After nearly a year of living here, I finally made it to visit a mosque. You would think that it would be easy, that a house of worship would welcome someone coming to learn and be open (to whatever degree) to the best parts of your faith tradition. But, it’s not so easy. If you imagine that you wanted to tour a church in your town, you might have to plan to attend a service, which you wouldn’t want to do if you’re not open to converting or being on their mailing list forever. Or you could drop by and hope that the building is unlocked, and that you could find the right door to an office, so you could explain why you’re wandering around, and even better, have someone walk with you and explain things. Now imagine that you are willing to make the phone call, but you have no idea what language you should use on the phone.
In my case, I was a tourist and only had so much time, and had read different guidebooks that all said, “just don’t go on the Muslim day of prayer (Friday) or holidays.” So when I showed up on a Tuesday and the sign said “No Tourists” except between 8-9, 11-12, and 3-4, I was bummed. It was not easy to get there, and it was at that time 12:15. Also, I approached the wrong door – it was the school part of the mosque – and a mom there sneered at me and said, “You are looking for the toilet.” It felt wrong to say, “No, I’m looking for a house of worship.” So I just said, “visiting this mosque?”
My point is not that mosques are inhospitable. Not at all. Once I made it past the very strict nun-like women (who lent me one of the bright lavender robes – marking me as a non-Muslim tourist – plus a hijab) the mosque felt like a wonderfully open place. Architecturally, it had a courtyard area, like most mosques, which lent a feeling of openness yet a solidity, a groundedness. But there was also a sense of spiritual openness, if one wanted to see it. There were plenty of groups there, ticking sights off of their list, and there were many young adults who were taking boisterous photos (they were wearing bright lavender robes, after all). But one could pause and sense the purpose of the place, which was ultimately worship and community.
Thankfully, I had just visited the Museum of Islamic Arts, and so I had some specific questions to ask, and a volunteer there received my questions, taught me a great deal about the practice of his faith, and even took me on a walking tour. I think the thing that most fascinated me was the combination of practical architecture and history. For instance, mosques usually have large domes, but this one had a folding umbrella-shape, because mosques are encouraged to adapt to local culture, and the V-shape is very common in roofs of large buildings. Within the worship space were 16 columns – one for each state in Malaysia. This was the State Mosque and was built after the independence of Malaysia from British colonial rule. However, shortly after it was built, Brunei left being a Malaysian state, as did Singapore, and they both became their own country. So the 16 columns remain, but Malaysia has only 14 states. People still shake their heads over the way the Federation was originally set up, and these 16 columns keep that conversation going. But architecturally, the rains here are part of the local life – and so the folds in the umbrella roof actually channel water down, through the columns, and into the ablution rooms in the lower floor of the mosque. When 21,000 people need to do ritual washing, that is a lot of water needed. So it matches the needs and gifts of this place.
Ultimately, it was a reminder that welcoming guests is a holy enterprise, one that is often set behind many layers of difficulty. I think every person of faith should visit not only the houses of worship of other faiths, but to go visit congregations in their own faith, in their own area. See what it is like to be a guest. See what you can learn in one short visit, and see what questions you walk away with. It will inform you of your expectations and it may open your eyes to how others express (or don’t) faith and hospitality. And who knows what God may do when you enter a holy place.
(Each of these columns – in both the open courtyard (right) and the enclosed sanctuary/prayer room (below) – channel water from the roof to the lower levels. That is a lot of water!)