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Religion From The Outside

obstacle chick grand mosque

A Guest Post by ObstacleChick

Recently I visited Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. According to Wikipedia,  the UAE became a nation on December 2, 1971, when 6 emirates joined together. A 7th emirate joined on January 10, 1972, thus forming the UAE as it exists today. We were fortunate to be in Abu Dhabi on the 50th National Day of the UAE which was celebrated with fireworks, music, and city-wide decorations. As of 2013, the 9.2 million inhabitants of UAE were comprised of 1.4 million citizens and 7.8 million expatriates, most of whom are from Southeast Asia (particularly from India) and Africa. The population is mostly male with 2.2 males per female. The state religion of UAE is Islam, and it is not an exaggeration to say that there is a mosque on every other street corner. Calls to prayer are broadcast 5 times a day, and it is common to see devout Muslim men praying out in the open if they are not in a private prayer room or a mosque that allows for them to do so in relative privacy. Human rights concerns are definitely an issue in UAE, and fortunately we did not commit any crimes punishable by 60-100 lashes or worse, death by stoning.

One amazing marvel we visited was the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Completed in 2007, it is the largest mosque in the UAE.  According to Wikipedia, the cost to build this marvel of architecture was about $545 million. After we visited the mosque, my husband and I discussed how many resources were used to build incredible religious structures such as mosques and cathedrals, money that perhaps could have been spent on feeding, clothing, and caring for human beings. Are these incredibly beautiful houses of worship designed to appease a deity, to show fealty to a deity, to show off to nonbelievers, or to convince human worshippers that if they follow this particular religion their afterlife reward will be as grand as the magnificent house of worship? The reasons could be any combination of these or perhaps others I have not considered.

As we walked through the mosque, the tour guide, a knowledgeable young Muslim man, explained all the wondrous features of the mosque. When we visited the interior prayer sanctuary, we saw a wall that featured the 99 names of the deity. Infidel that I am, I couldn’t help but think of the Jay Z song “99 Problems” and chuckled to myself. There is a separate prayer room for women, one in which the occupants can neither see out into the main prayer room nor be seen. Gotta keep those women hidden away so men won’t be tempted to lust! My husband and I joked later that men and women are separated for prayer so that Brother Abdul won’t be tempted to check out Sister Farah’s voluptuous posterior outlined by her abaya.

Muslims are obligated to pray 5 times a day. The five daily prayers include: Fajr (sunrise prayer), Dhuhr (noon prayer), Asr (afternoon prayer), Maghrib (sunset prayer), and Isha (night prayer). Each prayer must be completed within a certain period of time. As each prayer time is tied to the rotation of the earth, ancient Muslims excelled in the study of astronomy in order for prayer times to be as accurate as possible. With modern technology, calls to prayer (the Adhan) are recorded and played from the mosques; but in ancient times, an individual was responsible for calling out the prayer times at each mosque. I don’t know what the Quran says about praying in public, but we did see a few men praying in public when there were no prayer rooms available in the location at prayer time.

In this post, I won’t get into the topic of Muslim women’s dress codes and how they are tied into patriarchy, rape culture, the demonization of women’s bodies, and control in general. When we visited the Grand Mosque, I had to wear an abaya and hijab, and I was surprised at the feelings wearing those garments invoked. I felt invisible, like I was not a person. Of course, that was my experience, and I cannot speak for how other women may feel when they wear these garments. If you are interested in finding out more about Muslim women’s dress codes, I recommend Pious Fashion: How Muslim Women Dress by Religious Ethicist Elizabeth Bucar of Northeastern University. Dr. Bucar does an excellent job of recounting how the hijab is used and viewed in 3 different Muslim cultures.

On one of our days in Abu Dhabi, we went on a tourist excursion that included dune crashing in a 4×4 SUV, riding camels, sandboarding down a dune, seeing a falcon show, and a belly dancing show, and enjoying dinner outdoors under the stars. It was cheesy but highly enjoyable! Joining us in our SUV was a family from Tehran, Iran – mom and dad, college-aged son, and middle-school-aged son. The college-aged son spoke fluent English, and the mom was quite proficient as well. We had a great time learning more about each other’s countries and cultures, agreeing that government tensions are meaningless among individuals getting to know each other. Their first question was Trump or Biden, and we announced unequivocally NOT TRUMP and apologized for the travesty that was the Trump administration. We also disabused them of the notion that all Americans carry guns, wear cowboy hats and boots, or are rappers and drug dealers. We learned that all Iranians are not supportive of the Ayatollah or Islamic government, nor do they all wear traditional Arabic garb. They also pointed out that while they were all born into Islam in a Muslim country, they themselves do not believe in any of it and are apostates. However, they cannot be open about their unbelief because technically, in Iran, apostasy is punishable by death. They asked about atheism in America. We told them that we were born into Christian families and are now atheists, but that even though our country’s Constitution supports religious freedom and apostasy is not legally punishable, there still exists a social stigma against atheism. We noted that just as there is a mosque on every other street corner in UAE, in parts of the USA there is a church on every other street corner. The Indian driver of our SUV joined in that he was also nonreligious, but as a resident of UAE he has to keep that information to himself. Apostasy is a punishable offense in the UAE as well, and he could be deported for openly declaring atheism. We all agreed that while religion can have useful elements of community and comfort, it can often be weaponized against people in order to oppress and control.

Having visited a Muslim country and visited one of its holy sanctuaries, I am no closer to joining the religion than I was before. If I had grown up in UAE, the probability is that my parents would have been Muslim, and I would have been raised Muslim as well. Born in the Bible Belt, I was raised Christian because my mom and grandparents were evangelical Christians. When my children were young, we attended a progressive, liberal church until I decided to “take a break from religion”. As my children have very little memory of church and received no religious education, they consider themselves to be nonreligious. While there are converts to religions, the vast majority of people claim the religion of their parents. Or, as we are seeing to a greater degree today, people are leaving the religion of their youth.

It was interesting that in a vehicle with 7 people from 3 different countries, driving in a 4th country, all 7 of us were atheists. My anecdote is not intended to make a comment about the decline of religion; indeed, it was a coincidence that we were all of the same mind regarding religion, and it was evident which among us had suffered religious oppression at some point. However, meeting and conversing with these people confirmed that regardless of our heritage, background, ethnicity, we are all just humans trying to make the best of our situations. I am so grateful to be able to have these experiences that expand my world.
And not one of us felt the need to proselytize to the others . . .


Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    Obstacle, I really enjoyed reading this.

    Early in my gender-affirmation process, I took a trip to three predominantly-Muslim countries: Turkey, Lebanon and Syria. That was fifteen years ago, before Erdogan tried to erase Kemal Ataturk’s secular vision of Turkey and when Syria and Lebanon were relatively stable.

    Almost everywhere I went, even Taksim Square, Iheard the calls to prayer you describe. While it seemed to make little difference in the central areas of Istanbul and Beirut, in the more conservative neighborhoods, I saw men stop what they were doing and turn toward Mecca.

    I entered mosques, from the Sultanahmet (Blue Mosque) in Istanbul and the Mohammad Al-Amin in Beirut to smaller mosques in the country, for the same reasons I have visited the Notre Dame or the Angkor Wat: to look at the artistic treasures and experience the culture. As a novitiate woman, if you will, that meant entering the women’s prayer sections. Ironically, it allowed me to “go stealth,” which was an early goal of my affirmation (which I was still calling “transition”) process. Of course, I couldn’t help but to think about what that meant: If I’d lived my life covered with a headscarf (or shrouded head-to-toe), living as a woman would have meant something very different: My anonymity came with privileges even a French-educated woman in Beirut could not enjoy.

  2. Avatar

    MJ, that’s fascinating! I couldn’t help but feel what being covered represents from my Western point of view – and also as someone who has never identified with traditional female gender characteristics. Even as a child I couldn’t understand why people treated me certain ways, based on gender norms, when I didn’t feel the way they wanted to treat me. I did feel very strongly that accepting the coverage means you accept the protection that goes along with it – and not wearing the coverage means you’re accepting certain risk. Either way I was practically invisible….

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Bruce Gerencser