Friends of Beyond Series - Aram and the Mosque
For many years I have brought Christians to local Mosques for educational purposes. The best way to learn about Islam and how Muslims practice their faith is to learn from practicing Muslims. There are so many misconceptions and fear that many non-Muslims have about Muslims. We believe the best way to engage is to go to their community with our community with an intent to learn. We took a group to Colorado Muslim Society in January and here’s a reflection from Aram. ~Suzann
One of the things that’s always stood out to me about the great spiritual leaders is their laughter, and genuine joy for life (if you want a wonderful example of what I mean, get on YouTube and watch when Archbishop Desmond Tutu appeared on the Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson – perhaps the best late-night interview of all time). An old mentor once told me that religious people who lack a sense of humor are either taking themselves way too seriously, or they’re not taking God seriously enough.
There’s a lot of things I could write about as I reflect on our visit to the Masjid Abu Bakr mosque in Denver, also home to the Colorado Muslim Society – the largest Muslim community in Colorado. How we were welcomed with genuine warmth and gladness. How we were graciously given 20 minutes with Imam Shafi and Dr. Mohamed Hamdy prior to evening prayers, preparing us for what we were about to experience. How, after prayers, we were then given a second, follow up audience with Imam Shafi and Dr. Hamdy, and, expecting maybe another 15 or 20 minutes (the Imam is a busy man, with thousands that he leads among other responsibilities, not to mention his family) he instead gave us two hours of time with him – for teaching, elaboration, Q&A, and discussion. How he intently addressed all our questions, including topics such as the division of the genders at prayers, Muslim evangelization, and sharia law. How he addressed – and clarified many – misconceptions about Islam and talked about how the media so often distorts the true essence of the religion. How he acknowledged (and apologized) that he was doing most of the talking when there were others in the room who were his elders. How, when he noticed the late hour, he had (unbeknownst to us) sent for take-out, and how one of the brothers brought in twenty boxed dinners of chicken kabab, pilaf, salad, and pita, and how we all broke bread without missing a beat in our discussion.
But what struck me most about our two-plus hours with Imam Shafi (and I’m focusing on him partly because I had already experienced an evening with Dr. Hamdy a few years ago), is how utterly relaxed and at-home I felt. Relaxed and at-home because of his joy.
All day long I had been thinking about what good and worthy questions we could ask, and this produced a sense of nervousness in me. But once in his presence, what I noticed was his smile. His belly laughs. His realness. And this put me at ease when I encountered his brilliance: this is a man who speaks four languages, and oversees a mosque of a few thousand people from FORTY nationalities (when was the last time you were in a church with more than three or four?). By the end of the night, I could see why God had led him here: He knows Islam. He knows the United States (politically, socially, culturally, spiritually). He knows the Bible (his words were filled with references to Old and New Testament Scriptures all night long – especially from the Gospels). He knows people (in those two short hours I experienced a genuinely warm connection with him which left me wanting more). And he knows joy (we laughed often through the two plus hours together).
Going into the evening I felt I was already aware of the major misconceptions about Islam. I wondered if I would hear anything that I didn’t already know. On this night, I felt Imam Shafi took me to another level in my understanding (and misunderstanding) of Islam. Imam Shafi’s take on Islam was one that I found intriguing and wanting to know more.
Now if I’m honest, I also find myself wondering if his interpretation/understanding of Islam is shared by many others within Islam. But then I thought, it’s just like how in Christianity, I’m drawn towards certain theologians/teachers and their understanding and presentation of Christianity (for me, people like Richard Rohr, Ilia Delio, and Ron Rolheiser), and repulsed by others. And this is what struck me: that the concerns and questions I have about Islam are pretty much the same as my concerns and questions about Christianity - e.g. what is your hermeneutic? Are you self-aware? Are you open to learning from other traditions and faith groups? Are you promoting exclusivity or inclusivity? Does your anthropology begin with the image of God or original sin? (Islam might surprise you here). Do you bring people together, or does your religion inspire division? Do you emanate genuine joy, or do you take yourself too seriously? All I can say is, I for one am grateful we have Imam Shafi leading the largest and perhaps most influential Muslim congregation in Colorado. And how grateful I am for this night that Suzann put together for the fifteen of us who went.
Aram Haroutunian is the Director of Mission Integration and Chaplain at The Gardens at St Elizabeth, a senior living community in North Denver. Prior, he served as a pastor for over twenty years, in Vermont and in Colorado, and then served six years as a chaplain in hospice. Aram was raised in the Armenian Orthodox church and enjoys liturgy, meteorology, and gardening. He and his wife Ellen have two grown children, a retired greyhound, and two enthroned cats.