Stand by me, and pray.
Ahmad Kahwaji smiles as he recalls what his father told him the first time he went to the Ummayad Mosque over forty years ago. Apart from being a beautiful building with a rich history, the Ummayad Mosque is a place for prayer and reflection. It especially is a place of Muslim community.
At midday on Fridays, thousands of Muslims gather in the Great Prayer Hall of the Ummayad Mosque. They literally stand shoulder-to-shoulder in long rows as they pray facing Mecca. Figuratively, they stand shoulder-to-shoulder when they work together for the common good. This sense of community, called umma, is a hallmark of the Prophet Mohammads message.
We have a proverb in Islam that all the people must be like one body, says Mr. Kahwaji. At 48, he is a well-established businessman on the main market street in the Old City in Damascus, where he sells handcrafts and antiques. From the shaded terrace outside his third-floor shop, he has a birds-eye-view of the Ummayad Mosque and the bustling plaza outside its main entrance. Ever since he was married 20 years ago, he has been attending the mosque regularly. He has gone to Mecca three times. He takes his faith seriously.
Mr. Kahwaji says, All good Muslims must work in cooperation? Their sense of community means that if a believer is rich, he must help the poor. If he is strong, he must help the weak.
Entering into community is visible when someone comes to the prayer hall. He joins the clustered people in prayer by standing with a line of people rather than standing alone. Shoes off; hands, face, and feet ceremoniously washed, he speaks to God with palms open toward heaven. He bows, prostrates himself, rises all in unison with those to either side of him.
The mosque, which is about 40 yards from Mr. Kahwajis shop, gives him and others a daily opportunity to interact with friends and to make sure that everyone in the community who needs help is cared for. At the end of prayers, he shakes the hand of the person on his right, then does the same to the person to his left. When I dont know him, I ask his name and where he is from, and what is his work, he says.
When he sees a friend who hasnt been to the mosque for a while, Mr. Kahwaji asks him why he hasnt been around and invites him to his home. If there is sickness or death in the community, special collections are made for the victims and their families.
Mr. Kahwaji recognizes the maturity required of being part of community when he says, As a child I [would] go and walk a little, and most children they do the same. He adds that, Now the fathers make the children pray behind so if they want to leave the line they have the liberty.
The young ones have much to discover in the mosque. More than just a place for prayer, the Ummayad Mosque is an educational center where men from throughout the Muslim world receive training in Arabic and Islam. Religious instruction for local worshippers is also provided, whether in regular formal classes led by an imam or informally when religious elders answer the questions of the young.
This is a peaceful community. The vast, open courtyard of the mosque offers a rare atmosphere of tranquility among the crowded dwellings and narrow streets of the Old City. On any given day people nap or stroll here. With heads bent in concentration over open books, students sit or slowly pace along the long, shaded porticos. On a stone stoop, a young couple sits in earnest conversation. Against the cool stone wall, a white-turbaned man gently cradles his sleeping child.
Even pigeons seek the peace of the courtyard. To them it is a haven from the scores of street cats outside the mosque. But they dont know that the mosque can also be a place to play. Youngsters are nearly as mischievous as cats, as they showed on a recent Eid al Fitr, the feast marking the end of the month-long fasting of Ramadan. Teenage boys set the stage by shooing antsy youngsters away from the seeds piled in the courtyard. Slowly the wary birds would drift into the large, open circle and start to feed. When enough birds amassed to satisfy the eager young crowd, the children rushed shouting toward the center and set off a burst of grey wings racing into the sky.
Muslims in medieval times considered the mosque one of the four wonders of the world, along with the Sanja Bridge, the church at Edessa, and the Pharos at Alexandria. It remains, after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, the fourth most sacred sanctuary in Islam. House of worship, meeting place, school, peaceful refuge, place of life the Ummayad Mosque of Damascus is a historical edifice which continues to serve the faithful well even after 1,300 years.
Anthony B. Toth is a writer and photographer living in Damascus.