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.