Over the past two years, both the media and politicians have highlighted the differences between Sunni Islam and Shia Islam and conflicts between Shia and Sunni Muslims. As a Shi’ite Muslim, I had never given the question much thought and, indeed, in my gatherings with other Muslims, some of whom are Sunni, never really noticed a difference. However, given that there are differences and conflicts, I decided to visit a Sunni Mosque in Los Angeles and see for myself whether there was, indeed, a difference in worship rituals.
On Friday 8th December, I visited Masjid Omar ibn Al-Khattab, located on Exposition Boulevard in Los Angeles. I had been told by my Sunni acquaintances that this was the oldest and the grandest Muslim Sunni Mosque in California. It had been built in 1984 through a trust fund which a Saudi Arabian woman had set up in 1977 for this specific purpose. When visiting her children who were studying in LA, she discovered that there was no mosque in the area, where Sunnis could pray and congregate. Therefore, she decided to donate the money required to establish a mosque which would act as a place of prayer, a center for religious instruction and advise and a social and cultural community center for Sunnis.
As I approached the mosque, one of the very first things which struck me was its grandness. Surrounded by iron gates and located in the center of a rather large piece of land, the mosque was quite imposing. Nevertheless, it did not attract my attention because it was, in any way, different from Shia architecture or more impressive than Shia mosques but because this was LA.
Upon entering the mosque, I felt a sense of familiarity, meaning that I felt that I was entering a Muslim place of worship and not a Sunni one which was foreign to me as a Shi’ite. As it was just half an hour before the call for the Friday noon prayers, most of the Muslims were in the washrooms performing the ritual cleansing, woodu. Here I noticed a difference. The Sunnis were washing their hands, mouth, faces, noses, arms, hair, ears and feet, three times each in that order. I, on the other hand, like all Shia, was used to just washing my face and arms, following which, I just wipe my head and feet. However, as I did not want to stand out, I observed and copied the Sunni ritual wudu.
Before the adhan, the call for prayers, I watched the Sunnis standing together in tiny groups, chatting and laughing, obviously friends. A group of middle-aged men waved me over and told me to come and stand with them, rather than alone. I went over and joined in their small talk. They were Algerian but, for my benefit, spoke in English. I asked them about the congregation and they told me that the majority were Arab and American Muslims, and hardly any Asian Muslims. This, I assume, is because the majority of Arab Muslims are Sunni while the Shia Muslim population is mostly Asian.
As the call to prayer approached, we went into the main praying hall. It was a large space, with beautifully carved pillars on which were etched Quranic verses. Prayer mats were neatly spread out on the floor, pointing towards the direction of the qibla and on tables by the wall, were Qurans. We stood in rows, shoulder to shoulder, each on his prayer mat, behind the imam. The call to prayer was sounded and the imam led us into prayer. Even though I should have been completely focused on my prayers, I was observing the mousaleyeen (those praying) and the imam. I did not observe anything which was significantly different from the Shia Friday prayers except for the imam’s clothing. He was wearing a burgundy prayer head cap, around which was a small white scarf and a black jallabiya. His clothing was basically very unimpressive compared to the Shia imam’s whose head caps were larger and broader and whose clothes were much more ornate. Indeed, if it were not for his cap, it would have been difficult to identify the Sunni sheikh as an imam.
After the prayers were concluded, the imam sat on an ornate, gilded high chair, decorated with verses from the Quran and began to deliver his sermon. The theme of the sermon was resisting temptation and he drew upon stories of the Prophet to explain his message. It was quite interesting.
After the sermon ended, some of the worshippers picked out Qurans from the tables by the wall and sat down to read from the Holy Book. Others went up to the sheikh and began to engage him in conversation. The younger boys who had participated in our prayers left the hall and went out to play. In general, the atmosphere was relaxed and comfortable.
In the final analysis, I did not notice anything between Sunni and Shi’a prayer rituals which struck me, as a Shi’ite as strange or foreign. While it is true that the ritual cleansing was different, I otherwise did not feel out of place. In fact, it was a positive experience.