For the first time, the Episcopal Church’s Washington National Cathedral has hosted a Muslim service of Friday prayers (Jumu’ah) at the landmark national church.
Representatives from five Muslim groups addressed the gathering both preceding and following the prayers, which were said in the north transept, an area of the Cathedral with arches and limited iconography. Cathedral staff identified the transept as “an ideal space—almost mosque-like—with the appropriate orientation for Muslim prayers.”
Muslims have been invited on previous occasions to offer prayers at the Cathedral during interfaith services, including a past conference on Abrahamic faiths. Friday was, however, the first time Muslims were invited to hold Jumu’ah in a service of their own at the Cathedral.
Rizwan Jaka, a member of the Board of Directors of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) indicated that the event will be recurring, describing it as the “First of the Friday prayers at the landmark Washington National Cathedral.”
Jaka stated that Friday prayer at the Cathedral “exemplifies a partnership between Christians and Muslims.” The ISNA official made an appeal to religious tolerance, noting several U.S. examples of Muslims sharing spaces with Christian churches and new church construction in Dubai and Jordan. Jake also noted that Muslims were aware they were exercising a freedom of religion in the United States not always afforded to religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries.
“We must continue to advocate for Christians and other minorities in Muslim-majority countries,” Jaka stated. In a similar message, Roula Allouch, National Board Chair at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) declared, “The more we get to know one another, the less room there is for hate and prejudice to come between us.”
In addition to ISNA and CAIR, officials from the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS), Masjid Muhammad (the Nation’s Mosque), and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) sponsored the event.
In welcoming comments, The Rev. Canon Gina Gilland Campbell of the National Cathedral noted she has learned the patterns and practices of prayer from Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs and others. Stating that “Openness to those whose prayer differs from our own is one thing” but that preparedness to exercise hospitality is another, Campbell announced that “deep relationships come out of shared prayer.”
No statement was offered noting the use of the Cathedral sanctuary for non-Christian worship, despite the space being consecrated to the worship of Christ. The sanctuary of the National Cathedral has also been used for Tibetan sand painting by monks and for a Native American smudging ceremony, in which a gift of smoking tobacco leaves was offered to welcome spirits from the four cardinal directions.
In his sermon, Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool of South Africa noted appreciation to the church for making the facility available, but explained the group chose not to have prayers in the “main church” (the nave) “lest subsequent generations of Muslims see that as a license to appropriate the church for Islam”
Rasool appealed to stop extremist attacks on Christian monasteries, violence that has increasingly occurred in the Middle East.
“If we don’t stop it at monasteries, they will come after mosques for this or that,” Rasool said of Muslim extremists, who he predicted could quickly direct their attacks against Shi’a and Sufi Muslims, or anyone else who did not meet their idealized version of Islam. Rasool also addressed the violent actions of ISIS as “shocking the conscience of the world.”
At the conclusion of the event, Cathedral Dean Gary Hall recalled St. Benedict and his dual emphasis on prayer and hospitality.
“The Christianity St. Benedict embodied is representative of what we see here today,” Hall announced, wondering aloud “how many people are chagrinned at the public face of extremist Christianity.”
“We are at a moment where we are confident enough in our own traditions not to try to convert one another,” Hall offered. In a 2012 interview with the Detroit Free Press Hall announced that he is, “not about trying to convert someone to Christianity. I don’t feel I’m supposed to convert Jews or Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists or Native Americans to Christianity so that they can be saved. That’s not an issue for me.”
In the same interview Hall also shared about finding common cause with those who do not profess a faith in Jesus Christ.
“I have much more in common with progressive Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists than I do with certain people in my own tradition, with fundamentalist Christians,” Hall declared. “The part of Christianity I stand with is the part in which we can live with ambiguity and with pluralism.”
Several groups and high profile public figures expressed concerns in advance of the Friday event.
“It’s sad to see a church open its doors to the worship of anything other than the One True God of the Bible who sent His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to earth to save us from our sins,” wrote Evangelist Franklin Graham on his Facebook page. “Jesus was clear when He said, ‘I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me’ (John 14:6)”.
The Center for Security Policy (CSP) in Washington, DC released a letter to Hall and copied to the Bishop of the Diocese of Washington, the Rt. Rev. Mariann Budde, urging them not to allow the prayer service to go forward.
CSP signers cited “… the nature of the sponsors, their traditional service and the occasion” to be problematic due to documented connections between many of the groups and the Muslim Brotherhood, leading to concerns that the event would “be a highly symbolic demonstration of Islamic supremacism.”