Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Friday, I'm in Prayer

This week, I attempted something that, I have to admit, filled me with a certain amount of foreboding and trepidation. Specifically, I strolled to a mosque across the road from my office for a good old Friday prayer session. Five times per day is de rigueur for Mohammedans everywhere and Friday prayers, known as Jumu'ah in Arabic (presumably the root of the Indonesian word 'Jumat' meaning Friday, etymology fans) are considered a special part of the week and apparently attendance is compulsory for all the chaps.

Women can also attend if they want but must remain in their own section at the back (in prayer as in life, one might conclude). There is a passage in the Koran which states that, "O ye who believe! When the call is proclaimed prayer on Friday (the Day of Assembly), hasten earnestly to the remembrance of Allah, and leave off business (and traffic): that is best for you if ye but knew."

Now, I think we can all testify to the business being left off every Friday lunchtime, and the perennial shrug of the shoulders followed by the age-old refrain of, “Sorry, it's Friday prayers, cannot... no ambulances until at least one o'clock I’m afraid Sir."

The traffic part in the above quotation is perhaps not observed with quite the same fervour however and I'm assuming that double parking in front of mosques, creating huge snarl ups, is not considered a mortal sin. Mind you, I'm guessing that camel jams were infrequent in Medina two millennia ago, and so perhaps religious guidance on this matter could be considered sketchy.

And so, I joined the guys as they spilled across the road with their hats and prayer mats last Friday and attempted to remain as inconspicuous at possible. I didn't have either a hat or a prayer mat myself alas, however I doubt that the possession of said items would have helped me in my quest for a low-key presence. I was in the, "Hello Mr" zone that's for sure and soon relaxed. It certainly beats worshippers spilling out of mosques pumped up on fiery anti-infidel demagoguery, ready to burn a few flags, throw a few stones, do a lot of shouting and set fire to my trousers, as is wont to happen elsewhere in the Islamic world.

Christopher Hitchens, the world-famous polemical atheist (who is now in the throes of terminal cancer, much to the delight of his religious critics) was once told by a devout Christian that he would surely feel safer knowing that a group of hypothetical met that were walking down the street towards him had just come out of a prayer meeting. Hitchens replied that far from being a hypothetical situation, he had had this experience in Belfast, Bethlehem, Bombay, Belgrade, Beirut and Baghdad, and when you see groups of men coming out of prayer meetings in these places, you know exactly how fast you have to run in the opposite direction. And that's just the Bs!

Obviously Indonesia has yet to reach this stage, although worrying signs of religious intolerance have been creeping into the country's body politic in recent years. Radicalism seemed far from the agenda at my local mosque though, and I removed my shoes and socks and quietly made my way around the back of the congregation to observe proceedings.

There was no fiery rhetoric this time, only imprecations to do God's will, whatever that might be on any given day. After the sermon and prayers, the faithful spilled out onto the street and, instead of burning effigies of Binyamin Netanyahu, instead hit the mini-marts and local warungs for a decent wedge of divinely blessed drinks, smokes and rice.

As I chomped on my beef rendang, I asked one of the guys how he’d feel if a church was built opposite the mosque. "Well, it's okay if the locals agree," he replied, as if this position delineated the absolute pinnacle of enlightened religious tolerance. Unfortunately though, this is the law now in Indonesia and religious freedom for minority faiths is dependent on the whims of the majority. The government has set an appalling example here by demanding signatures of local communities before and by allowing members of the public to enforce this law, thus legitimizing the lynch mobs that have started to run riot.

"I saw you at the mosque Mr. want to become a Muslim?" I politely declined, prostrating myself five times a day under the auspices of a religion whose name translates into English as, "submission" runs somewhat counter to the independence of mind and thought that I cherish so dearly. No, if I had to choose a faith, I guess that I’d be strolling around the base of Mount Olympus. At least the gods up there didn't really care too much about the affairs of men, at least not in the sense of giving him a list of rules to be adhered to strictly without question. This left the Greek mortals down below free to philosophically enquire into the nature of life and reality, unmolested by religious dogma, a project that proved moderately successful by all accounts. Now where's my toga? That should turn a few heads down Mampang way next Friday.