The Blue Mosque, Photo acquired from the Taguig City Government website.
Going to Blue Mosque was not too difficult. Living in Paranaque, traversing to the mosque meant a meager 30-40 minute ride by car. Add the fact that I was visiting on Holy Thursday, and one can imagine the ease in reaching this destination. In fact, the most difficult parts of the trip was merely traversing in 1-way, narrow roads in Maharlika Village, all of which were adorned by the colorful hijabs worn by Muslim women, the smiles of children playing, and the typical urban hustle and bustle typical to a non-subdivision barangay situated within a growing urban city.
Amir texts me around 3:40 PM, announcing that he had just arrived in the mosque, and asks me whether I’ll be arriving soon. “Let me find my way through these narrow streets muna,” I tell him in jest. “Good luck,” he jokingly replies.
Datu Amir Wagas is a 3rd year AB Developmental Studies in Ateneo de Manila University whom I met in a political party in the same university a few months before my trip. Regularly representing the Muslim sector of the studentry, I’ve made his acquaintance through a number of discussions and school events. At one point, on telling him about my interest in exploring the Muslim faith, he offers to bring me along with him in one of his Thursday prayers one of these days. I eagerly agreed. After all, it wasn’t everyday that such an opportunity arose. “It will be educational,” he promises.
When I arrived ourside the gates of the Blue Mosque, the majestic and poignant image of the gentle mosque against the backdrop of the grey-paved barangay immediately struck me as stunning. I found Amir waiting by the front gate, wearing a white taqiyah, a type of Muslim head-wear which rested on the crown of his head. He grasps my right hand between his hands firmly, and shaking it, then pressing his arm to his chest he greets me, As-salāmu ʿalaykum. I greet him good afternoon, and he brings me inside the gate. “In Manila, this is my home,” he assures me. Immediately at the mosque facade I was introduced to Datu Moden Talandig, a grad-student from Ateneo de Manila University studying MA Global Politics, who was also invited by Amir to join him in today’s prayers.
Amir tells me that Tuan Parmanan, his teacher should have been meeting us shortly, but he is still out of the mosque for some errands. He invites me and Moden to go out to buy some snacks at his favorite place around the area while we wait. Looking around, some boys our age – maybe younger – around the facade were also on their chores, two cleaning cars, one dragging a dried banana trunk from the backyard to the gate to dispose of it. He calls out to them to greet them, and they greet us back and approached us.They give a slight bow, and as Amir introduces me and Moden, they also take our right hand, shake it, and press their right hand to their chest. As they take my hand, I try to shake back, greet them in return Asasamamalaykum and press my hand on my chest. I realize that different from other youth our age, in their disposition in their work, and in respect expressed in greeting us. Amir looks impressed and somewhat amused. He tells me later in jest as we walk going to his favorite canteen, As-salāmu ʿalaykum. As-salāmu ʿalaykum. “Don’t forget,” he asserts, “it means peace be upon you.”
Going to the canteen, a couple of streets in from the main road from where the Blue Mosque is situated, he tells me to look around. I notice the quietness, and somewhat a peacefulness to the area. Maharlika was also considerably clean, much different from the barangays from my area in Paranaque. Posters of of Qur’anic Summer Classes are posted on light posts, there were also visibly less cars weaving about in the streets. “This is what Mindanao looks like,” Amir tells me. Moden, who hails from Maguindanao agrees. It is very peaceful here, also very safe if I may say,” he continues, “much different from how Muslim communities are stigmatized.”
When we arrived at the canteen, Amir orders us Beef siomai, chicken balls, and some packs of Zesto. Moden orders a mango shake. People eating with us in the canteen are in conversation. I look at their menu, hung about in a tarpaulin board inside the canteen behind the manang who manned the cashier. Beef siomai, chicken balls, chicken tocino, tapa, beef sinigang, chicken adobo, beef barbecue, beef hotdog. For a while, I forgot that I am eating with with Muslims, if not only for the halal menu that this canteen has. Moden and Amir talks about school. Studying in Ateneo as a scholar, Moden says, it’s been useful for him to have had experience studying abroad through many programs. United States, Japan, Taiwan, it’s an application of his experiences and observations in these places, in which this, along his knowledge of Sharia Law, does he hope to use as a viewing point towards his course in MA Global Politics.”You know us Muslims,” Amir exclaims, “it is obligatory for us to seek knowledge. Secular, religious, same thing.”
We go back to the mosque, where Tuan Parmanan sits on a chair near the. Amir sits in front of him, and we sit beside Amir. Tuan Parmanan apologizes for his lateness, he came from Cubao to buy a goat. He tells us how this morning he saw Sedeqah unfold. In Islam, Sedeqah is an act of generosity/benevolence. He says he went with a couple of teachers to an orphanage, where they served goat curry. He tells us of the significance of dividing a goat to peoples, an act of sharing blessings. He shares on how their community always involve themselves with orphanages.”Orphans are taken care of, who are close to Mohammad, for he himself was also an orphan. Nakakalambot ng puso.
Amir brings out a pen and a notebook and starts jotting down notes. “Now,” he continues, “we Muslims are like orphans, with no one to care for us, to get closer to Allah. And that’s why we need our teachers. Without teachers, we are like orphans. Teachers are our source of knowledge. If there is knowledge in a dog, then we accept our knowledge. Every living thing can be a teacher as long as it inspires.”
The person who was dragging out the banana trunk a while ago passes by us, with a bowed head, right hand on his chest, and left hand on the side of his body, quickly and urgently. I learn later that it was important for Muslims to not interrupt people in discussion, in studying.
He asks me on my religious beliefs. I told him that I am unsure, yet compelled to believe that there is a higher being, albeit not what has been depicted in religious history so far. Tuan Parmanan nods his head in approval. “Di tayo pwedeng malimit sa isang practice,” he says.“Exploring faith requires an open mind, respect, and engaging other faiths and cultures. Respect, especially, brings to knowledge.” He refers to Amir, and continues, “Thursdays, they go here to learn, yet it is our hearts which will lead to the Creator.” He refers to me, “We are all journeying, and I am lucky to have been on this journey. The Creator’s purpose to create is for us to worship Him. He quotes, “I am a hidden treasure. I love to be known.”
I ask him on how Muslims approach faith. “We learn about the creator through creation”, he says, “There are many ways to know the creator, but the closest is through ourselves.” He tells me that teachers in Blue Mosque are tasked to 1) interpret Qur’an, 2) memorize Qur’an, 3) study Islamic law (Sharia), 4) study Mohammed’s life story, 5) study Arabic language.” He tells me how Divine Presence is a contrast to simply study. “It is to search for the creator, not only through knowledge, but through presence”. “The Creator encompasses everything, not constrained to a paradise. Out of all races (referring to order of beings), humans beings are special because we are set to know him. Hindi tayo ang mayari sa ating feelings, sa ating knowledge.”
Muslims go to the mosque for the Magrib, one of the 5 daily prayers, the salat.
Suddenly, the call for 6:00PM prayer, the Magrib. The muezzin goes on top of the minaret, Amir tells me, and he says a special call for prayer, the Adhan. He tells me a couple of phrases from the Adhan.
- ‘lā ilāha illā -llāh, muḥammadur rasūlu -llāh
- There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.
- Ašhadu an lā ilāha illā-llāh waḥdahu lā šarīka lahu, wa ašhadu anna muḥammadan ʿabduhu wa rasūluhu.
- I bear witness that (there is) no god except Allah; One is He, no partner hath He, and I bear witness that Muhammad is His Servant and Messenger.
- Muslims washing their feet and arms before entering the mosque.
Tuan gets me a chair just outside the musallah, the prayer hall and tells me to observe for now. I go around for a while and take pictures, women and children, and men are physically seperated. The Imam, the Jama’a‘s (the Muslim community) leader leads the prayer, he stays behind a curtain, unseen by the constituents. They bow, stand up, and touch the floor with their foreheads, signaled by phrases, all in succession. The air somewhat smells spice-ey, musky, yet not unpleasant.
Muslims in prayer, led by the Imam.
After the prayers, we meet up with Tuan Parmanan again and he continues on his discussion.
He tells me of the concept of Mi’raj, and its significance to Muslim culture.“Mi’raj encompasses different realities, body and soul. Like how Mohammed who was tasked to preach Salam. Siya lang ang nakaattach sa creator. Qur’an was revealed to him. He is a mercy to all mankind”. He continues, “Kaya ito ang mensahe ng Islam: good character, good society, to be a peace-loving person like Ali, the first caliph”. “Makikita mo ang propeta sa mga taong katulad ni Mohammad.”
“Our companions contain fragments of Mohammad, and together, they build an image of the great teacher: just like how the stars make up the moon.”
“Islam contains a message of prayer, of fasting. To train us to become a person with a strong patience.” “We believe in in the rule of love, how the prophet does not need our love, but how it is us who needs to love him. We love who Allah loves, and if we follow this, then we too, receive Allah’s love.”
He pauses, and smiles at us in lightness, “Kaya ang Muslim, hindi marunong magalit.”
Around 7:20, once again there was a call for prayer, this time for the Isha. This time, I can join in, says Tuan Parmanan. As I go in, in my nervousness, I stay a row behind Amir, Moden, and Tuan Parmanan. A couple of kids saw me, probably in annoyance, and they drag me to the right side of the musallah. Seperated from my peers, I was subject to the scolding, and being taught by the almost-teenagers. They fix my arms in a cross-armed manner, they push my legs forward, for they sense my nervousness, and they look at me in confusion, probably perplexed, for this faux-Muslim joining them, yet, all in a sense of jest. After a while, I get used to the pattern. Allah. I touch my head on the ground. Allah. I stand up and put my arms in a crossed-arm manner. Allah. Then I bow.
Women are physically separated from men during prayers. Thank Allah, the women tell me, “Men are smelly”. A group of boys walk through the womens’ area in the Mosque.
After the prayers, the almost-teenagers approach me, and asked me if I’m new. Or if I’m part-Middle-Eastern. It was the beard, they say. Tuan Parmanan arrives in amusement and speaks to the almost-teenagers in Tausug. They laugh. I laugh with them in confusion. Leaving the almost-teenagers, Tuan tells me that they’re also some of his students. He also acknowledges my beard.
Amir on the far left, Tuan Parmanan off-center, and Moden on the far right, having dinner with me as we continue discussing
After the Isha, we have dinner in one of the rooms in the mosque. They serve us goat curry, which, after the prayers and the lectures, I found really comforting. I meet Brother Aian Naqshbandi, a missionary affiliated with the Blue Mosque. They tell me about the state of the Muslim world in the present. On how puritan movements arising, the emergence of ISIS, the question of a new caliphate. But Tuan Parmanan inserts himself in the conversation. “To the Muslim world, we simply need to return to the Qur’an.”
Amir exclaims, Inshallah hopefully, which means “if Allah wills”.
Mohammad was known to have many cats, the most famous being Muazza.
Thus, cats have earned a special place in the hearts of Muslims.
Tuan Parmanan and Brother Aian tell me about the evening prayer I am to join in.
Dhikr means pagaala-ala, Ala-ala, they tell me, Allah-Allah, a remembrance of “Allah” and his “good names.” Blue Mosque is authorized to hold Dhikr. Their theme this year is “The Seal of the Masters”, which emphasizes the role of the teacher. They tell me how how the first teacher, Mohammad taught, and whom he taught also taught, who taught a student who also taught, which created a cycle called the “golden chain”, Mohammad’s predecessors. “Dhikr is to get the pity of Allah, seek his pleasure, pagkakaisa. There is a garden of paradise to those who seek Allah.”
“Make prayer as if kahit tibok ng puso magiging prayer to Allah.”
“Lahat ng bagay ay lumuluwalhati, always somewhat connected.”
“Do not be a kafir. If you remember him, he remembers you.”
After eating, Amir puts on the turban imamah, it is tied according to the tradition of Prophet Muhammad, Amir tells me. And he also puts on the jubba, worn because the Prophet Muhammad also wore one. It is worn for special prayers.
We walk out of the dark hallway and enter the empty musallah. We gather around the circle rest for a while. Moden and Brother Aian talk about the Gnostic tradition and its relation to Islam. Some of the boys whom I saw working earlier, apparently children of some teacher join us in the circle. Finally, with the Misbaha, a type of prayer-beads, Tuan Parmanan leads the Dhikr. The group joins him in chanting the prayers, different prayers, one after another, in darkness, under the dome of the Blue Mosque, a very foreign, yet welcoming place.
Around 9:00PM. We talk through the facade of the Blue Mosque, on our way to the night-stained musallah.
I close my eyes and try to hum with their chanting. The knowledge imparted that day, the plethora of ideas, the sights seen, and my own personal thoughts revolved in my head. As the chanting grows louder and louder, such thoughts too, get stronger. I rock my body left and right with them as they too rock their bodies stronger and more chaotic. Tch!, Tuan Parmanan signals us to stop.
Then as the chanting stops, what was only left was silence.
I recall what Amir tells me earlier, on how people stay away from Barangay Maharlika, and how even taxi drivers refuse to bring passengers in the area because of a fear of violence, of war, of harm. Yet, in my short time with these new brothers – these Muslims who are not too different from myself and whom I’ve learned so much from and whom earned my respect, these people whom through them I’ve met the great teacher, the Prophet – I’ve found peace.
Going back after the dhikr.
- What insights were gained from participation compared to just observing?
In regards to being part of the salat, Being part of the very communal experience of prayer subjects you to a feeling of being in solidarity with the jama’a, the Muslim community. It also reveals a specific effort exerted on the part of the individual in prayer. This might reveal, for example, a particular fervency in the act of prayer. Being beside a praying Muslim and greeting/acknowledging each other’s presence – As-salaam Alaykum – reveals a social dimension between two individuals in prayer. It is a closer perception of the experiences the constituents go through. Beside this, in regards to discussion between teacher and student, the level of engagement deepens, especially in being an outsider inquiring about the discussion, leading to a diversity in ideas and insights, in contrast to merely observing a discussion between teacher and student.
- What did having a key informant add to your understanding?
Having a key informant, and especially using his position as a vantage point to the observed ritual, has been beneficial in deepening the contexts of the ritual in which he participates in. The nameless and of course, strange ideas and practices which were observed in the Blue Mosque were given names – religious terminology, actually – and these were explained. Furthermore, the experience of the informant is a necessarily important emic perception in the rituals, and thus, can be used to further or easily understand what was happening in a particular moment.
- What was learned from participant observation at this event that a questionnaire or interview about it might miss?
Especially in the Muslim Dhikr, where songs and hymns of praise were offered to Allah, a questionnaire or interview would be ineffective in forming the observer’s experience and/or understanding. Other than this, gestures, which are abundant in Muslims’ interactions with each other would not be observed. There may also be perceptions or attitudes which may be missed in gathering information. This is because a questionnaire requires the researcher to create expected answers in regards to the perceptions or attitudes of the constituents, which would limit the depth, or authenticity of a subject’s testimonies.
- For what purposes might a questionnaire or interview be better than participant observation?
A questionnaire would inevitably be more beneficial in creating ageneralization in regards to the constituents’ attitudes or perception in regards to an object, ritual, or event. This can be alluded to the limiting of the diversity of testimones, and thus, data which would be received. This may also be useful in gathering more commonplace data.
- Using our cafeteria observation exercise as reference, what insights did you gain about Philippine society and culture from the event that you observed and participated in?
Philippine society deserves to understand Muslim culture, and Muslim culture as well deserves to be better represented in our society. A culture of respect, thirst for knowledge, reverence for tradition, and fervency in prayer and faith is something that our present society needs to integrate in itself. Yet, one of the biggest hurdles in achieving this is social prejudice, generalization, and misrepresentation: all things which will be solved simply by observing – just like the cafeteria exercise – and ultimately engaging with and immersing in this easily marginalized Muslim aspect of our society.
Published by Earl de los Santos, 2 AB Lit-Eng.