All my life, all I’ve ever known is Catholicism when it comes to religion. With parents from Nicaragua, a country where Catholicism is rooted in the people, culture, and constitution, it’s needless to say they have a strong, Catholic faith. As a result, my siblings and I had a firm, Catholic upbringing.
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We completed our sacraments of initiation, attended mass every Sunday, and attended Catholic schools until college. For this reason, there was little knowledge my parents could impart on us about a religion that wasn’t our own. Growing up in close proximity to a an Islamic mosque, Islam is probably a religion I’ve had the most questions about, but knew the least about. In 2005 when the Islamic Institute of Orange County (IIOC) built its mosque on the outskirts of my Orange County neighborhood, my 9-year-old self was curious about the ritual traditions that took place in the ornate temple. Since the day it opened its door to the community, I must’ve driven by the mosque 2-3 times a day, but it wasn’t until recently that I moved to Los Angeles that I decided to put my curiosity to rest.
After reaching out to the IIOC, the Outreach Manager, Jamaal Zaheen, was kind enough to help me plan a visit to the mosque. I was able to tour the mosque as well as attend one of the congregation’s prayer services. Through much discussion with Zaheen and other community members, my questions about the Islamic faith and their traditions were answered. Furthermore, after attending Sunday mass at my parish, St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Fullerton, the similarities and differences between my religion and that of a Muslim’s became increasingly evident. While there are some differences between these two Abrahamic religions, the similarities in their beliefs and practices (despite a few theological differences) are salient. Through participatory observation at an Islamic mosque and a Catholic church, I was able to establish a clear discernment between the similarities and differences present in the origin, historical development, and the sacred rituals of Christianity and Islam.
Christianity and Islam are two of the largest world religions with respectively over a billion worshippers each. Collectively, these faithful communities are referred to as Abrahamic religions because of their claimed descendance from the earliest of the Abrahamic religions, Judaism – the religion of the Jewish people founded by the patriarch, Abraham. Because Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all recognize Abraham as the first prophet and because Islam and Christianity stem from Judaism, they became known as the Abrahamic religions. Aside from sharing a common, spiritual figure, the Abrahamic religions are also monotheistic: they worship a single God. The first time God spoke to Abraham he said, “Lekh lekha / Go forth,” as he “sent [Abraham] out into a hostile world with the message that there is only one Deity.” However, despite their common, ancestral origin, Christianity and Islam separated themselves from Judaism, each recognizing the role of Abraham, but interpreting him differently theologically. As a result, Christianity and Islam have distinct, historical developments in which they adopted unique, foundational beliefs that are only broadly similar.
Christianity and Islam were established years after Judaism. The birth of Christianity is thought to have occured with the birth of Jesus in the 1st century CE. The word “Christianity” comes from the Greek word “christos,” meaning “anointed one” in reference to Jesus Christ, the Messiah and son of God. Jesus’ life and teachings are the center of the Christian faith and are the basis for the Christian, sacred text: the Bible. The Bible is often referred to as the “Word of God” due to the nature of its contents being written by authors divinely inspired by the Trinity. While Christians believe in one God, He is one God in three distinct forms: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Moreover, much like the word of God has shaped the Christianity, the sacred text of Muslims has formed the Islam.
Islam is believed to have originated in Mecca around the 7th century CE of the Christian era when the Muslim God, Allah, spoke through the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad. Islam, an Arabic word meaning “submission,” was founded on the teachings of Muhammad, similarly to how Christianity was founded on the teachings of Jesus. Muhammad recorded the teachings that were revealed to him by Allah as an “expression of surrender to the will of Allah.” The textual recordings of Muhammad became known as the Qur’an, the unaltered, sacred text of Islam, and it is regarded as Allah’s final revelation to mankind. While Christians believe in the Trinity, Muslims believe that Allah is the one, true God, without parents, children, or equals. With Allah at the center of the Islamic faith, Muslims do not worship or praise anyone other than Allah, unlike Catholics who worship various saints and prophets. Although noting the key similarities and differences in the origin, historical development, and beliefs of Islam and Christianity required a bit of research, the likeness of their ritual practices were obvious during participatory observation at the IIOC and St. Mary’s Catholic Church.
On Sunday, November 11, I arrived at IIOC at 11:00 AM and joined a group of female students from Chapman University to tour the mosque. While we waited for all the group participants to arrive, I noted the obvious architectural differences between my church and the IIOC. The most prominent features of the mosque are the large, copper dome and the tall, slim pillar (known as a minaret) topped with a smaller secondary dome. Even though the dome and pillar are traditional features of a mosque, they hold no religious significance and are simply meant to reveal the presence of a mosque in the community. Aside from these two, obvious features, the exterior of the mosque is simple in appearance with neutral, tan walls. Since Muslims do not idolize any individuals other than Allah, the mosque is not decorated with statues and crosses like St. Mary’s Catholic Church is inside and out. St. Mary’s proudly displays a cross high above its doors and a bronze statue of the Virgin Mary on its exterior. The large cross is meant to symbolize the presence of a Catholic church, much like a dome and minaret symbolize the presence of a mosque.
The modest exterior of the mosque extends to the interior as well. Inside the mosque, there are no effigies of Allah, the Prophet Muhammad, or Jesus Christ. While Muslims believe Jesus was the Messiah and an honorable prophet and messenger of God, they do not idolize him, as worship is meant for Allah alone. Jesus may have been born miraculously without a father to the virtuous virgin, Mary, but he is not considered divine, nor is he believed to have been crucified to atone for the sins of man. However, along the walls inside the mosque leading to the musalla, or “place of prayer,” there are portraits with Arabic wording that acknowledge Allah and the sacred prophets. Above the entrance to the musalla, an Arabic banner reads, “O Allah, open for me the doors of your mercy.”
Furthermore, on both sides of the entrance to the musalla is a shoe shelf where my group and I were asked to place our shoes. Congregants are asked to remove their shoes before entering the musalla in order to preserve the cleanliness of the mosque. Additionally, Muslims are also asked to follow a modest dress code in the mosque and in public. Women are required to wear loose, conservative clothing, such as long-sleeve blouses, long skirts, and scarves, so as to not reveal their figures. Women are also required to wear a headscarf called a hijab. Contrary to popular belief, the hijab is not a symbol of oppression. Instead, it is a way for women to be recognized and respected for their intellectuality and not their sexuality. The men, on the other hand, are required to wear long pants and nice shirts, as well as have well-groomed beards. Because the my group members and I didn’t have headscarves of our own, Zaheen was kind enough to lend us each a hijab before entering the musalla.
The prayer hall is simplistic in nature. Upon entering the musalla, my eyes were immediately drawn to the glistening, ornate chandelier hanging from the center of the cavernous dome. The hollow, concave structure of the dome serves a very specific purpose: reflect sound. Thus, when Muslims gather for prayer, their voices echo throughout the mosque and even carry to neighboring areas in the community. Beside its tall ceilings, one also can’t help but notice the openness of the hall due to the lack of chairs. Muslims pray on the floor and as a result, the hall is covered with carpet. What is most interesting about the carpet is its pattern. The carpet had rows of individual squares that imitate prayer rugs. Initially, I was confused as to why the squares on the carpet were positioned diagonally from the door. Come to learn that they’re positioned toward Mecca. Whenever a Muslim prays, they prayer toward the holy city of Mecca, the Islamic pilgrimage site in Saudi Arabia. Not only are the squares positioned toward Mecca, but they also face the minbar, or pulpit, where the imman (prayer leader) stands and delivers the Friday sermon.
Conversely, the core of Christianity is the belief in Jesus Christ, the son of God. Christians believe that Jesus, the Messiah, was sent by God the Father, to prophesize His word. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and incarnate of the Virgin Mary and although a man in the flesh, he was of divine nature and free from sin. For our sake, Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate. He suffered, died, and was buried; but on the third day after his death, he resurrected and ascended into Heaven. Jesus’ death was a sacrifice for the sins of mankind to reconcile us with God. As a result, we are offered salvation and eternal life with in Heaven.
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