Clash of Faiths: Muslims in Texas
This past Sunday, after the NTCOF service, I had planned to meet a new friend at the Jason's Deli fellowship lunch/blood drive, so that I could give him a copy of the William Lane Craig presentation on DVD. When he stopped by, I asked if he had any time to stick around and chat with the friendly Freethinkers, but he said that he wanted to head over to the Islamic Center of Irving for their (regular) Open House event. After spit-taking my chocolate soft-serve/root beer float (it's delicious), I quickly inquired where it was located, since I've been looking for an excuse to interact with some Muslims on thier own turf recently, and this was just about as good as I was going to get.
This group of Muslims has been active in Dallas for well over 15 years, and have somewhat recently built their own masjid, after meeting in private homes, hotels, and rented commercial space. It ranks in size with most of the more moderate Christian megachurches in the area, and is at least as architechurally attractive as the best of them. Having a strictly geometrical aesthetic tradition, it's not too terribly surprising that their architecture is so impressive. Aside from that difference, there wasn't that much about the place that didn't remind me of any other average Christian church- bulletin boards, pamphlets, warm lighting all around. There were plenty of masjid members immediately outside and in the foyer, all with smiling faces and friendly attitudes, happy to welcome any and everyone inside and direct them to the registration table, where we received gift bags containing a (English translation of the) Qur'an, a number of informational pamplets and brochures, and a booklet detailing all the (groan) scientific discoveries that were predicted by the Qur'an.
One of the things that was somewhat disquieting to me personally was the obvious evidence of gender segregation in the place. There's a separate "Sisters' Entrance" and "Sisters' Prayer Room," and all the female members were wearing hijab. Of course, I reminded myself that one really doesn't have to look far from orthodox Christianity to find a lot of the same stuff- Mormonism, especially the fundamentalist variety, gets very close to this same concept, and you probably don't have to try very hard to find similar female roles in hard-core fundamentalist orthodox Christian communities either. Hell, the Shaker movement claimed complete segregation of the genders to be an article of faith, and even built it into their architecture!
After registering at the entrance, guided tours commenced that wound through the masjid, showing us the washing areas (used by the men prior to prayer), the masjid store (sold hard-to-find treats, candies, and Muslim literature), the prayer rooms, some of the schoolrooms (they run a K-12 educational program), and upstairs to a sort of fellowship hall (serving Middle-eastern refreshments), which led into a room set up with lots of chairs ready for a presentation.
My friend was already in the room, and since it was packed (with people from apparently a wide variety of backgrounds), I sidled around the back and took a spot near the front right. I was somewhat surprised to see two white guys sitting at the table in the front while the Imam recited verses from the Qur'an, but I figured they were there as representatives of the community or local government, there to lend their support to the Muslims during a time of inter-cultural and -religious interaction. Imagine my surprise when they were introduced as Khalil (Eric) Meek and Dr. Yaseen (Jason) Black, two Muslim members. In fact, Khalil Meek is active with the Dallas chapter of the Council for American-Islamic Relations, being somewhat uniquely qualified for the role after converting to Islam while studying to become a Southern Baptist preacher.
They took turns talking to the crowd about Islam, with the major points being:
- Islam is a religion of peace
- Muslims love Jesus just as much as (if not more than) Christians
- Muslims don't mistreat women.
Regarding the first point, they stressed that Islam is nothing more than submission of one's will to the One God, which I have to admit, sounds a lot like any of the other two large monotheistic religions, and of course, they claimed all of the Jewish prophets (as well as Jesus) as good Muslims. Regarding the second point, they claimed that as a good Muslim (and second only to Mohammed), respect and reverence for Jesus is important to all Muslims. It's just that the Christians who wrote down his words later added to them (I'm on board with that) either intentionally or inadvertently obscuring the fact that the historical Jesus preached Islam (not so much on board with that). To bolster their third point, they claimed that the hijab is a directive from God, and so Muslim women are showing their respect and worship towards Him when they follow his orders (it just happens to be a coincidence that this also follows sociological patterns of female ownership).
After the presentations, they opened the floor for questions from the audience. I was somewhat expecting the questions to be genuinely curious about Islam, but they ended up being largely confrontational, or at least somewhat accusatory. They amounted to, essentially: "Why don't you believe in Christianity?" There seemed to be a genuine bafflement among those Christ-followers in the audience as to why, if these Muslims worshiped the One True God, respected all the prophets from Adam to Jesus, rejected evolution and equitable gender roles, they wouldn't just go the whole hog (so to speak) and become Christians?
This was perhaps the most entertaining part of the experience for me. Given my perspective, there's very little in terms of fundamental theological differences (just the identity of Jesus, really) between them. It was also interesting to see crossed apologetic swords, as in the video above- my friend asks why they deny the resurrection of Jesus, and the Imam gives the classic Muslim docetic response. It kills me when religious apologists from different faiths use their standard arguments on each other, expecting them to be bulletproof. At any rate, it was bizarre to see Christians walk into a masjid and take Muslims to task for their religious beliefs... it'd be like a Protestant walking into a Catholic church and asking the priest why he believes in the doctrine of transubstutation. Or like an orthodox Christian walking into a Mormon temple and asking why they believe Jesus appeared in America. Apparently Muslims are just different enough that they have to make an extra effort to justify their presence in America... and Austin Cline suggests that the sense of Christian nationalism may have something to do with this.
From where I stand, though, this is just one more sign that religious diversity is on the rise here in the states (even in Texas!), when there almost as many Muslims as Presbyterians. I see this as an even stronger indication that common understanding needs to be sought among all parties, theists and nontheists, as well as every variation on either side. That's the only way we're going to be able to make progress without succumbing to violence and immorality.