Turkish Cultural Center

Houston | March 2, 2007

May 2007By Comments

DENOMINATION Sunni Muslim
IMAM Mustafa Yigit
ADDRESS 5905 Winsome Lane
PHONE 713-974-1412
ON THE INTERNET interfaithdialog.org
FRIDAY PRAYER SERVICE 1:00 P.M.

WHERE ARE THE MODERATE MUSLIMS?

The short answer to that frequently asked question is, “Look around you.” Of the many Muslims with whom I’ve become friends over the years, some are pious and scrupulously observant. Some are secular, having come to this country to find freedom from religious oppression. Some, no doubt, oppose U.S. policy regarding their various homelands. But none have shown the slightest sign of hostility to me, to America as a people, or to “freedom.”

I recently attended the Friday prayer service, Islam’s most important weekly ritual, with several of these friends at a two-story office building that houses Houston’s Turkish Cultural Center and two Turkish American organizations, the Raindrop Foundation and the Institute of Interfaith Dialog (IID). Both organizations have been inspired and heavily influenced by Fethullah Gülen, a moderate social thinker and prolific writer who regards religion as primarily a private matter, rejects the idea that Islamic law (sharia) should be the basis for a modern state, and contends that believers in other religions—or in none—should not face discrimination in Muslim-dominated socie-ties. Perhaps most notably, his followers have established hundreds of modern, science-oriented schools in Turkey and surrounding countries in a concentrated effort to modernize their homeland and enable it to serve as a model for other Muslim nations.

The IID was founded in 2002, in the wake of September 11, largely by graduate students who wanted to counter negative stereotypes of Muslims and encourage communication among people of different religions in an atmosphere “free of dogmatism, criticism, oppression, and fear.” In keeping with that mission, a display rack by the entrance contained boldly labeled documents sharply condemning terrorist attacks as incompatible with true Islam and extolling the virtues of humility, modesty, and sincerity. In Houston, as in other parts of the country with substantial Turkish communities, the “Gülen movement” is led by graduate students, physicians, professionals, and entrepreneurs, all eager to demonstrate the compatibility of Islam and a modern global society. But on Fridays they gather, like their fellow Muslims throughout the world, to observe a ritual that has changed little over fourteen centuries.

Because the center’s building is not a proper masjid, or mosque, three good-sized adjoining meeting rooms are converted into sacred space by removing most of the furniture and rolling out large Turkish carpets over the floor. At the invitation of Muhammed Cetin, the president of the IID and a friend for several years, I took a seat on one of the formal couches lining the walls of the central room. As worshippers came in, some sat on the couches, but most found places on the carpet. With the exception of a half dozen or so older men, nearly all appeared to be in their twenties or thirties. Most were dressed casually, none expensively.

Muslims are expected to pray five times each day during the appointed periods, but women are not required to participate in the Friday communal prayer. In many mosques, women sit together with their children in special sections, in balconies, or in the rear of the room, usually more as spectators than as full participants. Perhaps because this facility had no such accommodation, no woman had chosen to attend this service.

As the three rooms filled, Imam Mustafa Yigit, a handsome man of thirty seated at the front of the center room and wearing a knitted skullcap and a knee-length white garment over a striped shirt and tan trousers, chanted passages from the Qur’an (preferred by Muslims to “Koran”) in Arabic, which is believed to be God’s special language, even though Arabs make up no more than 20 percent of the world’s Muslims. I was told later that Yigit had spent five years learning the complicated techniques of Qur’anic recitation at Al-Azhar University, in Cairo, and is the Qur’anic recitation champion of Turkey and probably the best in Texas, a claim I was not qualified to dispute.

The basic unit ofIslamic prayers is called a raka’ah, a brief, simple, and rigidly followed pattern of half bows, kneelings, and full bows. While performing these movements, the worshipper recites, silently or aloud in Arabic, brief passages from the Qur’an or such ritual expressions as “Allah is great” and “May Allah be glorified.” The Friday prayer service comprises four rakaat, which are performed at one’s own pace; a sermon; and two additional rakaat, led by the imam and performed in unison.

After all the men had completed the first set of rakaat, a young man in khakis and a white polo shirt stood and began chanting the azaan (also written as adhan or ezan), the call to prayer that pierces the air five times a day from minarets attached to mosques throughout the world. The call, like the ritual it announces, is fixed in form and chanted in Arabic. When the muezzin, or chanter, finished, the imam stood to deliver the sermon. In fact, he delivered two, the first in Turkish and the second in English. I was told they overlapped but were not identical; based on Cetin’s simultaneous paraphrase of the Turkish sermon and my understanding of the English offering, that seemed to be a fair description. Both were brief and, with minor alterations, could have been delivered at a wide range of Christian churches.

The Turkish version reminded us that this world offers our only chance to obtain a heavenly reward, so we must be wise, careful, and cautious and avoid giving in to Satan’s temptations. The theology fell into the category Protestants call “works righteousness.” When the angel blows his trumpet and our time is up, Allah, because he is just, will reward or punish according to our deeds. If we have fulfilled the commandments and acted righteously, paradise awaits. If we have fallen short, Allah may ask, “Didn’t Imam Mustafa tell you how to live? You had books and messengers. You used all your chances, so shut up and take what you deserve.”

The English sermon provided guidance for a godly life. Citing verses from the Qur’an and various hadith (sayings or traditions from the time of Muhammad), Imam Mustafa offered instruction from Prophet Muhammad, Prophet Moses, and Prophet Jesus—Muslims regard Jesus as a true prophet but not as the divine son of God—following the mention of each name with the ritual phrase “Peace be upon him.” If a man is a true believer, others can turn their backs on him safely, can trust him with their property and their lives, and can be certain he will not gossip about them. He will think of others before himself, sacrifice even legitimate pleasures for the sake of others, do no harm to others, and greet others with prayer and blessing.

The imam closed by urging his brethren to be true Muslims, representatives of universal peace in action, thought, and speech, and to ask their creator to make them perfect. He then went into the room to my left and stood in the corner with his back to the assembly, facing Mecca, and led the men through the second set of rakaat, his voice piped into the other rooms over speakers. When they completed two cycles, the service ended abruptly and the men either went back to their duties or moved downstairs to enjoy an ample lunch provided by members of the community. Like their counterparts everywhere, the graduate students seemed especially pleased at the free meal.

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