Wednesday evening, I had the opportunity to visit New York University’s Spiritual Life Center at Washington Square in Lower Manhattan. NYU has organized a series of workshops that will take place every Wednesday night from last week until Ramadan begins, with each session focusing on a different aspect of Ramadan. I attended the workshop with a group of students from CCNY as a sort of field-trip for my anthropology course: “Islam in the West,” which explores the immigration of Muslim communities to Western nations and their interactions with the cultures and communities of their host nations.
I don’t want to dwell too long on the building, but the Center is very, very nice. I heard that the building is relatively new and the interior is very well appointed and in good condition. The first floor of the building is devoted to Catholics. The first floor is for Muslims. I don’t recall what other religious traditions have space in the building, but I was told that the building has a meditation room where people of all faiths can sit quietly and pray and/or reflect.
The fourth floor was designed specifically with the needs of Muslims in mind. Separate from the bathrooms (which were really nice too) there are men’s and women’s ablution rooms, where Muslims can perform ritual washing (“wudu”) before prayer. Outside of the prayer room there are shelves built into the walls where people can leave their shoes (Muslims don’t wear shoes in their sacred spaces). The room itself is carpeted and looks out over Washington Square Park. The qibla, the direction towards Mecca, which Muslims face when they pray is marked by a prayer rug.
I found it interesting that the prayer direction is northeast. I assumed it would be southeast, since that’s where Mecca is on a map in relation to New York City. I’m probably not taking the curvature of the Earth into consideration or something.
When I first arrived on the floor, I initially felt a bit out of place, but that feeling passed more quickly than I thought it would. I didn’t ask other people in the class who aren’t Muslims, but I wonder if my experience was a bit different, given how much I’ve studied Middle Eastern and Islamic History?
Since we were new faces, a guy came up and said hello to us and showed us where to go. It turned out that he was the guy in charge of the workshops and the one who was giving the lecture that night. I think he said his name is Khalid, but I could be wrong. Regardless, he was a pretty pleasant guy. He’s also a very, very good speaker.
The workshop event was scheduled to begin at 6:30 PM, but it was preceded by the afternoon prayer, ‘asr. I know that sounds off, but the prayer times are scheduled according to daylight hours rather than Western concepts of what constitutes morning, afternoon and evening. For more information on Muslim prayer times, click here.
Watching the prayer up close and personal was an interesting experience. It seems like every popular movie that has anything to do with Islam or Muslims starts or has a scene overlooking a city-scape with the muezzin call playing in the background. It comes across as exotic, foreign, and given recent events in the world, a bit dangerous. But, when you’re sitting on a carpeted floor overlooking a park, chatting with people about life, school and work and a guy begins a call to prayer from the corner of the room, it has a different tone.
The room became hushed and the Muslims present gathered in lines (there were a decent amount of non-Muslim participants in the room), women on one side of the room and men on the other, to pray. It felt like being in a Christian church, listening to a pastor give the opening prayer while the congregation stood quietly with heads bowed. The ritual prayer (salaat) was pretty much what I’d expected to see. What was interesting, though, was noticing the differences between prayer styles. Depending on where a Muslim is from, they might do certain parts of the prayer a little bit different, but every Muslim believes in the ritual prayer as an integral practice of Islam.
After the prayer, everyone sat down and faced the lectern at the rear of the room (opposite the windows and the direction of prayer). I noticed that the women and men maintained their separation throughout the evening. When I first heard about that I assumed it had something to do with keeping women subservient, since the portion of the room where women pray is typically the back of the room, but the real reason is much more common sense than that. When you go to pray, when you go to learn about or hear about God, you’re there for God and worship, not to be distracted by the opposite gender. The only people that roamed wildly between the men and women were the children.
The actual workshop took off a bit awkwardly for me, but somewhere after the group project of coming up with an idea for a commercial about Islam and what demographic to market it to and the beginning of the lecture about Ramadan, everyone, including myself, seemed to settle in and get comfortable. The theme of the talk was to think about why you do the things you do, and not just when it comes to Ramadan, but anything. Why do you hang out with people who are bad for you? Why do you keep drinking if you know you shouldn’t? Why do you put on your hijab (head scarf that some Muslim women wear) in the morning? Why do you get up and pray fajr (the before dawn prayer)? Why do you fast during Ramadan? The point of the talk seemed to be to remind people that rather than just doing what they’ve always done because that’s how it’s been done, they should ask and know the reasons behind it.
The speaker (again, I think his name is Khalid) used an analogy of a woman who always cut the tip of the leg off her roast lamb leg because that’s how her mother had always done it, only to find out from the grandmother that it was unnecessary and the only reason she started doing it was because their oven was too small to fit the whole leg at one time.
The talk did touch on other points. The other thing I remember most clearly from the talk was a story that the speaker related. I think it was from a hadith (a recorded quote, saying or habit of the Prophet Muhammad). The short version is that a man killed 100 men and then realized he needed to change his life. He asked another man if he could be forgiven for what he’d done and the man said he could, but to be forgiven he’d have to go to another town. So, the man set off on a journey to the other town to find forgiveness but along the way he died. Two angels appear and begin arguing over whether to take him to Heaven or Hell. God intercedes and tells them that if he is closer to the second town (to forgiveness) then take him to Heaven; otherwise take him to Hell. In reality, the man was closer to the first town (Hell), but because God is merciful, he made it appear as though the man were closer to the second town, and the angels took him to Heaven. The moral of the story is that God is merciful and looks for excuses to be merciful. I thought that was a nice idea.
The talk ran a bit long and by the end I was ready to get going, but overall I enjoyed the experience. It could probably be considered overgeneralizing, but the experience reinforced my belief that Muslims as a whole are average people with average hopes, average problems and average dreams, just like anyone else. It also reinforced my belief that there are more similarities between Christianity, Judaism and Islam than differences. I think people try to create and widen differences whenever possible out of fear and misunderstanding, but sitting in that room and hearing messages about hope, mercy and fasting to remember the poor and hungry, I felt as though it could have been any religious youth group; not necessarily just Muslims.