News Limited columist Miranda Devine paid a visit to Lakemba Mosque.
“The imam shouts his sermon first in Arabic for 15 minutes, then a shorter, quieter English version, and back to Arabic for 10 minutes.”-Â We bow and place our hands on our knees. We kneel in unison, bottoms in the air and faces touching the floor, then sit back on our haunches and finally stand up again.–Miranda Devine
THOUSANDS of worshippers gather at the Lakemba Mosque every Friday for weekly prayers. Miranda Devine joined them and quickly discovered a wardrobe malfunction – in the form of a jacket not long enough to cover her pants.
I am going undercover to Friday prayers at the Lakemba Mosque. But first I need to get kitted out in modest attire.
I’m wearing black pants, long-sleeved shirt and a jacket but I arrive at my Muslim friend Hala’s house in Yagoona with a scarf so she can tie it properly for me, flat over the head, tight under the chin, and expertly fastened with one purple butterfly brooch so that it drapes loosely over the chest, leaving absolutely everything to the imagination.
Daily TelegraphÂ columnistÂ Miranda Devine, in the light of some recent horrific events having again focused the world’s eyes on Islam, explores whether an outsider is accepted in the Muslim community.
Modesty achieved, we drive on to the mosque without incident, although the scarf constricts my throat when I turn my head.
Parking in narrow Wangee Rd is impossible. Gridlock sets in before noon prayers every Friday. The faithful in their hundreds, mostly men, stream towards the mosque, a domed 40-year-old building in the middle of red-brick suburbia.
Hala and I, being women, are not allowed to walk up the front stairs to the main prayer hall. We walk down a driveway which leads into an underground carpark.
At the carpark we are directed up side stairs towards the women’s section on the second floor. Halfway up we remove our shoes.
At the top, Sister Veronica waits with an eagle eye for wardrobe malfunctions. Sure enough, I fail the test. It seems my jacket doesn’t adequately cover my pants.
“Sister, take a skirt if you want to pray,” she says, and gestures to a laundry basket of clean, folded loan clothes. I select a thick apron and wrap it around my waist on top of my pants. Glamorous it is not.
The room is stuffy despite the whirring fans.
The women’s section is a small loft with windows overlooking the men’s prayer hall, and a TV in the corner so we can hear the imam’s sermon. The room is packed with about 60 women and well-behaved children.
The women are from various ethnic backgrounds: Somalia, South East Asia, Lebanon. They jostle to the front and sit on purple carpet along diagonal gold stripes facing Mecca, legs neatly folded under them.
An older woman is seated in a chair in the far corner under the TV. She begins to stare at me, hard. I blush, wondering how she could know I am an intruder. In my scarf and with dark eyebrows, I don’t look very different.
I put my hand to my head self-consciously and feel my hair is poking out. I make myself tidy and she averts her gaze. It’s an effective form of social control.
The one-hour proceedings start with prayers. The women stand and silently mouth verses from the Koran. The imam shouts his sermon first in Arabic for 15 minutes, then a shorter, quieter English version, and back to Arabic for 10 minutes.
In English, he says the mosque has collected $85,000 “as a communal good deed for the air-conditioner for this mosque”. “I consider this achievement during just half an hour during two Friday prayers as an important success that every one of us should be proud of,” he says.
He then outlines the benefits of charity. “Allah said co-operate in righteousness and piety,” he says. “Do not co-operate in sin and aggression. Working in a group is a way of achieving the unity of our ummah (community). One of the most important factors in working as a team is that Allah will protect the collective ummah from misguidance.
“Moreover, the devil will have less effect on the group. Beware of being isolated and selfish. Remind yourself to be part of any communal good.”
Then he sings the call to prayer and the women bunch up shoulder to shoulder. We bow and place our hands on our knees. We kneel in unison, bottoms in the air and faces touching the floor, then sit back on our haunches and finally stand up again.
There are two cycles of this ritual prayer, known as the salah. It feels like gentle yoga, especially when some of the women finish with a neck stretch.
At the end, the imam urges people to come to a rally the next day outside Lakemba train station to protest the jailing in Bangladesh of Islamist leaders convicted of war crimes during its 1971 liberation from Pakistan.
The troubles of Bangladesh, where dozens of their fellow Muslims will kill each other in violent protests over coming days, are a world away from suburban Lakemba.
But the connectedness of the ummah is both the strength and the burden of Sydney’s Muslims.
What did Miranda achieve by this mosque visit? Â Do you think she learned anything about Islam?