Facing North

By Ismael Charrouf
July 31, 2018

There is a tradition among Peace Corps volunteers of touring houses of worship soon after installing at site.

Superficially, it is an integration strategy, an opportunity to get acquainted with those who will be our neighbors for the next two years. On a deeper level, it is an opportunity to participate in the rituals that give meaning to the lives of the people we serve. This article in particular is about the Muslims of Tsihombe, in Madagascar’s Deep South.
Tsihombe’s mosque, the only one in the region of Androy in southern Madagascar.

The umma , or Islamic community, here is small, totalling no more than a dozen households. Without fail, about as many adherents answer the call and convene at Masjid al Bilal every Friday for the third of five daily prayers.

Bilal, in whose honor this mosque is named, was among Muhammad's earliest followers. Remembered as a short black man with a booming voice, Bilal was born a slave to an Abyssinian princess and rose to become Islam’s first muezzin.

Tsihombe’s mosque, the only one in the region of Androy with a resident imam, has a name that lends to its underdog nature. Bilal, now like then, finds himself in a place where the dominant religions are paganism and Christianity.

It is hard to fault them on this point, considering that few Christians strain to learn the classical Hebrew and Aramaic that the Scriptures were originally penned in.

Following the ritualistic washing of hands, face and feet, one enters and sits facing a semicircular niche in the wall. Mosques in Madagascar are built oriented northward in the direction of the Kabba in Mecca.

Weight resting on knees and feet against a hard cement floor thinly veiled by a rug, prayer sessions are not comfortable, but at least they are short, free of songs to be sang or public offerings to be made. After an hour, congregants salute those to their right, those to their left, and get on with their day.

Beyond integration, why would a volunteer want to associate with a religious community different from the one he was raised in at home?

Other than the novelty of the experience, going to houses of worship and mingling with people offers the chance to talk about American diversity and value pluralism.

“Differences in opinion are a blessing,” the Prophet is known to have said.

Men and women pray separately, with a sheet separating the two from view. What is unorthodox here is that Sunnis and Shias pray together, unheard of in other parts of the world. What is more, some of the men here have Catholic wives that go to church on Sundays.

About a dozen households are a part of Tsihombe's islamic community. Women pray separately from the men at the town's mosque.

Throw some secret handshakes, Arabic salutations, and a young, gentle natured imam from the southerwestern city Tulear into the picture, and in a nutshell, that is Islam in Tsihombe.

On occasion, a visiting zealot from Fort Dauphin will come and deliver a fiery sermon, but he is an exception to the rule. Religious tensions may run high elsewhere, but they are low here.

While some carry on the tradition from Indian and Senegalese ancestors, others, such as the imam, are converts from other faiths.

The latter say they were attracted to Islam by “the simplicity of the religion and a more direct relationship with God.”

Perhaps, but the Quran’s classical Arabic is difficult to learn and master, if easy to recite and memorize given the rhyme schemes inherent in the language.

As a result, the majority must rely on French translations and the imam himself for interpretation of the holy book in Malagasy.

When each volunteer is the face of America in their host community, every conversation becomes an exercise in grassroots diplomacy.

Beyond our communities, volunteers may be the only Americans that travelling missionaries ever meet, such as those that briefly come through Tsihombe each May.

Bearded and perfumed, wearing surma eyeliner and perahan tunban suits, they greet with tea, eager to know what I am doing so far away from home.

The conversations start out formal as I explain what Peace Corps is and that my work is agricultural extension, never sure if they believe me or not.

Between words we break bread and dip into communal bowls of chicken stew, made savory with spices from places with explicit travel warnings against.

They ask about America and I tell them it is a country of people from everywhere, where everyone enjoys freedom of religion.

Whether or not Tsihombe’s Islamic community is representative of the global umma as a whole, it offers an example of tolerance for visitors from both east and west–crucial in an increasingly shrinking world where the majority is silent, and the voices we too often hear come from the fringes.

Members of the umma, or islamic community, in the Deep South of Madagascar, prepare a meal outside the mosque.