Before the start of services at the mosque, I’d begun to wonder about my decision to I wear my usual comic book T-shirt.
There had been some doubt.
Once again, I’d met up with Charlie Tee, lead singer for the Charleston-based gospel/blues/soul band the Carpenter Ants at the Islamic Association of West Virginia in South Charleston.
Both of us had skipped services the previous week. Charlie, I think, had company coming into town. For me, it was the Fourth of July weekend and Imam Nasir Abdussalam was on vacation.
It seemed like a better idea to focus my energies elsewhere, rather than showing up like a stray mutt at the doors to the mosque.
As men were coming into the room to pray, Charlie and I talked about the way Muslims dressed. It is a very modest religion — Muslim women often cover their heads, particularly during worship, but Muslim men often cover their heads, too.
Charlie had a thin, white cap on his head. He was dressed in ordinary street clothes, but it wasn’t the style he typically wore.
I have my Captain America T-shirts, but Charlie has New York Yankees merchandise — hats and shirts, maybe even shorts.
But he didn’t wear any of that to prayer.
“I love the Yankees,” he told me. “But it wouldn’t be right to put that symbol, any symbol, between you and God.”
And then I wondered about the big white star on my chest.
“Know the room,” I reminded myself, but I was still learning.
While Charlie, the Imam and I had all taken the week off from the mosque, I’d dug into some reading, including an audio book for “No God but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam,” by Reza Aslan.
As with any book written about any religion, I’m pretty sure not everybody agrees with everything the author has to say on the subject, but it was as good a starting place as I could find through the Kanawha County Public Library’s Libby app.
I tried finding an app on my phone for the Quran like the app I had for the Bible, but couldn’t locate one that satisfied my particular needs, which amounted to it being in English and free to use without lots of advertisements.
My budget for this project is zero.
“No God but God” is a history of Islam and its culture, including who the Prophet Muhammad was, the difference between the Sunni and the Shia, and why everybody wants to go to Mecca.
I listened as I cut grass. I have a lot of yard to mow and it helped to pass the time, though periodically I’d take a break to listen to “The Best of Queen.”
The book also gave me some insight into what the Quran is and what it is not. I’d always thought the Muslim holy book was like the Bible, which is a collection of stories, poems, histories, prayers, songs and laws. It’s considered to be inspired by God, but it’s clearly written by a host of people.
Many of the individual books were passed down for generations, or even centuries, as oral tradition before finally being written down.
The written forms, copied by hand for hundreds of years, were translated from this language to that and then to another before being distilled into its current form.
Muslims consider the Quran to be the very words of God, relayed by the Prophet Muhammad, his messenger. These recited chapters were collected in written form by his companions and followers while he lived. How it reads in Arabic hasn’t changed in over a thousand years.
The basic history of Islam is something anybody can find on Wikipedia, but the broad strokes are that the Prophet Muhammad was born in the second half of the 6th century C.E.
For the first 40 years, he lived a relatively normal life as a caravan trader in ancient Arabia. He’d been orphaned as a child and was raised by relatives, including his uncle who put him to work early on. The prophet was very human and had very human problems. He had a job. He was married to a widow and was a stepdad.
Then at the age of 40, Muhammad began receiving revelations from God. That’s when his quiet, sort-of-middle-class life came to an end.
As he received these revelations, spoken messages from God, Muhammad began sharing them. He gathered followers and was part of an upending of the cultural and religious order of 7th century Arabia.
Returning to the mosque, it was interesting to me to watch people quietly mouth the words of the prophet that they were reading on their phones. The spoken word, recorded as text in books, had been added to a device intended for the spoken word that now functioned like a book.
Imam Abdussalam’s sermon was about the prophet, whom Muslims venerate. He talked about why the prophet’s widows weren’t allowed to remarry following his death.
Basically, how could anyone hope to compare? It wasn’t fair to anyone.
Muhammad started with one wife, but after the revelations and the religious movement, he added around a dozen additional wives, which has led to generations of controversy from a variety of scholarly quarters.
According to “No God but God,” the Quran discouraged plural marriages, but also recognized their necessity at the time. Plural marriages, it was thought, were seen as a way to provide protection for more women and also served as a way to unite different groups politically.
One of the loudest controversies about the prophet’s marriages has been the age of his wife Aisha, who may have been as young as 6 years old when she married the prophet (and as young as 9 when the marriage was consummated).
Child marriages aren’t unheard of and among ruling families, age has seldom been a barrier to unifying power. It shows up in European and Chinese dynasties, as well.
Aisha’s father was Abu Bakr, a wealthy businessman, an early convert to Islam and close companion of the prophet. He was also the first Caliph following Muhammad’s death, leading the early Islamic state.
Imam Abdussalam said people loved the prophet, but got a little too familiar with him, saying “Muhammad this” and “Muhammad that.”
“We’re not on a first-name basis,” he said.
Reverence was required.
After the service and feeling a little self-conscious about my shirt, I’d half decided that maybe out of respect I might forego the Captain America T-shirt next time, but then I saw a guy wearing enough Adidas to be in a ’90s rap video and a teenager with a Slipknot T-shirt.
I figured Cap really wasn’t that much of a hindrance to me being there.