Written by: Shannon Marks

The Dawoodi Bohras USA

Shannon Marks, a mother of three and a cub scout leader visited the Bohra masjid in Los Angeles. She shares her impressions of the community in this blog piece.

My name is Shannon Marks. I am a Roman Catholic woman who attended Catholic school from kindergarten through 12th grade, received her Catholic sacraments and married a Catholic man, with whom we are raising our three children in the same faith. To say I am not familiar with other religions and cultures is an understatement. I took a world religions class in high school, but if I had to take a test on it today, don’t expect me to ace it. So, when I became a cub scout leader for children who are dependent on me to teach them the ways of the scout laws and other intricate parts of life, I didn’t quite know what I had gotten myself into.

Part of the scout law says, ‘I will do my best to do my duty to God…,’ and every grade level has a ‘footsteps to God’ advancement to complete. Easy, right? Easy enough when you’re talking to children of the same religion, but in our Charter at St Mel you do not have to be Catholic to be a part of our cub scout pack. Monthly, I find myself surrounded by 18 2nd graders who are of various religions and backgrounds and I have to teach them about God, ethics, and morality.

For second grade Cub Scout Wolves our ‘Footsteps to God’ advancement simply said, ‘Visit a religious monument or site where people might show reverence.’ I could have called up our priest Father Steve and asked for a tour of the St Mel church. After all, it would benefit the Jewish children in my den and my Catholic wolves who are making their First Holy Communion (the 3rd sacrament in the Catholic Church according to age) this year, but honestly what would they all get out of it? The scouts that attend St Mel Catholic School step foot into that church once or twice a week and have religion classes every day explaining what is expected of them, or what they should know about every aspect of our community. My Jewish scouts may find it interesting if they hadn’t ever stepped foot into a Catholic church, but why not introduce all of them to something completely different? Educate them about a great world religion outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

I took my search to Google. I typed ‘Muslim mosque,’ and half a dozen or so names came up. I clicked on each one to see their location and started calling. I either received an answering machine (to which no call was ever returned), a recorded message about hours and eventually one live person who told me they didn’t do tours of their location. As I came to the last link in the search engine, I had lost hope that this was going to work out, and I’d be calling my priest.

I clicked…and the website for the Dawoodi Bohras of Los Angeles appeared on my screen. I scrolled through the website looking for a location address. Now, I am born and raised in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, CA in this small city of Woodland Hills. I also currently live in the same city – I haven’t travelled far I know. I have passed countless times at the gates of Masjid Ezzi and never really known what it was or known anyone who practised their faith behind the gates. My heart got excited and I scrolled until I found an email address to contact them. After a brief description of who I was, what I wanted, and where to contact me, I hit send and went about my day.

Imagine my surprise when a few days later Adnan Hamid (representative of the Dawoodi Bohras of Los Angeles) wrote me back. Simply, they would love to discuss hosting us. With a call scheduled to Adnan I was hopeful. When I was finally able to speak with Adnan, I was overjoyed that the Dawoodi Bohras were as thrilled as I was that I had reached out. They WANTED us to come and learn about their religion and culture. Fumbling through my words and with Adnan’s guidance, we established our agenda and a date was set! April 25th… the final phase of Ramadan. I had no idea what Ramadan was. I felt like some bell should have gone off in my head that gave me a clue, but nothing. I was embarrassed for myself that I had to go back to Google.

Prior to our outing I had to prep my scouts and their parents. When I announced that we were going to visit a Muslim place of worship I was met with excitement from everyone. Word spread through our pack and suddenly it was like my 2nd graders were on a VIP exclusive trip which everyone tried to get their names added to. My parents with other children wanted them to also experience this opportunity and I had to eventually make the decision just to have my scouts and one parent make the tour. Adnan had walked me through the particulars that there would be worshippers on site and the Masjid Ezzi would be alive with activity for evening prayers. I didn’t want a huge group of onlookers interrupting their worship. I tried imagining if the church allowed a field trip in the middle of a sacramental ceremony or mass. I couldn’t inflict the same disruption on this community that was taking us in so generously.

As I drove through the open gates of the campus I was instantly transported into a state of calm. I had been worried for days that one of my scouts was going to say something unfiltered, or even use improper language to ask a question. But as I entered the grounds, I knew everything was going to work out, and this was going to be an amazing teaching experience for us all.

I approached our meeting location, where several of my scouts were dressed in what we call their Sunday best. My girls were in long dresses with scarves to cover their heads and the boys were – for once – not running around trying to use up their endless sources of energy. As I approached and introduced myself to Adnan, the only sound I could hear was the peaceful running of water. There were several fountains on site and between the greenery and water, my soul was soothed. I later learned that in the Muslim faith, water is a sign of knowledge. The calmness continued to wash over me and the smile that I received in greeting from Adnan let me know this was going to be an experience none of us would soon forget.

When we had all arrived, we did introductions and continued our visit. Along with Adnan Hamid we were blessed to have Aliasger Najam, Lamya Mogri and Shafiq Chandabhai join us. I was also pleasantly surprised that there were two children, Taher Mogri and Husain Najam, who would be joining us as well. My scouts immediately took to the boys and it was as if they were on a playground and neither one was wearing their traditional clothing.

Aliasger Najam began our tour with basic information about the Muslim faith and the current season of Ramadan. He opened with the basic knowledge that Muslims pray five times a day. We were asked to look at the minaret, which traditionally was the place from where the call to prayer was given, but at the Masjid Ezzi was more symbolic in meaning and held a chandelier instead. He told us about how the Muslims believe in Jesus and the prophets in the same way we do and that Mohammad was the last and greatest of the prophets. He spoke of the pilgrimage process to Mecca, the Kaaba and the importance of the Quran. He then explained the pillars of the Muslim faith (prayer, purity, fasting, almsgiving, struggle, and pilgrimage). Having just come out of the Catholic season of Lent, I immediately posed a question to my scouts. ‘Can someone tell me how the Muslim pillars are similar to what Catholics observe during Lent?’ Little hands shot up and they said, ‘Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.’ The dots were being connected.

We proceeded up the steps of the Ezzi Masjid and took a group photo to commemorate our experience together. Then we were taken to the entrance of the Masjid. Several questions were asked about Arabic words etched into glass, or the wood and Aliasger Najam patiently answered each question. We were then given a rundown of what we would see inside the Masjid. As we removed our shoes outside, we were treated to the beautiful sounds of those inside praying. Several gentlemen were seated on the floor within the main room of the Masjid reciting the Quran, which we learned was memorised by many members of the Bohra community. My scouts were awestruck at the thought of having to memorise our entire Bible, and were impressed with the sounds around them even more.

In quiet whispers we were allowed to ask questions while we were shown around the main room of worship. We were directed to the upper levels where women worship together. I took in the looks of my scouts and their parents, as we took in our surroundings and were introduced to a beautiful culture and religion that we weren’t quite familiar with. We were then taken back into the entrance room where pictures of the Dawoodi Bohra community’s religious leader and his predecessors adorned the walls. We were given a brief history of how they had guided the community for over a century.

Our final stop within the Ezzi Masjid was into the stairwell where an elongated chandelier, nothing I had ever seen before, running from the top of the minaret to the ground floor was lit up. This was the magnificent piece that in some ways was symbolic of the muazzin, i.e. the one who calls to prayer. Every last detail of the Masjid was thoughtful and beautiful. I couldn’t stop staring at the intricate details that went into creating such a powerful building.

After putting our shoes back on, my scouts started to feel a bit more confident in themselves. They started to open up and ask questions about the clothing that they saw the men wearing. The Bohra Muslim children Taher and Husain also shared with us information about their religion from a child’s point of view. They explained the religious schooling process and that you become an adult in the Muslim faith around 14 or 15. Taher was very confident in the way he spoke about what he knew and how he shared his knowledge with children his own age. The eloquence and reverence with which he answered questions was inspiring.

Finally back to our starting point, Aliasger spoke of how Muslims break their fast at sunset. We got a quick glimpse of the side of the Masjid where a date and small portions of crackers and tea would be passed through the windows, before worshippers headed into the dining hall to share a meal together. My scouts were surprised when they were offered their own bag of snacks to show them what might be consumed to break the fast. My favourite surprise of all was the rose milk that was so generously offered to all of us. This was a treat which I have never indulged in, let alone heard of. Everyone really enjoyed this. Imagine the creamiest milk mixed with rose flavour and cold. Some in our den compared it to rose ice cream.

As we ate snacks and drank rose [milk], the scouts were able to enjoy the outside atmosphere of the courtyard. Bringing Taher and Husain into their fold the children could be heard laughing and talking about everyday things like video games, or soccer. One of my scouts was explaining to Taher how a few weeks ago we had learned how to tie knots and how difficult it was. Taher asked if we go camping and learn survival skills, to which I replied we did and his face lit up.

As we said our goodbyes, my son asked if he could have a play date with Taher. I smiled and said I would have to see if we could arrange that. Better yet, after talking with his grandmother Lamya, I was sure that Taher wanted to check out cub scouts. They’d see each other all the time if he did. My scouts and I regrouped at an ice cream shop nearby to discuss what they had learned from our experience. I asked each of them to draw a picture of what had stuck with them the most about what they learned. Almost half of them responded with, ‘They know about Jesus,’ or ‘Their pillars are the same as our Lenten values.’ They were in awe of the similarities that tie us together.

Living in a post 9/11 world and raising my children in this world, where people are afraid of what they don’t know and hate has made such a strong presence in our everyday lives, I am proud to show my son and his friends that what you hear is not the same as what is true. By opening up their Masjid and their hearts to us, the Dawoodi Bohras of Los Angeles have shown my scouts how similar we all are. We may have differences on the outside – Catholic or Muslim, our daily dressings, language, beliefs and even our secular calendar, but we had an opportunity to meet a community that shares our same inner values, morals, ethics and leads through example and love.