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)
It’s Friday afternoon at the Islamic Center of Des Moines, and cars pack the parking lot. Some members arrived earlier for the khutba, a sermon given at the beginning of the jumu’ah service, but now cars overflow into the streets as the faithful arrive right on time for the prayer component of the service known as salat. According to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, Friday is reserved as a day of rest and reflection, making the jumu’ah essential to the Islamic faith and practice.
The faithful file in through the doors as greeters smile and call out “As-salamu alaykum”—Peace of Allah be with you. Men wearing traditional, body-length thawbs chat with those clad simply in T-shirts and blue jeans; others arrive straight from work in their suits and ties. Women tug their young children into a separate prayer room from the one designated for men and older boys, as is tradition in Islam. The women’s long flowing skirts and head coverings, known as hijabs, fill the room with color as all members of the Islamic Center gather to make salat—to pray. The first call to prayer known in Arabic as the adhan crackles over the speaker system, resonating throughout the mosque and bringing everyone to silence.
In the foyer, a modestly dressed man in a plain button-down shirt and slacks removes his shoes and places them neatly on a shelf where they join a long line of tennis shoes, sandals, and loafers. He then begins to wash his face, followed by his hands and then his feet in ritual order in an ablution sink, performing wudu—cleansing. Ready, he steps, right-foot first, into the prayer room, placing his copy of the Qur’an on a small wooden pedestal before bowing his head and praying quietly to Allah. Outside, the sun has started to descend in the sky, casting a golden glow upon the man as he reads from his holy book. Submerged in prayerful connection, he is completely still save for his lips, which move silently to form the words of prayer.
Following this quiet time, the imam Yunnis Yunnis delivers an impassioned sermon addressing what it means to be Muslim in America. He encourages his congregation to engage in peaceful conversation with others in order to dispel the negative rhetoric surrounding Islam. “Minds will be changed upon seeing the great humility of Islam lived properly,” he says.
The muezzin calls for the final prayer, involving a specific process of standing, bowing, kneeling and sajda, or prostrating, during which the faithful focus solely on the presence of Allah in their life and in the world around them. In Islam, prayer serves to acknowledge submission to Allah. It is a time to admire His greatness and appreciate the unity of all things in Him.
* * *
Fayiz Abusharkh, a former imam, is a knowledgeable and dedicated Muslim in the community. “I have to pray first,” he explains when arrives for our interview. He slips into silence, his copy of the Qur’an on the small pedestal before him. After praying, he eases into a chair and pulls from a plastic grocery sack a small notepad on which is drawn a sketch of a tree. The tree, according to Fayiz, metaphorically depicts the roots of Islam, the core tenets of the faith that serve as its basis.
“There is no God but Allah,” he begins, “and Muhammed is the messenger of Allah.” This statement is the Muslims’ creed. Second, Allah created angels. The third tenet states that Muslims must believe in all of Allah’s revealed books, with the Qur’an as the last and most important of His revelations. Fourth, Muslims believe in the Day of Judgment and in the prophets. And finally, Muslims believe in Allah’s destiny for all. From these roots grows the tree—first, the trunk, which is the Sunnah, the sayings and doings of the prophet, Muhammad; then the branches: one for morals, and another for living the daily practices of Islam. The fruits that hang from these branches, hewn with ink on paper, represent the “rewards” for investing oneself in Islam with total mind and heart.
Fayiz also believes that Islam encompasses all religions in its roots. “There are many ‘lords’ or religions on this earth, but there is only one Allah,” he says, a hopeful gleam in his gentle eyes. It is his belief that Islam encompasses all religious belief just as Allah encompasses all things in unity, creating a world where all people and all religions can live peacefully despite their differences.
Those unfamiliar with the teachings of Islam often have questions about Islamic doctrine, such as the differing gender expectations regarding clothing and conduct. The separation of men and women during prayer stems from an effort to make this time an intimate and private experience for each supplicant; as such, it is seen as beneficial to have men and women in separate spaces in order to avoid potential distraction.
The hijab is a traditional head covering worn by many Muslim women. It serves as a symbol of their submission to Allah, and it forces people to appreciate women for who they are, rather than for the way they look. Many Muslim women find this liberating, including Niha, a Muslim student at Drake University. She wishes people would take time to see the “inside view” of Islam, rather than assuming that wearing the hijab is oppressive to women. Wearing the hijab, along with other doctrinal practices for both men and women, is an entirely personal choice made by each individual upon reaching puberty. Another member of the ICDM, Arabic professor Nahed Waly, affirms this sentiment: “This is my religion, and these are my clothes,” Dr. Waly explains. “This is my face, this is my shape. You must accept me as I am.”
Before the Islamic Center of Des Moines converted a former Christian school into their mosque in 1983, the Des Moines Muslim community hosted services in the suburban basements of Valley Junction. Their numbers were considerably smaller then, with about only 15-20 attendees. Now, ICDM is home to about 250 prayer-goers for Friday jumu’ah at their current Franklin Avenue location. Jamal Muhammad remembers praying on the second story of a house near the Drake Diner. Even after the current location was first purchased, the members of ICDM would continue to gather at a house on Clark Street for Saturday night dinners.
“This is the ‘mother mosque’ of Des Moines,” explains Hamed Baig, alluding to the Mother Mosque in Cedar Rapids, the longest-standing mosque in North America. But it is not the only center for Muslim community and faith in Des Moines. In early years, the khubta was given in three languages: English, Arabic, and Bosnian. Eventually, an increasing number of Bosnian Muslims started to form their own religious communities, building new mosques in several locations around Des Moines. According to Hamed, Des Moines is now home to at least nine mosques.
Through the eighties and nineties, Jamal and a friend hosted radio and TV shows that were aimed “towards understanding in Islam.” They would take phone calls, fielding questions about Islam and informing the Des Moines community about Islamic practices. Five times a day, 89.3 FM would play the adhan between the newest tracks from Snoop Dogg and Tupac, so their Muslim listeners would know when to begin prayer. This effort of outreach was not without its problems, though. Conflicts arose after hiring a Christian host who refused to play the call to prayer in his time slot. Jamal, now the station engineer, requested that he still play it. Citing religious freedom, the host refused and was let go.
Though their radio presence started to disappear in the late nineties, the Islamic Center of Des Moines continued to grow. Educational programs for Muslim children served the rapidly increasing number of families in the area, and in 2004, the ICDM helped to launch Des Moines’ first independent, non-profit Islamic school, New Horizons Academy. The two entities eventually parted ways, and today the ICDM runs its own educational programming. These changes and more have shaped the ICDM into the institution it is today, one that continues to adapt to accommodate the city’s diverse Muslim community.
“The door [to Islam] is open to everyone,” Salih Kocher tells me through the steam hovering over his cup of coffee. The masjid takes great pride not only in its diversity, but also in its role as a welcome station offering immediate resources and a sense of belonging for immigrant families in central Iowa.
“If you’re an immigrant and you’re looking for people to help you out, ICDM can definitely be that place for you,” says Yousuf Shamsie, a third-year medical student at Des Moines University, who splits his attendance between ICDM and Masjid an-Noor, another prominent Des Moines mosque. He attributes the mosque’s character, like much of the community, to its broad acceptance of nationalities.
Dr. Nahed Waly, who came from Egypt five years ago, now takes part in a halaqah, a “circle” of sisters at ICDM that welcomes new women in the community for discussion of the Qur’an. Her daughter, Mai Nasr, who also attends ICDM, remarks on the growing international Arab presence in Des Moines. In the past, separate Arab nationalities might have kept to themselves, Mai explains. Now, a simple “As-salamu alaykum” is enough to start a conversation in the grocery store. At a typical gathering at ICDM, Pakistanis, Afghans, and Iraqis say hello to each other, pray in the same lines, and converse in the parking lot, regardless of their country of origin. They want to know how a sister’s children are doing, or how a new job is treating a brother.
Gathering for lunch one Sunday afternoon, a group of young men from the mosque discuss their faith and their connection to the Islamic Center of Des Moines. They all met when their families arrived in Iowa and began attending ICDM. Some of their friendships date as far back as their “Sunday School” years, when children take Sunday religion classes to learn about the Muslim faith. One member of this brotherhood, Bulland, will soon finish his medical exams and intends to return to his home state of New Jersey to practice medicine. His hands flutter lightly across a keyboard, a proud grin spreading across his young face. On the screen, the ICDM is the first search result on Google for “Des Moines mosque,” a clear indication of its popularity in the area. Because he knows that other mosques might not be so diverse, he already anticipates how much he will miss the welcoming community of ICDM. Not that other mosques would turn anyone away—to do so would defy the entire idea of unity, which is so important to Islam. Still, ICDM is defined by its inclusivity, a “house of God” for everyone.
Before heading to the main prayer room to observe the service, Professor Tim Knepper meets Fayiz in the overflow prayer room. Humbly and not without humor, Fayiz explains the commonalities among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Religion scholar Dr. Knepper is now the student, learning about the Muslim principle of unity—tawhid—and its application to the different faith traditions.
Bob Blanchard, a photographer and Dr. Knepper’s partner for this project, captures shots of congregants as they leave the jumu’ah service. Kids running up and down the wheelchair ramp eye him curiously. “I like taking pictures, too,” a budding young photographer announces to Bob, thus forging a friendship between the professional and his kindergarten-aged protégé.
“As-salamu alaykum!” Jamal and Abdullah call to us, their hands wrapped around cups of hot tea. His camera slung and ready, Bob moves quietly in the background as Jamal tells a story about Gabriel, from the Qur’an. The “Qur’an is the cure for any disease a person has in their heart,” he says, his eloquence and use of dramatic pauses drawing a rapt audience. The ICDM is a place of welcome, a stimulating and joyful atmosphere regardless of one’s faith.
ICDM makes a point to dispel ill-informed assumptions about Islam. Yousuf Shamsie notes that the negative media and perceptions of Islam are as new to Muslims as they are to non-Muslims. “You find yourself talking about it,” Yousuf says, “even though you don’t understand it.” Moments of “humiliation” cause the most difficulty, with TSA searches at airports reducing American citizens to stereotypes just because they wear a hijab or are otherwise deemed suspicious looking to officials. The immediate association of “Muslims” with “terrorists” is difficult to address. And yet, American Muslims want to undo the damage peacefully. At the ICDM, members happily answer questions that non-Muslims ask about the faith. They host public discussions about Islam in America and seek out interfaith events in the area that encourage dialogue and resolve disputes.
Each week, at the in-house Islamic School at ICDM, children complete lessons from a workbook on Islam—how to incorporate their faith into their daily life, what friendships with non-Muslims look like, and stories about Islam’s great teachings and the rewards of living a life of faith. Assignments on American history are also taught because as important as their devotion to Islam is, the teachers want their young people to be proud Americans as well.
Level-five class—populated by the oldest children, ranging in age from eleven to fifteen—are keenly aware of the influence of the media. Some came with their families from other nations, but some, like 14-year-old Ramla, who describes herself as “Minnesotan,” have lived in the United States their entire lives. They have not experienced much discrimination in Des Moines and feel generally respected by their non-Muslim classmates at school.
But they’re not immune, either. Upon finding out she was Muslim, one of Ramla’s classmates tried, respectfully, to express her concerns. “No offense,” her classmate said, “but I think the refugees are carrying bombs.” In other words, politically charged conversations are a matter of course. Omran, a 12-year old student born in Baghdad, raised his hand to ask me how I felt about Presidential candidate Donald Trump. A prolonged conversation ensued on the perceptions of Muslims in America. Despite the serious tone of the topic, the students’ optimistic laughter filled the room.
The members of ICDM are gentle people. They are citizens of Des Moines. They are black and white and brown. They are Muslims from birth and converts. They are business-owners and teachers, professionals and workers. They are Egyptian, Palestinian, Somalian, Afghan, Pakistani, and more. They are our neighbors, colleagues, and friends. They are American.