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Why I pray at the mosque

02 November 2006

David Partridge on why he attends Friday Prayers each week

JUST BEFORE the Millennium, I went with a friend to the World Parliament of Religions in Cape Town. We came from the same community, where I was parish priest, and he was the enabler of several interfaith projects, on which we worked together. It seemed only natural that during that gathering, Mohammed and I should share each other’s mosques and churches.

Although some may have interpreted this kind of spiritual sharing as somehow disloyal to our respective faith traditions, neither of us felt this at the time, or have since. For me, that first little venture into actual rather than theoretical joint prayer still seems like a justifiable extension of many years’ ecumenical sharing of prayer.

There were two main factors behind my decision to join those praying at my local mosque every Friday. First came the discovery that, suddenly, the make-up of the protest marches expressing concern about the prospect of another war in Iraq had changed beyond all recognition. One of the things that struck me about this newly politicised Islam was its prayer times in Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square. It came home to me that Muslims and Christians were not only protesting together: they were also praying (and crying) about the same questions of peace and justice.

The second factor was a reflection on sheer numbers. At a Good Friday service a couple of years ago, organised by six churches and led by our diocesan bishop, the total congregation, including part-attenders, came to no more than 60. From that service, I went straight on to Friday Prayers at the new but unfinished mosque in the Muslim part of the city. It clearly wasn’t a special or "Good" Friday; just the equivalent of a normal Sunday service, but attended by at least 600 males of all ages.

It’s not just the congregational counts that motivate me to what some might regard as bizarre spiritual behaviour. What drives me to my prostrating knees alongside the gentle presence of the local male Muslims is the discovery of our different experiences of poverty.

For the British Christian, spiritual poverty relates to the problem of expensive plant and overheads, and struggling human resources to pay the bills. For the British Muslim, the poverty is the struggle to survive in a hostile culture, which makes all things spiritual a necessary support.

For both Christian and Muslim in security-anxious Britain, the poverty we share is the struggle with a prevailing culture that regards the members of any faith community as either mad or missing out on the pleasures of plush modernity — probably both.

At the heart of Friday Prayers there comes the drawn-out congregational sigh, "Aeemeeen". Alongside that sigh, there by the grace of God I am. Every Friday feels like Good Friday in the intensity of listening to the Punjabi or Urdu prayers whispered by my neighbours.

Their never failing acceptance of me as a fellow-pilgrim rather than a semi-detached fly on the wall hints of Easter, especially when their elbow-warmth is accompanied by a correction — most enjoyably, when a broad-grinning child or teenager provides it — about some detail of the liturgy I have missed or performed inappropriately.

One of the most difficult moments during the mosque prayers — especially for a dyed-in-the-wool Anglican — comes when the sidesmen call out: "Move up, please", in order to relieve the crush at the back. Any reluctance to shift from a favoured "pew" (or, rather, piece of floor-space) is prodded into action from all sides. The shunting around into rows of worshippers that become closer and closer brings the recurring reflection that Islam is at once more nomadic and physical than most forms of Christianity.

The synchronised thud of 600 pairs of knees landing on the floor at the same time — that’s liturgically something else. The absence of icons, indeed, any form of decorative art or craft, serves only to make the heart grow fonder for most (though not all) things Christian.

Two Gospel stories come constantly to mind. The first comes to mind when I meet bright-eyed youngsters sitting among their bearded elders; the second when I have the sense of meeting the incognito traveller on the Emmaus road.

One of the amazing things about this journey is that my own faith doesn’t feel in the least threatened. People seem pleased to see me, and accept that my becoming a Muslim is not on the agenda. I don’t have a secret longing for that, either. What is non-negotiable is my growing faith in the travelling God of Abraham, Moses, the biblical prophets, and Jesus — who, in John the Evangelist’s phrase, "became flesh and tented among us".

My Christian faith feels challenged and confirmed by the meetings with the godliness of others on the road, and on the other side of all the religious barriers of history. I have come to believe passionately in the godly mission of Christians and Muslims in their struggles to understand and trust each other, if only for the sake of our grandchildren’s world.

TWO ISSUES among many confront any would-be climbers on this impossible mountain: the future of women in the mosque (in the churches, too); and our different understandings of the crucifixion.

My friend Abdul reads my mind one day at the mosque. "Yes, over there is the new room where the women are coming to pray," he says. I know of a mosque in Portsmouth where female and male worshippers pray together without a wall or screen between them. How long will it be before all Friday Prayers are similarly transformed? Despite our dodgy track record, the Christian witness is vital here.

On the crucifixion, I vividly remember Muslim theologians in Cape Town dismissing even the possibility that the divine could be killed. There was no resolution in our debate, but at least the matter was raised. This has to be done more and more. It’s time to bring on all our different theology, only this time minus the curses.

Whatever still divides us, it is now just conceivable that one of the spin-offs of the second Iraqi war, the building of the Palestinian wall (and perhaps the aftermath of the tsunami, too), could be a drawing closer of at least two praying traditions — if only to weather the spiritual wasteland. But, first, we have to adjust our praying sets, and listen to each other’s differently pronounced but heartfelt "Amens".

Canon David Partridge is a retired parish priest who works in interfaith projects.

 Islam Awareness Week runs until Sunday ( www.iaw.org.uk).

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