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Open Mosque

Bridging the gap between faiths


By Tharishi Hewavithanagamage

Islam and the Islamic world have played and continue to play a major role in world history. In the century following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 C.E., Islam spread widely and Muslim rulers created an empire that extended from North Africa to South Asia. Islamic civilization flourished, making major contributions to mathematics - Arabic numerals, algebra, and geometry - philosophy, medicine and other sciences, art, and architecture. Today Islam is the second largest of the world's religions, embraced by one-fifth of the world's population.

Awareness of Islam and Muslim politics came suddenly to many in America and other parts of the world with the shock of Iran's 'Islamic revolution' of 1978-1979, which revealed the West's limited knowledge of Islam and the Islamic world. Ignorance and stereotypes of Islam and Muslims were compounded by the astonishing lack of coverage of Islam in schools and universities, the media, publications, and political analysis. The result over the past two decades has been a flurry of studies, conferences, and media coverage of Islam and the Muslim world.  

Now, more than ever, it is important to understand the faith of Islam, its enormous contributions to world history and civilizations, the issues that affect the development of Muslim society, and the factors that shape and determine international politics and relations.

The Centre for Islamic Studies (CIS) in Sri Lanka, which is the country’s oldest serving Islamic outreach organization, established in 1985, has commenced ‘Mosque Tours’- an interfaith initiative where people of other faiths are invited to mosques to learn about Islam.

The Centre launched their pilot Mosque Tour programme at Wekanda Jumma Mosque in Slave Island, Colombo in late 2014. Mosque Tours have been held in various parts of the island including Kandy, Beruwala, Akurana, Gampola, Anuradhapura and Pottuvil.

Mosque Tours are fast catching on in Sri Lanka. The latest Open Mosque Day held at Colpetty Jumma Mosque on January 22 had around 800 people of other faiths participating. Besides a tour of this beautiful mosque, participants were taken around a poster walkthrough clearing misconceptions of Islam, given free calligraphy of their names in beautiful Arabic script and served traditional Muslim foods. A henna corner for the ladies was another major attraction.

Mohamed Jaleel, Outreach Director, CIS who leads the teams of Mosque Tour Guides is hopeful that the idea of opening up religious sites to learn about different religions will catch on with time. "We have had Chief Prelates of Temples, Hindu Svamis, Christian Fathers, Provincial Councilors, Mayors, Government Officials and even Police Officers participating, which shows the wide acceptance of the programme as an inter-faith initiative to build good relations with all communities," he observed.

With regards to the anti-liberal and extremist notions of Islam as portrayed by the West, Asiff Hussein, Outreach - Vice President, from the Centre for Islamic Studies, dedicated to creating new and unique initiatives to dispel the many misconceptions of Islam, responded to The Island, "A Fundamentalist is someone who literally sticks to the fundamentals of the faith, and in this sense a vast majority of Muslims can be called fundamentalist. The proper term to use would be extremist. There have been extremist interpretations of Islam by Saudi-inspired Salafi scholars locally, but it has not made much headway in Sri Lanka."

He further expressed his opinions with regards to the notions of racial discrimination circulating in society, saying that Muslims, who arrived in the country as peaceful merchants, have co-existed with other communities for well over a thousand years. They bonded with the already established communities at the time and genetic studies have further observed that Sri Lankan Muslims are the least exclusive of all the Island’s races.

Upon questioning the notion that women are not treated as equals in the Muslim community, Asiff Hussein explained that this is a common misconception because of how Islam is practised in certain countries such as Saudi Arabia. According to him, in Islam women are free to own and manage property and conduct business transactions on their own, while also being free to marry whomever they saw fit, even without the consent of male guardians such as the father or brother. Thus it is not only the manner in which Islam is interpreted in certain societies that creates the problem, but also how the West portrays it, he concluded.

Bridging the gap between faiths and educating society about the many misconceptions that arise, Asiff Hussein stressed that their initiative of Mosque Tours, with Q&As, poster walkthroughs and distribution of free literature and allowing people to engage with the aesthetic background of the Muslim community, would help create more understanding and provide a wholesome picture of the Muslim community. He reiterated that media must play an important role in communicating proper information to the general public. "We have had a tremendous response from people of other faiths who are very keen to see for themselves what goes on inside our mosques," he noted.

Striking down misconceptions and educating the society at large, during a time of heightened Islamophobia originating from the West and violence against those of the Islamic faith, is of utmost importance to all nations alike. Apart from arranging Mosque Tours, the Centre has also planned to have Walk-in Mosque Tours, where visitors of other faiths could simply walk into selected mosques at specified times on a daily basis and be given a tour. It is commendable that these initiatives are taken in a time when the world is witnessing a 'clash of the civilizations'.

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