When I moved to Clinton Hill four years ago, I walked by Masjid-Al-Ihsaan countless times, thinking it was part of the bodega next door. Turns out, it’s not. The yellow brick storefront and rust-colored door have inlaid Arabic phrases. Mr. Melon’s (the bodega) just has a rotating display of avocados and half-priced blackberries. Today I decided to forgo the berries, and walk through the other door for a change.
I still can’t figure out what the scent was—something between sandalwood, jasmine, and wet shoes. (The first flakes of our predicted Nor’easter were falling and there were big rubber mats and wooden cubbies for footwear in the entranceway.) Two stairs led up to a large room with red patterned carpeting, fluorescent overhead lights, a small bookshelf, and a wooden pulpit in the far corner. A few shoeless men were waiting on the carpet. One of them noticed me and came over. He was white and heavyset, a small stocking cap on top of his mostly bald head. I’ll be honest—the exact opposite of what I conceived as a devout Muslim.
“It’s okay that I’m here?” I asked quickly. I felt a little defensive being the only woman. Not to mention my hot pink winter coat and leg warmers.
“Yes, yes,” he said. He pointed to a wooden chair next to the cubbies. Outside the worshipping room, but close enough that I could watch everything going on inside. More men started filing in, mumbling hello and Asalaam Alaykum. At exactly 12:30, a small man with a white beanie (taqiya) stepped next to the pulpit and sang an Arabic phrase into the microphone. The men lined up and started bowing and prostrating themselves. Mostly in silence, occasionally peppered with a call and response prayer. It was amazing to watch. All ages, skin colors, shapes and sizes—bowing, kneeling, and prostrating in perfect unison.
Ten minutes later, it was over. One word from the microphone man, and the rest fell from their formation as quickly as they’d snapped in. Some went straight for their coats, others grabbed cellphones, a few stragglers lay on the carpet, chatting.
“You get what you want?” asked an olive-skinned man while he grabbed his shoes next to me.
“I think so,” I answered. I told him why I was there.
“You want to know what it’s all about? I’ll tell you if you really want to listen.” His voice was kind but firm.
“Yes. Please,” I said.
“Everything that we do, everything here is a symbol. The believers are lined up behind the leader—this is a symbol for human life. We’re not supposed to be formless, in a void. We start from a liquid, in the womb, and become an organized structure. It’s about organization.”
I nodded my head, eager for him to continue. He explained that each cycle of prayer had seven movements—standing, bowing, standing, prostrating, kneeling, prostrating, kneeling. Each position represented a different relationship between humans and our Creator. My capitalization, not his—I do believe in G-d and find comfort in the idea of a Creator. Though I’m not sure of the how and why.
“Are you from the Catholic church?” my guide asked.
His eyes got wide and bright. “Oh! Welcome then!” I hadn’t gotten that great a reception since I tried out for a high school production of Fiddler on the Roof. “So you know then, that when we pray towards Mecca, that’s Abraham’s city!” he said.
“This is important. You can quote me on this. The leaders of ‘religious life’—(his quotes, not mine)—don’t respect the evolved intelligence of the people. The policy of not allowing non-Muslims into Mecca is non-Islamic. It’s the Saudi government. What we are doing here – what we do every day when we come to pray is call all humanity to one understanding.”
He waited for me to write down every word he said. He wanted me to know we were united in our faith, praying to the same ideal. And I believed him. I was brought up Jewish. I married a Catholic-turned-atheist. Lately we’ve found common ground listening to Buddhist podcasts and practicing yoga together. Standing, kneeling, prostrating to something.
Maybe more like a ‘Something’. A mysterious flow that connects us all.
PS - I stopped at Mr. Melon’s on the way home, to celebrate with half-priced berries.
This post is part of the GOOD community's 50 Building Blocks of Citizenship—weekly steps to being an active, engaged global citizen. This week: Be An (Un)Simple Pilgrim. Follow along and join the conversation at good.is/citizenship and on Twitter at #goodcitizen.