A mosque opens its doors, and a conversation

What they hear is that men and women were created from a single pear.

They are 60 visitors - awkward but well-meaning - worrying the unfamiliar carpet of the mosque's basement room with their socks. Most arrived this evening with their arms and legs covered, some have scarves or sweaters draped on their heads. They're grinning politely; they're trying to be open-minded; they know they have everything to learn, and plenty to unlearn, about Islam.

But they're strangers, expecting strangeness. So when Justin Hvitfeldt stands up to explain the creation story, more than a few of them hear: "In Islam we believe, as in Christianity, that man was created from a pear. Men and women from a single pear, so that we share the same soul."

Visitors look around uneasily. Finally, a woman in the third row ventures, "How are you spelling pear?"

"P-A-I-R?" Mr. Hvitfeldt says, puzzled.

"Oh!" somebody says, and little "oh's" echo from around the crowded room. After a beat, the visitors start to giggle nervously. After another, so do their teachers, Hvitfeldt and his wife, Andrea Useem.

"No," Hvitfeldt says, "we don't believe we were created from a fruit...."

But speaking of fruit: "We also don't believe woman was responsible for the downfall of man."

The Islamic Society of Boston in Cambridge, Mass., has opened its doors to groups of visitors like these every week since Sept. 11. The community outreach began with an ISB open house the week of the attacks; 700 locals attended, many of them searching for ways to show support for Muslims and to learn about Islam. After this flood of interest, the society decided to offer this "Introduction to Islam" class, a discussion series, and a display at the Boston Public Library. Numerous such efforts have sprung up nationwide in the past six weeks.

For a Muslim community, hosting these events invariably raises questions about who can best communicate the tenets of Islam to a US audience.

At the ISB, Ms. Useem and Hvitfeldt volunteered. Both were born in the United States and have recently converted to Islam. Hvitfeldt grew up in Wisconsin with little religious instruction, and embraced Islam three years ago after a difficult battle with depression. Useem was raised Episcopalian in a suburb of Boston. She became a Muslim two years ago, while working as a journalist covering North African Muslim communities after the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

So, for tonight's crowd - many of them 20-somethings - they're relatively easy emissaries of Islam to embrace. They can joke in American idioms, they use American slang. "One thing about the Muslim community in the US," says Hvitfeldt, "is that a lot of people are recent immigrants, still learning the language. Part of the reason we volunteered to teach the class was that we could communicate more easily, and maybe have more in common with the people who'd be attending."

The topic under discussion this week: gender relations in Islam. It's one about which many visitors are skeptical. A handful of attendees are Muslim, a few others have studied Islam, but the great majority have never been to a mosque, and many are hearing about Islamic culture and beliefs from Muslim teachers for the first time.

The couple begins by addressing some common questions about women in Islam: from marriage to divorce to polygamy.

As Useem explains the traditional Muslim marriage contract, a legal document in which a couple agrees on underlying assumptions for their married life - such as whether the wife will work and whether the relationship will be monogamous - a visitor comments: "Oh! Like a prenup."

Divorce is allowed, Useem explains, but as a last resort, after many trial separations. Polygamy is an option for men, if their marriage contracts allow, but not for women.

"That doesn't seem fair," remarks an older man in the back row. "I was married to a feminist for years, and I can tell you, she wouldn't have gone for that."

Throughout their presentation, Hvitfeldt and Useem invite visitors to respond or ask questions. Often, even when they've answered these with examples from their own lives and marriage, the crowd, though polite, seems less than satisfied. Questions hang in the room: "If women are equal to men in their relationship to God, why do they have to pray behind a screen, or against a wall?"

Sometimes Muslim audience members also respond to visitors' questions. Over the course of the evening, as the class becomes more conversational, its value emerges not so much from the questions it answers, but from the interaction between Muslim and non-Muslim community members that it facilitates.

That, Lisa Schneier says, is the reason she came. "I was disturbed by the things I'd been hearing about how Muslims were being treated after Sept. 11th. So I wanted to learn about the religion, and also, in a supportive sense, to make contact with some Muslims locally."

Hvitfeldt says another of the ISB's intentions in sponsoring the class was to open its space to visitors: "A lot of people who came to our open house seemed like they needed an invitation to come here, like they never felt they had the opportunity before. They would have been welcome anytime, but not knowing what to do during the prayer, it can be awkward."

It also can be awkward for a community of faith to open its doors to nonmembers. "That's why we try to let people know about things like acceptable dress," he adds. "But a lot of it is also just being patient with people who don't know what our rules are. They're obviously here to learn, and that's what we were hoping for."

E-mail wiltenburgm@csmonitor.com.

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