance to gauge how Muslim women are really treated in our community, the chance to learn and ask questions, and the generosity of people I had barely met. I was impressed, and have often reflected how much this experience showed me an Islam that bears no relation to the version of Islam presented to us by the media or by too much of our political commentary.
In my reading on peace making, I came across the statement that “We all must do everything we can to break through the masks that are being painted on our faces.” In the laughter after being let free from the bookstore that day, I broke through the masks painted on my Muslim brothers and sisters. In turn, in my willingness to listen, ask questions, and learn, perhaps I also broke through the mask painted on my own face; I am not sure.
But of one thing I am sure; it is in meeting people who differ from us, whether in religion, in culture, or in whatever else; in listening, sharing, and laughing together, that we will break the masks painted on us and see one another as the people we are, and be able to build bonds of relationship, trust, and peace. But that doesn’t just happen without effort. We must be willing to step out of our comfort zones. We must be willing to risk getting stuck in unfamiliar bookshops, or even worse, unfamiliar emotions. We may not recognise the reflection gazing back uncertainly from behind a headscarf. We can only hope that we will recognise the humanity of the new friends we may acquire along the way.