I happen to live, work, and study in one of the most Christianized towns in the world—Wheaton, Illinois, the “City of Churches”—but today, I’m sitting in a Muslim mosque with a Qur’an in my hand and a hijab wrapped around my head.
It’s a Friday afternoon, and icy blue February light filters through the windows of the musalla, or prayer hall, bathing the large room in a dim, wintery glow. The front of the hall, I am told, faces towards Mecca, but is actually the back of a former Assembly of God sanctuary that was converted for its current purpose just two years ago. The Islamic Center of Wheaton is the first Muslim institution Wheaton has seen in its nearly two centuries of existence.
I watch from my seat in the back as men and boys slowly fill the room, kneeling and sitting in rows on the floor or against the wall. The Imam begins the Adhan, calling people to prayer in a deep, warbling tone.
Aside from Zahra, the woman who greeted me when I arrived, and myself, the only other female in the prayer hall is a little girl wearing a pink tutu and light-up sneakers. She’s dancing around in the back, a tiny swirl of bright fluff and sparkles that stands in sharp contrast to the monochrome of black, blue, gray, and white saturating the rest of the room.
A man who I assume to be the girl’s father turns around from his spot on the floor, motioning for her to sit quietly. I’m reminded of my own parents, and smile to myself as I think of what my conservative Mennonite father would have to say if he knew I were attending a Muslim prayer service.
Just the day before, I was sitting in the office of Dr. Roy Oksnevad, Director of the Muslim Ministry Program at the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. I went to Dr. Oksnevad for the same reason I came to the prayer service—out of a curiosity and desire to learn more about my Muslim brothers and sisters living in and around my little bubble of a Christian community.
If 30 years’ worth of first-hand experience and background knowledge is what I was looking for, I had found the right person in Dr. Oksnevad. He has worked in Muslim countries or with Muslim people in the United States since 1985. Now, he spends his days providing leadership for a coalition of ministries to Muslims in North America called COMMA, as well as leading, teaching, mentoring, and simply befriending a fellowship of Muslims in the greater Chicago area.
According to Dr. Oksnevad, Islam has a major PR problem. He explains that there have been two major shifts in the Muslim community in the past two decades.
First, there was a radical change following the 9/11 attacks. As Americans began throwing Muslims into a catchall of negative opinions and perceptions, most Muslims were adamant that they had more in common with Americans than they had with the terrorists behind the attacks. Muslim leaders pushed for their communities to engage with the western culture, saying, “Western values are our values.”
Fast-forward to the age of ISIS, and Dr. Oksnevad explains the second major shift.
The rhetoric has changed in the Muslim community once again. Now it has gone beyond affirming western values to looking inwardly at problems within the Muslim community. As children and young people continue to be seduced by radical, violent theology, Dr. Oksnevad says the people are realizing that their problems cannot be blamed on the west.
He sums up the sentiments of many Muslim people: “We are killing ourselves. We are killing our children, and we have to stop.”
Back inside the mosque, the Imam is beginning to speak.
He begins in Arabic, and I tune out, skimming through my Quran and waiting for something I can understand. Apparently I’m not the only one. Zahra leans over to me and, in a whisper, says that many Muslims, especially those not born in Arabic-speaking countries, have little to no competency in Arabic.
Suddenly, the Imam is speaking in English, and I’m struck by his words: “If you kill a soul, in my eyes you kill all of humanity. If you save a soul, you save all of humanity.”
Before I know it, he has launched into a discussion of the very issue that Dr. Oksnevad explained the day before. Growing more and more forceful, he decries the evil and injustice done by groups like ISIS. He says, “People need to see the mercy of Allah…Are we living true to the mercy of Allah?”
A half hour later, I find myself sitting at a table eating rice, chicken, and pizza with the Imam. He tells me his name is Sheikh Abdul Rahman Khan. We are joined by Zahra, two other male leaders, Pasha and Aahil, and a woman, Madihah.*
I ask the Imam to explain some of the frustrations he expressed earlier in the prayer service. He gives me the following metaphor: If you take one part of your body—your toe or your ear or your arm—and you blow it up, expanding it until it is bigger than the body itself, you get a very strange looking person.
He says this is the Islam the world sees today—a picture that has been twisted and distorted until it is no longer a true depiction. Referring to groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda, he says, “I have no idea who they are…How can you call yourself a Muslim when you violate the fundamental truths of Islam?”
To the people who say the fundamental truths of Islam are ones of violence and bloodshed—and there are many—the Imam explains that verses in the Quran are often taken out of context, especially when there is some kind of an agenda involved.
I can’t say that the same isn’t true of verses in the Bible—for Christians and non-Christians alike.
Pasha, sitting next to the Imam, chimes in when the Imam begins talking about how Muslim children and young people are at risk of being deceived and radicalized.
“We need to educate our children,” Pasha says. He also expresses a desire for the American public to be better informed. “We don’t have tools like Fox News—pumping hatred into the public consciousness. We need to present Islam as it is with actions, not words.”
He describes the necessity of presenting a Muslim culture that is true from within: “We must go back to the source and ask ourselves, what is true Islam?”
This past January, the Grand Imam of Egypt’s top Islamic institution made a similar statement with far-reaching effects. In response to the growing spread of terrorism and extremism, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb of Cairo’s al-Azhar University called for a radical reform of religious teaching. He said that a historical misreading of the Quran has led to “bad interpretations,” the product of which is intolerance, extremist ideology, and, at worst, terrorism.
“The only hope for the Muslim nation to recover unity is to tackle in our schools and universities this tendency to accuse Muslims of being unbelievers,” he said during a three-day counter-terrorism forum in the city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
So how are individual Muslim communities working to recover unity and truth?
For the Muslim community in Wheaton, the Imam says leaders are looking for practical solutions. Those solutions look like Sunday afternoon Arabic and Quran reading classes, a youth organization, prayer services focused on the issue, and much more.
In terms of presenting true Islam to the outside world, that solution looks like relationships.
One after another, each person in the room describes the wonderful friendships and interactions they’ve had during the mosque’s two years in Wheaton.
Aahil, who is from India, talks about his neighbor who clears his yard every week since Aahil has a bad back.
“We also get together and exchange views and we just love one another,” he says. “That’s something I love about this country.”
I’m somewhat surprised by their positive response. With about four Christian churches per square mile and a population that is almost three-fourths white, Wheaton is severely lacking in religious and ethnic diversity, making any concentration of differences stand out like a sore thumb. And while one should be able to expect Christians to be welcoming, accepting, and loving towards everyone regardless of difference, sadly, that is not always the case.
According to Dr. Oksnevad, “Christians think it’s a tragedy that Muslims have taken over a Christian church…they think it’s a conspiracy to take over all our institutions.”
I felt a distinct sense of embarrassment and shame when I heard this.
While I’m not naïve about the cold shoulder that Christian communities so often throw towards those who are different or “threatening,” I sincerely hoped that wasn’t the case here. Christians are called to love radically, yet even that doesn’t seem necessary here. As I sat eating pizza with Sheikh Abdul, there wasn’t anything radical about it. It was just a meal and a conversation. Sometimes love is a lot simpler than we think.
Curious about other experiences these people had had with Christians, I asked them if Wheaton was their first time living in a Christian community.
Again, I was surprised by their responses. Everyone except Madihah had attended Catholic schools throughout high school, and most had lived in communities full of Christians their entire lives. To this day, many of Zahra’s best friends are Christians.
Close interfaith interactions are inevitable due to the mosque’s location—it even shares yard space with a nearby Lutheran church.
“Some of our kids were playing in the yard last summer,” Pasha said, “and a worker came out of the church, asked why the kids were playing in the grass. He said they were welcome to use their playground. They said a playground is for children, not Christian children, all children.”
The sun was on its way down as I pulled out of the mosque parking lot that day, Zahra’s phone number in hand and a plan to get together the next weekend in mind. I had learned, understood, been understood, and most significantly, I had been loved. In a very simple way, complete strangers had shown me the hospitality, kindness, and generosity that many Christians only speak of.
As I write this, reminded of the struggles faced by the Muslim nation, problems within the Christian church are also heavy on my heart. Issues of truth and unity are far from unique to Islam. I am reminded of something Aahil said:
“You and I are the same. If we can help resolve each other’s issues, why not?”
Love is simpler than we think.
* Some names have been changed.
Images courtesy of BBC News, Sharia Unveiled, Liz Curtis Higgs, and ABC News.