Arriving at the mosque, we are greeted by a smiling man, and ushered toward the front door where we are greeted by a woman. I ask if I should take my shoes off, looking down.
“No, no! Not here!” The woman and the man both laugh aloud with a slight panic, as I am about to take my shoes off on the doorstep. She points to a row of chairs against the back wall inside, and asks us to please sit down and remove our shoes. There are cubby slots along the wall for us to place our shoes during the visit.
Before going to a mosque for my first time today, I had googled a quick 101 about etiquette. I was reminded that covering one’s head if one is a woman is good practice, though not usually mandatory if you are just a visitor.
In my socks, I nervously look toward the woman at the door again.
“Should I cover?” I ask, holding up the scarf.
“Yes, yes. If you came prepared, please feel free to put it on.”
I brought two scarves, one for my mom and one for me, just in case. I hand the black scarf to my mother, and I wrap the yellow scarf around my head, with a little tuft of hair from my faux-hawk still sticking out and making it’s appearance.
Walking into the mosque, we see a few chairs on either side of the room, but most of the floor is covered in people sitting cross legged on the green carpet. The color green in Islam is special because it is said to be the favorite color of the Prophet Muhammed. Additionally, the Quran says those in paradise wear green clothes.
“Welcome, welcome. This is your second home. Welcoming our guests is one of the biggest ideas in Islam. We want to make you comfortable, and we are so happy you are here with us to learn about us,” the imam announced at the front of the room. There were a few speakers, and then we observed midday prayer at 12:30.
All of the Muslim men and women got up, and moved to the front of the mosque. They faced toward a small niche against the wall with green Arabic writing adorning it. This wall in mosques is called a mihrap, indicating qibla (the direction Muslims pray which faces Mecca).
The men stood in front of the mihrap, shoulder to shoulder with their fellow men. The women lined up further back behind the men, lined up shoulder to shoulder as well.
The imam began prayers, and then the men and women began to pray on their own. Muslim prayer is a very physical activity, compared to just kneeling and praying as I did growing up in the Catholic church. I did my best to take notes while the imam explained it to us after prayer.
Prayer begins with Takbeerat: repeating Allah Akbar (God is the greatest)
Next is Al Quayam: standing upright before god with one’s right hand over one’s left hand (indicating consciousness). The El Fatiha begins prayer, it is the first chapter of the Quran and is symbolic of opening minds and hearts to praise god and his omnipotent rule over people. It’s also a time to ask for guidance and other portions of the Quran are recited.
Continue into Ruku: bowing and exclaiming, “glory be to my lord the greatest” three times in Arabic.
Back to standing upright in Quayam: this is as a reminder to Muslims that god created them to be “upright.”
In the next position, Sajjdah: Muslims are reminded that they fall down. They come all the way down to the ground, with their faces resting on their prayer rug, or the mosque carpet. They repeat “glory be to my lord the most high” three times. They also have Dua, or individual prayers. Muslims believe human beings are closest to god when they are on the ground, submitting completely to god.
Finally, it is Quood: the Muslim is on their knees praying. In this pose, the Muslim is asking god for forgiveness and mercy. This pose is also called “sitting on the throne,” and is a reminder of right thinking. “There is no place for rulership unless the leader is fairminded to all. Law must be equally respected and applied to all,” the imam explains.
This prayer process, called “Salah,” is not just done once a week at mosque. It is done five times a day, every day of a Muslim’s life. If one misses a prayer during the day, one makes it up later that night before bed.
After prayer, the men standing shoulder to shoulder all shook hands. And the women behind them did the same. They all walked back to their seats. “As-Salaam-Alaikum, peace be upon you,” the imam expresses to the room as a whole to conscious (believing) and unconscious (non believing) people.
This ritual repeating of prayers, reminded me so much of the traditions within the Catholic church. Particularly the rosary- a chain of beads which indicates which prayers to repeat over and over again.
“Religion is not designed to divide. It’s designed to break down the walls to get to know other human beings. Sometimes cultural influences direct us away from our better humanity. When you meet me, you can help me become a better Muslim. And when I meet you, I can help you become a better Christian. Our faiths are the same, loving our fellow humans,” the imam continued
On the first Sunday of every month, the mosque invites a non-Muslim in to speak to their congregation to continue to keep the door of continual understanding open.
The mosque we went to downtown was mostly African American Muslims. One man spoke of reading the autobiography of Malcolm X in college, and serving in Vietnam, and coming back to America and finding Islam as his saving grace. He and other speakers also spoke about the transition in the 70s from Nation of Islam, to Islam Proper in Kansas City. How it was a hard, but positive change in they were able to unite to a global community, and allow for diversity and strength.
Another imam spoke, and talked about diversity. He stressed that our human identity is our most important identity, and it’s also what unites us all.
“Skin color is not more than the garments that we put on. It’s what’s growing inside our body that’s important, not what we look like outside of it. Don’t respond to negativity, respond to god. As Muslims, we have a responsibility to god, but also to humanity.”
He also spoke about the misconception that Islam is not a traditional American religion. In actuality, Islam has existed in America since the time of slavery- enslaved Africans brought Islam with them over to America.
“Don’t be a sociopath. Don’t follow society. Follow your truth, follow your religion, follow god. We are all the same. We do not need to treat one another differently. Differences work for us! In the Quran god states, ‘I created you as nations and tribes so that you come to know one another.’”
We broke into groups to have a chance to “meet a Muslim” and ask questions. It felt like it was going to be awkward, but it turned out to be super comfortable and thought provoking. I asked my group how to best be an ally to Muslims right now in America, at a time when Islamophobia seems to be spreading.
“Just keep talking to people. Keep getting to know Muslims, but in general just getting to know people. Keep living out your principles and treating others with respect.”
Someone else asked if there was a better term to use than the media’s “Islamic terrorist” rhetoric.
“You don’t need to designate a religion to a terrorist. When we put Islamic in front of terrorist, we are creating stereotypes. That person is a terrorist, they do not need any other specific classifications. The same goes for race- when we note that a black man committed a crime. That information is not necessary. And it is almost never noted when it is a Christian, or a white person that commits the crime in America. It is just specified when it is a minority.”
I spoke with a Muslim woman named Amina who hugged me at the end, and told me “good people can tell who good people are,” gripping onto me in a tight embrace. “Ask for a job here! If you say Amina said you might be able to get a job, I bet you can get one!”
I left the mosque feeling accepted, and also understanding a lot more about a group of people than I did when I woke up that morning. I left with a glimpse of the beauty of humanity: the ability of a people to welcome others, even when it seems like your own country is not welcoming you.
In Islam, the philosophy is that there is no need to speak up unless it is dark out. And it is dark out in today’s political atmosphere, so Muslims are speaking out and welcoming people in to learn more about them. I encourage you to find a mosque in your local city and learn more about the people of our country, and of our world.
The beauty is in the ability of humanity to change patterns. The beauty is in the fact that humans can learn and grow and celebrate.
The event was hosted by the Crescent Peace Society, a nonprofit in Kansas City seeking to enhance the understanding of Muslim cultures through educational and cultural activities.