Claas Ehlers Reflecting America
The following information is a general guideline for meetings with members of an Islamic congregation. These rules are highly variable as everyone is different and has different comfort levels, expectations and perceptions; also, these rules are more relevant in interaction with non-American born Muslims.
This information has come from discussions and experiences with numerous Muslims as well as source material. Ultimately, use your instincts but these points may help you feel more comfortable. And it is understood that you as an American do not have awareness of all these cultural issues and offense will not be taken over any "mistakes"-If there is than that group is not ready for IHN yet.
Always dress conservatively; if a woman you will need a headscarf when entering a mosque (they usually have extras) and should not have bare shoulders or skirts above the knee. One does not need to be overly formally dressed-you will rarely see men in a suit at a mosque.
Some Muslim men will not shake hands with a woman and sometimes handing something to a member of the opposite sex is discouraged.
Step into a mosque with the right foot first
Stand when an elder enters a room.
Do not put one leg over the other in the presence of a senior or an equal with whom you stand on ceremony. Keep feet flat on the floor.
Do not stand while someone is sitting.
Do not excessively gesture or finger objects
Do not point
Avoid offering something with the left hand Do not bring a dog or be effusive about dogs-Many foreign-born Muslims view dogs with revulsion
It is polite to:
Ask about how a foreign-born Muslim came to this country
Ask an American-born Muslim about his or her shahada or conversion to Islam (assuming they were not raised Muslim)
Ask if family is well but do not go beyond that
Ask if they feel they have been treated fairly
Ask their opinions about ideas
Arabic phrases are appreciated
Recognize that the "displacement of Palestinians and the imposition of Israel by foreign powers" is perceived as a legitimate grievance by almost all Arabs (and Muslims). Do not discuss it.
Focus on terms like "family" and "civic"; "interfaith" may be seen by some as discussion of theological ideas. Use terms like "Abrahamic," "Koranic," and "scriptural" and phrases like "within the limits of the faith" and "houses of worship." Words like "Biblical," "clergy" and "church" are exclusive of Muslims. Be aware that for some Muslims words like "ministry" and "calling" have a Christian feel to them. Make sure to stress the non-religious nature of IHN. Feel free to ask those you are meeting with what terms they prefer.
"Yes" may mean "possibly"-and promises may be out of politeness, not intent. (This certainly is not specific to Muslims!)
It is acceptable to:
Ask to worship at the mosque (judgment call-in some cases this is highly welcome, in some it may not be). Muslims are always happy to show someone around a mosque.
Come in ignorance.
Flatter, but not excessively
It is preferable to:
Be emotive, personal. Reference why and who you are-discuss your "story" and reference any Muslim connection. Have an emotional hook. Be resolute in your faith-absence of faith is viewed far more negatively than participation in a faith other than Islam.
Bring something to an arranged meeting; for foreign-born Muslims dates are always a good bet. (Obviously, do not bring a bottle of wine. One Muslim told me how when he bought his house, even though the realtor and contractor knew he was Muslim, he was given bottles of wine by each!)
Ask what they need and would like from you and the IHN-You should always do this.
It important to be aware that:
Arabs often do not have a 3-foot interpersonal space and can be touchy-feely.
A great pride in culture and history is integral, and would be looked for in you also.
Strong (as Americans usually have) eye contact with foreign-born Muslims in authoritative positions can be considered challenging.
Hospitality is prided upon; if something is offered to you again after your refusal take it.
Keep in mind that people are people and these are merely guidelines.