Religious experience: Jum’ah at the Masijid Al-Nur Islamic Center

By on January 24, 2012
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By Lara Kinne–

Masjid Al-Nur resides along the underbelly of south 4th Street, merely a block away from the smug logo of Cardinal Spirits and the cheap wing haven of Al-Nur. Attendees enter through the building’s rear, and from here the women escort children upstairs, while the men temporarily part with their families, as well as their shoes.

Fridays are reserved for Jum’ah, a weekly gathering service held at exactly midday. This service is 1 p.m. in wintertime, but during summer, it’s pushed back an hour to land at noon.

Segregation between the sexes is traditional for worship and prayer times. But don’t leave your hijab at home, ladies. Not only is it warm on the head, it also severs any impure thoughts that may distract males who are enticed at the sight of female hair. It’s the same ordeal when there aren’t two separate rooms in one building to pray: males in the front and women in back, to avert direct eye contact. Ultimately the opposite sex is avoided for the sake of godliness, rather than gender inequalities.

Islam calls for an actively religious lifestyle. Followers abide to the five pillars of faith: prayer, five times, a daily ritual; fasting, to develop resistance and self-discipline; alms to the poor, usually pledged through the mosque; a visit to Mecca, the nucleus of Muslim prayer fields; and most importantly, one must believe in Allah—God—and the words of Muhammad, the messenger. Rather than re-written through series of easy-to-read biblical accounts, the Holy Qur’an has remained relatively untouched and has resisted any modern translation.

I spoke with Shawnem Ahmed, a member of the masjid for eleven years, who welcomed me into this unfamiliar setting. The women gather in an open, carpeted room, free of furniture besides a few fold-out chairs for the older ladies to rest. Though by this age, most are already pros at kneeling on the floor without losing balance to get right back up. Everyone else takes the floor. And it’s a nice, sage carpet that matches the translucent green curtain panels. A symbol chart and several recitation posters line the eggshell walls. Women quietly socialize or pray amongst themselves, and already I sense a strong essence of camaraderie between the scattered clusters of beautiful, exotic women. They’re unfazed by the lack of seating and are content to sit cross-legged with their children on the floor.

Jum’ah gatherings are conservative events, and the attire was primarily in solid, neutral tones of black and navy blue. Bursts of color dotted the room, from the floral headscarfs on dark-skinned Sudanese to the innocent mismatch of children’s clothing. This space, without its inhabitants, loses its beauty when the service concludes.

A loudspeaker groans overhead and the stage banter of the Imam echoes in every room, a signal that the service is set to begin. He effortlessly recites an opening verse before following up with announcements. At this point, everything is still spoken in Arabic, but his tone was more casual. He changes dialect once again to relay this week’s khutbah in English.

For this 30 minute speech, he posed us with seven questions that determined our fate in the afterlife. At first, the echo of the loudspeaker is distracting and impersonal, but take a moment to rest the eyelids and listen. His reverberating speech pattern, a confusing trade-off between broken English and Muslim terminology, becomes hypnotizing. Somehow, the layers of echo allign better when the visual senses are blocked. Feel free to meditate. The carpet is really soft.

On some level, most religious principles are akin to our universal desires—peace, unconditional love, respect for ourselves and others. So often the moral difference between cultures can distort that vision. While strict religious bodies choose to shun non-believers, and berate others for their sins, they lose sight on our shared spiritual purpose. We’re unable to buy into each others’ miracles, but we can at least agree on becoming better people and strive to remain that way.

At its conclusion, the women gather in an orderly grid angled next to the doorway, facing northeast towards Mecca. They kneel and rise, then kneel and rise once more. The Imam speaks gentler now, nearly in breathes as he recounts the last passage of the day. Some women chose not to join the prayer grid, but only from religious intent, as women cannot pray when they’re on the rag.

Outside, TARCs are barreling by. The 4th and Winkler corner hustler ditched his stock of giant pillows for cheap cell phone sales. Meanwhile, vocal rhythms of the Qur’an invade my temporal lobe. And I contemplate their patterns while fingering the beads on my makeshift hijab. Pacing along this sketchy curb, I somehow feel secure and revel in this sweet head warmth. And I wear it home, unfamiliar with my hair as I pry the scarf off my skull.

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