A Muslim Goes to Temple For His First Rosh Hashanah

I took a long sigh when the five-hour service at my local Jewish synagogue was over, but I learned a lot from it.

I didn’t closely know any Jewish people until I was in my thirties, after I came to America. And my attitude towards the Jews has been greatly affected by two important factors:

First, the Koran. In the small poor village where I was born and grew up until I went to the city for high school (Wadi Haj, near the town of Argo, on the Nile River in northern Sudan, south of the borders with Egypt), I went to a “madrassa” (Koranic school, “khalwa” in Arabic) where I was taught that anyone who was not a Muslim was a “kafir” (infidel). Later, when reading the whole Koran (and, recently, listening to it on CDs and an iPod), I found — and was very much surprised — that almost half of the Koran is, directly or indirectly, about the Jews. And most of that is negative.

Second, Israel. I belong to an Arabic generation that looked up to Egyptian President Nasser who, about 50 years ago, led a tremendous wave of Arab nationalism and, at one time, promised to throw Israel into the sea. Like most of my generation, I later realized that Israel has the right to exist. But until this day, I strongly oppose its occupation of Palestinian lands.

So, for the last 20 years, as I drove by a Jewish synagogue near where I live, I always wondered what was going on inside. Until I went for my first Rosh Hashanah — and stayed for five hours.

* * *

When I called Rabbi Bruce Aft of Adat Reyim synagogue Springfield, Virginia about my intention to visit, he was very receptive. But, when I entered, I was intimidated. I didn’t look the part, as I am an Arab with a foreign accent and a Muslim with a Muslim name.

On the other hand, I felt the people looking at me curiously, if not suspiciously. One asked: “What is a Mohammad doing in a synagogue?” And another, upon learning I was from Sudan, didn’t spare a second before asking about “the Arabs killing the Africans in Darfur.”

But I calmed down when the rabbi took my hand and led me inside; and when I found myself facing a huge Hebrew sign that was translated to me as: “Know Before Whom You Stand.”

I calmed even more when the service started. And when I saw, for the first time, huge Torah scrolls taken out of their closet, the Holy Ark, unwrapped, opened, kissed, read, and carried up and down the isles in the utmost respect, as the congregation stood up. I thought only the Muslims handled their holy book, the Koran, with extra respect, until I saw those Jews handling the Torah.

When the Torah was carried and came close to me, I felt a majestic feeling and an utmost submission. When I saw some people touched the Torah with keys and pens, I, unsure, took my keychain from my pocket and, very gently, did the same. But, when the service was over, I learned from the rabbi that people were not supposed to use keys or pens, but a pointer in the shape of a hand. And to use “tallis” (a prayer book), the Torah binder, or their hand to touch the Torah while being read or carried around. People were not supposed to touch the actual scroll with their hand, so as not to smudge the Hebrew text.

* * *

I didn’t know at the beginning, but the service continued for a little more than five hours. It went on and on and on — a chanting prayer, a short sermon, then a chanting prayer, some sitting down and some standing up, some silent and some loud, mostly in Hebrew and some in English. Every time I nearly nodded to sleep, we were asked to stand up for another prayer.

Not knowing one Hebrew word, I was inspired by the occasion to try to chant in Hebrew. After almost five hours I was able to chant, using transliteration: “Eyn keylo-heynu. Mi heylo-heynu. Nodeh leylo-heynu. Baruh Eloheynu. Ata hu Eloheynu” (There is none like our God. Who is like our God? Let us thank our God. Let us praise our God. You are our God). And the often-repeated one: “Adonai Eloheynu. Adonai Ehad” (The Lord is our God. The Lord is One).

I took a long sigh when the service was over, but I learned a lot from it, and the people who gathered outside were friendly and gracious. A lady said she used to see me at the nearby South Run Recreation Center and encouraged me to come back. A man greeted me with “Eid Mubarak” (for the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan). Another wondered if I could attend an interfaith gathering. And the rabbi wanted me to come again, but he posted the invitation as a “challenge”:

- “Now you have been at a Rosh Hashanah; why don’t you come on Saturday for Yom Kippur?
- “What is that?”
- “A day of fasting and praying.”
- “I just finished fasting the whole month of Ramadan from dawn to sunset; yes, I will do an extra day.”
- “This is not from dawn to sunset. This is from sunset to sunset; this is 24 hours of fasting.”

Surprised, I started mumbling and stumbling and promised to think about it.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Mohammad Ali Salih
Written by
  • AKafir

    Dear Mohammad Ali Salih,I am an ex-muslim. I walked away from Islam. I tell you this so you may know that I grew up among muslims and most of family are still muslim. It is not muslims who are the problem, but that ideological faction within Islam that considers that modern laws should be based upon the Quran. For that they want to impose upon the Kaafir world a Sharia where we are reduced to third class citizens. Could you please tell us have you as a Muslim ever protested against the hatred and discrimination against the non-muslims that is built into the laws of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, Yemen, etc. Let us leave aside the absolutely harsh and barbaric laws against the non-muslims that are part of the Sharia of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan or even moderate Egypt, but consider the very very moderate Malaysia. They have Shariyat Courts and according to Malaysian laws, 1) a muslim can never ever choose another religion other than Islam; 2) A non-muslim has to convert to Islam if they wish to marry a muslim. A muslim cannot convert no matter what; 3) If a Kaafir converts to Islam and dies, then his distant muslim relative inherit his wealth and governmental benefits and not his non-muslim wife; 4) If one of the Kaafir parents convert to Islam, then the minor children are automatically muslims and the remaining kaafir parent loses rights over the raising of those children. I could go but you get the Idea. Now please tell us whether you think these laws that are pervasive in most OIC countries around the Globe are humane and whether you agree with them? If you do not agree with them, then have you ever protested or ever raised the issue in any of your columns ever?

  • AKafir

    Sorry forgot to post the following with the previous post.Why I hold a jihad at the White HouseBy Mohammad Ali SalihThis sparked me to resume my own jihad — in front of the White House.During the last days of the Bush administration, I started standing in front of the White House on weekends, silently holding a banner that asks on one side “What is Terrorism?” and, on the other side, “What is Islam?”I have lived and worked in Washington since 1980 as a correspondent for Arabic newspapers and magazines in the Middle East. Since Sept. 11, 2001, I have felt sadness, anger and frustration because of what I had come to believe were President George W. Bush’s subtle wars on Muslims. Because I had no outlet for this opinion in U.S. newspapers, I launched my one-man campaign. **********************************But Muslims treating Non-muslims as barely human is fine by the Muslim countries? I hope Mohammad Salih will take the time to state whether he has ever done any Jihad to get Kaafirs to be treated equally by his fellow muslims.

  • abrahamhab1

    Mr. Saleh says:

  • Secular

    What was the purpose this article. Only thing I learned in this whole article is a frank admission by a muslim that koran is filled with anti-jewish diatribes. Anf that theist are for reasons beyond me are impressed with show of respect to any old musty tomes that are full of vile racist, bigoted admonishments. This we are supposed to be impressed with.YasserYousufi one of the frequent poster here keeps on that the damn Koran is the last word of his skydaddy. I wish he reads and this column and especially this part “First, the Koran. In the small poor village where I was born and grew up until I went to the city for high school (Wadi Haj, near the town of Argo, on the Nile River in northern Sudan, south of the borders with Egypt), I went to a “madrassa” (Koranic school, “khalwa” in Arabic) where I was taught that anyone who was not a Muslim was a “kafir” (infidel). Later, when reading the whole Koran (and, recently, listening to it on CD’s and an iPod), I found – and was very much surprised – that almost half of the Koran is, directly or indirectly, about the Jews. And most of that is negative”. I will be waiting with baited breath for his thoughts on the above (NOT).

  • ravitchn

    Muhammed thought he might be the messiah the Jews talke3d about and awaited. WHEN NOT TOO MANY jJEWS ACCEPTED HIM HE TURNED VS. THEM AND THEREBY THE KORAN WARNS THAT THE RABBIS AND THE MONKS (THAT IS, THE CHRISTIANS) HAVE DISTORTED GOD’S WORD, SOMETHING MUHAMMED WOULD RESTORE. DISDAIN IF NOT TOTAL HATRED OF JEWS AND CHRISTIANS IS THE CORE OF THE KORAN.

  • AKafir

    “I found – and was very much surprised – that almost half of the Koran is, directly or indirectly, about the Jews. And most of that is negative”.If the “known” Universe was the size of Earth, then on that scale the earth would be smaller than an electron. Imagine that for a second. Hawking and others think that there may “infinite” number of Universes of the size of our known one. Now imagine that there really is a creator who created all of this. Now this creator chooses to send his last messenger and his eternal book. Of all the things he could have used to tell his creation through his book, he chooses to spend half the book to thunder against the Jews? Imagine that!!

  • Secular

    What is the population of Jews relative to the entire population of the world? Somewhere between 0.1% to 0.2% of the world. There is no reason to believe it was much different back in 7th century either. So this skydaddy of all skydaddies chooses a womanizing, illiterate bedouin to be his last prophet and uses up half the damn book ranting about the Jews. You pious muslims, who think this book of filth and rubbish akin to Mein Kempf, tell me do you really think that, this piece of trash is some sacred book?

  • yasseryousufi1

    Kafir,Still sticking to your unabashed Madrassah educated, former muslim lies are you? You shameless hindu~!

  • FarnazMansouri2

    Mohammad,I am sorry people were rude to you in the synagogue, sorry and shocked, as I have brought Pakistani friends to the synagogue I occasionally attend, and nothing like that has ever happened.I also cannot imagine what congregants were doing with pens and keys in a temple.The service is long, yes, and difficult for anyone who doesn’t know ancient Hebrew. A lot of people follow along in English.On the fasting, well, I can see your point!!

  • Kingofkings1

    I question the motives of the author.There is nothing wrong with being curious or neighborly. What is wrong, is to be deceptive. I question the author’s allegation that half of the quran is ranting against the jews. The teaching and ministry of Jesus, was initially directed toward the jews. And yes, Jesus did not seem happy with some of the things jews were doing in his time. Similarly, Mohammed’s teachings were initially directed towards the jews and the christians. And yes, some of the things the christians and jews were things Mohammed was not pleased with. But the quran is not considered by mmuslims to be Mohammed’s teachings, but God’s message to mankind. I wouldn’t be surprised if God is not pleased with some of the things the jews, christians, and Muslims are doing at present. Mr. Mohammed Salih, I don’t begrudge your new friendship, but I question your attempt at a stab in the back.

  • AKafir

    @KingOfKings1:”I question the author’s allegation that half of the quran is ranting against the jews.” …. “Mr. Mohammed Salih, I don’t begrudge your new friendship, but I question your attempt at a stab in the back.”Mr. Salih did not say ranting. You can check for yourself on how much of the Quran is about the Jews, and personally I would not have said half but it is definitely more than a third, and Mr. Salih is correct that it is mostly negative. You cannot call a people “apes and pigs” without being negative, I think, and that is what Allah says he did to the jews. Interesting that you should consider Mr. Salih’s column anti-Islam. I do not think he was being “anti-islam” although I agree with you that an average muslim would not have added the qualifier, mostly negative.

  • 00dontpanic00

    Thank God I’m an atheist.

  • Secular

    Kingogkings you wrote, “There is nothing wrong with being curious or neighborly. What is wrong, is to be deceptive. I question the author’s allegation that half of the quran is ranting against the jews. The teaching and ministry of Jesus, was initially directed toward the jews. And yes, Jesus did not seem happy with some of the things jews were doing in his time. Similarly, Mohammed’s teachings were initially directed towards the jews and the christians. And yes, some of the things the christians and jews were things Mohammed was not pleased with. But the quran is not considered by mmuslims to be Mohammed’s teachings, but God’s message to mankind. I wouldn’t be surprised if God is not pleased with some of the things the jews, christians, and Muslims are doing at present. Mr. Mohammed Salih, I don’t begrudge your new friendship, but I question your attempt at a stab in the back”. Go and read my previous post. What part of the world population was Jews ate the time of MO. Hardly 0.2 % about the same as now probably. Koran is nothing but ravings and rants of megalomanaical bedouin. Get it thru your heads.

  • Kingofkings1

    Kingogkings you wrote, “There is nothing wrong with being curious or neighborly. What is wrong, is to be deceptive. I question the author’s allegation that half of the quran is ranting against the jews. The teaching and ministry of Jesus, was initially directed toward the jews. And yes, Jesus did not seem happy with some of the things jews were doing in his time. Similarly, Mohammed’s teachings were initially directed towards the jews and the christians. And yes, some of the things the christians and jews were things Mohammed was not pleased with. But the quran is not considered by mmuslims to be Mohammed’s teachings, but God’s message to mankind. I wouldn’t be surprised if God is not pleased with some of the things the jews, christians, and Muslims are doing at present. Mr. Mohammed Salih, I don’t begrudge your new friendship, but I question your attempt at a stab in the back”. Go and read my previous post. What part of the world population was Jews ate the time of MO. Hardly 0.2 % about the same as now probably. ——————————————Secular, whether you choose to believe the mioracle of Moses parting the river for just enough time to allow his followers to pass through and drown the rest, or that of Jesus walking on water, or that of mohammed going on a journey from Mecca to meet God via a stopover in Jerusalem, is your personal matter.As I said, Mr Salih seems to have an ax to grind, based on his spreading of misinformation. The quran might devote less than 5% of its verses to the jews, and most of it on positive terms. It devotes probably just as much space towards those who considered Jesus to be God, and it devotes more space to the meccan idol-worshippers in pre-islamic period.I have a friend who was previously of Jewish faith who recognized the verses as being directed toward him (“in a gentle manner”) and is a sincere muslim.Just today, I caught myself telling my favorite child things that on second thought appear to be harsh, but reflective of my love and concern for the child.In any case, you do no one a favor, and least of all yourself, by humiliating the things/ideas that others hold dear.