New York Catholics visit mosque, learn about Islam

WAPPINGERS FALLS, N.Y. – In late July, carloads of curious Catholics caravanned north from their church to a mosque in the next county.

Three dozen Catholics who regularly attend Mass at the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement’s Graymoor Spiritual Life Center in Garrison accepted a Muslim visitor’s invitation to attend services at Masjid Al-Noor, his mosque in Wappingers Falls.

Entering the two-story white frame building, the visitors placed their shoes alongside their host’s on wire racks lining one wall of the foyer.

The women, already modestly covered from chin to ankle, pulled on scarves to cover their hair. The men were directed through double doors to a large simple, rug-covered room on the first floor and the women were invited upstairs to a balcony overlooking the same prayer room.

The walls of the prayer room were sparsely decorated with metal plaques proclaiming God’s greatness in Arabic, a large clock and several bookshelves with various editions of the Quran and devotional books. The front of the room had a small, raised carpeted platform for the imam, the religious scholar who led the service.

People greeted one another quietly and lined up, shoulder to shoulder, in rows that stretched across the room. Everyone faced east, the direction of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Islam’s holy city. Folding chairs in the back of the two prayer areas were used by people who had difficulty sitting and kneeling on the floor, or accomplishing the deep bows that punctuated the prayers.

Muslims are required to pray five times a day and men are obliged to attend a communal service on Fridays. Women are not required to interrupt their routines to go to the mosque for Friday prayer. Three-quarters of the more than 200 people who attended one recent Friday service at Masjid Al-Noor were men.

The 45-minute service was conducted in spoken and intoned Arabic, with three portions in English: a short reflection on the reading from the Quran, intercessory prayers and communal announcements.

At one Friday service, Imam Mohammed Asil Khan chose to speak on a Scripture passage, or “sura,” that described the “Miracles of Jesus and the Miracles of Mohammed.” He later explained that Muslims consider Jesus to be a prophet, but not divine.

The Catholic visitors told Catholic News Service they were grateful for the opportunity to attend the services and speak with members of the congregation.

“Our hosts were very welcoming and it was insightful to have casual conversation about being Muslim and learning about the diversity within their own community,” said Ruth Ann McAndrews.

She was particularly interested in the discussion of the “challenge of instilling each religion’s traditions and faith in the youth through Sunday school and after-school programs.”

“The thing that struck me,” said Dan Donnelly, “was the commonality that pervades. We have significant doctrinal differences. They don’t believe in the Trinity or in the divinity of Jesus, but we have a common father who created us and we should all love one another.”

He was also intrigued by the lack of a hierarchy and came to a better understanding of the role of the imam.

“I thought of the imams as the priesthood,” he said, “but I learned that they are religious scholars who are chosen by the community to be teachers. If an imam is not available, the people can choose another person to lead the service.”

Joyce Evans said, “I left there knowing for certain that our faiths could make us closer to each other. Praying with the Muslims can’t take anything away from Catholicism. In fact, it enhances my Catholicism to honor them and work with them.”

She continued, “You can read about Islam in a book, but to see the fervor of their devotion really touched me and I came away being a better Catholic.”

Most of the worshippers at Masjid Al-Noor are Sunni Muslims, although Shiites are welcome and constitute a small percentage of the congregation, according to Imam Khan. There is no official membership roll, he said, so it is hard to estimate the size of the congregation.

The worship community represents 26 different countries and includes a small number of converts. Imam Khan is a Pakistani who holds master’s degrees in Arabic and Islamic studies. He has a full-time association with the mosque.

Atonement Father James J. Gardiner, director of the Graymoor Spiritual Life Center, organized the visits, which came out of a December 2006 event at the center.

“At our Advent vespers, we invited people from different traditions to speak. We had Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Christian Missionary Alliance and Muslim speakers,” he said. “At the time, Umar H. Ahmad was the president of the Mid-Hudson Islamic Association, which worships at Masjid Al-Noor.
“Dr. Ahmad spoke ‘In Praise of Mary’ and at the end of his talk he invited the participants to visit his mosque, attend services and enjoy fellowship with the imam and other members of the congregation,” the priest said. So two visits were scheduled in July.

Imam Khan expressed interest in making a reciprocal visit to Graymoor. “Quran tells us that how you deal with your neighbors is very important,” he said.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.