The invitation

I was sitting on the flimsy mattress folded out from the loveseat in Grandma’s extra room when my cell phone rang. It was a local number I didn’t recognize.

“Hello?” I answered.

“Corinna?” It was a man’s voice.

“Yes?” I replied.

“It’s Raj!”

It was the older gentleman to whom I had given my cell phone number at the first Texas mosque. I pictured his handlebar mustache.

His enthusiasm was contagious. “Raj!” I cried back.

He explained that he was calling on behalf of his family. They would like to invite me to their Eid festivities, which were approaching. They planned to attend the special service at the mosque Wednesday morning and afterwards gather at his daughter’s home for a meal. Would I like to meet them at the mosque and then caravan back to their place? I told him that sounded excellent.

I had also learned of another Eid celebration, this one arranged by the North Texas Islamic Association, which would be held at the Dallas Convention Center the day before I met Raj and his family. I hadn’t observed the Eid Al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan that honors the last day of fasting. Now I would celebrate double.

When I made my plans to travel to Dallas, I hadn’t realized the significance of the Eid Al-Adha. I had seen it on my calendar—it was obviously big enough to make it on my mass-produced At-A-Glance Monthly Planner—but I didn’t realize that it is arguably the most important date of the year for Muslims. That it coincided with my trip was either dumb luck or the hand of Allah.

Aside from the two Eids, Islam has only one other major holiday: Muhammad’s birthday—though if and when to observe it is not universally agreed upon. Some Muslims opt not to celebrate it, believing its recognition implies a level of devotion that threatens the basic monotheism of the faith. Among those who observe the holiday, there’s disagreement about which day to honor. Sunnis generally recognize one date while Shiites tend to prefer a time several days later. With the Eids, it’s different. Everyone gets on the same page—though festivities still might not coincide exactly, most are within a few hours depending on what country’s clock celebrants are observing.

Eid al-Adha is all about the unity of people—and not just of Muslims with one another. It commemorates an incident that appears in the Jewish Torah and Christian Old Testament: when God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son. Only in the Quran, the boy is Abrahams’ son Ishmael (whose mother is Hager) instead of Isaac (whose mother is Sarah). In both cases, God stops Abraham just before carrying out the act and lets him kill a ram instead. Muslims believe that their ancestry can be traced back to Abraham through Ishmael, binding them with Jews and Christians who both claim this patriarch. Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice, memorializes the common root of the three major monotheistic faiths. The holiday also coincides with the end of the Hajj, so that as the pilgrims gather en mass in Mecca, Muslims are gathering all over the world with them.

As I approached the convention center by car, I could see a few police officers stationed at various pedestrian entrances. I had been conditioned by my time in post-9/11 D.C. to expect heavy security at busy gatherings, especially those involving what might be considered a “hot-button” topic. I thought about the annual Pre-tribulation Conference held in a Dallas hotel not far from here and the damage that could be done by one crazed fundamentalist bent on hastening the onset of the rapture. But this show of force didn’t appear to be anything more than what you might expect to see for simple crowd control at a Bon Jovi concert. I wondered if decisions regarding safety measures were dependent on who might be the target of attacks.

Shiite

The Greek Orthodox service began. Like Catholicism, it is built around the Eucharist. The “Divine Liturgy” contains the steps that prepare the bread and wine for the people and the people for it. Outlined in my rulebook, these include: the Small Entrance, Epistle Reading, Gospel Reading, Sermon, Great Entrance, Priest Censing, and Blessing. As I tried to follow along, I couldn’t help but think how from the perspective of a worshipper this experience was indistinguishable from a Catholic program. Sure, the chapel and other accoutrement were fancier than at the simple small-town Catholic Church I had attended, but that was superficial.

It was the same with Sunnis and Shiites: from the point of view of a worshipper, the differences are negligible. In all my digging I had uncovered exactly two. Shiites are likely to rest their arms at their sides during a portion of the daily prayers when Sunnis are encouraged to hold both hands to their chests. In addition, Shiites are less inclined to use prayer rugs. They opt, instead, to pray directly on clean earth and, if praying inside, they may rest their foreheads on a stone during prostration to represent this earth. The differences are so subtle that Shiites can and do make themselves at home within predominantly Sunni congregations, a necessity especially in the United States where their numbers are so few.

Of my list of mosques in the Dallas area, only one was exclusively Shiite. It didn’t promote itself as such, but I was able to confirm it through online message boards. I found no website and the phone number kept going to a busy signal. All I had was an address, which indicated a neighborhood northwest of downtown. I set out one afternoon to find the place. I had done this before with another “mosque” on my list, only to be led to a tiny house indistinguishable from all the other tiny houses in a low-income neighborhood. It was either a mistake or this was taking “house of worship” to a whole new level.

I found the Shiite place in a strip mall across from a Loan Star Title Loans. Shiites generally think of their places of worship as “meetinghouses.” As such, they tend to lack the more formal elements of a mosque such as a minaret or a dome. I pulled into a parking space and tried to imagine what the builders of this structure had intended it to be. A dry cleaners? A tax preparation service? I doubt they could have imagined this use.

It wasn’t shy announcing its purpose. A big maroon awning printed with the words: Institute of Quran and Ahlubait. It took me awhile to figure out that last word; I finally realized it was a spelling variation of the more common “Ahl al-Bayt,” which translates as something like “people of the house,” meaning Muhammad’s family members. It’s a reference to the leaders Shiites esteem for being the Prophet’s blood relations.

I tried the door, but it was locked. All the blinds were closed. For now, the building was empty. I got back in the car, thinking what a surprise it was to find this mysterious little outpost of Islam in such a mundane setting. Here, in the middle of Texas, next to a taco joint and donut shop, a long-dead Arabian prophet and his family members are actively honored. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed in keeping with religion in general: that strange domain where divine mystery intersects with the human realm.

Blood ties

The main division within Islam continues to this day, as does the basic question: can a person possess an extraordinary relationship to the divine? Those who might answer “yes” are the Shiites (decedents of the group who wanted Muhammad’s cousin Ali as his successor), and they believe their leaders have been endowed with the living spirit of the Prophet given to them by blood ties that trace back to Muhammad. Like the Catholic Pope, Shiite imams are thought to be sinless and infallible.

Sunnis (who preferred Muhammad’s father-in-law as successor) are those who would disagree. Their leaders are considered religious and political executives. This position is similar to the one held by Eastern Orthodox Christians who define priests and bishops as ordinary people—occupying extraordinary positions. Congregants are still encouraged to kiss the hand of the priest or bishop, though in doing so one should keep in mind that it’s the office being honored.

But as I mentally trace the roots of these theological divisions, they seem to grow too flimsy to understand because doesn’t every faith somehow incorporate the idea that a person can have a special relationship to the divine? Christians agree that Jesus was an incarnation of the divine and every Muslim believes Muhammad brought Allah’s words to earth. So perhaps the issue is not a human’s ability to channel the divine, but whether this quality can exist beyond the originals?

Or perhaps the argument is all just a smoke screen for the very human inclination to possess power and control.

The Greek Church I remember from my childhood is gone. Several years ago, the congregation purchased land just north of downtown and built a new building. The property allowed for a bigger main chapel, as well supplemental structures for social gatherings and classrooms. It also let church leaders mold a fresh identity. They opted not to recreate the white stucco exterior that was so readily identifiable with Greece. Instead, they used brick in a style more broadly Byzantine: arches and columns and the squat domes that speak to the shared history of a huge region. The strategy seems to be working. Recent years have seen a spike in attendance, filled out by congregants from a wider spectrum of eastern orthodoxy.

The main sanctuary may be bigger, but it evokes the same feelings I remember from being a kid standing by myself in the old chapel. Similar red carpeting lines the aisles. Recognizable faces stare down from murals on the ceilings. Even empty and quiet, the room back then had seemed alive. Today, it is further animated with movement and sound as Grandma and I slip into a wood pew. The priests and their helpers are revving up around the altar, lighting the candles and stoking the incense. Grandma hands me a pamphlet on the rules and procedures of attending a service, tucked into the back of the pew along with bibles and hymnals and a laminated card of the communion prayers. It spells out the proper way one is to enter the main chapel: first, by “venerating” an icon and, second, by lighting a candle. It explains that venerating means kissing. Out in the foyer, I had watched others pressing their lips against the glass under which sat a painting of a saint. It says here: “It is not proper to kiss an icon in the face.” Thank goodness I didn’t attempt it; that’s exactly where I would have planted a wet one. Instead, I caught up with Grandma who was making a donation in exchange for two thin candles. She handed one to me. I lit it using the flame of another and then nestled it into the sand of the raised box by the door saying a prayer for my grandfather who was a staunch atheist.

Family

“Your grandma tells me you are Christian.”

These were the words spoken to me by Judy, Grandma’s paid helper who comes once a week to do whatever needs doing. She’s a middle-aged woman who is a full-time nanny; she does grandma’s bidding on her day off. Judy and Grandma had just returned from an outing to the doctor. Judy’s statement lingered in the air between us: she put it out there, but I wasn’t quite ready to receive it. Of all my characteristics Grandma might have mentioned, this is what she selected?

“Interesting,” I said. Maybe Grandma had a point: perhaps I was a Christian whether I chose to be or not. It didn’t matter if I accepted Jesus as God. It didn’t even matter if I went to church. Some essence that trumps anything I might believe or do has been passed down through generations. I am Christian because as far back as anyone knows, my family has been Christian.

I don’t know if it was her getting older or my religious explorations but since I had been in town, Grandma’s Christian identity had cranked up a notch. She acted horrified by the fact that I had never in my life attended an Eastern Orthodox service. “How is that possible?” she asked incredulously. You never took me, I wanted to say.

Now that Grandma was almost 90, she had a good excuse for never going to church. She said the service started too early and lasted too long. Standing was expected during certain portions of the ceremony, which she could no longer manage. For these reasons, I gave up on the idea that she and I would attend a service together. It seemed strange to go without her, so I ditched the notion of going at all. I thought it was ironic that of all the faiths and denominations I had visited, I would be missing the one that was perhaps most closely associated with my family. I made my peace with this fact. Then, early one Sunday morning, Grandma shuffled into my bedroom in her nighty. “Let’s go to church today,” she said. I looked at her through one squinted eye. I had other plans for that morning, but I wiped them away. If Grandma wanted me to take her to church, by all means, I would do so.

The issue that divides the Orthodox Church from the Catholic Church is reminiscent of the main division within Islam. The Orthodox Church refused the authority of the pope, who Catholics considered infallible. Orthodox Christians rejected the notion that a person could possess an essence, passed down by blood or some other invisible source of transference, which made his relationship to the divine more profound than that of an ordinary person.

This same idea has been hotly contested among Muslims, and it created the Sunni vs. Shiite rift. After Muhammad’s death, a dispute erupted over who should become the next leader of the ummah. Some believed Muhammad had intended his successor to be his cousin Ali, who had been a faithful member of the ummah from the beginning. No one could deny Ali’s loyalty, but others thought Muhammad had specifically wanted to avoid appointing a leader who was related to him by blood. Perhaps he feared his legacy would become like a monarchy where leaders who ascend based on a birthright are assumed to possess an intangible quality that makes them special. This could threaten the equality among members he worked so hard to establish and inspire a devotion that should be reserved for Allah alone. People in this camp believed Muhammad would want his father-in-law, Abu Bakr, to take over.

Sister

At the inner-city mosque that broke off from the Nation of Islam, the imam stood to address the room. He sported a trim beard and skull cap. Words didn’t just slide out of his mouth and tumble to the floor, they leapt and danced and marched. “People educate their minds, but they don’t educate their hearts,” he declared.

Muhammad’s guidance for how leaders are to address gatherings is to “speak from the heart.” I noticed that talks given in mosques had a stream-of-consciousness quality to them. They tended to be looser and more spontaneous than speeches I had heard at the worship places of other faiths. This one possessed that same quality, but was delivered in an oratory style reminiscent of Martin Luther King, Jr.

“If you want to change your life, you have to change your heart,” the imam said. He paused to let that sink in. This congregation, perhaps more than any I had visited, lived by those words. Every Saturday and Sunday, they operate a program called “Feed Our Neighbors” in which the parking lot transforms into a food distribution center. Pictures on the website show the down-and-out crowd waiting in a line stretching up the street. By some estimates, they hand out 20,000 meals a year. Though far from affluent, this congregation stays true to Muhammad’s instruction to help the needy. The imam took a deep breath and scanned the audience with an intense gaze. “Expand the heart…and you expand the mind!”

By the time we were ready for the communal prayer, a handful of newcomers had shifted the demographics of the room. Before, it had been 100 percent African American, now a small percentage were something else—from various places in the Middle East. I imagined they worked downtown and had found this mosque both convenient and compatible with their needs. As we went through the prayers and my forehead made contact with the floor, I let the last traces of worry melt into the ground.

Our bodies were positioned towards Mecca, but what we were really facing was the little structure in Mecca called the Kaaba. Long before Muhammad was born, the Kaaba had been used as a communal shrine to the various gods worshipped by the different tribes who lived in the region. Muhammad’s message of a single, unified community, or ummah, relied on the unity of the monotheistic one-God concept and his objective became to bring to the Arabian people this fundamental notion promoted by the Jews and Christians before him. When the idea of monotheism gained enough traction in the region, Muhammad repurposed the Kaaba by tossing out all the icons it contained and dedicating it to the one and only Allah.

On my way out of the mosque, I stopped at the information area and picked up a zakat form. I thought if I was going to make a charitable donation, one of their programs would be a worthy recipient. I looked more closely only to see what I thought was an appeal for contributions was actually a zakat application. This was the first I had seen anything like it. Anyone could take one and request financial assistance. The applicant had to specify why aid was needed, circling from a list of options that included housing, electricity, gas, water, telephone, food, transportation or other.

“Sister!” someone called. I turned. It was the friendly man in white from earlier; he was calling me sister. “Come back and visit again.”

Other mosque

I arrived at the mosque that also traced its origins to the Nation of Islam’s Mosque 48.

It looked to me as if it had once been a single-story house with a big yard. Downtown had swallowed it up and spit it out. Now the yard was a concrete parking lot and the house had been transformed with additions and a paint job of vaguely Arabian scroll-work. A high iron fence ran the entire perimeter of the property distinguishing it from the empty lots and boarded up storefronts.

I parked on the street and put my headscarf in place. Sitting in the car with the engine off, I realized how anxious I felt. Throughout this entire journey from Christianity to Islam, I never set out for a place of worship without experiencing nervousness in my belly. Some of it was due to the logistics: locating the right building, getting myself through the proper entrance, and finding a suitable seat—all without inadvertently offending anyone and, ideally, maintaining a modicum of dignity. The bigger part of my uneasiness had to do with the fear of feeling like an outsider. I worried I wouldn’t be welcome—or, worse, treated with contempt.

Today’s anxiety had been higher than normal from the get-go. I started to feel it even before I left Grandma’s apartment. It’s hard enough when what you think makes you suspicious is invisible but quite another when your body is wrapped in it. In fact, by the time I was ready to exit the car, I realized the sensations in my chest were bordering on full-blown panic. I closed my eyes and took several lung-busting deep breaths.

I walked around the building and through the first door I saw. It was ajar and led to a little hallway that dead-ended into a bulletin board crowded with notices. From there, I could have gone left or I could have gone right. Doors hung in every direction; I felt like a contestant on a game show whose prize hinges on the knob she turns. I heard men’s voices coming from one of the options. I didn’t have the courage to pick any of them. I busied myself reading the announcements.

A man came from around the corner and paused when he saw me. He wore a white-cotton tunic with matching pants and skull cap. His attire looked exotic against his black skin, but something about the way it came together was uniquely American.

“Can I help you?” he asked, smiling. His pretty teeth matched his outfit.

“I’m here for Jummah,” I said.

“Great!”

His warm demeanor gave me a boost of confidence. I explained I wasn’t Muslim but that I was learning about Islam.

I followed him to one of the doors. “The sanctuary’s in here,” he said, pointing. The room was large by private residence standards but modest for a communal gathering space. He pointed to the back, “That’s where the sisters sit. You should go in because it starts soon, but feel free to ask me any questions at the end.” Slipping off my shoes and tucking them on a shelf by the door, I thanked him.

Several men were sitting at the front of the room and a few women were at the back. The people were oriented at a diagonal—proof that the grid of the city doesn’t always align to the spiritual. I took my place among the ladies. This was the first I had ever sat in the same room as men during prayer, and I wondered if it would be distracting. One of the men stood and did the call to prayer. There was no niche in the wall at the front like in most mosques, so he cupped his hands and sang the words against his palms, helping the sound fill the room. I suppose I had heard this ritual done before, but hadn’t fully realized what it was because I was always in a different room. As men and women continued to arrive, I let the feel of the sturdy floor beneath me ease the remnants of anxiety that still tingled in my limbs.

Mosque 48

For a lot of people in the United States, the Nation of Islam is the first they were aware having individuals who identified as Muslim in their midst. Most of us have at least heard about Malcolm X, probably the most famous member of the Nation of Islam ever. Current leader Louis Farrakhan makes national news occasionally. Before I had any real understanding of what it meant to be Muslim, I would buy sweet potato pies from well-dressed Nation of Islam boys at a flea market I frequented in college. Now I wasn’t quite sure how Nation of Islam fit with more mainstream versions of the faith.

It wasn’t until Malcolm X did the Haj that he became aware of this aspect of Muhammad’s message. He famously recounts in his autobiography his surprise upon arriving in Mecca to find the full range of skin colors from pale to dark among his fellow Muslims. The experience made Malcolm X see Muhammad’s objective in a truer light: to shed individual identities in favor of unity. Not long after his return, he broke ties with the Nation of Islam and was assassinated.

What would I have said if someone had answered the phone at Mosque Number 48? I imagined the conversation might go something like this:

Me: Hello, is your worship service opened to the public?
Other person: That depends. What color is your skin?
Me: My skin is light.
Other person: As in light for a person of color, or…?
Me: White. I’m white. But my hair is black. Hello? Hello?

Instead, I would just show up in person because that was sure to be less awkward. I don’t necessarily take offense at the organization’s rhetoric. Nation of Islam dogma may be incompatible with Muhammad’s vision, but so is the society from which it arose. Many of its members have been denied access to resources based on race for generations. The realization of Muhammad’s ideal depends on those with power working to level the playing field for everyone. But what if society is rigged to keep the field uneven? It’s difficult to judge a reaction to a biased system.

I was surprised to find the mosque so easily, well-marked and on a busy street. I guess part of me was hoping it would be impossible to locate, like some back alley secret society; at the very least, I thought the building might be as defunct as the phone number. But here it was with a prominent sign and even a digital leaderboard flashing information to passers-by. I stopped in front on a Friday just shy of 1:30; at mosques across the city, people were arriving for Jummah. Number 48’s parking lot was empty. I pulled in to a space and let the car idle for several minutes while I watched for signs of life. The only movement was the leaderboard’s frantic scrolling: SUNDAY GENERAL MEETING 10:00 am…WEDNESDAY NIGHT MEETING 8:00pm…FRIDAY STUDY GROUP 8:00pm. I wondered if they even held worship services, or if it was all gatherings of a more functional nature.

After a few minutes I drove out of the lot. I had a back-up plan: a mosque just a few streets away that I knew would be holding congregational prayer. I had called its number earlier in the week and reached a recording confirming the time for Jummah and inviting me to join. The user-friendly website prominently displayed local prayer times. Under the “History” page its origins were traced back to Nation of Islam’s Mosque Number 48. At some point, a group had broken off and created this new mosque that appeared to embrace a more mainstream approach to Islam. I can only imagine Malcolm X was on a similar path when his life was cut short.