This was my first time attending a Jum'ah: I had wanted to for some time, ever since I began taking Arabic in my freshman year at Georgetown, but something always came up. The stars had aligned today, and I found myself at the Friday prayer service. Growing up in multiethnic, multi-religious Singapore, which nonetheless prides itself on its sharp division of church and state, religion as a grand idea was part of the backdrop for me. I went to church regularly, and I had many friends from other religious backgrounds, but that often did not translate into interreligious dialogue or dialogue about religion. Despite the 14 percent of Singaporean Muslims, I knew little about Islam beyond basics like who the Prophet Muhammad was and that Ramadan was the month of fasting. When I went home, then, having learned Arabic breathed fresh life into familiar names and phrases—Abdullah, Ibrahim, Ahmad—and gave new significance to seeing signs at Muslim shops proclaiming Allahu akbar (God is great) and ma shaa' Allah (what God has willed; used to express appreciation or thankfulness) and minarets of mosques dotting our skyline. At the same time, I began taking classes on Islamic studies in Georgetown, which gave me a better understanding of the religion.
Now I was at my first Jum'ah—in Arabic, no less—but I still was not quite sure what to expect. There was no time to worry as the imam began, standing at the front of the room and speaking loudly such that his voice carried to the back of the room, where a couple of women I had not noticed before were sitting, separate from the men. People continue to file into the room after the imam had begun speaking, but did so quietly so as not to disturb the others. They left their bags and shoes under or on the tables lined alongside the room, walked to the floor in front of the imam, and bowed for a few moments in prayer before sitting down. I was impressed by everyone listening with such rapt attention to the imam—not a single person was talking.
To my disappointment, I did not understand much of the khutbah, but managed to catch a couple of words and phrases. After the imam finished the khutbah, he sat down, and everyone engaged in what seemed to me like a time of reflection or prayer. When he stood up and turned towards the front, the congregants followed suit, standing up and forming rows with everyone standing shoulder to shoulder. If there were any gaps, people in the front rows made space for people in the back to fill them up, doing so with smiles on their faces. The imam led them through the prayer, and I was struck by the uniformity and unity of the ritual.
After the prayer ended, the congregants began lining up for pizza which had been left on a side table, and sat down in groups of twos or threes to eat. Within minutes, the buzz of ordinary conversation started up again. I gathered up my belongings and left quietly, grateful for the opportunity to have witnessed such a beautiful ritual.