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At Home in a House of Prayer

The vast, open courtyard of the mosque offers a rare atmosphere of tranquility among the crowded dwellings and narrow streets of the Old City.

text and photos by Anthony B. Toth

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“Stand by me, and pray.”

Ahmad Kahwaji smiles as he recalls what his father told him the first time he went to the Ummayad Mosque – over forty years ago. Apart from being a beautiful building with a rich history, the Ummayad Mosque is a place for prayer and reflection. It especially is a place of Muslim community.

At midday on Fridays, thousands of Muslims gather in the Great Prayer Hall of the Ummayad Mosque. They literally stand shoulder-to-shoulder in long rows as they pray facing Mecca. Figuratively, they stand shoulder-to-shoulder when they work together for the common good. This sense of community, called ’umma, is a hallmark of the Prophet Mohammad’s message.

“We have a proverb in Islam that all the people must be like one body,” says Mr. Kahwaji. At 48, he is a well-established businessman on the main market street in the Old City in Damascus, where he sells handcrafts and antiques. From the shaded terrace outside his third-floor shop, he has a bird’s-eye-view of the Ummayad Mosque and the bustling plaza outside its main entrance. Ever since he was married 20 years ago, he has been attending the mosque regularly. He has gone to Mecca three times. He takes his faith seriously.

Mr. Kahwaji says, “All good Muslims must work in cooperation?” Their sense of community means that if a believer is rich, he must help the poor. If he is strong, he must help the weak.

Entering into community is visible when someone comes to the prayer hall. He joins the clustered people in prayer by standing with a line of people rather than standing alone. Shoes off; hands, face, and feet ceremoniously washed, he speaks to God with palms open toward heaven. He bows, prostrates himself, rises – all in unison with those to either side of him.

The mosque, which is about 40 yards from Mr. Kahwaji’s shop, gives him and others a daily opportunity to interact with friends and to make sure that everyone in the community who needs help is cared for. At the end of prayers, he shakes the hand of the person on his right, then does the same to the person to his left. “When I don’t know him, I ask his name and where he is from, and what is his work,” he says.

When he sees a friend who hasn’t been to the mosque for a while, Mr. Kahwaji asks him why he hasn’t been around and invites him to his home. If there is sickness or death in the community, special collections are made for the victims and their families.

Mr. Kahwaji recognizes the maturity required of being part of community when he says, “As a child I [would] go and walk a little, and – most children – they do the same.” He adds that, “Now the fathers make the children pray behind so if they want to leave the line they have the liberty.”

The young ones have much to discover in the mosque. More than just a place for prayer, the Ummayad Mosque is an educational center where men from throughout the Muslim world receive training in Arabic and Islam. Religious instruction for local worshippers is also provided, whether in regular formal classes led by an imam or informally when religious elders answer the questions of the young.

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Tags: Unity Muslim Damascus