London Mosque from Regent's Park
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the London Central Mosque with a group of students from a Christian university in the U.S. who were studying the topic of Middle East relations. As we arrived at the mosque, the air was filled with a mixture of nervousness and anticipation: this was a new experience for most of us. What would it be like?
Our Guide Omar
We waited a few minutes at a guard station for Omar, our escort, to arrive. The women we saw were all much more heavily veiled than we were, even though the women in our group had taken care to dress modestly and to cover their heads with scarves, as had been recommended to us when the tour was set up.
We seemed to stir up a bit of curiosity among the mosque-goers. Omar, who is the chief PR person for the mosque, was an excellent and genial host. He had a heavy beard, was very young (probably mid-20s), of Afghan background and therefore darker skinned, with a white skull cap. He was in Western dress – a button-down shirt and trousers.
A Lesson in Mosque Etiquette
Before we walked into the prayer hall, we were required to remove our shoes and put them on shelves – a shoe rack of sorts. I wish I’d had time to read the sign that outlined mosque etiquette but we were moving too quickly. At a glance, I saw that one of the first rules was that anyone coming for prayer should refrain from eating onion or garlic or anything that would cause bad breath and distract other people. That might be a good rule for our churches as well! They were also admonished to wear clean socks. Women should refrain from wearing perfume because it might excite desire among the men.
After removing our shoes, we all sat down on the carpeted floor in the middle of the prayer hall to listen to Omar. It was a stunningly beautiful room, more beautiful and full of light than any cathedral I’ve ever seen. But, then again, I kind of overdosed on cathedrals as a child growing up in France so perhaps what I admired was the novel aspect of the architecture.
Point to Ponder: Pray Continually
Muslims pray five obligatory prayers per day, and are encouraged to do so in congregation with other Muslims. This encourages a discipline and builds a sense of fraternity and community among those who pray, and an opportunity for them to exchange thoughts and help each other with problems. Can you imagine the wonderful things that could happen if Christians prayed fervently five times a day, every day? Consider putting this theory into practice and setting an alarm on your phone or other device to go off at five preset times during the day as a reminder to drop everything and focus on what’s most important: God and prayer.
Barefoot Inside the Prayer Hall
It helped that the hall was decorated in my favorite color: blue. The room was domed and the ceiling painted in different shades of blue. Just below the domed ceiling were beautiful Arab inscriptions, also in blue. There were bookshelves along part of the wall. No icons, no pictures, no statues.
It was pretty quiet, this not being a Friday or the mosque’s most popular prayer time, with people (only males) praying or sitting in small groups. Some were lying on the floor (one guy was snoring until his mobile phone – another mosque no-no – woke him up).
Omar was a very good teacher, using a question and answer method. One of the first things Omar clarified was that removing shoes is in no way an act of worship. It’s just common sense: it’s to keep the carpet clean. He spoke for nearly an hour about the five pillars and I found his method of explanation very clear and easy to understand. I was struck by how sincere and passionate he was about devotion to God, about prayer, about giving to others, about fasting and about his own pilgrimage to Mecca.
A Poignant Moment
The atmosphere was quiet and peaceful as he spoke and there was a nice breeze floating in from the open windows. It rather reminded me of nursery nap time. A scene that really marked me was the sight of a little blond-headed boy, probably about two years old, kneeling to pray beside his dad.
A visit to a mosque, while perhaps controversial for some Christians, can be an excellent way of gaining insight into the Islamic faith and of praying for Muslims “on location.”
For a suggested half-day’s itinerary of the Regent’s Park area of London, see Walk 5: Parks & Recreation.