Tigray, Ethiopia and other African wars – The Island

By Ifham Nizam

Asiff Hussein, Vice President – Outreach of the Harmony Center Islamic Studies Center and author of the book ‘Iconic Masjids of Ceylon’ talks about the role of mosques in the Muslim community and the importance of mosque visits in reaching people of other faiths.

Q: The mosque is often considered the center of the Muslim community. How true is that?

A: The mosque is undoubtedly the center of the Muslim community. It is here that the faithful gather to pray to God, not once, but five times a day. Prayer which is undoubtedly the most active form of prayer found all over the world consists of cycles of standing, bowing and prostrating before the Almighty. It is from the very important position of prostration known as Sajdah, where one humbles oneself before the Almighty, placing one’s head on the ground and surrendering one’s self totally to Divinity, that the mosque derives its name. The Arabic word for Masjidis mosque derives from the word Sajdahor ‘Prostration’ and literally means ‘Place of Prostration’.

In the early days of Islam, which were its best days, mosques were the very center of community life. During the time of the Prophet Muhammad (peace_be_upon_him), the mosque served as an assembly for the community and public announcements were often made there. Women also had free access to the mosque but prayed behind the men. In fact, the Prophet clearly forbade women from being refused entry into mosques, calling them servants of God. In a hadith, he said: “Do not prevent the servants of God from entering the places of worship of God”. Unfortunately, this command is observed in the breach today, except on festival days when women attend festival prayers. Cultural norms and ideas of ceremonial impurity of women arising from their menstruation have a lot to do with this attitude, but thankfully that is changing and there are mosques today that allow women to attend and lead prayers.

Q: You are the author of a highly acclaimed book on mosques in Sri Lanka. Can you share with us some of your most interesting discoveries?

A: A study of local mosques tells us a lot about how Sri Lankan Muslims adopted architectural features from neighboring cultures and, during the height of colonialism in our island, even adopted European styles. In fact, it seems that time and place mattered a lot when it came to mosque architecture. Except for a very basic space dedicated to prayer, Islam imposes no rigid rules or conventions for the erection of a mosque. Thus, a mosque can lend itself to a variety of architectural styles. This is why you see such beautiful mosques all over the world with such a wide variety of architectural styles.

In our own country, we have the centuries-old Bakinigahawela Mosque in Uva Province, which resembles the home of a Kandyan nobleman with very thick walls and a tiled roof. It has no dome. Likewise, there were many mosques in ancient times that did not have a dome, including the historic Abrar Mosque in the Maradana area of ​​Beruwala believed to have been built as early as the year 920. Although it has today Today a small dome surmounting its front part, old photographs show that it was clearly absent at the time.

In fact, the incorporation of a large central dome or domes as seen in many mosques today only came after independence, although a few had already adopted it earlier, like the onion or pomegranate shaped domes of Pettah’s beautiful red mosque. Nowadays we also have very modern mosques like the University Mosque of Jamiah Naleemiah in Beruwala which has been compared to a flying saucer that has just landed.

Another important finding of the research was that it proved that Muslims lived in peace and harmony with neighboring communities, even when it came to building mosques. I found several examples of cooperation between Muslims and neighboring Sinhalese and Tamil communities in building mosques in the good old days. This has been seen in the case of the Porwa Mosque at Godapitiya in Akuresa and the Grand Mosque in Jaffna simply known as Periyapalli or ‘Grand Mosque’.

Another interesting discovery that has emerged is that the Muslims tended to build their places of worship along the main roads, some of which must have emerged from the ancient caravan paths that they traveled with their pack animals for trade purposes in the Kandyan era. Kingdom. Otherwise it was near the bazaars as they were a largely merchant community. This explains why you find mosques on the sides of the roads, some of which seem very visible. In contrast, you will find that the Buddhists built their temples in a quiet environment, away from the hustle and bustle of city life. This of course reflects the concept of an arama or “retreat” from worldly life. This explains why the mosques seem so visible when moving on the main roads while the temples are barely visible.

Q: What can you tell us about the program of visits to mosques organized by your organization?

A: Mosque tours are a unique interfaith program run by the Harmony Center for Islamic Studies, although we have recently partnered with the Muslim Women’s Research and Action Forum to organize these tours. Mosque visits are undertaken in association with local mosque administrators.

Since we started the program eight years ago, we have seen more than fifteen mosques in all parts of the country open their doors to people of other faiths. In fact, more than 10,000 visitors from other religions have visited our mosques on “Open Mosque Days”. The concept, I must say, is quite revolutionary since it is the only occasion where a religious place of worship has been opened to the public by special invitation.

To give you an idea, mosque tours are basically cultural tours that aim to give people of other faiths the opportunity to visit a mosque and, through it, gain a better understanding of the Islamic faith and Muslims in general. It often happens that people of other faiths wish to visit the mosques and discover their rich architecture. There is also this curiosity to see what is happening in the mosques. This makes it all the more necessary for mosques to welcome and be seen to welcome people of other faiths.

Q: In addition to being considered a cultural visit, another purpose of mosque visits is to reach people of other faiths. So why the mosque for this purpose?

A: A very good question. You see, mosques lend themselves well to teaching people about Islam. The concept of unitarianism or unity of God, the essence of Islamic prayer, the idea of ​​equal brotherhood, among others, are best explained using the mosque.

For example, the absence of idols explains the concept of Islamic monotheism. The rows of saffron prayers marked in the ornate rugs explain Islamic prayer and the concept of brotherhood where the faithful, whether princes or poor, stand side by side in prayer before the One True God. The mihrabor prayer niche explains the story of the prophets through this great patriarch Abraham and his construction of the House of God in Mecca. The prayer postures presented here explain the meaning of Islamic prayer, including Surah Fatiha, the opening chapter of the Holy Quran which is compared to the Christian Lord’s Prayer and Sajdah or Prostration which can be compared to the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Q: Besides a mosque tour, what else can visitors expect from your typical mosque tour?

A: Our mosque tours are primarily cultural tours that allow people of other faiths to experience the beauty of Islam and see it in action through a spiritual lens. They are led by a dedicated Mosque Tour Guide (MTG) in all three languages.

Each mosque visit also has its own guided tour where large colorful posters placed side by side form a guided tour which visitors are directed to shortly after visiting the actual mosque. The tastefully executed posters with colorful imagery cover everything from the greatly misunderstood Shariah and the conditions of its application to religious tolerance, coexistence, human rights, women’s rights and animal rights, among other things about which little is known among those of other faiths due to prevailing misconceptions.

It was indeed often here that visitors began to ask questions or concerns about the faith, no doubt stimulated by the wealth of information contained in the posters. For many of our visitors, mosque tours have been the first time they have actually visited an Islamic place of worship and the first experience they have of truly interacting with Muslims and asking them anything, without any offence. As Muslims, we have nothing to hide but much to share.

Along with a visit to the mosque, visitors have the opportunity to learn about the rich culture of the community. They are served traditional Muslim dishes, given free calligraphy of their names in beautiful Arabic script as souvenirs to take home, and gift boxes of literature dispelling misconceptions about the Islamic faith.

Photos of the mosque courtesy of Asiff Hussein

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