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Jordan Denari DuffnerOctober 22, 2019
The interior of the mosque at the Diyanet Center of America in Lanham, Md. (Photo provided by author)

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.

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JR Cosgrove
4 years 9 months ago

Are you having your family read the Quran and the Hadith and asking what the Muslims are instructed to do to you and your family who are infidels? Is that what God was holding back?

Michael Caggiano
4 years 9 months ago

This is absolutely repugnant. St. Paul explicitly warns us that we should be wary of New "gospels", even if they are taught by an Angel. Interesting that both Islam and Mormonism were "revealed" by "angels".

God doesn't contradict Himself. Either Jesus Christ is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity and The Son of the Father, or He's not.

Why not delve into beautiful Catholic Liturgy, or our voluminous prayer tradition? Oh right, because it doesn't exist in 95% of American parishes where the Liturgy is banal and boring and the beauties of Christian contemplation never taught.

Tanner Loper
4 years 9 months ago

Yearning, yes. Beauty, yes. Even directed toward God, yes! The author succeeds in showcasing how all of these things are good and true, and, indeed, not confined by the walls of the church. They can be present in a mosque. Surely, one would find the same things, though less explicitly, at a national park or even at a brothel!

What we see at the Mass is much more than this; it is God reaching down to us. There is not enough human yearning for God in all the world to match how much God manifestly yearns for even the least engaged parishioner at Mass. I'm dearly sorry that for the author, Mass is a place "where a rambling homily and a dim space had left us in a collective slump."

Then again, maybe that's a good enough reason to go to a mosque: to realize how good we have it, and to be spurred to return at least a fraction of the yearning God has for us.

Vince Killoran
4 years 9 months ago

I mean no disrespect with this question but I am curious about the sex segregated practices in most mosque. Did the author's children ask about this?

Dialogue and understanding are good. I've heard Protestants discuss Catholic churches: some comments are filled with curiosity and respect; others with ignorance. I have several Jewish and Muslim co-workers &/or friends but none have mentioned visiting a Catholic church. It doesn't necessarily mean that they haven't. . .

4 years 9 months ago

Thank you for your exquisite narration and reflection, Jordan. I remember that, when we first visited Jerusalem 30 years ago, we stayed at the Notre Dame Hospice directly across the street from the New Gate to the Old City, close to the Christian Brothers' school. On our first morning, we were awakened at dawn by the call to prayer announced by the Muezzins at mosques across the city. Shortly after they finished, the Angelus bells rang out from the Franciscan monastery. And as they concluded, we could see from our window Jewish men and women making their way through the gate to the Western Wall to offer their prayers. On Friday of that week, we made the Stations of the Cross through the Old City just after afternoon prayers concluded at the mosques. And as we finished, we could see Jewish folks bustling to get their Sabbath shopping done before sundown, which, as you know, marks the beginning of the new day for them. For me, it was a reminder that God is so much bigger than our imaginations--much less our prejudices.

shira granger
4 years 9 months ago

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J. Calpezzo
4 years 8 months ago

This is an excellent article and if there were more people of Jordan, the world would be a better place.

John Mack
4 years 8 months ago

Could it be that, whatever partisans may think, God is not "owned" by any religion?

William Thompson
4 years 8 months ago

Muslims claim Allah is the same god as in the Bible. That Allah is Jehovah. But God, in the Bible, acknowledged Jesus as His Son, when John baptized Him. Allah says, in the Quran, that he has no son. That Jesus is just another prophet, and not the last, best prophet, that Mohammed is, according to Allah. Allah is the name of an ancient Arabian moon god, more evidence he is not the God of the Bible. No matter how well you disguise it, Islam is not a real religion.

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