An invitation to a mosque
Visit My Mosque day is an annual open day practised by more than 250 mosques across the UK
Wash your hands, rinse your mouth, clean the dust and grime from your nose, wash your face, wash both your hands up to your elbows and wipe your forehead and ears, all three times each. I followed the instructions for the wudhu, or ritual ablution, obediently even as a voice added: “Bend forward. Don’t get your pants wet." I thought she had spotted my wet salwar but she was only instructing her pre-teen sitting on the stool next to me. Good tip, sister.
These past few months, as Indians stepped forward to say what the Constitution means to them and to reaffirm their love and fraternity for their fellow citizens, a 170-year-old Bengaluru mosque decided to follow the UK model to reach out to other communities. Visit My Mosque day is an annual open day practised by more than 250 mosques across the UK and the local Rahmath Group—whose motto is muhabbat ka deep jalao, nafrat ki aag bujhao (light the flame of love, extinguish the fire of hate)—invited people to experience what a mosque is all about.
About 300 Bengalureans showed up on a Sunday morning for the 4-hour programme and were welcomed by friendly volunteers who acted as their guides. The atmosphere (and rules) were relaxed for the day and visitors weren’t asked to cover their heads, though many did.
“I have never been to a mosque in India before," said Sumeet, a lawyer-turned-organic farmer. “I think these kind of initiatives are very important, we need places that can bridge the gaps that have been created. When a community reaches out, welcomes you and says we would like to talk to you and we want to show you and please come be with us, you can’t refuse. You start feeling like you are part of a bigger community, and not defined merely by what you do or which religion you follow." Most of those present had never had the opportunity to visit a local mosque. They said they attended because they were curious and because they wanted to show solidarity.
In 2017, a Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) study found that only 33% of Hindus had a close friend who was Muslim, while 74% Muslims said they had a close friend who was Hindu. It seems like all Indians, and not just Muslims, need to work harder to build safe and welcoming interfaith spaces that help demystify their religion.
The Modi Mosque was in the news when it was rebuilt and reopened around the same time last summer that Narendra Modi was sworn in as Prime Minister for the second time. A viral report that the plush 30,000 sq. ft mosque was named after the PM turned out to be false; its name was inspired by the wealthy trader Modi Abdul Gafoor, who had donated the land to build the mosque in 1849.
After completing the wudhu, we moved to the ladies’ prayer area, a small room on one side of the mosque where women gave us a demonstration of salah, explaining the five prayers that are prescribed daily.
They used accessible language, drawing parallels to yoga and meditation, and highlighted the benefits of touching our foreheads to the ground, causing blood to rush to the brain. They talked about everything from the pace of prayer to how the fajr, the dawn prayer, is shorter, with only two rakats (a unit of the namaz that is repeated two-four times depending on the time of prayer) because it’s done on an empty stomach.
Women don’t usually visit their neighbourhood mosque to pray because they have lots of work at home, a volunteer offered. She added that they had the liberty to offer salah at home. Later, Deepika, a lawyer who attended with her two daughters, said her pre-teens wanted to discuss sexism in religion and noted that in both temples and mosques, women are often absent from positions of power.
“Manya, my 12-year-old, said that while the idea of women not coming to the mosque to offer namaz sounds sexist, she could completely understand why, if you have a busy day, it can be difficult for women to go to the mosque five times, especially for those whose husbands don’t do any work around the house," she added.
The group spent nearly 2 hours in the main prayer hall, where we imbibed some basic wisdom about Islam. Here I was mostly distracted by the beauty of the prayer hall. Gilded lamps hung from the ceiling, with the word Allah inscribed on each in Arabic. There were large windows on either side of the hall, verses from the Quran were etched on the sides of the first-floor gallery that looked down into the prayer hall. The stained-glass dome had windows that allowed the sunlight to stream into the hall and the plush blue carpet had a line design that ensured worshippers prayed in a neat formation.
The mosque representatives answered all kinds of questions, from “How long does namaz take?" to “If Allah is god and formless, why do you refer to Allah in the masculine?" and “Why should men decide where women should pray?"
“I got a lot out of it," said Asha, an author. “I loved their openness to receiving questions…you never know what people are going to ask and they handled uncomfortable questions well. I am a practising Christian and even today there are so many misconceptions about my religion, like we only get married in a white dress."
Later we climbed up to the first floor and watched the afternoon prayer. And then partook in the best Sunday ritual of all: a biryani lunch.
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