It wasn’t the first time the call for prayer, “Athan,” was called in the Washington National Cathedral, yet this November 14 marked the first time a Jumu’ah (Friday) prayer was held at the most revered Christian church in the nation’s capital. It was a symbolic event exemplifying tolerance, coexistence, and shared humanity. The cathedral is a marvelous architectural beauty befitting of a grand religion. The magnanimity of its façade is complemented by the warmth of its hosting clergies’ hearts. Friday morning, serene and inspired faces walked through the cathedral's arches many of them Muslim women wearing their hijabs passing the inviting pews to the front of the grand hall where prayer rugs were unfurled facing Mecca. As people gathered for the "Jumu'ah" sermon and prayer they exude peace, love and understanding.
That spiritual beauty was quickly brought back to earthly reality as a lady walked up to the Muslim congregation yelling out her disapproval of such display of compassion demanding Muslim guests to "leave us alone, leave our churches alone! This is America, founded on Christian principles!" before she was escorted out of the Cathedral. In a Facebook post she proclaims that her blood was boiling with "righteous anger" ending her post with "We are in God's army, Soldiers in the Cross! We should act like it. There is a battle out there! WORRIOR UP PEOPLE! ONWARD CHRISTIAN SOLDIERS!" Religion has always been a double edged sword as it "has the capacity for cooperation bringing people together around shared values, or it can be used to 'soldier up’ be it by Christian, Muslim or Jewish extremists" said Dr. Richard Rubenstein of the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.
She was not the only person objecting to the event. The Facebook group "2 Million Bikers to DC" attempted to organize a motorcycle ride to the Cathedral to protest the prayer. Although none of the 600 invitees and the 170 confirmed participants showed up, "anti-Muslim sentiments run deep as the war on terror becomes increasingly military based. The general tendency is increased animosity against those associated with the enemy,” said Rubenstein. On the other hand, those who believe in tolerance and understanding are not seeding the field to load intolerant hate filled groups.
For years, the Cathedral has been active in forging an open and sustained lines of communication with Muslim communities within the Washington, DC area. In 2008 the Cathedral hosted a Ramadan “Iftar” ushering in an era of deeper engagement with members of the Islamic faith. For its part, the Muslim community in the Washington, DC area has been forward leaning. As devastating as 9-11 was for the U.S. as a whole it was harder on the American Muslim community as they grieved for their country while having to defend their religion. The Muslim community adopted a two pronged approach; condemning terrorism and educating fellow Americans.
For years before 9-11 and more intensely after it, many of the steps taken by Islamic centers and Mosques were localized in the form of open houses for community members to learn firsthand of Islam and its teachings as well as the role Muslims play in the community. The grassroots effort spillover effect lead to the rise of ISNA (the Islamic Society of North America), CAIR (the Council on American Islamic Relations), MPAC (Muslim Public affairs council) as nationally recognized prominent Islamic organizations. These three national groups in addition to two local Islamic centers; ADAMS (the All Dulles Area Muslim Society) and Masjid Muhammad, sponsored the Jumu’ah prayer at the cathedral. These Islamic organizations have been increasingly effective in their grassroots efforts and in reaching their fellow Americans including Masjid Muhammad giving the opening prayer at the U.S. Congress. It is not surprising that these organizations were invited to sponsor the Jumu’ah prayer at the Washington Cathedral, but what is interesting is that the event was suggested and lead by the South African Ambassador, Ebrahim Rasool.
A peacefully protesting Nelson Mandela has done for South Africa what violence could not. He inspired the sense of justice and fairness within his people and with that he captured the imagination of our humanity. In his death too he continued to inspire. As the Cathedral worked with the South African Embassy in Washington DC to coordinate a service to celebrate the life of Mandela a discussion between Ambassador Rasool of South Africa and the Reverend Canon Gina Gilland Campbell has lead a year later to this Jumu’ah prayer.
In his “Khutba” sermon, Amb. Rasool laid out the essence of the issues ailing the Muslim world when he said that Muslims “have been challenged to find consistencies between condemning the excesses done in the name of Islam and protesting the mistakes of our countries and our governments.” he went on to voice his concern for the inequality of approach when Muslims “had to manage our dismay that while we seek in this country [the U.S.] the freedom to worship we couldn't promise the same right to Christians where our fellow religionists are in the majority.” The two points of condemning extremists and calling for Muslim nations to extend freedoms to its own religious minorities were the two major points emphasized by the lineup of speakers representing the different Islamic centers.
When the “Khateeb” concluded his sermon the “Muathin” called for prayer. The echoes of “God Is Great” continued throughout the grand hall of the cathedral ushering the Muslim congregation to stand up before god; men in the first four rows and women in the following three. On their modest attire reflections of colorful sunrays filtered by the stained glass lining the cathedral. That surreal unity of imprints; Islamic rites on Christian marble and reflections of Christian stained glass on Muslims praying was a sight to behold. Among those in attendance were tens of dignitaries and guests belonging to different faiths and denominations listening and observing. When Muslim worshipers stood up to perform their Friday prayer, they too stood up and remained standing as Muslims bowed to god. During that afternoon, those who were able to take action sponsored and attended, those who were able to talk stood at the “Minber” and spoke, while the rest offered a gesture of respect and solidarity; an Islamic principle that is truly universal exemplified by hosts, sponsors and guests on a sacred ground on a hopeful day.