Last Tuesday I had the opportunity to go to the Islamic Cultural Center of New York on a field trip for my summer anthropology course: “Islam in the West”. If you don’t count my visit to the Islamic Center at NYU’s Spiritual Life Center, this was my first visit to a mosque. I don’t suppose you can count that, though. NYU’s Islamic Center had a prayer room, but this is the first full-on mosque I’ve visited. Because of how much I’ve read about mosques and how often I’ve seen them in videos, and perhaps because of my trip to NYU’s Islamic Center, the setting felt familiar to me. I didn’t see anything that I didn’t expect. That’s not to say I wasn’t impressed. I just wasn’t surprised.
The one thing that I did find a little unusual was the apparent lack of care for the exterior of the building. The colors seemed a little drab, the doors were slightly rusted and the sign was (obviously) in need of a little help. I also noticed that the trees have been allowed to grow on the front side of the building, obscuring the view from the street. I can’t help but wonder if it was done intentionally to make the building appear non-threatening to the non-Muslim majority, especially in the wake of 9/11.
The main entrance (in the picture above) isn’t used often. It’s only opened for Jumah, the Friday prayer that comes with a sermon, like Jewish and Christian Sabbath services. The ‘daily entrance’ is around the corner on 97th Street. It’s actually really nice, with wooden terracing for plants, but I didn’t get a photo of it (photo above is borrowed from their site). I was running late because I was waiting at the main entrance for quite a while. I forgot about having to use the other entrance.
When you enter the building through the daily entrance, you wind up on the bottom floor, which is below ground level. There’s a shop that sells Islamic books, Qurans, dates (the fruit) and other related items. I didn’t get to spend a lot of time browsing the store. I’d like to go back and look around. I have a feeling there’s stuff there that isn’t widely available in commercial bookstores.
Just past the gift shop on the right is a daily prayer room. The daily prayer room was lit with soft light and was quiet. A few people were praying. I saw a man sleeping along the wall. The carpet was very comfortable and the atmosphere was reverent. I suppose the people in there at that time of day are the ones that are really looking for answers, since it wasn’t close to a normal prayer time yet.
A curtain divided the female prayer area from the male prayer area. I found out that the reason for the division of genders is that when you’re in the mosque it’s to worship, not to be distracted by women’s back ends being up in the air around or in front of you. The explanation is much more common-sense than what I’d assumed.
When I went in and sat down with a few guys from my class, we started talking about the use of misbaha/tasbih, which are prayer beads. It’s sort of like a Catholic rosary, meant to help you keep track of prayers. The guy I was talking to told me that after the salaat prayer (one of the five daily ritual prayers), some people use prayer beads to continue praying a while longer. He said it’s strongly recommended, but not required.
Then my phone rang. Embarrassing.
About the time I came back, our tour of the building started, though it wasn’t so much a tour as an information and Q&A session with one of the assistant imams. He took us up to the main prayer room, which is under the dome that can be seen from outside. He told us about the basic tenets of Islam and then started answering questions from the class about women’s roles in Islam, how the authenticity of hadith are verified, polygamy, and other similar topics.
He briefly mentioned the architectural design of the room we were in, the main prayer area. He said the room was stripped of everything except the essentials and that the decoration was kept to a minimum, to prevent distracting people from the worship of God. He explained the use of the lines on the floor and how Muslims line up foot to foot and shoulder to shoulder to pray, which is done because of the story about how Muhammad, the Prophet, told people to stand close and not leave any room for Shaitan (Satan) to get between them and disturb their prayers. Islam as a belief system places heavy emphasis on community, unity, and group actions that maintain proper behavior. It’s harder to do something bad when you’re constantly engaging with your community.
He also told us that this tapestry of the Kaaba, which is located in Mecca and the site of pilgrimage of millions of Muslims every year, was donated to the center by Iran. The ICC is primarily maintained by monetary contributions from foreign governments, most notably Kuwait. Not that that should be alarming to anyone. There are lots of establishments in the US that receive funding from overseas. Also, we have a pretty solid political relationship with Kuwait. We have quite a few military bases there. I spent a year living on one.
The Q&A session lasted up until it was time for the fourth prayer of the day, maghrib, the prayer that happens just after sunset. This time of year, that’s at 8:30 PM. I didn’t have to hang around for that, so I visited the restroom and then left.
The restroom was the last place I expected to find something unusual, but I was surprised to notice that there were no urinals, just stalls. I double checked to make sure I was in the correct restroom. The other one had a picture of a woman in a hijab on the door and women were going into it, so I hadn’t accidentally gone into the women’s room. Also, there was a bench set up inside where people could comfortably perform the ritual cleansing before prayer: wudu.
I don’t really know what sort of crowd visits this mosque on a Friday, but during the week we were told that it’s primarily cab drivers who stop to pray and then go back to work. Either way, it seems to be a very nice, well maintained building and a great resource for people in Manhattan who need to pray, or for non-Muslims to stop in and ask a few questions.