From A Spectrum of Faith, our student-written, photo-narrative about religion in Des Moines
Written by John Noble
Photo by Bob Blanchard (http://www.bobblanchardphotography.com)
At the bottom of the steps in the Masjid an-Noor mosque, Aisha Strain greets the men coming downstairs for the meal of meat and rice that she prepares for them after Friday prayers. “As-salamu alaykum,” she tells them. Peace of Allah be with you. The men respond with “alaykum a-salaam,” may the peace of Allah be upon you. Although Aisha only began attending the Muslim Community Organization (MCO) due to its proximity to her bus route, it was the welcoming atmosphere that made her stay. Having converted to Islam only six years ago, Aisha appreciates the egalitarian nature of the mosque because she once feared that they would not accept her. “Whether you’re ten years old or a state legislator, it doesn’t matter. I’m praying next to you,” she says.
The imam, or religious leader, at Masjid an-Noor speaks highly of the practice of equality. Although this mosque is primarily made up of Sunni Muslims, all practitioners are welcome. This practice would be unheard of in some mosques, as attendance is usually restricted to one sect of Islam. In the United States, mosques often develop around ethnic identity, especially after mass migrations to the United States. Imam Afrah Aden, who presides at the mosque, recognizes the importance of these defined spaces but is excited about the possibility of diversity at MCO. “We can learn so much from each other,” he shares.
The diversity of this community is truly astounding: students from Malaysia, businessmen who have lived in Des Moines for decades, and migrants from Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, and Sudan. The theological differences of different sects provide challenges on an interpersonal, social, and global sphere. However, MCO readily takes on these challenges because the the goal of a united Muslim community comes first.
Iqbal Rafi, a student at Drake University, admits that initially he found such diversity a challenge. Shia Islam is outlawed in the Sunni government of his native Malaysia, where most mosques are government-run. “Before this community, I only knew about one type of Islam.” Now, Iqbal worships with those of varied beliefs and truly believes that he is better for it.
While prayers are given in the traditional Arabic, it’s not uncommon to hear conversations going on in several different languages during mealtime. Many members know Arabic only through prayers; others speak it fluently. Since most members of the community speak conversational English, the Friday afternoon sermon, or khutbah, is given in both Arabic and English.
Imam Afrah’s sermons draw from the Qur’an, the Muslim holy book, as well as the Hadith, the record of the Prophet’s sayings and doings, and Islamic scholarship. He admits that finding teachings with cross-cultural application is difficult, especially in a community with so many cultures, ethnicities, and practices represented. However, he holds a deep belief that the message of the Qur’an is universal, a message for all people, regardless of their identities. He draws upon the Prophet Muhammad’s final sermon where he tells his followers, “All mankind is from Adam and Eve—an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab any superiority over an Arab; also, a white has no superiority over a black nor a black any superiority over a white except by piety and good action.”
Faith, prayer, and humility before God unite this community across lines of class, race, ethnicity, and gender. Division is a human creation, many members will tell you, found outside the walls and security of this sacred space. In the holy space, the faithful are one.
Imagine for a moment the Muslim call to prayer sounding over the rooftops of MCO’s western Des Moines neighborhood: over the tree-lined streets of older homes, the coffee shop, the local pizza place, the nearby high school. “Allahu Akbar—God is the greatest.” Christian churches in this same neighborhood sound their bells, some only on Sundays, others, daily, on the hour. But in many nations around the world, it is the Muslim call that would sound locally. Here in Des Moines, the Muslim faithful, themselves, keep track of the prayer times.
Tucked behind a Hy-Vee Drug Store and strip mall on 42nd Street, Masjid an-Noor is barely recognizable as a mosque to passers-by. With its white tower, it looks vaguely like the Christian church it once was, but it’s mostly an unremarkable two-story white building surrounded by a fenced-in grassy area. In addition to its former stint as a church, the building housed a number of organizations, including a Masonic Lodge.
A small group of men, women, and children attend the five Islamic prayer times throughout the day. For most of the day, though, there is little activity. Friday jumu’ah service is when the mosque fills up. President Khan reminds visitors to shut the gate as they enter this space since there is a busy street nearby and children play in the grassy areas.
The side entrance to the building opens into a foyer where entrants remove their shoes and put them on the racks surrounding the main floor. Posters have been hung, notifying members about local events sponsored by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, upcoming events for the mosque, a chart of prayer times, and other general community announcements.
The MCO re-designed the interior to meet the sacred needs of its new community, sometimes in creative ways. For example, where some religious organizations might have the children’s restrooms in the basement as first on their list for demolition, the knee-high faucets lining the walls now serve as a space for wu’du, the ablution or ritual cleansing performed before prayer. Those multiple faucets once used by school children can accommodate a crowd.
After performing wudu, worshippers flow up the stairs to the prayer area where MCO president, Mohamad Khan, stands in the mihrab. The most important space in the mosque, this niche in the front left corner of the prayer room shows the qibla, or the direction of Mecca, the holy city of Islam, which is the direction Muslims face when they pray.
The prayer space is intentionally devoid of the kind of artwork one might find in a temple, synagogue, or church, as Muslims do not believe in depicting human beings through artwork. Where stained-glass windows might have once stood, translucent windows etched with beautiful Arabic calligraphy now filter light across the prayer space. Copies of the Qur’an and other prayer books are stacked neatly on each of the six windows, and people use them throughout the day. Red carpeting covers the floor of the space which is lined parallel with the mihrab. A raised step runs around the entire perimeter of the room.
The faithful enter in bare feet, each finding a spot in the room to kneel and begin their prayers. A divider covered in the same fabric as the carpet stands at the back of the room, separating men and women during prayer. President Khan explains that this practice is intended to discourage distraction during prayer.
A clock equipped with the day’s five prayer times reminds the faithful when they are to return next. President Khan will be sure to vocalize that reminder as well, especially to the younger members of the community. Below the clock is a large display of the Five Pillars of Islam written in Arabic. These Pillars guide members through the foundational principles of their faith: the testimony of faith given by every Muslim, the guidelines of daily prayer, giving to the needy, fasting during Ramadan, and the pilgrimage to Mecca every Muslim able to make the journey is required to take.
Although the prayer room is sacred, life and vitality overflow in this public space where members of the mosque join together every Friday afternoon to share a meal. The men and women, separated by a divider in this space as well, share enthusiastic conversation about their lives. Here, engineers sit next to Drake students who are seated beside realtors. Egyptians sit next to Nigerians, and young next to old. All share in this experience; all treasure this space.
Some members at MCO are used to informal prayer spaces—what some of the older members jokingly refer to as a “do-it-yourself” or “custom” mosque. Others, like the Malaysian students, come from a country where elaborate, massive mosques are the norm. But this place of worship is a mix of each.
President Khan, who has lived in Des Moines with his family for four decades, worshipped in many different locations before beginning a “home mosque” where immigrants and other Muslims could worship together. Eventually, the need for a permanent spiritual home became clear. Members sought a place near their homes where they could practice their faith in comfort. They also saw it as a valuable investment for Muslims in the community. In 2009, they found the building on 42nd Street and decided that it fit that very need.
The building’s white church tower prompts a laugh from President Khan who tells of confused neighbors sometimes wandering in for Sunday services only to find a full-blown mosque inside.
Having this space, especially in Des Moines, comes with both opportunities and challenges. On one hand, Muslims from all over Des Moines can come here to worship, and many converts, like Aisha, have made MCO their spiritual home. On the other hand, a new challenge is presenting itself, as is clear from the packed prayer room that overflows down into the stairway. Since Des Moines boasts multiple mosques, the fact that MCO regularly draws over one hundred worshippers at a typical jumu’ah service is testament to the strong ties that have been built here, and to the growing community of Muslims in the metro area. Mosque leaders recognize that space is, once again, an issue.
Most residents neighboring the mosque are non-Muslim. Imam Afrah reports that most members of the mosque have experienced at least some form of Islamophobia, although not necessarily in the neighborhood. Women who wear the hijab, a traditional covering for the head and chest, have been objects of fear or derision here in Des Moines. Understandably, then, they express fears about a political climate hostile to American Muslims. However, the leadership of the MCO views such misunderstandings as an opportunity rather than a threat. They are inspired to show non-Muslims in Des Moines what Islam is truly about. “When we are neighbors in the community,” says Imam Afrah, “we can teach our neighbors that Islam is a religion of peace. We are part of this community.”
The Muslim Community Organization demonstrates a balance between prayer and action—between the internal life of worship and the external life of service and outreach. From the beginning of its growth, Masjid an-Noor has served as both a gathering and worship space for Muslims as well as a center from which to show the city of Des Moines what Islam has to offer.
From young students to older imams, members cite prayer as the central act of their faith practice and of their personal devotion to Islam. Their devotion is strengthened by the knowledge that, locally and globally, a community of Muslims is centered on submission to Allah and the sacred act of prayer.
“We pray with our whole bodies, not just our voices or our hands,” says Aisha. It is a powerful image: hundreds of members lying prostrate together participating in the service’s call and response, in humility before God. “No matter who you are, no matter where you come from,” says Iqbal, “you recite the same prayers.” Even more powerful is the awareness that five times a day millions of Muslims around the globe are affirming the same belief in the same God and His message. “Since Muslims all over the world are praying these prayers throughout the day, I am part of a continuous wave of prayer being offered up to God,” explains Aisha.
This frequency of prayer at designated hours is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, as established by the Prophet Muhammad. The position of the sun in the sky is what determines prayer times throughout the year, so a helpful chart at the entrance to the mosque explains the prayer times for the season.
Because, like most people, Muslims lead busy lives, attendance at daily prayer during the week can be sparse. Even though work may prevent them from attending, these prayer-goers know that praying alone at home or in the office is not the same as participating in daily prayer with other Muslims.
At a recent Friday sermon, Imam Afrah emphasizes the importance of outreach—of taking internal spiritual practice out into the neighborhood and the world. The faithful understand that “In order to be a Muslim, one must live as a Muslim.” Maintaining a regular prayer life matters, as does active community involvement, refraining from alcohol, and defending the faith to those around you. The imams encourage these practices, in part, because of the abundant negative perceptions of Islam in our culture. In this way, others witness the benefits of adherence to Islam. Community outreach need not look like direct preaching of the message of Islam; rather, the transformative effects of Islam in one’s life speak for themselves.
Imam Afrah speaks proudly of MCO’s efforts to reach young people, helping to curb violence and push back against neighborhood gangs. “We provide a safe and secure community grounded in faith for our young people. That is something they desperately need.”
Whether it is through outreach to at-risk youth, or by encouraging members to live their faith every more deeply, the life of Muslims at MCO is grounded in a deep and powerful devotion to the tenets of Islam. The mosque hopes that this devotion will radiate out into the broader world, so that Muslims may continue living lives of piety and service.