Thursday, February 21, 2008

Feb 13: the Feast of Absalom Jones

On Monday I had the privilege of meeting with a senior member of the board of the 14th Street Mosque (al-Farook) that is under construction, and the school associated with it. My host was Dr. Hisham Hawasli, an Atlanta cardiologist, originally from Damascus. His wife founded and is still the principal of the school that is now a k-8 day school and a supplemental Saturday school for students from elsewhere who wish to learn the tenets of Islam and some basic Arabic.

I found myself left with a number of impressions.

First, Dr. Hawasli is a genuinely welcoming gracious man. He teaches a class at the mosque, open to anyone, from 1-2 p.m. on Sundays. He might be willing to offer some Sunday morning classes at All Saints’ in due course and is open to exploring relationship with us. He was part of a group of leaders who began, in the late 1970s, buying property (mostly run down houses) on the block where the mosque sits, and is significantly responsible for its construction.

The mosque itself is carefully and well built in a rather traditional style. It has domes (fiberglass) and a minaret –even thought the minaret will not be used for a call to prayer. There are separate prayer and ablution rooms as men and women will be separated. (“If a positive and negative pole touch, there will be electricity”). There is a room for Christian and Jewish guests, (“Yes, there are some Jews who are not Zionists”) and a large room for lectures and receptions.

The school follows the curriculum of Woodward Academy, supplemented by Islamic and Arabic studies. We were treated to hearing a couple of classes recite their classes in Arabic and English. They were learning about hospitality. (“If there is food enough for two, then there is enough for three. If there is food enough for three, then there is enough for four.”) The students wore uniforms including what I believe to be called the shayala for girls, the simple headdress that covers hair but not face.

I found myself acutely aware of how strange this was to me in the midst of modern America. I have been in some Torah day schools and am not aware of having had the same feeling, although I might have done if the dress was significantly distinctive in some way, and not only the language. I can only imagine what a stranger would make of our walking the Stations of the Cross repetitively intoning the Trisagion (“Holy God. Holy and Mighty. Holy Immortal One”) I was reminded that ‘learning about Islam’ is fine, but that what I think we need to be about is knowing and being known before we can evaluate or discern what we make of Islam in the midst of a modern America that values ‘freedom of religion’ but has, in general, a post 9/11 view of Islam that is quite frightening. (Our host again: “Perhaps the greatest tragedy of 9/11 is that every Christian has been injected with poison with respect to Islam.” Asked about Wahabism “They are faithful people. It is strict, but not really about cutting off hands and heads.”) I hope we might be able to find ways to meet the Other anew as we discover something real, something beyond ‘beliefs’ of the other on 14th street.

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