Site visit: visit to a sunni muslim mosque
Islam is a monotheistic religion which believes in the sovereignty of one god, which the Muslims call Allah. Islam was founded by Muhammad in the seventh century in the Middle Eastern city of Mecca. Mecca is still the centre of the Muslim world and considered the holiest place for Muslims. The followers of Islam are divided into two major sects, Sunni and Shi’a. Sunnis consist of almost 85% of the Muslim population. The place I visited was a mosque belonging to the Sunni Muslims. This division between the Muslims took place after the death of Muhammad when there was disagreement over the successor to Muhammad. Sunnis believe that the four caliphs (leader of Muslims) who succeeded Muhammad were the rightful successors to him. However, the Shiites do not believe in the first three caliphs and claim that Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammad, was the rightful successor. Ali was eventually chosen as the fourth caliph. Sunnis recognize four legal traditions Hanafi, Malaki, Shafi’I and Hunbali. A Sunni Muslim may choose to be guided by any of these four traditions but not any other tradition. If he does, he is not following the Islamic tradition, and hence committing a sin.
Followers of Islam can be easily found in South Florida. The religion is mostly followed by Asian Americans, particularly South Asians and Arabs from the Middle East residing in South Florida. The reason is that Islam is the dominant religion in the part of the world where they come from. There are very few Native American Muslims in Florida. Since Sunnis comprise most of the world Muslim population, it is not surprising that it is the dominant sect in Florida too.
The mosque is a very good example of Muslim Architecture. A dome and a minaret are integral part of any mosque’s design. They were also present on top of the mosque which I visited. I had to take off my shoes to enter the holy place. The first thing that I noticed inside the mosque was that there were no images except of the holy mosques located in Mecca and Medina. The reason I was given is that Islam forbids putting up photos of humans inside the mosque. The design of the mosque was clearly different from the kind of architecture we witness in our daily life. Flowers and leave have a considerable impact on the Muslim art. The Islamic calligraphy was also visible inside the mosque. It has been used to write popular verses from the Holy Scripture of the Muslims-The Quran. The Quran was also placed on the shelves for the visitors of the mosque to recite. There was no furniture in the mosque. This is the way mosques are built all over the world. Worshippers are expected to sit on the floor which is carpeted. The words ‘Allah’ and ‘Muhammad’ were clearly visible on top of the mosque’s wall in Arabic. Other than this, prayer timings and other important religious notices were also put for the guidance of the visitors. Another very important thing about the mosque is that there is no compulsion on women to come for prayers to the mosque. Some mosques do not even have space for women. In case women want to offer prayers, they are supposed to pray in a segregated area and not with the men. Men are required to come and pray regularly.
An unusual dress that was visible in the mosque was in the form of a long loose robe. Some of them wore it long enough down to their ankles, and for some of them it was only down to knee length. This minor variability comes in due to cultural differences among the Muslims coming from different countries. But all robes were loosely worn and covered their whole body. There is no compulsion over dresses for coming to the mosque but the visitors are supposed to cover their whole body. I also saw people in dresses normally worn by everyone in daily life. There is no restriction over the dress code but it is preferred by the Muslims that their native dress, resembling long loose robes, is worn for prayers. Some of the visitors had also covered their heads with different types of head gears. It is an Islamic tradition to cover the head when coming to the mosque. For the people living in the American societies, there are relaxations available on the dress and head gear to allow convenience to the visitors.
Muslims are supposed to come to the mosque five times a day daily to offer their prayers. These prayers are considered mandatory for all the Muslims. It is considered a great sin to forego these prayers. The prayers are held according to the position of the sun. They are offered at sunrise, midday, late afternoon, sunset and at night. The participants of the prayers are supposed to perform a ritual of cleaning themselves by performing ablution. I got an opportunity to witness a congregation prayer being offered. Prayers are the primary form of worship for Muslims. One person led the prayer by chanting verses from the Holy Scripture Quran. The prayer usually takes five to ten minutes. During the prayers, Muslims listened to the verses being chanted by the leader known as Imam. The worshippers also bowed and prostrated during the prayers as respect to God. The prostration reflected the humbleness of the worshippers in front of God. Since there is no furniture in the mosque to sit on, the prayer takes place while either sitting or standing. Once the prayers were over, some worshippers offered voluntary prayers, similar to the congregation prayers, on their own. The visiting Muslims also recite the Quran before or after the prayers. Apart from these prayers performed five times a day, visitors also come to the mosque to learn how to read the Holy Scripture and to get answers to their religious problems. A thing that struck me was that the people were unusually quiet during their stay at the mosque. Upon inquiring, I found that the visitors are required to avoid discussing worldly matters and are expected to concentrate on communicating with God. A special prayer takes place on Friday afternoons which is attended by a large Muslim population of Florida, which is almost ten times the daily attendance. Apart from these routine rituals and practices, the mosque is also used for marriage ceremonies, funeral services and lectures on issues related to Islam.
The Muslims in South Florida celebrate several religious festivals and occasions. All of these events are observed according to the lunar calendar. In the ninth month of the lunar calendar, the Muslims of Florida, just like Muslims all over the world, observe the month of Ramadan. Muslims are supposed to fast from sunrise to sunset everyday during this month. The fast is broken with considerable preparation in the form of delicacies. Arrangements for breaking the fast are also made in the mosque. It is considered a blessing to break a fast with fellow Muslims. At the end of the month of Ramadan, Muslims celebrate the festival of Eid (also known as Eid-ul Fitr). Special foods are cooked for this festival and people make other kinds of special preparations for the festival, in a similar way to Christians prepare for Christmas. Another Eid, more appropriately known as Eid-ul-Adha, is celebrated in the eleventh month of the lunar calendar. On this day, Muslims are expected to sacrifice animals for God. However, this sacrifice is not usually made by the Muslims living in South Florida. They prefer to get this obligation fulfilled by a friend or family member back in the native country.
It was totally different experience to witness the spiritual side of Islam. It was pleasantly surprising for me to see so many Muslims offering prayers in a large group. Their synchronized approach in prayers was interesting to witness. Just watching them pray gave me the impression that they were doing something special. They were trying to communicate with God with utmost sincerity. It is also a challenge for them to take out time from their hectic lives and come here to participate in the congregation prayers every day. However, I felt that outsiders, like me, who were not supposed to take part in the prayers, were not very warmly welcome. Overall, it was a very enriching experience as it gave me a totally new perspective on Islam and Sunni Muslims.