Masjid Abu Bakr Al-Siddiq is an Afghani mosque in Hayward, California. It is a smaller replica of the well-known “Blue Mosque” or “Herat Great Mosque” in Herat, Afghanistan.
I drove into the parking lot for Friday prayers, and found a small market selling some eastern fruits and nuts, and a couple of older men dressed in black security uniforms. I was directed to speak with the President of the Mosque for my visit. He explained to me that the entire service was either in Farsi or Arabic. I was reminded of how hard it was to find a local mosque whose message was in English, and the value that Muslims put on Arabic as the language of God. This relative e antipathy for lesser languages may contribute to what seems like an insular Muslim sub-culture, in which concern for those outside of the language or culture is lower than concern for the purity of the faith, and desires for evangelizing non-Muslims may be trumped by the force of this language-centric faith.
1. No Printed Qurans
One of my first surprises was that I was the only person carrying a Quran. Coming from Evangelicalism, I expected Muslims, who also hold a very high view of their scriptures, to carry their own. I am not sure if they merely trust the local Imam to interpret the scriptures for them, as in many Catholic churches, or if it is considered improper to bring a Quran or printed book to prayers. A couple of English-speaking members looked at my translation, and did not recognize the author, but did not seem upset at my bringing a Quran or the particular translation. During the service, an older man sitting next to me in the back motioned to me to see the book. He opened up the front, a page in the middle, and in the back, then kissed the front cover and handed it back to me without saying a word.
2. Muted Clothing
Although many of the younger attendees wore jeans, I felt like I stood out with my white and muted red plaid shirt, since most of the men present wore a dark or earth colored shirt. I’m not sure if that was merely a cultural thing, or if, again, I was missing some social taboo for visiting the mosque.
3. Coming in, coming out, sitting down
The 30 minute lecture began 15 minutes early, and so ran for 45 minutes. Prayer began after the lecture. I was first surprised that the lecture began early rather than as scheduled, and due to this early start, it seemed that many men wandered in late, and what I suspect were the more senior members walked up to find seats on the carpet far up front. However, this wandering in (and out) continued not only during the lecture, but to some extent, even during the prayers.
I observed from my seat in the back each man come in and go through the same ritualistic preparation for prayer. Shoes removed in the foyer, the men would find a place between the lines on the carpet that demarked rows, and begin this series of movements:
- Put their thumbs back and touch their earlobes, as if saying “I am here to hear.”
- They would bow halfway, sometimes putting their hands on their knees, then stand.
- After what looked like some standing reflection, they got down on all fours and did exactly two bows towards the front, then sat on their heels to listen to the message (which was entirely in Farsi)
Again, this seems very similar to the more ritualized versions of Judaism and Christianity, especially Catholicism, but in Evangelical circles, such things might seem strange or even religious superstition.
4. Allahu Akbar
While I should not have been too surprised, twice during the service, an older man went up to the front, set his back to the audience (facing Mecca), and chanted in a stereotypical nasal song “Allahu Akbar,” stretching out the vowels in the first word as he let his voice ascend and descend along a middle-eastern type of scale. During the end of the service, ushers actually pushed people forward to fill in the gaps so that last moment attendees had room, and they too joined in the last moments of prayer. I noticed later that at one point in the prayer the attendees looked slowly right, then left. I later learned that, as part of the ritual prayer (Salaat), Muslims believe that an angel on your right side is recording your good deeds, while the one on your left is recording your bad deeds. In this way, you are sending peace to those angels. To me, this reinforces both the heavy emphasis on angels in Islam, as well as their works-oriented soteriology.
5. Conversations Afterward
The Mosque president, who had been watching me the entire service, came up to me, and perhaps because of my respectful attitude, told me I was welcome to return anytime. He did not seem so trusting when I first came in, and had warned me not to record since things in the media were ‘sensitive.’
Two younger men approached me after the service. One was very friendly, and recognized me as a newcomer, and welcomed me. He was interested in why I was there, and told me briefly that he had left Islam for a while, but returned to it. He also informed me that this was not his normal Mosque, and that this was a very ‘culturalized’ experience, meaning it was in some ways very Afghani. I wondered how much different other Mosques might be.
The second young man, a 20-something Indonesian/Korean American, had recently converted to Islam from Korean Pentecostalism. He was very interested in discussing his new-found faith with me, which I took interest in, while asking some gentle, probing questions. He was so interested in continuing to talk that we had lunch together and shared our journeys. When I asked him why he was a Shia Muslim, and whether or not he was a twelver or a sevener, he seemed pleased that I knew more than most non-Muslims he had met, and discussed with me why Ali, the fourth Caliph, should have been the first, not the fourth Imam. He also shared his objections to the gospel, which I was already, thanks to my reading this quarter, largely familiar with. Those oft-repeated reasons for doubting Christianity and supporting Islam included:
5.1 The Injustice of the Gospel
He first presented the idea that “nothing is for free, so therefore the gospel is illogical.” He had a real concern that a religious system without required works would lead to freeloaders, hypocrites, and a non-demanding faith which he rightly perceived as a deception. I did explain that in the Christian view, works are not required, but real faith led to works. He was not quite convinced, but I also shared Ephesians 2:8-9, which is a short explanation of why works are excluded, and why the most mean person may take advantage of God’s kindness even if an immeasurable weight of sin were behind him.
His second a main objection to the gospel was that God could not justly punish an innocent man for another, even if the second man willingly gave himself. I am surprised that this objection even arises within Christianity as an ethical impossibility, where I see such a gesture as extravagant love. While even my new friend agreed with the phrase “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friend,” somehow he could not connect that to the gospel and penal substitution.
5.2 The Logical Nature of Islam
I briefly encountered this idea in Braswell’s book , and always find it curious that many don’t find the same kind of logic in Christianity. However, I think there may be a few reasons why Islam appears as ‘more logical’ than Christianity on the surface.
5.2.1 Explicit Rules for the All of Life
Whereas Christianity is mainly concerned with faith in Christ, and merely explains principles for governing gray areas (such as in Romans 14), Islam, like ancient Judaism, has rules for every activity, including how and what to eat, bathe, and wear. Even more, these activities are tied into pleasing God and perhaps one’s obedience towards salvation. In Christianity, these types of rules are, at best, seen as a type of Christ, and have passed away with his first coming (such as the dietary and ceremonial laws), and at worst, are seen as false piety, as described in Colossians 2:
So don’t let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new moon ceremonies or Sabbaths. For these rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is that reality. Don’t let anyone condemn you by insisting on pious self-denial or the worship of angels,[e]saying they have had visions about these things. Their sinful minds have made them proud, and they are not connected to Christ, the head of the body. For he holds the whole body together with its joints and ligaments, and it grows as God nourishes it.
You have died with Christ, and he has set you free from the spiritual powers of this world. So why do you keep on following the rules of the world, such as, “Don’t handle! Don’t taste! Don’t touch!”? Such rules are mere human teachings about things that deteriorate as we use them. These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. But they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires. ~ Colossians 2:16-23
5.2.2 Inclusion of Polity and Social Ethics
While Christian teachings on faith and politics have a rich and successful history, not least of which is arguably modeled in the American Experiment, Christianity is somewhat open-ended, if not equivocal on faith and politics. There is not one official view, though many Christians share the general idea of separation of Church and state powers. This open-ended view is not as clear as the theocratic rules set down in Islam. For this reason, many Muslims consider Islam to be a better overarching, integrated system for all of life. To some extent, you could say that the majority opinion in Islam is clearly Dominionist, while in Christendom, such practitioners are a vast minority , f for no other reason than the fact that theocracy it is NOT required or explicit in the New Testament.
5.2.3 The Purposeful Obscurantism of the Gospel
It may seem like an appeal to illogic and mystery, but it is clear from the New Testament that to those unconverted or not drawn to God by the Spirit, the Gospel is foolish and unwise. Jesus himself taught in parables and other indirect methods in order for the proud and self-righteous to be blinded by their lack of humility, if not merely for the purposes of God:
And the disciples came and said to Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?”
He answered and said to them, “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. ~ Matthew 13:10-13
With regard to the Pharisees, he said something very similar
And Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may be made blind.” Then some of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these words, and said to Him, “Are we blind also?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say, ‘We see.’ Therefore your sin remains. ~ John 9:39-41
Paul the Apostle further applied this explanation to the gospel, declaring:
Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. ~ 1 Corinthians 1:20-24
All of that is to say, the gospel can seem illogical, and to some extent, it is to common, earthly wisdom. To those like the Greeks looking for something that is entirely palatable to the mind, easily arranged into rules and principles, God and the gospel may present an enigma too great. And this may even be more true with it comes to the ethics of penal substitution. When I hear any skeptic or Muslim say “It is not fair, i.e. unjust, for God to punish Jesus for someone else’s guilt, and they owe God no works of service at all,” I feel like the great love of God is on display before them in grand brilliance, and they have dark glasses on and see nothing. I especially get this feeling with Muslims, who would rather live in subjection than the “glorious freedom of the sons of God.” (Romans 8:21)
My new friend and I exchanged emails, and we may continue to correspond. I am fascinated that a Pentecostal Christian would convert to Islam, and suspect something more is going on. Perhaps he witnessed too many hypocrites, or bad doctrine, or emotionalism that made him think that the more serious demands of Islam were better suited to him. I told him I respected him for taking a hard and honest journey, and as a fellow traveler, blessed him. But I was disinclined to surrender the beautiful gospel of grace for the ‘logic’ of Islam.