Confessions of an Expat – in a mosque

mosque

Eid Mubarak in Tobago

‘Err, you can’t go in there with shoes on,’ says the man behind me. Ah yes, of course. It’s a mosque, isn’t it? I’ve never been in one before. But it’s Eid Mubarak, the Muslim holiday to mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan, during which the devout undertake to fast. I’m in Tobago and it’s a public holiday, so the island has switched off for the weekend a day early, and there are celebrations at the mosque.

I’m with the Imam (leader and scholar) Muzafar Mohammed, who I am surprised to find is only 27. I ask him if that is unusual, but I’m asking the wrong person, because he is much too modest to give me an answer that would glorify his rise to prominence. He graduated from Darul Uloom, the Islamic college in Trinidad, and when the previous Imam of Tobago left to pursue his studies, Mr Mohammed was appointed in his place.

This being my first encounter with Islam, I’m asking not just about the day’s events, but the absolute-beginner questions: ‘what is an Imam’ being the first thing I said when we were introduced by event organizer Kameal Ali.

There are just 200 Muslims in Tobago, a much lower percentage of the population than in Trinidad, and two mosques. This one, Masjid Al Tawbah, has a primary school and kindergarten attached, and today the children are much in evidence due to the presence of such inducements as a bouncy castle and free food.

Imam Muzafar Mohammed
Imam Muzafar Mohammed

The Imam is patient and helpful as I try to build my knowledge from scratch. Islam and Christianity stem from the same thing, he tells me – it all goes back to Adam and Eve, and many of the prophets mentioned in the Quran, the Islamic equivalent of the Bible, are familiar to those of us who grew up in a Christian environment (whether or not practising or even believers at all). There’s Abraham, Moses, Noah and a man called Jesus. The main difference seems to be that in the Islamic scheme of things Jesus was just a prophet, not Christ.

‘Jesus was one of the great messengers of God,’ the Imam tells me. ‘Any Muslim who doesn’t believe in Jesus is not a true Muslim.’

Such are the links between the two religions that he says, ‘They have so much in common that we shouldn’t look at the differences. We should live in peace and harmony.’

So, having taken off my shoes (they don’t seem to mind socks), I follow him into the mosque. It is a plain white building inside, with none of the elaborate features you might expect when the outside is so grand and mystical (domes and minaret reaching for the sky). The interior is stark. No chairs, just a carpet with a sort of squiggly eastern motif. Posters on the walls list the prophets and denounce racism.

A man sits against a wall, reading the Quran. Next to the two steps which serve as a pulpit a wooden staff leans against the paintwork. It is used, the Imam tells me, to reflect the times when the prophets lived. Abraham would have had a staff like this.

While extremists can give any group of people a bad name and history is full of wars fought on the grounds of religion, it is reassuring, to say the least, to hear the Imam speak of his religion as advocating ‘love and respect for all of humanity’.

I ask him how Muslims fit into society around here. ‘People in Tobago are very welcoming and tolerant,’ he says. ‘They are hospitable, lovely people.’

Out we go into the steamy late morning, because the dignitaries have arrived, headed by the Chief Secretary (another term for Prime Minister), the Secretary of Community Development and Culture, and the Chief Administrator, resplendent in what looks to me like African dress.

The air is heavy with the aromas of spicy food and patchouli oil, which I think is a single individual’s unwittingly powerful contribution to the ambience.

 

muslim girl

Mr Ali introduces a man called Reza, who performs a recitation from the Quran. He doesn’t just speak it, but sings it in quavering tones.

Next up is the Imam, who gives what amounts to a short sermon, complete with a joke about a man who goes to the doctor with a urinary problem. Just like an Anglican priest’s jokey story, there is a moral to the tale: be grateful to the creator. But it’s not all joking with the Imam: he speaks about how the fasting during Ramadan (which he describes as a gift from Allah) teaches Muslims compassion, as their hunger reminds them of the less fortunate for whom this is not a matter of choice.

He is followed by a local trader known as ‘Yat’, who sings a song in Urdu, which Mr Ali translates quickly into English afterwards. Yat’s version is more enjoyable, even if you don’t know what he is singing about.

The Culture Secretary talks about the right for all ethnic and religious groups to their ‘respected space’ and emphasizes her department’s commitment to that. She urges the gathering to ‘join us in developing Tobago – you have a lot to offer.’

The Chief Minister in turn praises the contribution of the Muslim community to the island.

And then it’s over to the food and the fun.

There is no suspicion. There is no tension. This occasion may mean more to the Muslims than it does to me, but they’re not pushing it, and I’m not pushing Christmas.

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