Before I get going, I want you to understand; I am no expert. I knew absolutely zip about Islam before we came here. Seriously. My university degree is in cultural anthropology, which makes me even more humble about my ability as an outsider to explain something as personal and intricate as a religion. Also, I am coming from an American and Christian upbringing so my viewpoints are going to be from that starting point and framework. Such things can't be helped.
So please, if you are truly interested, go beyond me and check out any of the excellent websites online about Islam. My favorite for all things UAE is "Ask Ali" http://www.ask-ali.com/main.asp?pageID=458 (his webpage on "UAE culture". He does a fantastic job of representing the humor, intelligence, hospitality and warmth of his people.
The UAE is an Islamic country. That means that Islam and the teachings of the Qu'ran (the holy book which in the newspapers of the West is usually spelled Koran) is the state religion. There is most definitely not a separation of church and state as there is in the USA. Indeed, the Jumeirah Mosque (below) is on the 500 Dirham bill.
A Muslim is a person who follows the teachings of Islam. Muslim literally translates to "one who submits," as in submits to God.
I knew that we were coming into a Muslim country and therefore read "Islam for Dummies" (I kid you not) in preparation. I didn't have to, but it seemed like the right thing to do. One thing is for sure, Islam and God are an absolutely integral part of the daily life of every Muslim.
There are 5 pillars of Islam, duties that every Muslim must perform. The first is the recitation of faith called the Shahadah. Not unlike the Nicene Creed, it's a declaration of faith. "I bear witness that there is no God except Allah, and I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.”
The second and most visible of these is that all must pray to Mecca 5 times daily. This is called Salat. There are mosques and prayer rooms everywhere in Dubai. Men should go to the mosque, yes, 5 times a day, to do this. Women needn't go to the mosque to pray, as it is believed that their duties with the house and children (yes, this is a stereotype) bring them close to God all day long. However, they must also take the time to pray 5 times a day. I buy this; Thomas crammed play-doh into the DVD player this morning and chased that up with eating some of the plastic tines off a fork.
Even if you are bed-ridden and cannot move you should pray using the movement of your eyes. Can you imagine going to church five times a day? I wonder if it would bring God more into your everyday life or would it be a bother? I'd like to think the former but I honestly don't know.
"How to pray" poster
The God, Allah, is the same as the Christian God, and also the Jewish God. Yes, that one. Here's a major difference: Muslims hold the belief that Jesus was a prophet and the Messiah, but not that he was crucified and resurrected. Why should God allow such a thing? is the thought. Jews don't believe in Jesus being more than a human and possibly a rabbi.
Now, Jesus was followed by the prophet Muhammad in the 7th Century. When one writes "Muhammad" (or Jesus for that matter) you know they are talking about the Prophet of Islam because the name is followed by the letters PBUH. Peace be upon Him. You also say peace be upon him every time, as far as I can tell, you say the name of any of the prophets. (PBUT-"Them" in plural) Can be burdensome during conversation, but apparently is done gladly, and I will try to follow the respectful example.
The text of the Qur'an are believed to have been revealed to Muhammad (PBUH) by God through the angel Gabriel, and Muslims further believe the verses to be the literal words of God.
The third pillar of Islam is alms-giving, known as Zakah to the less fortunate. Any Muslim who can afford it must give. Pretty self-explanitory. The more you have, the more you are obligated to give.
The fourth pillar is what we are smack dab in the middle of right now: fasting during the month of Ramadan. The fasting is called Saum and the word Ramadan comes from a root word in Arabic that means to burn. The ultimate intent behind all the practices of Ramadan is to teach patience, compassion, and self-control. Burning away sins and embracing the nobler idea of what it means to be human.
The fifth pillar is called the Hajj. This is the spiritual pigrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Every Muslim who is able bodied and can afford it should go once in his or her lifetime. Mecca is the largest mosque in the world and no mosque may be built larger. Not even in Dubai. Inside the walls of the Grand Mosque is the Kabbah, a big black box. What is inside this box, around which the pilgrims must circle 7 times, either kissing or pointing to the black stone in a silver frame on one side of it?
Actually, there's nothing. It's essentially empty. It was the place that was important, as Abraham (PBUH) built it as the first mosque, the first place designated from which to pray. That's faith for you.
Mindful that Islam is such an important part of, well, everything here, and that it is a pretty neat opportunity, I have gone twice to the Jumeirah Mosque for a lecture and Q&A session with the Imam. An Imam is the person who calls the faithful to prayer and gives sermons on Fridays. This Imam volunteers to speak with whomever and answer any and every question we might have. I'll put up some of his interpretations up at the end of this post. This guy is great. Not only does he donate his time for the good of world peace, for bringing together people and ideas, but he also lived in the USA for a good while and has Americanisms down pat.
I took Bethy the second time, and we both carefully covered our heads (like church back when -no woman would enter with a bare head) and removed our shoes. When else would we get to see the inside of a mosque?
Now, here are some other interesting things I learned. According to Islam, there are two angels who sit on either of your shoulders. One records all your good deeds, one your bad. Neither one encourages you to be good or bad so you can dump that visual from Bugs Bunny right now.
I'd say shame on you but I always think the same darned thing.
Something you may experience in your everyday life; the ablutions Muslims do before prayer. You may see someone washing their eyes and ears and nose and mouth and arms and feet in a public sink at, say, an airport or mall. This is someone who wants to pray. They are making themselves clean to go before God. Here in the UAE there are special sinks and areas for ablutions, but back in the USA and in other places they have to do the best they can and hope no one freaks out. Once you know that, it's suddenly easy to be gracious rather than judgemental.
The Imam at Jumeirah Mosque talked about oppression (perceived or real) of women in many forms, about terrorism, about how Muslims view the rest of the world. Essentially he said that these things are either cultural or the failings of people to properly follow the Qu'ran, (not unlike some Biblical justifications we've all seen in the past, though he was polite and didn't use this example.) This fellow is a holy man, straddling both the East and West, and I think very liberal for an Arab. While I may not have been convinced by all of his explanations, (as I am sure I would not buy into all the explanations behind other people's behaviors, very much including less than savoury ones by Americans and Christians which sometimes I have to explain) I was touched by his sincerity and real desire to build a bridge between the two worlds.
The UAE certainly does their share. Not only do they allow churches, the government has donated the land for them to be built upon. This seems like a very generous gesture, like so many of the other things I have noticed about the UAE.
Am I looking to be converted to Islam? No. Neither does anyone seem to be trying to convert me in the slightest. Would I be welcome? Yes. I am told even as a non-Muslim I could go to a mosque during prayers if I went dressed modestly and did my best to fit in. I would feel very strange about it, so I have no intention of going. But I appreciate that I could.
There are about 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. Only about 12% of those are Arabs. There is a very good chance there is a Muslim next to you at your work, at your school, in your neighborhood, quietly and unobtrusively living their life. And here I knew nothing about Islam before coming here. What a wild world.
I could probably still know next to nothing and get along just fine in Dubai. Amazing in a place where there is no separation of religion and state, where it is such a huge part of everyday life for the local people, for the people in power. Something to think about.
A very special thanks to Sariya for being my friend and checking my Islam facts "from the inside" and another to Colleen for some of the Jumeirah Mosque photographs.