A group of four students, led by Father Thomas Hart, went to the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh Friday, April 27 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. to witness a Muslim service and learn about the culture and traditions.
Turkish Islamic student Metin Erdeem, a sophomore economics major, found the trip to be an excellent idea, mentioning that going to the temple is a good opportunity to see where Muslims pray and what their community is like.
Erdeem compared it to Sundays for Christians.
“It’s an important part,” Erdeem said. “If you want to know about Christians, that would be the best time to go. Islam is just like that: a group of people gather around to pray and then afterward, they will eat.”
Erdeem elaborated on his belief that simply sitting down and observing was an ideal way to learn.
“People often just have a general idea or stereotype,” he said. “When they get there, it’s hard for them to get into it. But once they break the mold, they become friendly and try to create understanding.”
Erdeem further mentioned the value of understanding other people’s viewpoints.
“It’s good to know about other people because it’s good to get their perspective,” he said. “If you only know one, it’s hard to know what life is like.”
Father Thomas Hart, assistant to the president of admissions and former professor of world religions, said he wanted to give students an opportunity to learn from and about the Muslim community, even though he is currently taking a break from teaching.
“It’s sort of a guided introduction to what Muslims believe, what they do and to increase opportunities to build bridges with the Muslim community and to learn about them,” Hart said.
When questioned about the trip being aimed toward seniors this year, Hart explained that the housing fair coincided with the scheduled date this year.
“I normally would have opened it to the entire student body,” Hart said.
“This was the only date I could do it, so I said ‘why don’t we target the seniors and commuters?’ Otherwise I would have opened it to everybody.”
Hart said that if he were teaching a course, he normally would have 25 to 30 students and would build the trip into the syllabus.
“And it would be on a class night that we would go,” Hart said. “I had no idea if anyone would be able to come, [but] we had four students.”
The trip was approximately a five or six-hour event. After arriving, the group was warmly welcomed. With Friday being the Muslim day of worship and prayer, a service with a sermon in Arabic was ongoing.
The group was taken to the social hall to receive a briefing by one of the imams whom Hart knew well from previous trips.
A Q&A session commenced where the students inquired about the Muslim faith with questions such as what comprises their fundamental beliefs, how they are incorporated in daily practice, what they find challenging and what readings would be recommended for outsiders in order to learn more. After half an hour, the group went upstairs for the English service and sermon.
“The [service was given by] […] a visiting imam because their regular imam is taking a job somewhere else,” Hart said. “It would be like how some churches are between pastors.”
Hart elaborated on how the Muslim holiday of Ramadan will begin in two weeks, starting the Islamic month of fasting which is taken seriously.
“[The sermon] was […] encouraging them to look forward to it,” he said, along with growing in spiritual virtue.
The group then sat at the periphery to observe the worshippers.
Hart mentioned that the students had never been to a mosque before.
After another Q&A period afterward, the group stayed for the lunch served on Friday afternoons, a meal that Hart referred to as “delicious.”
After conversing some more with the imam, the group left the Islamic Center and returned to campus.
“It was a very wonderful day,” Hart said.
Hart mentioned that the relationship with the Islamic Center and Saint Vincent College began some time ago when he, Bob Baum and Mary Collins traveled to the establishment a few years ago for a private tour.
“They were interested in establishing some type of arrangement with our students and the student association out there,” Hart said. “One semester, maybe two semesters, some of our students went out there and they did some sort of social outreach together.”
Hart spoke of the importance of building relationships with the Islamic community along with other religious groups.
“One of the aspects of Catholic teaching is the commitment to interreligious dialogue,” Hart said, referring to the expression used for dialogue with non-Christian religions, as opposed to ecumenical dialogue which is exchanged within Christian religions.
“I’ve been active with that outreach in Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam for maybe fifteen, almost twenty years,” Hart said. “None of the students had ever been to a mosque before and from everything they were telling me, they were very thrilled to go.”
Trip participant Joey Marcinik, a senior physics and mathematics major, said he realized how much Christian and Islam religions have in common.
“They both focus on forgiveness and humility, for example” he said.
Marcinik also mentioned that though the religious foci are similar, their prayer sessions are structured differently.
“I learned that the Islam prayer sessions are more informal than Christian prayer sessions,” he said. “The Islam prayer sessions allow people to move around more freely, and they allow kids to play around during the sermon.”
According to Marcinik, he could have studied these similarities and contrasts without the sermon, but he would not have been deprived of a chance to experience them.
Marcinik praised the welcoming nature of the Muslim community during the visit.
“Throughout my experience at the mosque, I was welcomed nearly by everyone that I passed; I felt accepted into their community as each person and I exchanged a smile,” Marcinik said.
Marcinik emphasized the pleasant time he had during the trip.
“Overall, I was pleased with my experience and would recommend future students to partake in the opportunity,” he said.