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Friday, January 06, 2012

ANT 315: Comparative Religion paper Pt. 1

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Jonathan Wedge

Anthropology 315: Comparative Religions

Professor Deanna Weibel-Swanson

November 27, 2011

Fighting for Nothing?

            For my fieldwork, I attended two seemingly different religious services: those of Sunni Muslims at the American Moslem Society in Coldwater, MI; and Presbyterian Christianity at the First Presbyterian Church of Sturgis, MI.  The reason I chose Islam was because Islamic culture has been fascinating to me for many years.  I chose Presbyterian Christianity because a friend of mine invited me to attend (I actually invited myself as I needed to attend another service and he kindly accepted).  I also thought it would be good to compare Christianity and Islam as they have a common origin, and while they may have different aesthetics to their worship practices, their very basic ideals are quite similar.  Although the two religions have been fighting each other for centuries, one has to wonder if the two religions have a real reason to be fighting amongst each other at all. 

            Christianity is a religion that started as a small sect of Judaism in the first century CE, and later became the largest religion in the world (Warms, 471).  Christianity comes from the life, death, and teachings surrounding Jesus of Nazareth, a radical Jew that is believed to be the so-called Messiah (the Hebrew term; Christ being the Latin term, hence the common name of Jesus Christ.  Christ means “anointed one”; the one who redeem the sins of man) (Warms, 471).  Jesus was (is) believed by his follower to have been born via virgin-birth, perform miracles, teach a revitalized version of Judaism, died during crucifixion, and resurrected before ascending to heaven(Warms, 471-473).  Although for the first few centuries Christianity was just a sect of Judaism (with Gentile divisions such as the Pauline and Gnostics), in the fourth century Christianity was adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire (Warms, 475).  Roman Catholicism—the largest denomination of Christianity--spread through Europe for the next millennium (Warms, 477).  Between the 14th and 16th century arose a series of Protestant reformations who sought to break away from Catholic doctrine that was seen by some as unnecessary (Warms, 477).  One of the most prominent leaders of the Reformation was John Calvin.  Presbyterianism finds its roots in the doctrine of John Calvin and John Knox, a Scotsman who studied alongside Calvin, although contemporary Presbyterians have put much less emphasis on Calvinist doctrine (New Advent).  The word Presbyterian comes from the Greek term for elder, as the church is governed by a council of elders rather than bishops (New Advent).  Presbyterians advocate lifelong education as well as generosity and hospitality. 

            Islam formed from the teachings of Muhammad, and is the youngest of the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism and Christianity being the other two); it is also the world’s second largest religion (Warms, 486).  Islam is the Arabic word for “submission”, as Muslims (people who practice Islam) believe they must completely submit themselves to the will of God (Bowen, 147).  Muslims hold high respect for Abraham, Moses, and the other Hebrew prophets, and Jesus Christ, and believe that they are authentic people of God; however, they believe that the words of these people were incomplete, or mistranslated (Warms, 486).  Muslims believe that God spoke to Muhammad in Arabic, and since Muhammad could not read or write, he had to memorize every word that God spoke to him.  Muhammad then spoke the word of God to his followers, who then wrote his teachings in the holy text called The Qur’an, which is Arabic for “recite” (Bowen, 146).  A proper Qur’an is always written in ancient Arabic, as the words themselves are considered sacred and should not be reinterpreted or translated.  There are two main divisions of Islam: the Sunni and the Shi’ites.  Following the death of Muhammad, there was a struggle for leadership (Warms, 487).  A number of Muslims backed Muhammad’s nephew, Ali, and his son, Husayn, as they believed Islam should be led by Muhammad’s own blood relative (Warms, 492).  Those who supported the successors of Ali were called Shi’a, and they make up the Shi’ite division (Warms, 492).  However, those who followed the Umayyad dynasty, which began with Muhammad’s father-in-law Abu Bakr, became Sunni Muslims, and make up the majority of Muslims by far (Warms, 492).  Despite the faction, most of the beliefs of Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims are very similar (Warms, 492). 

            The American Moslem Society of Coldwater was the first of the services I attended.  Upon arrival, there were two men who appeared to be selling things on a table by the front door.  I waited in my vehicle as I was a bit early and watched as many men and their children entered the building; I noticed that none of the people entering were female.  I eventually decided to head into the building.  I introduced myself to a man at the table by the door, declaring I was a student looking to attend his mosque’s service, but he looked at me with the most confused look.  After speaking to a teenager in Arabic, he told me to follow a group of people inside (I was later told that the men at the table cannot speak English; at least not much, since he told me to follow the group).  As soon as I walked in, a short elderly man in front of me bent down, and I knew to take off my shoes as he was doing, and place them on a shelf.  I walked into a sanctuary where people sat or knelt on the floor.  It was mostly quiet, as people were either reading, praying, or just sitting quietly, however there was some light conversation.  I was guided to who I thought may be the Imam, as he was sitting on the floor against the back wall, with his legs crossed, reading scripture and wearing a white cap and traditional Muslim robes. He spoke English, and I told him my purpose for being here.  He pointed me to another man (who appeared to be in his 20s) who was wearing a long white robe with a leather jacket and a turban that was walking across the room; this man noticed me and smiled, and I was told to follow him into the office.  When we sat in the office, I told this man my purpose for being here as I had told the previous man.  The man kindly accepted my presence here, and informed me that he was the assistant Imam, filling in for the head Imam whom was not present.  I asked if this mosque was Sunni, and after some clarification that I meant “either Sunni or Shi’ite or another denomination” (he thought I was talking about the desktop computer and must have thought I said “Sony”;), confirmed they were Sunni (he pronounced it Sunna).  We waited in his office as he went over the notes for his speech.  Many children and older pre-teens came into the office to say hello, and they mostly spoke in Arabic; I got the feeling that many of the kids there looked up to this assistant Imam (I will simply call him the Imam from this point for simplicity’s sake).  Some of the kids spoke to him with a voice of curiosity, and I heard him answer and heard a word that sounded like “university”; he told me people were curious about me, which makes sense as I probably stuck out in the crowd.  Another man in traditional garb came in and also asked about me, and introduced himself—he was from the board (which I assume is a council).  I was offered a chair for the service, but I declined and said I was comfortable on the floor like everyone else.  When it was time for his speech, I followed him out of the office, and sat in a small staircase by the office where I could get a good view of the alter (which was in the East corner) and not be in the direct view of a lot of the worshippers; I sat with a lot of young people.  To start, everyone got very quiet, and a short old man sang in Arabic in front of the alter.  This man sat down afterwards, and the Imam began his speech.  His words were in Arabic very fast and fluid, and there were few stops (although occasionally he would stretch a syllable for a couple moments).  There was also a sense of seriousness on his face and in his voice.  He spoke loudly and with command, but never shouting. I was told later by the man from the board his speech was about children and how they should act and be raised.  Sometimes people would come in late, and would do a prayer where they folded their arms, then bent down, then stood up, than knelt down and touched their head to the floor; some repeated this a few times.  After over 25 minutes of speaking, he sat down, and stood back up a moment later.  Most of the people who were sitting against the walls began facing the alter.  The Imam began speaking again, and at the tail-end of phrases everyone would quietly mutter “ameen” (I was later told this means “please God, accept”;).  We then all stood in rows side-by-side to engage in the final prayer.  The Imam now began singing the prayer, and we would do the same prayer motion that those who walked in late did, although we paused after each movement.  We did this twice, and at the start of each time, everyone in the room chanted “ameem” and stretched both syllables very long; it was one of the most powerful things I had ever felt.  After this, people shook hands with their neighbors.

            I arrived at the First Presbyterian Church of Sturgis about ten minutes before service began.  Before service I stuck with my friend and his mother and a couple of people introduced themselves.  At the suggestion of my friend’s mother, I signed the visitors’ book.  The lady at the front desk gave to me a coffee mug with the church’s symbol on it.  Many of people were congregating while drinking coffee or tea that was offered by the church.  We soon went into the sanctuary for First Light service (an informal, family-friendly service), which began with a song by the praise band.  The sanctuary had a stained-glass window above the stage of Jesus, and there were many Christmas decorations.  After the song, the leaders had their announcements, where they informed the congregation of extra activities and news involving the church members, including a farewell to an elderly couple who were retiring south; they had been members since the 1960s.  Following a series of prayers and songs, there was a short segment for the children where they talked about Christmas.  The major theme for the day was the “First Sunday of Advent”, which I deduced was the holiday season before Christmas and after Thanksgiving.  A video was showed on the projector of a bunch of people singing a Christmas carol in a mall, and people in the crowd of the mall would join in.  The pastor gave his sermon relating to the holidays, and how while all the gifts and food and decorations of presents is great, it only scratches the service about how great Christmas is, and that knowing the Lord’s love is the greatest feeling of all.  There was another video showing a comical story of a man who wanted to ask his neighbor if he wanted to attend church with him on Sunday, and in his anxiousness imagined many worst-case scenarios; in the end the other man agreed to attend, showing the intent of the video was that it doesn’t hurt to ask people to attend church.  Following offering, hymns, and reciting the Lord ’s Prayer, there was a coffee break, where I met more people and the pastor.  After the coffee break, there was a traditional Sunday service, which while more aesthetically formal (there were more elderly people, the songs were sung by a choir in robes), had the same theme and many of the same segments happened. 


12:59 am - 1 comments - 1 Kudos - Report!
EpiExplorer wrote on Jun 24th, 2012 11:55pm

If you want the ultimate twist to this story, look up Mithras.


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