Yesterday I attended prayer services at Masjid Mosque in downtown Toronto. I was there at the invitation of a friend of mine, a newcomer who came to Canada from the Middle East as a refugee.
The inspiration for this visit was a chat about Ramadan and the concept of a global community of Muslims fasting together. I realized that, while I had visited mosques while travelling in Europe and North Africa and seen clips of prayer on TV, I had never experienced a full prayer session in person.
“Why not come with me tonight?” my friend offered, and I accepted. She texted me the address and told me to be there for 10pm. As it is custom for men and women to pray separately, I would only see her after the service was done, but she insisted I would be welcomed by everyone on the men’s floor.
I arrived early at the address, and was surprised to realize it was a building I had passed by countless times before without knowing it was a mosque. Through the door was a foyer with a shelf for shoes – it was still early, so the shelves were mostly empty. On the shelves were well-polished dress shoes, some sneakers, some sandals. I took off my hiking boots and put them on a shelf close to the entrance, then walked in.
All the mosques I had visited previously were ancient, opulent structures with polished floors, grand arches and intricate ornamentation; the Masjid Toronto was much lower key, with cream-coloured walls,a red-and-orange carpet and no chairs or pews. Some bookshelves held copies of the Koran; at the back of the room was an alcove with a bar to hang coats and set down bags.
While my friend had told me I needn’t introduce myself to anyone – just walk in and sit down – I felt an urge to at least offer some explanation for my presence.
“Asalam alaikum” I said to the first person I saw. “I was invited to attend prayer by a friend – is there a place I should sit or not sit?”
The man I asked suggested I sit somewhere at the back, as the room would crowd up, but otherwise wherever I felt comfortable. Nothing in his tone made me feel in the slightest like I was imposing, which might have been the comfort I truly needed. I found a spot next to the alcove for coats and bags and sat cross-legged on the floor.
As the time to start prayer drew closer, more and more people trickled into the room, all moving right to the front and lining up beside their fellows. I was admittedly surprised by both the diversity in the room and the comfort everyone had with each other. The entire Muslim world was represented in the mosque – South Asian, East Asian, Arab and non-Arab from around the Middle East, African from both sides of the Sahara. There were a handful of men of European descent, including one man there with his four sons. Additionally, there were four men in wheelchairs for whom everyone made room. By the muted conversations I heard, it was apparent there were a mix of Canadian-born and newcomers present.
Everyone, friends and strangers alike, stood shoulder-to-shoulder, in some cases so close that toes touched. Despite the economic, ethnic, linguistic and age diversity, there was no apparent divides in the mosque – all were equal. Some were checking their phones, others taking sips of water, others still reviewing copies of the Koran. One man put a subway sandwich between his feet, a dinner for later; next to a pillar waited a quintessentially Canadian Tim Horton’s cup.
The service started without ceremony; the imam began speaking, and everyone came to attention. Sitting at the back, observing the service, I couldn’t help but note the parallels to services from the Protestant church of my youth, or countless Catholic services I had experienced through weddings and funerals. Indeed, apart from the lack of pews and music to note transitions, the fundamentals of the Muslim prayer service hit the same notes of a Christian service – communal action and recitation, readings of scripture, a homily.
The imam gave notice of a recently deceased congregation member and asked for everyone to pray on their behalf. In his sermon, he discussed specific Ramadan customs and exceptions, emphasizing that it was okay and even better in the eyes of Allah to miss a prayer service to support a friend in need than to abandon the friend for the service itself. To me, this was a manifestation of the Golden Rule – essentially, God is found wherever people are supporting each other.
Like all religious services, this one was long for the children in the room – I watched as they fidgeted and their attention wavered, adjusting and readjusting their feet until their fathers poked at them to be still and stay focused. These little, universally human gestures and the overall service structure really brought home how familiar this experience was, and would be to anyone who has been through a prayer of any kind, anywhere.
It occurred to me that there might be something in this – a religious exchange of some kind where congregations could either have guest-speakers from other religions or “field trips”. Experiencing first hand how much in common the people and customs of different faiths are would no doubt break down some walls of misunderstanding.
The service ended as it began; a few words were spoken by the imam, and then people got up to leave. I filed out with everyone else, without any undue attention. The men queued up to get their shoes, stepping back into the lives and professions and statuses they held beyond the mosque.
On the street, the women who prayed upstairs and the men from downstairs mingled again. My friend found me, and I began to pepper her with questions about all the content I hadn’t understood. She joked that the imam was Egyptian, and that even some of the Arabic speakers in the room wouldn’t have caught everything he said.
Across the street, I caught a few people casting sideways glances towards the crowd spilling out of the mosque, with many women in hijabs, some men in religious clothing and the conversation largely in languages other than English. There was just a hint of tension in those glances, with passersby no doubt wondering what this crowd had just been up to.
We hear much about mosques as places of radicalization – but rarely as spaces of community and commonality, which is a shame. Mosques, like churches, temples are centres of community; what happens in any such space mirrors what happens in others far more closely than it differs.
Craig Carter-Edwards is a co-founder of Welcome Home TO