Hanging with the Muslims

Fourth day of Random Acts of Courage, Part Deux.

In case you’re new, here’s what’s going on: I’m doing a bunch of (meaningful!) things this week that push me out of my comfort zone. Some of the challenges I’ve tried so far include stand up comedy, apologizing to a chap I used bully, and attending an AA meeting. It’s all leading up to Monday’s relaunch of my online course — A Course In Courage — which helps people become more courageous (rawr).

Today saw me tackle just one challenge. The plan was to learn about Islam, a religion which has gotten a pretty bad rap in recent years, what with Muslim terrorists and all that jazz. Given that it’s the second biggest religion in the world, with 1.5 billion or so devotees, I know embarrassingly little about it. So I figured I’d read up on it today, and try visit a mosque in Cork so I might meet some real-life Muslims and ask them a few questions. Turned out to be a bit of an adventure.

But before I dive into the telling of it all…

My big fat disclaimer

Yeah, so this religion stuff can be tricky to write about without offending anyone. I’m pretty sure I’ll piss someone off along the way, so my apologies in advance. Maybe just stop reading now if you’re hyper-sensitive when it comes to other people’s opinions on religion.

So you know where I’m coming from, I was raised Catholic, went to mass every Sunday up until my late teens. Nowadays I don’t subscribe to any particular religion, though I do consider myself to be a fairly spiritual person. I believe in a higher power, in life after death, and lots of other things that I have no evidence of. That said, and as I mentioned in a recent post, I like to keep my labels loose and my beliefs flexible. Who knows, perhaps I’ll be a nihilist this time next year.

I’ll be writing mostly about Islam here because that’s what I went and learned about today. Whatever issues I might have with the Muslim faith, know that I’m likely to have similar issues with other religions. I’m not picking on Allah and his followers. I’m also aware that Islam, like all other religions, has its conservatives, liberals, extremists, et al, and that they’re all likely to have different viewpoints and interpretations of what a Muslim should believe and how a Muslim should behave. I’ll do my best to avoid zee sweeping generalizations.

Finally, you should know that this is just a blog post, and my writing skills ain’t exactly of the ninja variety. This is simply me reporting on my quick dip into the world of Islam. I’m not spending a lot of time on it, for better or worse. Remember: I’m 29 years old and there’s a whole lot of shit I don’t know.

Okay, enough of that. Let’s dive in…

The five pillars

I spent almost two hours this morning reading up about the Muslim faith, using the Cork Mosque website as my jumping off point. One of first things I learned about was the five pillars of Islam. As I understand them:

  1. Shahadah: This is a declaration of faith. Every Muslim must make a regular commitment before witnesses that he/she believes absolutely in no God but Allah, and that he/she also believes in a chap named Muhammad who lived about 1,400 years ago. Muhammad was the primo messenger of Allah, and took everything he heard from the big boss (via an angel) and had it made into a book called the Qur’an.
  2. Salah: Muslims must pray five times a day, like clockwork. They must face towards a big temple in Saudi Arabia when they do this, no matter where in the world they find themselves. The prayers consist of recitations of the Qua’an and praises for Allah, as well as the occasional personal request (“Any chance of a Playstation?”). There’s a physical component to the praying, too, with lots of kneeling and bowing and heads touching the floor.
  3. Saum: This is the Ramadan bit, when Muslims worldwide spend a month each year fasting while the sun is up. No food, no water, no hanky-panky. They use a lunar calendar, so Ramadan doesn’t occur at the same time each year. Sometimes it happens during winter when the days are short, and other times, no such luck. Wikipedia says the fasting is intended to teach Muslims about patience, humility, and spirituality.
  4. Zakah: There is an emphasis on sharing and spreading surplus wealth. Once a year every Muslim above the poverty threshold must give 2.5% of their excess belongings to people in need. This discourages Muslims from hoarding their savings, and encourages social responsibility.
  5. Hajj: Remember that big temple in Saudi Arabia? Well that’s called the Kaaba, and it was built in the city of Mecca about 2,000 years ago by a dude named Abraham and his son Ishmael. There’s a black stone inside that’s some kind of big deal. The Hajj is an annual Muslim pilgrimage to the Kaaba, with about 60 million people partaking each year. Every able-bodied Muslim is required to make the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime, if they can afford to do so.

So, how’d you like them apples?

I’m a fan of the Saum pillar, since I’m a bit of a sucker for a self-discipline challenge. I may even have a crack at Ramadan myself some day, just for the hell of it. Zakah also makes good sense to me, and the Hajj sounds like the religious equivalent of Mardi Gras, so I’m all for that.

Can’t say the Shahadah bit resonates with me, though. A little too much of a stretch for me to pledge allegiance to a big invisible man in the sky and his mortal BFF who’s been dead for fourteen centuries. I prefer to keep my options open there, not put all my eggs in one belief basket. As for the Salah, I can’t help but wonder how Muslims get anything done when they have to drop everything and pray five times a day. And what if you’re out taking a stroll in the woods and you’ve forgotten your compass? Do you just take your best guess and pray in that direction?

I also came across a bunch of other interesting tidbits during my morning research binge. A few of them:

Islam, homosexuality, and the validity of the Qur’an

According to the Cork Mosque:

Islam teaches that homosexual acts are sinful and punishable by God. This teaching comes not from human beings, but from the Creator of all humans. God tells us in His own words how He punished the people of Lot for their homosexual behavior.

Hmm. That doesn’t sit well with me, and it’s an issue I also have with Christianity and the Bible: Why is homosexuality wrong? Because God said so! How do you know he said so? Because I read it in the book!

See, I need a little more than that. I’m not convinced that books like the Bible or the Qur’an are in fact the word of God. I’m not disputing that there’s a lot of wisdom and meaning to be found in their pages, but the word of God? I mean, how do we know for sure?

Well, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I wasn’t the first person to question the authenticity of the Qur’an (who’d a thunk it?), and I came across several “proofs” that said book is indeed the one true word of God. Three of the most common:

1. It says it in the book!

Yeah, it actually says in the Qur’an that the Qur’an is the word of God. Unfortunately, that to me is like Toyota saying that they build the best cars in the world. Conflict of interest methinks.

2. There are no contradictions in the Qur’an

I read that the Qur’an is a perfect book with no contradictions, but this big list of Qur’an contradictions I found would seem to contradict that.

3. Many of the prophesies in Qur’an have been fulfilled

I’ve heard that the Qur’an, a book written 1,400 years ago, contains theories that we’ve only recently had the technology to confirm scientifically, and foretold a whole bunch of happenings, Nostradamus-style. I’m not sure how true all that is, but I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.

Women, sex, and marriage

The reality of all this in Islam is much different than I had assumed. Let’s go bullet style and I’ll share what I learned…

  • Nobody is forced to marry, and divorce is permitted.
  • An unmarried man and woman must never be left alone in private.
  • No sex before marriage.
  • Once married, sex ain’t reserved for making babies. It’s cool to get jiggy just for kicks.
  • But contraception is a tricky issue. Some Muslims believe it’s okay to use condoms, others don’t.
  • It’s generally agreed that abortion is permissible, but not beyond four months of pregnancy.
  • Men are allowed to have up to four wives (though it sounds like having more than one is uncommon), while women can only have one husband.
  • If a man does have multiple wives, he must treat each of them equally. He can’t have one as his babysitter and another as his sex kitten.
  • Islam holds both men and women in equal esteem and emphasizes their equal worth before Allah.

One thing I find strange about women and Islam though: There were supposedly 124,000 prophets/messengers sent by Allah to Earth, starting with Adam and ending with Muhammad. But none of them were women. Surely it would have been a good idea to send down at least one prophetic lady, give the fairer sex someone they could relate to. No?

Dietary requirements

Muslims eat Halal foods, which basically means foods that are allowed under Islamic dietary guidelines. They’re not permitted to drink alcohol or consume any substances which alter consciousness. Animals to be used for food must be slaughtered a certain way (in the name of Allah, and by cutting the throat) and drained of all blood. Pig meat is forbidden, though I couldn’t find a good reason for this beyond “it says it in the book.”

One explanation I found of Islamic dietary rules also had a bit to say about people who believe it’s wrong for humans to eat meat, calling such folk “misguided campaigners” with a “perverted logic [that] would destroy the balance of life and eradicate all the finely tuned ecosystems Allah has created interdependently.” Being vegan myself, I found that quite amusing.


Just in case anyone doesn’t know: Islam does not advocate terrorism. The word islam actually means “peace,” which smart people agree to be somewhat of an antithesis to terrorism.

I can kind of see how the rare extremist might get it twisted though. The Qur’an explicitly says the following, emphasis mine:

“…take not life, which God has made sacred, except by way of justice and law: thus does He command you, that you may learn wisdom.” (6:151)

Who’s to say what’s justice and law? If you believe America has wronged you and your people, it might seem perfectly just to hijack a few planes and fly them into some big buildings over there.

Jesus, Mary, and creationism

Jesus is a key figure in Islam, one of those many prophets recognized by the Muslim faith. But Jesus is not considered by Muslims to have been the son of God. To consider him so is blasphemous. Nor do Muslims believe that he died on the cross.

I’ve also heard that Mary gets a lot more play in the Qur’an than she does in the Bible. Apparently there’s a whole back story for her in the Muslim book. And no mention of that dude Joey who the Bible claims she was shacked up with.

As for the origins of the universe, I’ve come across conflicting Muslim theories on that. Much like the Bible, the Qur’an tells of God creating the Earth on his week off from the 9-to-5 (or something), and there’s also tales of Adam and Eve. Some Muslims (just like some Christians) seem to take all this literally and discount the whole evolution and natural selection dealio, while others accept that there was once a big bang and that the Earth is billions of years old.

Islam in real life

Okay, enough theory. Let me tell you about the real Muslim folk I met today, and how that all went.

The Cork Mosque is located way out in an industrial estate, about a forty minute walk from the city centre. They had to apply to the city council to rezone the property so they could use it for social and community purposes.

The Internet told me that they had prayers at 1:35 pm today, so I headed out there early to see if I could talk to a few people and maybe observe the proceedings. Unfortunately, I got there a little too early, and everything was locked up. It started raining so I ducked into the business next door for a few minutes, got talking to a random chap manning the front desk. I asked him about the mosque. He replied, “I’m probably not the best person to ask, given all the hassle they’ve been causing around here recently.”

Uh, come again?

But he clammed up after that, said he had a lot of work to do and if I wouldn’t mind leaving… so I did, wondering what kind of controversy had been going on around these parts. If only Erin Brockovich was there, she’d have gotten to the bottom of it.

I headed back to the mosque and found the door unlocked this time. I wandered inside and met a middle-aged guy named Omar in the hallway, happily munching away on a bag of microwave popcorn. He spoke first…

— As-Salamu Alaykum!

— Uh… hello?

I told Omar I was interested in learning more about Islam, and he was cool enough to show me around the place and fill me in on everything. It was just the two of us in the building, others were due to arrive soon. I was asked to leave my shoes in the hallway as the tour began.

Turns out Omar has only been Muslim for twelve months or so. He was married to Christianity for 20-odd years but then they broke up. His mother is from Ireland, his father from the US. He seemed like a pretty cool cat, laid back, and he casually threw the word “shit” into our conversation a couple of times. I also noticed how he’d say “peace be upon him” after every mention of the prophet Muhammad. I’d later realize that pretty much every Muslim does that.

Omar went ahead and showed me the little wash area outside the main prayer hall (also known as a musalla), where people can cleanse themselves before getting down to business. Then he showed me the hall itself, big enough for about 300 Muslims to come together and pray, all facing the corner. Apparently they have close to that many people in there every Friday (the Muslim equivalent of the Christian Sunday), but other days they often have as few as three people per prayer session.

I asked Omar how the mosque had been received in the area. Very well, according to him. I skipped relaying the conversation I had just had with their neighbor.

I then asked Omar about the separation of men and women in the prayer hall. He told me that the women have their own separate room to pray in, upstairs.

— Why the separation?

— So the men won’t get distracted.

I’d heard that in some mosques, if a separate room isn’t available, the women will pray behind the men. Apparently there’s no worry of them getting distracted by men bending over in front of them, but vice versa is a problem. I put this to Omar, and he flashed back a smile and a shrug.

Before too long we were joined by two other men. One was a warm and friendly middle-aged chap who turned out to be the imam of the mosque (i.e. the guy who leads the prayers and generally runs the show). The other guy was in a serious mood and didn’t seem interested in shaking my hand. I asked if I could observe them praying, and Imam said no worries.

We moved to a smaller prayer room, and it was about time for them to get started, but Imam seemed especially pleased by my interest in Islam and started off on what would become an impromptu 40-minute lecture.

It was… confusing.

One minute he was encouraging me to read about all the different religions and come up with my own truth, and the next he was telling me about the silliness of Christianity. I wasn’t sure what to make of it all. The fact that he wasn’t fluent with the English didn’t help.

All throughout the lecture, Omar stood transfixed listening to his mentor, while Mr. NoShakes seemed to grow increasingly impatient; dude seemed to be jonesing for a good auld pray.

Eventually the lecture ended, I went and sat in the corner, and the three amigos took their positions and said their prayers. It was about how I expected it to be, what with the words I didn’t understand and all that bowing and kneeling and touching their foreheads to the floor. Fast-forward five minutes and they were done, ready to leave. Omar gifted me a copy of the Qur’an and a few different pamphlets about Islam, which I gladly accepted.

Ultimate alien

On the way out I figured I’d better go ahead and ask Imam a couple of my big questions about this whole Islam thing:

  1. How do you know the Qur’an is really the word of God?
  2. Why is homosexuality a no-no?

In response to the first question, I was told I must read: Read the Qur’an, read about Muhammad, and the answers will become clear.

Fair enough.

As to the second question, I tried to get across this point that I’d seen recently on Twitter, via @clareherbert:

RT @skylor: Homosexuality is found in over 450 species. Homophobia is found in only one. Which one seems unnatural now?

That is, if homosexuality is found in creatures that don’t have free will, then surely it’s a natural thing and we shouldn’t think ill of humans for such behavior.

To that, Imam replied that he was simply a humble man of faith, and that he couldn’t pretend to have all the answers. To paraphrase: “If you have a problem with your car, you take it to a mechanic, not to the mosque. Similarly, if you have questions about sexuality and such, you would be better to consult with someone who has expertise in such matters.” And then, with a laugh, he added, “Like Dr. Phil, from the TV!”

It was about then that I noticed, apropos of nothing, that this holy man was holding a Ben 10 lunchbox.

To each their own

It was drizzling when we got outside, and Imam offered to give me a lift back into town. I declined, telling him I’d prefer to walk for a while and think about everything I’d learned at the mosque. He understood.

I said goodbye to both him and Omar. We were all smiling broadly, shaking hands. They seemed like genuinely good people. Islam is obviously working well for them, and they’ve no doubt put a lot of thought into what they believe and why. I can’t say that they’re wrong or that I know better. Like I said up top, there’s a whole lot of shit I don’t know.

Well, one thing I do know: I’m pretty happy myself, not subscribing to any religion in particular.

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    1. Great report.

      Something I especially like about this report is that you have a great balance between advocating for your own views and giving reasons why you hold them (“homosexuality not wrong”, “not adhering to any specific religion”), while still being open-minded and willing to listen to others.

      One question – I’d always heard that “Islam” meant “submission” as in “submission to the intentions of Allah” instead of “peace”. A minor dispute in an otherwise excellent article.

      • Thanks, Jack. It looks like we’re both right on the meaning of the word Islam. From Wikipedia: “In addition to referring to the religion itself, the word Islam means ‘submission to God’, ‘peace’, and ‘way to peace’.”

        And I found this elsewhere online: “Islam is derived from the Arabic root “Salema”: peace, purity, submission and obedience. In the religious sense, Islam means submission to the will of God and obedience to His law.”

    2. “Maybe just stop reading now if you’re hyper-sensitive when it comes to other people’s opinions on religion.” This comes across as, “stop being a whiner” with more syllables, which makes you look insecure, not hard-hitting and direct.

      Did you go there to learn something and challenge your biases or did you go there to figure out how you could poke holes in for a belief system that differs from your own? Some other commenters seem to view your report as open-minded, but I don’t really see that. I see a smugness arising from pointing out contradictions. Even the title, “Hanging with the Muslims” as part of your “courageous acts” makes this clear. It’s not about you and your biases, it’s about how obvious it is that Islam is something to be feared, and therefore dealt with “courageously.”

      Receiving confirmation that your previous beliefs are the correct choices for you can be very validating, but the process you seem to have gone through here doesn’t seem to fit under the heading of “courage.”

      • Thanks for the comment, Katrina. You always make me stop and think a little deeper, and I appreciate that immensely.

        I prefer to view that bit in the disclaimer as as an acknowledgment of two things: a) my limitations as a thinker and writer, and b) the reality that I can’t please everyone. I wanted to give a fair warning to the reader that I present some controversial views in the post, so they could opt to skip it and save themselves getting worked up.

        I agree that hanging with Muslims doesn’t count as an act of courage. I got the point you made yesterday evening about what the original title of this post implied, and so went ahead and changed it last night. Perhaps I should have been more clear with every post this week that RAoC had taken a different turn (as explained here), and I was no longer just doing “scary” challenges. As such, challenges like helping my neighbor on Monday and paying it forward on Thursday didn’t count as courageous acts, and neither did going to a mosque. (Gotta admit though, I was a little scared to ask some of the questions I did while I was there. I wasn’t sure if they’d take offense to me questioning their views on homosexuality, or the Qur’an as the word of God. But they were cool with everything I threw at them, happy to explain it all to me.)

        “Did you go there to learn something and challenge your biases or did you go there to figure out how you could poke holes in a belief system that differs from your own?”

        I’ll go with option A as my answer to that one, as I feel I did learn a lot and challenge my biases. I knew very little about Islam before all this, and most of that knowledge came from Western society and Western media. Having done my own reading and spoken with those people at the Mosque, I feel I understand and appreciate Muslim people much better now.

        And of course I’m going to point out contradictions and state where my beliefs differ. What I’m hoping to get across is that we can respect and appreciate others without having to agree with them on everything.

    3. I appreciate this post, and everything you’re doing during your second Courage Week.

      Just reading about how you are attempting things outside of the box makes me feel like it is possible for me to do the same. Everything you post seems refreshingly honest and true to you, which is a fresh breath of air these days, and I love seeing someone live so authentically! I can only hope one day to have the courage to do the same.

      Thank you for being you. 🙂

    4. Wow! How informative and slightly uncomfortable that must have been for you! I guess you could say the same about most religions with the extremism and the guilt, and you kind of did.

      Brilliant idea mate!

      • Thanks, Anthony. The only thing uncomfortable with it really was asking the hard questions, because I wasn’t sure if they’d be offended or not. Fortunately, they were cool about everything.

    5. Hey Niall!

      I didn’t see this post earlier.

      I am a Muslim. From Pakistan.

      *dramatic pause* ? 😛

      Just wanted to congratulate you man.

      Whenever I read the Quran, which is not as often as I want to, I am always, always ‘questioning’ it.

      I know a few clerics here who don’t want you to question the Quran as to ‘why was this order given’ or ‘why did God do this’ etc. But these clerics are clearly the problem. The history of Muslim intellectuals is sufficient to provide an idea of ‘approach’ towards the Quran.

      But I take comfort in the Quran itself, which pretty much orders me to ‘think about it’. 🙂 And no ‘thinking’ worth its salt can start without a question or two coming in! 🙂

      I have read the Book three times now, with translation (my Arabic is weak at best, and non-existent under normal circumstances 🙂 ).

      I ‘pray’ and hope that the One Above guides us all, may it be in the form of ‘organized religion’ or not. 🙂

      P.S. And what’s the update on your plans for Pakistan?? 🙂

      • Rock on, Momekh. Love that you read the Quran with a questioning mind. I must get around to reading it myself some day.

        No update on my plans for Pakistan just yet. I’ll apply for a visa again when I get to Turkey.

    6. Assalam Alaikum Niall ( It means Peace be Upon You ) :).

      I am a Muslim From Lahore, Pakistan.

      I just want to appreciate the fact that you reached a religion with such coolness, and congractulate you on this step.

      Further on your question on How do muslims manages to do anything when they have to leave everything in the air to go for prayer…. I am a muslim and I pray Regularly,,, and its great..because its kind of a time table which gives you a great deal of freshness ( Spiritually )… because when I wake up for Fajr ( Early Morning prayer ) , it makes me wake up early and get charged for whole day, with reading quran, excercise, reading inspirational books afer Prayer… and then after doing the whole lot of work or ” LIFE WORK ” as i prefer this word.. Because I love my work… we get a change again to meet up in the Mosque and get ourselves cleane by ablution, meet up with other people, get charged ( BECAUSE TOUCHING YOUR FOREHEAD ON GROUND MAKES YOUR BODY CHARGED, Stress Reduced and Active ) and it is scientifically proved now….

      and O BROTHER I have to say wayyyyy more but I don’t want to make this comment sooo long..its long already….but if you want to know what i have to say then I’LL LOVE TO HAVE THAT CHANCE :)..to have a nice conversation with you…. through email.

      Thank You for understanding that we are not terrorists :)….

      May Peace be upon you,
      Hamza Siddiqui