So you have found yourself traveling in an area that has a mosque and not sure what to do. You are curious but intimidated. Not to worry you are not alone, to most westerners foreign religions can be overwhelming and mosques top the list. The religion of Islam has received some unjust and often horrible press. The estimated 1.57 billion followers should not be lumped in with a handful of radical extremists. I have toured mosques in southeast Asia and the middle east and have been welcomed and made to feel quite comfortable. There is no hiding that I am clearly western and none of my experiences have been less than positive. It is my recommendation that if the opportunity presents itself, take some time to tour and expand your understanding.
As with any religious building, mosques have a dress code that should be closely followed out of respect. Clothing should be modest, conservative and loose fitting, covering arms and legs – meaning no shorts for men either, nothing transparent and definitely no beach wear. You will be asked to remove your shoes before entering so easy slip off shoes are a better choice than those clunky hiking boots. Head scarves that cover the hair are typically required for women and can usually be borrowed from the mosques that are open to tours. Intimate behavior is not permitted in a Muslim place of worship, this includes kissing as well as holding hands. Smoking and eating are also forbidden inside the Mosque. You should stay with in the tour areas and avoid touching the Quran (holy book) or any architectural elements within the main prayer hall.
The Islamic idea of Heaven is a bountiful garden or jungle with rivers of pure milk and honey. This theme is echoed throughout most mosques. with floral motifs in the carpet giving way to white walls and ceilings with golden accents. Inside the main prayer hall you will quite frequently observe lines in the floral patterned carpet, these serve to help line up worshipers shoulder to shoulder mimicking the idea that no man is greater than his neighbor in the eyes of God. The other feature found in all mosques is the Qibal wall, regardless of where the mosque is located the wall is between the worshipers and the Islamic holy city of Mecca. The Qibal wall is seldom decorated (or is less elaborate) as to not distract the devout during prayers. The only feature on the Qibal wall is the cove or mehrab in the center of the wall. The Imam will speak and lecture from the mimbar (in no way to be confused with a mini bar, very different) an elevated platform similar to a pulpit.
Friday is the holiest day of the week and and even tourist friendly mosques are frequently closed for tours on that day as well as Islamic holidays and the holy month of Ramadan so plan accordingly. More than likely your tour will be scheduled around prayer times, these times are based off of the sun at dawn, noon, afternoon, dusk, and before bed. Although you will most likely not be allowed inside the mosque during prayer times, you should stick around long enough to listen to the beautifully haunting call to prayer. Anthony Bourdain in his book A Cook’s Tour , noted that “the first time you hear it, it’s electrifying – beautiful, non- melodic, both chilling and strangely comforting. Upon hearing it, you understand – on a cellular level – that you are now ‘somewhere else’.” The sound of the call to prayer is something that will resonate within you and is an experience that should not be missed even if you can not tour the inside, it is worth detouring your travels to to hear it’s hauntingly beautiful song.
Not all mosques are open to non-Muslims so check before charging in. Several offer scheduled tours, most notably the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, UAE (See 27May11 Photo of the Day) and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey. Want More insight about touring and traveling to religious sites? Contact the Travel Consultants at GW Nunn Adventures.