What can be learned from praying in a mosque?
The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, Oman is a landmark and, surprisingly in a land ruled by sharia, opens for visits by Christians and other non-Muslims. I visited on a Wednesday morning and was inspired by the grandeur. Completed in 2001, the Grand Mosque can accommodate 20,000 worshippers and features marble paneling, a Svarovski crystal chandelier that spans a length of 14 meters, and a hand-made Persian carpet consisting of 1,700 million knots, made in a single piece measuring 70 x 60 meters, woven over the course of 4 years by 600 female weavers.
After I walked around the perimeter of the main hall, I realized that, most of all, I was in a place of prayer. Muslims gather for prayer at the mosque five times each day. They assemble in rows, stand and kneel, touching their foreheads to the ground in an act of submission and devotion.
As a Christian in a mosque, I wondered how Muslims would be treated in a church. Are churches open for visits by Muslims? Would a Muslim be permitted to enter a church, walk around the perimeter of the sanctuary, gaze at the architecture, and ponder the meaning of the pulpit, table, and font?
What about prayer? If an Omani man visited a North American church prior to a worship service, wearing his traditional dishdasha, what would happen if he knelt for prayer? How would people react if he took off his shoes at the sanctuary entrance as an expression of humility, walked barefoot to the chancel, and repeatedly knelt and stood as he prayed?
Would observers be supportive of his simple act of prayer? Or territorial about Christian space? Would church members be troubled that he prayed to Allah or pleased that he followed his conscience? Would they be afraid of what could come next?
Back in the Grand Mosque, I realized that I wanted to pray. Wearing a longsleeve button-down shirt, blue jeans and flip-flop sandals, I knelt on the plush carpet and closed my eyes. There were less than 10 people in the main prayer hall at the time. But before my knees became stiff, I was nudged by a guard. He wore a military-brown dishdasha, with a pistol and club on his belt, and asked what I was doing. After my answer, the guard explained that prayer in the Grand Mosque is for Muslims only. He correctly presumed that I am a Christian. With a red face, I apologized.
When I was alone in my car, the questions came. Why was my prayer stopped? Did the guard act unilaterally or on the grounds of established policy? Was my Christian prayer offensive to him or only out-of-place in a mosque? Was the guard motivated more by politics than religion--did he see an opportunity to trump an American who was far from home? Was it a matter of power and control? There are times when Christians oppress Muslims but at that moment the guard had power and control over me. Was he concerned that I would proselytize curious Muslims? Was I considered to be a bad influence?I am grateful that the Grand Mosque opens for visitors. I hope that churches are open, too. And I pray that both Christians and Muslims can discuss the questions that arise from visits to one another's places of worship with open minds to where the best answers lead us.