We visited our first mosque today. Well, I should say that we visited the outside of a mosque today.
When we arrived at the Old Masjid (mosque) in Changanacherry, a group of men who oversee the building promptly alerted me and the women in my group that women were not allowed in the building.
"You can take pictures from the outside," they said. I promptly responded, "Will the Imam come outside to speak with me?"
I was guided around the building to and ushered into an outdoor prayer area where three Muslim saints were entombed and on display for people to visit and make offerings to.
The language barrier was strong, and it was difficult for me to confirm who the men inside the tombs were. I was able to determine they were somehow related to the Islam prophet Muhammed.
After viewing the tombs for a few minutes, I was guided to a room with a long office desk and greeted by the assistant Imam, Muhammad Anas.
He was a pleasant man with a pleasant face, and he was happy to answer a few questions using one of our Rotarian leaders as a translator.
I was curious to know how Muslims interacted with other faith groups since I'd been getting some feedback in recent days that some Keralite Hindus and Christians may be more cautious of them than other religious groups.
A local Christian man told me a few days ago that he was aware of a terrorist cell operation moving to southern India in recent months. They were apprehended by authorities and removed from the region.
"There's a saying here that not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslim," he said. "So we're cautious of them."
But in general, all faiths are in sync Kerala and this region has never experienced any terrorism violence, he said.
So going into my meeting with the Imam, I wasn't sure what he would say about religious harmony and worldwide terrorism.
The group of mosque officials passed out fruit juice boxes to the team, and I was delighted to poke my straw in the box and sip the cold juice as I set up my iPad. After a few formalities and basic questions about how Islam practiced differently in Kerala, I decided to move on to meatier questions.
I asked him what he thought about Muslim-organized terrorism and why Islam seems more violent in some parts of the world than others.
"There is no basis in Islam for terrorism. You will not read the Quran and find those teachings in there. In some places, the rights of the communities are not addressed properly and so they approach the government for help and when they're not helped, they fight," the Imam said, reinforcing that Islam is a religion of peace.
"There are many Muslims fighting for justice, equal rights and equal treatment. They're fighting against the ill treatment they get."
This answer seemed valid, but I started to wonder if he believed the terrorists attacks on Sept. 11 were justified.
"No. Terrorism is bad no matter where it's happening in the world. We don't support it and it shouldn't be happening," he said.
Imam Muhammad reinforced that Islam is a religion of peace and at its core, is meant to protect life and serve God.
I asked one more time if he'd be willing to show me the inside of the mosque, but he was adamant that women were not allowed.
"We believe we are supposed to protect women, and if they want to pray, they can pray at home," he said, in a surprisingly gentle tone.
I wasn't going to argue. I knew it was a custom that I wasn't going to change in a 20-minute conversation.
Anyway, the mosque leaders were entirely hospitable and invited us back anytime. Maybe one day, I'll be able to drink that juice box from inside the building.
Until tomorrow, Victoria.
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