Festivals/Seasons & Holy Days

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In July 2015, the festival of Eid, marking the end of the month of fasting of Ramadan, fell on a Saturday. For several years a local mosque has invited me to join them for the Eid prayers, but as it is a moveable feast like Christmas their invitation has not before coincided with a day when I was available. However, this time I was able to accept the invitation. I was recovering from some surgery which made me rather lethargic, so I have to admit that it took some effort, but as I had just been granted permission to spend a year with the Little Sisters of Jesus, part of whose charism is friendship with our Muslim brothers and sisters, I felt I should ‘put my money where my mouth is’ and make the journey. My reluctance was met, as is characteristic of God, ‘the most beneficent and most merciful’ with a deep and rich blessing and I returned home refreshed.

On arrival at the community centre which the mosque uses for its bigger events I was greeted rather diffidently by a child who, in parish church parlance was acting as a sides-person. The light airy hall with wall to floor windows on one side had its floor covered in a colourful array of rugs and bedspreads. I took the small piece of paper the child offered me and looked around rather unsure where I was meant to sit. I had attended prayers with this group once before, on 7 July,  when they had a special memorial service for the victims of the London bombings and read out the names of the 52 killed and lit a candle for each, so I knew that they didn’t mind men and women sitting together. There were a few people already there, mostly women with children who smiled welcomingly, so  I joined one who had a young daughter in a brilliant turquoise dress who was happily colouring but rather shy when I tried to say ‘hello’.

There was a CD playing a chant in Arabic. I read the A5 piece of paper I had been given. It had a bold heading of Arabic script and then in English:

Idd al-Adah,
The Glorification of God.

Please recite the Arabic words in a strong melodic rhythm and loudly repeat this graceful invocation that was instituted by the Prophet Muhammad as an integral part of the Eid service. Continuously recite this key supplication until the Idd al-Adah prayers begin. As you praise God, reflect and contemplate what it means to you.’
There followed mercifully a transliteration of the Arabic words on one side and an English translation, line by line on the other. The English translation ran:

“God is the Greatest, God is the Greatest,
God is the Greatest.
There is no deity except God alone,
God is the Greatest, God is the Greatest
and to God is due all praise and grace.”

Knowing no Arabic except Alaahu Akbar (‘God is great’) it took me an embarrassing while to realise that the CD was actually playing the prayer repeated again and again. Despite this I found it quite difficult to join in and in the end asked my neighbour to say the third line of text for me because I just couldn’t get it. She obliged willingly but was bemused by my obvious difficulty with picking it up. So much of my brain power for quite a while was used trying to get the hang of the Arabic words rather than reflecting on what they meant to me.

The service was supposed to start at 10.30am, but as there were major road works in the area, at the appointed time there still weren’t many people there. The Imam left it another 10 minutes and then turned off the CD and explained that he knew a large group were travelling up from Portsmouth to join us and we would simply go on reciting the prayer until they arrived. By this time I was beginning to get the hang of it and able to do a little bit of reflecting.

Sadly, still the first thing that comes to my mind, or rather my emotions, when I hear or say ‘Alaahu Akbar’ is the association with what has been repeatedly reported in the media, that these are the words suicide bombers choose to use. Could I get past that visceral churning of the stomach and feeling awkward and self-conscious choosing to use them myself? I tried looking round at the assembled people, clearly welcoming, prayerful and giving me an example of how the vast majority of Muslims use and mean those words. Gradually, as these were the words I could actually fit in with the chant, being able to join in with those precise words became a relaxation point, where I could join in with confidence and get to a deeper meaning of the words. They became very like a Taizé chant, something that stilled the soul and enabled it to stand before God, praising God as the prayer advised. The late arrival of about twenty people became part of the blessing.

At the beginning of the service the Imam encouraged us to stand and then motioned us to stand closer to each other. He explained that we should stand literally shoulder to shoulder touching each other to pray because that reminded us of our inability to stand alone. We need each other’s support in our life and our prayer and we should enact that by standing so that we touched the shoulder of the person next to us. I found that amazingly reassuring, reminiscent of the teaching of the Body of Christ. How I have heard people explain the Creed beginning with ‘We believe’. It made sense too, later on, when he reminded us of our duty to give alms and drawing our attention to the box for that purpose telling us that if one of our brothers or sisters was in trouble or need and we had the means to relieve that need, then it was our bounden duty to do so. The proceeds collected were going to various places including a school in Gaza destroyed by the recent bombing. I was reminded of the Bar Mitzvah I had attended a few years ago when the twins each chose a charity they would like the collection to go to and spoke about why, and of the closeness of the three Abrahamic faiths.

After the service there was a wonderful lunch in which it was good to get to know my kind neighbour, a GP, and her child, and meet her family and others. Everyone thanked me profusely for coming (there was one other non-Muslim participant) and I felt a little how vulnerable and isolated it might be to feel as a Muslim in Britain today. How much under suspicion one could feel even though entirely innocent and how far a little gesture of friendship like sharing in worship of God, who is after all the One God we believe in, can make a difference.

Sr Judith SLG normally lives in the convent at Fairacres, Oxford, but will be spending most of 2016  with a group of the Little Sisters of Jesus.