The Muslim invasion from North Africa was “one of history’s greatest revolutions in power, religion, culture and wealth to Dark Ages Europe,” writes historian David Levering Lewis in God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe.
Aurangzeb Alamgir, the sixth ruler of the Mughal Empire, is the most hated king in Indian history. He ruled for nearly 50 years, from 1658 until 1707, the last great imperial power in India before British colonialism. According to many, he destroyed India politically, socially and culturally.
I could have met Majed any time, any place. Only, I was destined to meet him at Bahrain’s Grand Mosque one hot, balmy afternoon.
It wasn’t that I knew of Majed and went looking for him; he just happened and there we were, two perfect strangers, sitting on the plush carpet under the al Fateh mosque’s huge chandelier talking about our lives and religion. One a god-fearing Muslim; another a Hindu by birth who sometimes visits temples to appreciate their architectural values.
But it is easy to talk to strangers. There is no baggage, nothing to prove. You can be friends later, but for that moment there are few barriers and the conversation meaningful.
So when Majed, with a smile on his face, extended his hand and offered to show me around the big mosque, I was more than glad to have someone I could talk to.
Majed, he said, introducing himself, as we walked towards the marble-tiled courtyard and he began telling me the history of the place. Through the big courtyard, which was much smaller than the one at the grand mosque in Abu Dhabi, he took me inside to the large, carpeted prayer hall where hung one of the most beautiful chandelier I had seen.
The Al-Fateh mosque in the Bahraini capital Manama took four years to build and was opened in 1988. Spread over 6,500 square meters, it can accommodate 7,000 worshippers. It is part of an Islamic centre, which also includes a large Islamic library and a department of Quranic studies.
The floor and some walls of mosque are covered with Italian marbles, the huge dome from which hangs the Austrian-made chandelier is made of fibreglass and the massive doors are made of teak brought in from India. Hand-blown glass lamps surround the chandelier, adding to its regal disposition.
“The wood was brought from India and the doors were made here,” Majed informed me, as he sized my interests and showed me key points from where I could take photographs.
Once inside, where in a corner some students softly learnt to recite the holy Quran, Majed and I sat down and began chatting. But before that, he took my camera, lay down right under the big chandelier and took a picture. “You see it best lying down,” he said. Indeed, I did.
Majed had questions. Who was I, where had come from, what was my interest in the mosque, was I religious, did I believe in God, did I understand Islam, what all had I seen in Bahrain, whether it was my the first time in his country?
I had my questions: was being a guide at the mosque his day job? What did he do in his free time? Was he a Shiite or a Sunni (Bahrain is majority Shiite, but the ruling family is Sunni)? Where had he studied? What was his world view? Did he consider the West his enemy? Was he political? Did he believe the recent nuclear deal between Iran and several other countries led by the United States would change the politics of the region?
Majed was happy to answer. He helped visitors at the mosque because his English was good and he could, therefore, as in my case, understand the questions and answer them. He was at the mosque a couple of days a week, but his real job was with the coast guard which he had joined after a stint in the navy.
His near flawless English suggested he had studied abroad. Yes, he had gone to the United States to study, he told me, adding that it was all paid for by his government.
“I remember being stunned by the green plants and trees there. Here we only have yellow sand,” he said, pointing outside one of the large glass window battered by the hot afternoon sun.
Majed said he understood the world and its people better once he stepped out of Bahrain. They didn’t hate us, he said. I wanted to ask him what he meant by that, but then we were distracted by some other visitors and the conversation moved towards what I knew of Islam. “Are you a Shiite or a Sunni,” I asked. His answer: I am a Muslim; sects are created by people who are interested in power.
Reflections In The Mirror
When I asked him to elaborate, he explained the root of the word Islam which is both a verb and a noun. A verb because it come from aslama that means to surrender, submit or obey. A noun because it is the name used in the holy Quran for followers of Islam, but since the Arabic prefix “mu” is added to denote the one performing the action it become “Mu”- “Islam” or Muslim.
My education didn’t stop there, and it wasn’t religious propaganda that he wanted to share with me. Majed was only trying to clear what he thought were my misperceptions and misrepresentations of a religion he felt I didn’t really understand.
His was an honest attempt to show me the mirror that clearly reflected my lack of knowledge of the world’s fastest growing religion at a time when it is under attack in various ways from various quarters.
Later, after I had answered his questions, we stepped up into the large balcony of the prayer hall from where the view of the chandelier was even better. The glass bulbs added to the mystery of a dome that looked dark and deep.
“This is where the women gather for prayers,” Majed told me, as we walked around the carpeted area towards a huge window through which some of Manama was visible. He shared more photograpic tips with me, as I clicked more pictures.
His final question as he walked down the stairs to show me out was whether I believed in God. I told him I didn’t, but I believed in the existence of some supernatural power at play at times. He looked at me for a while, nodded and said: “There isn’t much difference between the two, is it?”
I stepped out in the heat, looked at the imposing minaret of the sandstone mosque, and wondered whether there was indeed any difference in our Gods. Then I realised I didn’t know Majed’s full name. I hadn’t asked him; he hadn’t told me. Two strangers had parted way, dissolving in the sands of time, as quickly as they had met.