Welcome to our travel blog. We are Tabitha and Nic. In 2011 we 'retired' in our early 40s and set off to travel the world. We spent our first year in South America and have been lucky enough to make two trips to Antarctica.

Our blog is a record of our travels, thoughts and experiences. It is not a guide book, but we do include some tips and information, so we hope that you may find it useful if you are planning to visit somewhere we have been. Or you may just find it interesting as a bit of armchair travel.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Dubai - an interesting discussion about Islam, and some camel milk

Something we did enjoy in Dubai, was a visit to the Jumeirah Mosque. It isn't big or fancy like the one in Abu Dhabi, but you can do a tour here, with the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Centre for Cultural Understanding. They run the programme 'Open doors, Open minds', which aims to help non-Emirates, whether tourists or those living and working in Dubai, to better understand the local culture.

They run a few different tours, but we opted to visit the mosque. The dress code is a little less strict than the mosque in Abu Dhabi, so I was able to just add my headscarf this time. They do lend headscarves for those who didn't bring them, and also abaya and kandura, the men's robe, for those who have worn short skirts or shorts, which are not acceptable.

The tour was simple, but informative. They showed us the ablutions that all Muslims are required to perform, so that they are cleansed before they pray. they are required to wash their hands, arms up to the elbows, feet and their face, including their mouth and inside the nose. the also wipe over their hair. You will only see men doing their ablutions outside the mosque, as women will do them either inside a separate women's prayer room if there is one at the mosque, or at home beforehand, so that they preserve their modesty. Women who are on their period do not pray, because it is still considered to be unclean; it also exempts them from fasting in Ramadan.

They also explained the layout and design of the mosque with it's minarets to call people to prayer, and the alcove and dome, which amplify the sound of the Imam's voice, so that he can be heard by all.

The tour was run by a man and woman, both of whom were very open and friendly, and encouraged people to ask any questions they might have. They were fully aware of some of the preconceptions, misconceptions and anxieties that many non-Muslims have about the religion and culture, and they were happy to discuss them openly.

They described Islam, which means submission, derived from the word istaslama, to surrender, as a peaceful religion, although recognised that this may not be how it seems sometimes. They said how disappointed they are that some people choose to behave in such a violent way, as it is not what they believe is expected of followers of Islam.

We were given a simple but interesting description of the Five pillars of Islam: one god, prayer, charity, fasting and pilgrimage.

The first pillar, One God, looks for followers to have a willing belief in Allah and all of his prophets and their teachings. The fact that you need to believe of your own accord, rather than being forced by others, does in itself make something of a mockery of groups like ISIS, who would force their beliefs on others. Whilst children are raised by their parents as Muslim, they are expected to decide for themselves whether they wish to follow the religion, once they reach puberty.

Islam believes in the same God - or Allah - as Christianity, but does not believe that Jesus was the son of God. They consider him to have been a prophet, like Adam, Noah and Mohammed. They focus on Mohammed, because he was the last of the prophets. Muslims also believe in angels, and that you have two angels with you always, one on your right writing down all of the good things that you do, and one on the left writing down any bad things. At the final reckoning when you die, these lists will be used to decide whether you go to paradise and to which of the seven levels.

The second pillar is Prayer, and Muslims are required to pray five times a day, fajr, at dawn, dhuhr at midday, asr in the afternoon, maghrib at sunset, and isha'a at night. The prayers must be done facing Mecca, which is the location of the kabaan, the first religious structure. Men are expected to make the effort to go to the mosque; they receive ten 'rewards' for praying there, but only one if they pray elsewhere.

Women, on the other hand receive ten 'rewards if they pray at home too, which is because Islam recognises that women tend to be the carers for children, so rather than forcing them to get the children out of the house and take them with her to the mosque to pray five times a day, they are able to receive the same rewards when praying at home. Not surprising therefore, that fewer women go to the mosque, and explains why, if women have a separate prayer room, it will be smaller. Simple numbers, not, as some like to suggest, because they regard women as less important.

Our hosts showed us how the prayers are performed, and explained what was being said. If you want to pray for anything for yourself, you may do so only at the point when you are fully prostrate with forehead and nose to floor. At the end of the prayers you turn and say 'peace be upon you' to your left and right, which whilst it would greet those next to you in prayer, is actually intended to greet your two angels.

Generally people stand very close together, so as to remove any space for the devil - which in this case is in the form of perceived difference in wealth or status -  but they will always keep a gap between men and women, to prevent distraction from prayer. Normally, if in the same room, men will be at the front, children in the middle and women at the back. This way, when all that bowing and prostrating goes on, the men can't be looking at the women' bums!

The third pillar is Charity. Muslims are required to give 2.5% of their wealth to help others; the phrase 'charity begins at home' is very valid here, as the potential recipients of your help starts with close family, then works through extended family, your circle of friends, your local community, and then the wider community. You are also expected to perform acts of kindness, which while they may be large, it is said that even a smile will keep the good angel busy.

The fourth pillar is Fasting. During the month of Ramadan, which is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and so can fall between mid May and mid July depending on the year, Muslims are expected to fast during daylight hours. For this one month each year, you are expected to refrain from eating, drinking, smoking, sex, or anything else that is unnecessary, during daylight hours.

The intention is to purify your soul, so that you can focus your efforts on serving Allah. It also encourages you to remember those that are less well off than you, encourages time with your family, and attributes such as patience, self-discipline and sacrifice. They suggested that on a practical note, it has the added benefit of giving the body a detox, and also helps if you want to give up smoking or other addictions.

The final pillar is Pilgrimage. All Muslims, as long as they are financially and physically capable, are expected to do the haaj, a pilgrimage to Mecca, once in their lifetime. They are not expected to borrow money to do the pilgrimage, in fact they are supposed to pay off any debts first. The pilgrimage is a quest for forgiveness, but apparently you should expect to use it to get away with having done anything really bad!

At the end of the tour, our hosts were happy to take any other questions, and unsurprisingly, the issue of clothes arose. Our female host, who was wearing the black abaya, but no face covering, explained that women can wear whatever they choose when they are in the company of only women and men who are blood relations (i.e. who they could not marry) or their husband, but when they are in the company of other men, they are expected to dress modestly, covering all but their hands and face.

This could be with trousers and a blouse, but most wear the abaya, a full length black 'dress' over the top of their normal clothes. She said that in the UAE, women started wearing the abaya in the days when they were a poor people, living in the desert, and had only a few good dresses. These dresses would become ruined by the sandstorms and the intensity of the sun, so the women took to wearing a black cloth over the top of their dress, to protect it when they went outside. This gradually became the abaya, and became the traditional clothing.

She told us that women in the UAE can choose whether or not to wear the abaya and headscarf, and that, while she has chosen to, neither her mother nor her daughter do. In common with many younger women, she does not choose to wear the niqab, the leather face covering that was originally designed to keep the sand and sun form their faces.

There were lots of other questions, all of which were answered, and I think most people learned at least something new that day.

After the tour, we went back in to the Café area, where we tried out some of their camel milk products. as well as the milk in our drinks, we had some chocolates using it, and something called khishnah kanafeh, which is a sort of cheesy pastry sweet dish. The camel milk was OK, not as musty as goats' milk, and the chocolates and khishnah kanafeh were both tasty.

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