From kitchen tables, bedrooms, and family rooms, over 100 7th graders across the Detroit Metro area on April 22 Zoomed into the Muslim Unity Center as they continued their Religious Diversity Journey for the 2019-2020 school year.
RDJ began the year visiting churches and synagogues and doing hands-on community service projects in the buildings with clergy and congregant volunteers. But come March, the some 700 RDJ Ambassador students were unable to physically complete the program as social distancing restrictions set in to slow the spread of coronavirus.
IFLC staff and board members would not be discouraged. They still wanted to give these children, specially selected by their social studies teachers to be their school ambassadors for the program, to have an opportunity to continue the journey virtually as they learned about the world’s major religions through unique experiences.
So, RDJ Anywhere was launched, beginning with the Islamic segment of the journey.
Dima El-Gamal, a member of the Muslim Unity Center, welcomed the children just as she would if they had visited the mosque on Square Lake Road in Bloomfield Hills in person. Through a slideshow, she offered them a tour of the mosque, starting with a photo of the large rock outside the mosque entrance. The rock contains verses from the Quran that explains Muslim reverence to the words of God that were given to Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. There is also a decorated wood post, donated to the mosque by a local church, that contains carvings of the words “Peace be upon you” in many languages including Arabic, English, and Hebrew.
Students learned that if they visited the mosque, they would have seen the gymnasium where many social gatherings and youth athletic programs are held, as well as the sanctuary where worshippers would pray, shoulder to shoulder, five times a day.
El-Gamal also briefly discussed the many contributions the Muslim world has given to civilization from centuries past, including advances in mathematics, engineering, science in architecture, when at the same time Europe was undergoing the Dark Ages during the plague.
MUC Imam Mohamed Almasmari was also on the zoom to answer questions, which ranged from what special clothing and foods Muslims eat to Muslim views on modesty, marriage, and the afterlife. They also asked questions on how, and how many times a day, Muslims are obligated to pray.
“We pray five times a day because it demonstrates our intimacy with God at different times of the day,” Almasmari explained. “On the carpet, there are lines in our carpet (of our sanctuary), which serve as guides so when men pray, they can pray shoulder to shoulder in a perfectly straight line. In this way, we build relationships and eliminate anything that may divide us. When we pray this way, we are all equal, there is no racism or tribalism,”
Student Yusuf Hares of Novi demonstrated the call to prayer, chanted in Arabic, while his mother, Rouzana Hares offered the English translation. Hares, who attends the James R. Geisler Middle School in Walled Lake, has enjoyed his RDJ experience so far, especially learning about all the different deities in Buddhism. Hares, who was proud to demonstrate his Arabic chanting skills, said he is sad he will not be able to spend any time with his friends at MUC during Ramadan.
Almasmari also lamented how difficult it would be this Ramadan now that large gatherings are prohibited because of social distancing restrictions.
“It will be very hard that we are not gathering at the mosque,” Almasmari said. “Also, for the first time in the history of Islam, Muslims from all over the world will not be traveling to Mecca in Saudi Arabia for the Haj.”
Almasmari told the children that even though Muslims and people of other faiths cannot physically gather in houses of worship, prayer can be expressed through showing kindness to others, giving charity and even smiling at a friend, neighbor, or family member.
Almasmari said when quarantine restrictions will be lifted, everyone will gain a better appreciation for life’s simple gifts such as going outside, gathering together with friends, family and other worshippers, and seeing people face to face instead of always on a screen. Maybe at that time, humans will no longer rush to their screens to socialize, he added.“In the meantime, even in a crisis, we can continue to pray. And in virtual gatherings like this, there is still intellectual growth. While we are in isolation, make sure you appreciate the family members who are with you in your home.”During the Zoom, students were polled with a few questions. When asked, 73 percent of the students said they know or had met a Muslim in their life and 63 percent of the students have never visited a mosque.In May, RDJ Anywhere will continue sharing more resources with its RDJ teachers and students. There will be a virtual visit to the Hindu Temple of Canton and perhaps the Detroit Institute of the Arts and the Holocaust Memorial Center.