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At university, I befriended an international student from the Middle East. My senior year, he mentioned to me that he went to a mosque in the city every Friday. I was surprised, as I had no idea, nor did I ever imagine, that there was a mosque in such a city as Stockton, California. But, greater than my surprise was my curiosity. What was inside of these places that everyone seemed to be so terrified of? What was all the fuss about? I’d been inside of plenty of churches before in my life, but never a mosque.
So, when I learned that my friend would be attending Friday prayer as usual at this American mosque, I posed a question to him.
“Would you take me with you?”
As if it was the most natural thing in the world, he said he would. He simply agreed as if I had asked him for nothing more than a ride home. That Friday morning, I put on jeans and a sweater, as that was the most modest clothing I had in my entire closet. I met up with my friend and he drove us there.
I confess, my palms were sweating during the drive, as I hadn’t the slightest idea of what to expect.
My anxiety was not helped when my friend explained that he and I would have to enter the mosque through different doors. I really didn’t want to offend anyone, and my palms got sweatier when I realized that he wouldn’t be there to check me if I inadvertently did something disrespectful.
Once we arrived, I understood why I had never heard of the place before. It looked nothing like a mosque you might see in the deserts of Africa or the slopes of Pakistan. It wasn’t even its own separate building. It was on the second floor of a generic two-story commercial building and made up of a suite of offices that had seemingly been rented out and converted into a place of worship.
We walked up the stairs and my friend directed me towards one door while he walked towards another, about twenty feet away. I kept probing him about what I should do or say inside of a mosque, but his answer to every question was the same: “Just sit there.”
So, I just walked in.
It looked like an ordinary, empty, office-like space, with a smaller side room that had been cleaned out. The walls were decorated with posters of Arabic writing. There was a small table in the corner with books on it. When I entered the room, there was a large, collapsible divider to my right, blocking my view of the other rooms.
I considered going around the divider in an attempt to see the rest of the mosque, but my instincts told me that I shouldn’t.
Instead, I sat down next to the table in the corner and started flipping through books, written entirely in Arabic, and wondering why the words seemed to be color coded. My friend and I seemed to be the first ones to arrive, so I was sitting there alone for a while. At one point, my friend quickly slipped past the divider and handed me some brochures to look at. I reiterated my question about how to behave correctly in the mosque, and he reiterated his answer that I should just sit there, before slipping back to the other side of the divider.
Sometime later, other women started trickling in through the same door I did, while the men walked past to the door that my friend walked through. I eventually realized that men and women were supposed to be in separate parts of the mosque during the prayer, which would explain why each had their own doors.
I watched them and observed each of them removing their shoes and leaving them outside of the door before entering. I had walked in and been sitting there with my shoes on, but in an effort to conform, I took off my shoes and set them next to the door after I saw the first few women do so themselves.
What I couldn’t conform to, however, was their clothing. My hair was uncovered and I was wearing jeans. All the women who came in were wearing, at the very least, a headscarf and a skirt. Even one girl, who was wearing jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, had put a scarf over her hair, and taken what looked like another scarf and tied it around her waist to make a skirt over her jeans.
All the women paused at the door when they saw me, clearly surprised by my appearance. However, none of them questioned me about it.
Some simply passed by in silence, others smiled at me, bade me “Salam alaikum” (to which I knew enough to reply, “wa alaikum assalalm”), and passed by me without further comment. Some even made a point of looking me in the eye and saying “Salam alaikum,” even though they didn’t do the same with the other women.
We all sat together in relative silence, until I heard the imam (a Muslim cleric, comparable to a Christian pastor) on the other side of the divider with all the men get on a microphone and recite the Islamic call to prayer in Arabic, before he began speaking in English.
Then, the actual event commenced. We all sat and listened while the imam talked about something called the “Sunnah.” While I did not fully understand everything, he spoke about negative criticism of the Sunnah and about how that criticism was not valid and shouldn’t be believed. At one point, he seemed to abruptly start speaking in Arabic again, and then, after a few minutes, resumed speaking in English. At the end, he indicated that it was time for the prayer itself.
All the women stood up and walked into the little side room. They faced the same direction and stood, knelt down, and bowed, in accordance with the words that were recited by the imam. It was after the prayer concluded that the women approached me. A few of them chatted with me, while the rest listened. They greeted me, asked me if I was “new,” or if I was just there to learn.
When I told them I was only there to learn, they asked me about myself, where I was from, where I lived, and if I had any questions about what I had heard.
I asked one of them what the Sunnah was, and she explained that it’s the story of the life and actions of the prophet Mohammed, while the Hadith was a collection of his words and sayings. Afterwards, four of the women gave me their phone numbers, inviting me to call them if I had any more questions, or if I needed anything at all.
I got in the car with my friend and we drove back to the university. He dropped me off next to the building where my next class was held. While I rushed in a little bit late, I was convinced that the experience I had just had was worth it. I had faced the unknown—and the natural fear that accompanies it—and came away with an enlightening and uplifting experience that further expanded my knowledge and understanding.
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