On a sun-soaked afternoon in June, my family and I—all Catholics—visited a local mosque in suburban Maryland. The gleaming house of worship, with its sea-colored domes rising high like bellies under the summer clouds, is a sight that would be stunning even in Istanbul or Indonesia, where mosques are more common. Built alongside a humble neighborhood of brick homes in Prince George’s County and modeled on 16th-century mosques constructed in what is now Turkey, this mosque shows no wear as of yet. As we walked across the courtyard, the sun bounced off the white stone tile and into our eyes, blinding us as I imagine the light must be in heaven.
I had visited this mosque a few times before—as a chaperone on a university field trip and for a friend’s wedding—and my husband had seen the house of worship, too. But it was the first time my parents and brother, who were visiting us from out of town, would enter a mosque. I am studying for a doctorate in Catholic-Muslim relations and wanted to give my family the opportunity to see this impressive mosque, one of the largest in the Western Hemisphere. We went on a Sunday, not long after we had attended Mass, where a rambling homily and a dim space had left us in a collective slump.
As we walked across the courtyard, the sun bounced off the white stone tile and into our eyes, blinding us as I imagine the light must in heaven.
Under the mosque’s shaded entrance, party favors lined a table, awaiting the guests at a wedding inside. I peeked through the glass doors, bordered by a wood-carved pattern of stars, and saw the bride in her red dress with a wide skirt. Before the mihrab, the mosque’s alcove focal point tiled with floral patterns, she and her husband sat in the light of stained-glass windows that cast rainbows on the floor. Not long after, their family and friends trailed out of the space and the couple arranged themselves by an outside window in front of a photographer. Accompanied by our guide, we unlaced our shoes, shelved them by the door and went inside.
The dhuhr prayer, which happens in early afternoon, had just concluded the ceremony, but we learned it would be followed by recitation of the Qur’an by an imam world-renowned for his talent at vocalizing the word of God. Amid a few dozen adults who had remained in the space and several kids who twirled and ran across the teal-blue carpet, we sat down cross-legged with our guide, Ahmet, as the imam, Ali, began to recite.
Truth and beauty can be found outside the walls of church, in a space that belongs to those who worship differently.
With one hand cupped behind his ear and the other holding a microphone as he sat back on his feet, he invoked the One who is al-Rahman and al-Rahim, as Muslims begin every prayer. In the Islamic tradition, the divine compassion of which this invocation speaks is believed to surround creation like a mother’s womb, wrap around the world like the gilded band of calligraphy that encircled the prayer space under the mosque’s pregnant dome. Imam Ali’s voice moved in steps and quivered from low notes to high ones, echoing words that Muslims believe are God’s, revealed to the Prophet Muhammad not only in language but also in the pinging-ringing sound of a bell in his ears and in the tight embraces from the Angel Gabriel that he thought would be too much to bear. Look at the signs in the heavens and on the earth…. Why are you ungrateful?... Truly, God is full of might and wisdom, Ali intoned.
Periodically, our guide would speak softly to us, explaining a bit about the mosque or the commonalities between Islam and our own faith, but when the reciter’s voice soared and billowed into the belly of the dome, we all grew quiet. Far more than the meaning of the Arabic words, which my family could not comprehend and which I sometimes could not follow, it was the yearning in his voice that compelled us to lower our gaze. Like waves overcoming a rocky shore, the melody flowed over us but also seemed it would burst us open from the inside. It pushed tears out to the corners of my eyes.
We had been warned us of this. That morning, in the Gospel of John, after we had heard in the Hebrew Bible about God’s wisdom and working in creation, Jesus said to his disciples, “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.”
That afternoon visit to the mosque, where Catholics sat bathed in Muslims’ prayers, was a reminder that truth and beauty can be found outside the walls of church, in a space that belongs to those who worship differently. But it was also a lesson that God always has more to say—that truth and beauty are always bursting their banks. As the Qur’an says, if the oceans were inkwells, it would not be enough to record the words of God. Maybe it is wise for God to hold back on the flood for now; we might not be able to withstand it.