A mosque – like a church or a synagogue or an ashram – is a house of prayer.
We need more mosques – as well as churches, synagogues and ashrams – at Ground Zero; in Bay Ridge in my beloved hometown of Brooklyn; on Staten Island, and all over! We need them to bring prayer to that place as a way of bringing healing there. Like the mosque here in Boston, at which the Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslims Relations of Merrimack College (a small Catholic and Augustinian college) recently – intentionally, pointedly, and proudly – announced and introduced the recipient of a major new award for scholarship – the Goldziher Prize – which promotes reverence, understanding and willingness to collaborate in works of justice and peace between Jews and Muslims. The prize is named after Ignac Goldziher, a Hungarian Jew and leading 19th century scholar who revered Islam and who validated Islamic studies in the universities of Europe.
The leaders and people of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center were and continue to be subject, like their counterparts in Manhattan, Staten Island, Brooklyn, and elsewhere, to much the same half truths and cynical expectations of perfection that no person, no people, no Jew or Christian, can be held to fairly. Christian and Jewish leaders came together with the people and leaders of the Roxbury mosque in May to introduce the first Goldziher Prize winner, Professor Mark Cohen, The Khedouri A. Zilkha Professor of Jewish Civilization in the Near East of Princeton University at the mosque because we recognize that mosque as an important place of prayer, just like the churches and synagogues in that neighborhood.
Another house of prayer near Ground Zero? Of course. What could more honor the memories of those who were murdered there! We are talking about a house of prayer!
Prayer is the definition, the purpose without remainder, of real and healthy religion. Martin Buber wrote, “The degeneration of religion means the degeneration of prayer in them. The relational power is buried more and more in objecthood.” Objecthood” is dogma; not beliefs but dogma! Absolute, exclusive, triumphal, detached – from experience – dogma! It is dogma that supports xenophobia, violence, or anything which is not justice, compassion, joy, peace! Another great Jewish thinker, Abraham Joshua Heschel, wrote “God is greater than religion; faith is greater than dogma.”
This is a big claim for the place and role of prayer; something that individuals like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris know nothing of. We parade kids to mosque, church, synagogue, and ashram, for immersion in ceremony so they eventually learn to bring prayerful hearts to the rituals of their principal religious people. But praying in the first instance, when it really begins, is entirely something of the inner life. It is silence, inner silence. Evargrius, the great Desert Father, said prayer is absence of thought. Real and healthy religious people hear God in this silence, it’s a real experience, not paranormal but existential. And this God never tells them to blow up lower Manhattan. (Or to stage Crusades for that matter)!
Inner healing, a balanced personal perspective and social responsibility, all emanating from praying. Listen to Rabbi Heschel once more on each of the three levels: prayer and the inner life, prayer and situating the ego properly, prayer and social justice.
“Prayer saves the inner life from oblivion,” said Heschel.”The self is not the hub, but the spoke of the revolving wheel. In prayer we shift the center of living from self-consciousness to self-surrender. God is the center toward which all forces tend…. Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and ruin pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehood.”
Build a Muslim house of prayer near Ground Zero? Build a house which nurtures and cultivates less wounded, less ego-driven and more just and peaceful Muslims, people of real and healthy prayerfulness? Hand me the shovel.
Padraic O’Hare is Professor of Religious and Theological Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations at Merrimack College, North Andover, MA. His most recent book is Spiritual Companions: Jews, Christians and Interreligious Relations.