Tab Tries: Islamic Friday Prayers
I’m a middle class liberal plagued with cultural guilt
“I should have washed my feet” – this was just one of many thoughts as I hurried over to Downing Site.
As part of Explore Islam Week, ISOC (Islamic Society of Cambridge) were holding an open prayers session (Jumu’ah) and I was on my way to sheepishly check out. I say sheepish because, like the middle class liberal I am plagued with cultural guilt, I was terrified of doing something offensive by accident.
I really shouldn’t have worried – from the off, everyone there was keen to welcome me, and answer my questions. While they were particularly concerned to make observers feel at ease, even amongst the regular congregation the environment was vibrant and social.
From the helmets dropped at the side as members of the congregation hurried in late, it was obvious this was a student hub and you could really feel the community.
Speaking to Saania Hussain afterwards, she said for her part of Friday prayers was to ‘see friends and strengthen relationships.’
We began kneeling or sitting on the prayer mats while the Imam led a brief prayer in Arabic. Having grown up in the pews of a church, I found kneeling together surprisingly present – it seems to emphasis the absence of hierarchy.
I was lucky enough to have my friend Zack with me, who translated the prayer and provided me with a running commentary throughout. It would have been useful had more information about the meaning and traditions behind the Jumu’ah had been available (possibly in the form of a hand out?) (too nerdy?) – that said, everyone was keen to answer questions and there’s letmegooglethatforyou.com.
Surprisingly to me, observers were welcome to take a place anywhere, and I ended up sitting next to Zack in the male section. One of the main features I was intrigued by – and really not sure how I would feel about – was the segregation.
Admittedly, it did make me feel uncomfortable at first. Although equally, I was aware that this was partially caused by Western media portrayals of Islam that see such elements as the hijab as repressive, and not a choice. Western feminism still has progress to make in understanding intersectionality with Muslim women. I was keen to speak with the women there to find out their perspective.
For Saania, it wasn’t an issue, “primarily because it is voluntary but also because it is more conducive to a focus on the spiritual dimension of the prayer for both men and women alike.” Western media also plays a part:
“In the media, Muslim women are often portrayed as oppressed and forced to stay away from men in an ancient patriarchal system.
“However in Islam, men and women are equal before God, and women are granted a far higher status than is often realised – and the manifestation of gender inequality in Muslim countries and communities is a cultural construct, not religious – but this is rarely understood.”
After the Arabic prayer, there was a longer sermon in English. The Imam had an easy, relaxed style (despite reading the sermon off his phone) and spoke about unity and cooperation between religions.
It was a comforting sentiment – that said, the sermon felt a bit tailored to the observers in the room, and it would have been interesting to have heard a more academic sermon. Chatting to people afterwards, I heard Tim Winters (BNOC of AMES) mentioned with awe as providing some of the best sermons.
The Iman finished with the salat afterwards (this is the ritualised bowing). Thanks to Zack kicking me at the correct moments, I managed to follow this reasonably well.
Speaking to members of the iSOC, I was told that Friday prayers were the most important event in the religious week, and so they wanted people to have a chance to witness it. For Saania, “Friday prayers are a great end to an often hectic week, and allow for a reconnection with God.”
Others chimed in that there is a pervasive media perception that Muslims are busy ‘rallying troops’ during prayers, and so it was important people saw how wrong this is.
This event was a great chance to get behind that perception and engage with Islam. This is particularly vital given how pervasive Islamophobia can be. Only last week, the Chapel Hill shootings of three Muslims received little media coverage.
Turn out of observers wasn’t great for the event – this could be due to lack of publicity, but also possibly people felt intimidated going alone. I often click attending to about five events a night on Facebook in Cambridge, and – in order to be fair to all of them – end up going to none of them. This however was a unique opportunity – praise must go to iSOC for running a creative and engaging week of events.
All in all, open prayers was a fascinating event. Hopefully Cambridge will see more events like this in future.
Check out this Cambridge based photo campaign: https://www.facebook.com/events/733462626722602/?fref=ts