It’s was 15 minutes before 8:00pm and the mosque was empty except for our small group and the imam. The evening prayer was to start on the hour, but Imam Yahya Momla told us that there wouldn’t be many attending on a Tuesday; the hundreds of people using the Masjid Al-Salaam Mosque in Burnaby mostly choose to do the prayers at home on weeknights, except for Fridays. However the doors opened and two men entered. One wore the darken glasses of the visually impaired and was led to the prayer room by his friend.
“Are you doing the call to prayer tonight?” the imam asked the friend. “Yes? Good. Go ahead.”
After leading the blind man forward, the friend then stepped up to the mic and started the adhan, calling the faithful to worship. Traditionally this was done outside from the minaret – the slender tower that graces most mosques. Not so much in Canada though. A bit cold for that, explained the imam, and maybe not in the best interest of neighbours. He has only been up to the top of his minaret once, and won’t do so again until the light at the top needs changing. (Editor’s Note: To listen to a sample recording of what the adhan sounds like – go here).
The lyrical phrases of the call swirled around the room and streamed toward the rafters high above us, fashioned with polished BC timber to reflect the mosque’s west coast location. The singer’s voice was beautiful, confident. And as he continued the call, other men entered the room and prepared for prayer.
Our group were visitors, invited to tour the mosque and observe the evening prayer by the imam as a gesture of gratitude and dialogue after the small vigil we had held after the Quebec City tragedy only nine days before. We had come together spontaneously that Sunday night, reaching out to each other on social media as the news of the mosque shooting unfolded.
Trudi had started the idea, tweeting her dismay and her need to just go stand in front of the mosque on Canada Way in some kind of solidarity. Others joined in and soon our small group stood together, holding a “Stronger Together” sign leftover from the New West United rally against bigotry and racism, held just a few days before. That rally at city hall was in response to neo-Nazi anti-Islam posters that had started to show up in our city. Imam Yahya, a New West resident, had spoken eloquently at the rally.
We weren’t really sure what we were trying to achieve, standing together outside the mosque that night, other than expressing our shame and sadness, as well as showing solidarity as fellow Canadians. As the news of the shooting spread, more people in cars honked, nodded, and gave thumbs-up to our group. Some parked and came over to thank us. And then Imam Yahya arrived. Ironically the night of the shooting had been same night BC Muslims were celebrating the 50th anniversary of their association. News 1130 radio had phoned him at the event for a comment about the group of supporters at his mosque, and he came to join us.
And now here we were for a follow-up visit and tour. We had started in the mosque’s library which also served as the imam’s office. He showed us the large, ornate copies of the Quran with flowing Arabic script, as well as books on Islamic culture and practice. He answered our many questions, including the tough ones such as the place of LGBTQ individuals in the religious community. All are welcomed, he explained, showing us the posted constitution of the BC Muslim Association which forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation.
We were shown around the rest of the facility. Built only 16 years ago, the mosque is well designed to be functional and beautiful, and this includes heated floors which are a blessing on a wintery February night when you are required to remove your shoes before entering certain areas. The mosque is not segregated by gender in all areas except the prayer halls. Imam Yahya said that since Muslim worship involves a lot of physical movement including bowing forward on the carpeted floor, most are more comfortable with separate prayer areas. At the Burnaby mosque, the women pray from a large balcony.
There are now about a dozen men in the hall for the evening prayer. Although hundreds could fit into the space, all the men stand in a tight row at the front, shoulder-to-shoulder. This is meant to create a spirit of oneness during the prayer. We watch as the imam sings verses from the Quran, the worshipers standing together, bowing together, connected in the space and with their god.
And it suddenly hits me; nine days ago in Quebec City this was likely the exact moment the shooter strode into the mosque there, during the evening prayer, the men standing shoulder-to-shoulder together in prayer while evil opened fire from behind. This moment of peace and beauty shattered by gunfire.
Witnesses say that some of the men died as they sprinted toward the gunman, trying to save the others. I could see how that would be true. The worshipers here are very connected to each other, just as we are connected to them through our shared grief and, hopefully, a shared desire to better understand each other as Canadians. Our small vigil and visit may be just a start.
The Masjid Al-Salaam Mosque in Burnaby collects food bank donations, specifically to support struggling refugee families. There will be a donation box for cash and non-perishable food products at the sold out Pecha Kucha event on February 25 at the Anvil Centre.