Conceptions and Misconceptions of Islam
Being raised in a religiously strong, Jewish household, I know just how important religion is. I was sent to religious school at a young age to learn about the Jewish history and to learn Hebrew so I could understand what was going on at synagogue services. At my Jewish high school, we talked briefly about other religions – Christianity, Islam, etc. but I never really thought much about it. Although I had some doubts about Judaism and the existence of God for a few years, I wasn’t one to speak out and discuss this issue. I attended temple and enjoyed learning about my religion but didn’t like to talk about religion with others. I respect the fact that other people have different beliefs and don’t agree with my beliefs but I never really understood why.
Before arriving in Mombasa, I knew that Christianity, Islam, and Judaism were the three largest world religions but I am sad to say that I dint know much more about Islam than that. I had been to a mosque in Ghana where I was dressed in a beautiful buoy buoy without even knowing what it was called and was walked through the ritual cleansing that is required before prayer. As I visited the mosque with a male, I was immediately separated from him and sent to the women’s section in the back of the mosque to learn how to pray and how to use the ritual beads. From this experience, I learned that Islam, much like Judaism was a religion which was highly based on rules and traditions. This experience also helped me realize the close relations that Islam had with Judaism.
Apart from this experience at the mosque in Ghana, I had never had any other interactions with Islamic people or the religion of Islam. As a result, I didn’t have many educated, well formed perceptions about Islam so many of my perceptions were mostly based on negative stereotypes and other things that I had heard on the news and Internet. Of course this included information linking Islamic people to 9-11 as well as to other terrorist groups. I had no clue that the group of Islamic people who actually carry out and plan such attacks only make up about 1% of the Islamic population.
Before even arriving in Mombasa, we were aware of the religious differences that existed there. We were informed that we would need to dress differently while in Mombasa to respect the religious practices. The issue of clothing and covering up in Mombasa reminded me of the Jewish religion and being in Israel. When visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem and even just walking around the Old City, we had to cover ourselves and respect the tradition of not showing much skin. In addition, the Western Wall was split in half – one side for women and the other for men. Like in Mombasa, there were times when all of us students – females and males could not walk together.
On our first night in Mombasa, we attended a festival for the ending of Ramadan. We dressed in Western clothing – pants and t-shirts as we had not yet had time to buy the traditional clothing and for this reason, we were definitely treated as tourists. We were pushed and stared at. No one even dared to approach us or talk to us even though we could communicate with them in Swahili.
The following morning, we were taken to buoy buoy buoys and kangas. I had no idea how much everything would change the moment we stepped into our new outfits. We were stopped by literally everyone on the streets. We were told that we looked smart and beautiful, compliments that we definitely did not receive when dressed in our pants and t-shirts the night before. It was incredible to see people’s reactions to us change. We were still white foreigners but now we were dressed like them. We were respecting their religion and wearing their traditional clothing. We almost blended in on the street except for the fact that we were wearing ridiculous sandals and carrying colorful backpacks and purses. Oh, and our faces were a bit lighter in color than most of the women here. But other than that, we blended in quite well. The local people appreciated the fact that we were observing their traditional practices and that we were trying to dress like them. The photographers and newspaper writers in Mombasa loved this fact so much that they printed a photograph of the males of our group dressed in their traditional clothing in the national newspaper. The photographers also took a photograph of the women dressed in buoy buoys and kangas but this photo didn’t quite make it into the newspaper.
As soon as our appearance changed, we were also looked at in a different way by tourists. Our perceptions of these people changed very quickly. As we walked around in our buoy buoys and received compliments, I witnessed the tourists being stared at in their inappropriate clothing. Many of the tourists looked at our group in an awkward way and even took photographs of us dressed in our Islamic clothing.
When wearing our buoy buoys in Mombasa, people did not call us over to hassle us to buy their products. Instead, they called us over to compliment our dress and ask us questions about whether or not we were Islamic. I definitely noticed that we were respected much more by the Mombasa community when we dressed in our traditional clothing. As we did not see any other foreigners dressed in buoy buoys or other traditional clothing, I think that the locals were impressed and happy to see the way in which we respected their culture and dressed appropriately.
It was very eye opening to learn about Islam in Mombasa. Although we had learned about the Islamic religion in Nairobi, it was nice to learn about the religious practices from people who were actually observing the traditions and practices. Visiting to mosque with Ahmed was an amazing experience because he wanted to teach us about his religion and explained everything to us as he did it. In addition, it was amazing to hear the calls to prayer throughout the day from the various mosques. I was impressed when Ahmed informed us that Islam was a very welcoming religion and that they would accept anyone who believed in the four prophets, Moses, David, Jesus, and Mohammed. In addition, I was amazed by the fact that there was no conversion process and that becoming Islamic just required the willingness to accept the four prophets, read the Koran, and pray.
Although I arrived in East Africa without much accurate knowledge regarding the religion of Islam, I have definitely learned much here. This new, accurate information has definitely changed my outlook towards the religion of Islam and the Islamic population. It still amazes me how much my religion of Judaism is so similar to the Islamic religion, something I never even imagined could be possible before coming to East Africa.