by Bryan Carey
Although visiting a mosque with a Muslim friend is usually easier than going on your own, you might not know any Muslims yet or the Muslims you do know may not go to prayers regularly. That shouldn’t get in the way of your interest in meeting your Muslim neighbors or learning more about Islam. I’ve found that even Muslims I’ve just met are excited to show off their place of worship and answer my questions. While I’m certainly not an expert, people sometimes wonder what steps I take to visit a local mosque and how they might be able to meet their Muslim neighbors as well – so here are a few tips.
Step 1 – Find out what mosques are in the area and give them a call
A quick Google search for “mosque,” “masjid,” or “Islamic Center” will probably yield a couple results close to you. Reach out via the website, Facebook page, or listed phone number. You can ask if you can visit the mosque, and there’s a good chance that an imam or senior member of the community will set up a time when they can greet you and host your time, answering any questions you have.
Muslims have a well-deserved reputation for being incredibly hospitable. Don’t be too off-put if someone doesn’t answer your initial call immediately, though – most mosques don’t function like churches with open office hours during the week. So you may need to try more than one location or wait a few days to call back at a different time before you get a response.
Step 2 – Wear modest clothing
To show respect for the prayer time, both male and female visitors should wear simple, modest clothing. Men should aim for jeans or long pants and preferably a top with sleeves. It’s a good idea for women to wear long sleeves with either loose-fitting pants or a long skirt.
While some mosques do not require visiting women to cover their hair, it is a sign of respect (and the gesture is welcome!) for women to cover their hair with a scarf inside, especially in the prayer room (there’s no special way you have to wear it – just wrap it around and tuck it in). Some of the larger mosques even have scarves in the prayer room for the convenience of visitors. Wearing makeup isn’t a problem. If you contact the mosque, you can ask what they would prefer women to wear ahead of time.
I’d also recommend wearing shoes you can easily slip off, since both men and women must remove their shoes before entering the prayer hall. Most of the time being barefoot isn’t a problem, but you may feel more comfortable if you wear (matching!) socks.
Step 3 – Visit!
After setting up a time to go, enjoy your visit! If you’re able to visit the mosque during the Friday congregational prayer (typically the most well-attended prayers during the week, generally early Friday afternoon), it’s a great opportunity to meet some of the community. Many men will leave quickly to get back to work, but I’ve found there are often opportunities to get to know the imam or other members of the community afterwards. There are also additional prayer times during the week (five each day!) when you might be able to arrange a visit, meet a few people from the community, and learn more about Islam.
Step 4 – Show respect by paying attention to some mosque etiquette
When you arrive, you’ll probably find that men and women will enter through separate entrances, though some mosques may have common areas that are separate from the prayer rooms where both men and women will enter. You’ll take your shoes off before entering the prayer room (you’ll notice the shoe racks), and women will enter into a smaller prayer room behind, above, or in the back the main prayer room. This is to preserve their modesty since they too will be bowing for the salah (or salat), the Muslim prayers.
As you enter, you will probably see hand or foot washing stations where Muslims make ablution or purify themselves by washing before the prayers. This is not required when you are just observing.
Once you’re inside, basic etiquette rules apply like in any religious setting (turning off your cell phone, not talking or laughing loudly, refraining from taking photos). I’ve also learned that it’s seen as disrespectful to walk in front of people while they’re praying. It’s also helpful to know the words, “As-salam Alaikum” (“Ah-sah-lahm Ah-lay-ee-koom”) which means in Arabic “peace be upon you,” and the response, “Wa ‘alaikum-as-salam” (“Wah-ah-lay-ee-koom-ah-sah-lahm”), or “peace be upon you, too.” You’ll hear that a lot.
Lastly, rather than shaking hands with the opposite sex (if you meet them outside or in a common area), I’ve found that it’s best to smile and put my hand over my heart or incline my head a bit when greeting a Muslim woman. Or, you can simply let the other person take the initiative if they’re of the opposite sex.
Step 5 – Observe and pray privately
After you enter, you will see people praying and bowing privately. Eventually, you will hear the call to prayer (adhan) followed by a short sermon or lecture (the khutbah, only during Friday congregational prayers), listen to another call to prayer, and then the observe the congregation as they stand shoulder-to-shoulder and follow the imam in the congregational prayer (salah). Just like many embodied prayers in Christianity, I’ve found that the rhythms of bowing during the salah to be a time of incredible reverence, so I enjoy having my own private time of prayer while my Muslim friends are praying. There is quite a bit of kneeling and bowing during the Muslim prayer, however (a sign of submission to God), so if you’d prefer not to stick out, you might want to observe from the side or back of the prayer room.
Step 6 – Chat with the imam or another senior member of the mosque
After the prayers are finished and if I haven’t already met the imam or another senior member of the Muslim community, I try to make a effort to meet them in addition to the individual hosting my visit. Because there has been a history of distrust between Muslims and Christians, I’ve found that it starts my relationships out on the right foot when I first introduce myself to the leaders, share openly about my work with Peace Catalyst International and my personal motives for visiting their mosque, and ask about their experience with local Christians. In other words, I do everything in my power to resist the appearance that I’m avoiding the Muslim community’s leadership or may have veiled motives for being present.
Remember: there are no “dumb” questions!
If you ask a question about communion in a Baptist church and then in a United Church of Christ, you’ll get different answers. That’s because churches in the US are different. Mosques are different, as well. One imam might answer a question about women’s dress differently than another (actually, they probably will!). As long as you try to ask your questions respectfully, humbly, and out of a genuine curiosity to learn, you’ll be just fine.
Step 7 – Take time to learn about the community and explore future opportunities together
After meeting with the local Muslim leaders, I’ll usually get introduced to lots of incredible people who are deeply involved with mosque activities, interfaith events, or social justice endeavors. Typically, after any amount of consistency on my part and an effort to build a friendship or two via coffee or a meals, amazing opportunities pop up for local churches and small groups to get to know their local Muslim community and work together for the common good of their community.