Islam was one of the religions I was most excited about experiencing. I quickly gained access to the Muslim community at Drexel University through the Drexel Muslim Students Association (DMSA) and they welcomed me into their prayer rooms on campus. Luckily, the prayer rooms were in the same building as the photography labs at Drexel – something I was completely unaware of. The DMSA was very open to providing me with people who were willing to be photographed and allowed me to have a hand in directing them and speaking to them about why they did certain things during prayer.
In Islam, it is required of believers to pray five times a day to Allah in the direction of their holy city, Mecca. These prayers are spaced out throughout the day and are done on prayer mats. I was fascinated by the rhythmic movements the people went through as they stood up, sat down and went on their knees all while sending prayers to Allah. On campus, I was allowed on both the male and female sides of the prayer room and was not required to wear a headdress. This was probably because the student prayer rooms were more casual.
However, things were very different when I went to my first mosque. I got in touch with a graduate from Drexel who attends a mosque in West Philadelphia, and she agreed to bring me there and to supply me with a hijab. This was really exciting but also nerve-wracking for me. I wasn’t really sure how I was supposed to act in a mosque or whether I would be judged as different when walking in there. Fatima met me outside the mosque and we went in together – taking off our shoes and donning my hijab for the first time. Fatima remarked how cute I looked in the hijab, which was odd to me because I felt very self-conscious wearing it.
The hijab has become a heated topic in the United States, so I was curious to hear about hijabs from Muslim women’s point of view. All the women I spoke to seem to really enjoy wearing their hijab – they see it as a comfort and as a way to keep themselves pure before god. They spoke about how it helps them not worry as much about how they look and, they feel beautiful in them. After wearing a hijab a few times myself, I see some of where they are coming from. I can understand the liberation that comes from wearing a head covering instead of worrying about my hair or my clothes. The hijab made me feel like I looked like everyone else in the room, which was nice. It felt like we were somehow connected.
One of the things that fascinated me that I hadn’t heard of before witnessing Muslim prayer was the act of ablutions. Ablutions are a cleansing process Muslims go through in which they wash their hands, feet, and face before entering the prayer rooms. This is a way of purifying and preparing themselves to go before Allah. This is interesting to me because water is a symbol of purification across many religions. Christians baptize people in water to symbolize their salvation in Jesus and Sikhs perform ablutions similar to that of Muslims before entering their sanctuaries. I got to go through this same ritual cleansing before entering the mosque, and quickly realized that Muslim girls must invest in waterproof makeup or go without as my mascara ran down my face!
We walked into a room with a few chairs lining the walls and many women sitting on the carpeted floor facing a television. The TV lit up with the image of a man who I soon found out was the Imam (or leader) of this mosque. He was preaching from a minbar (like a pulpit) to the men in the next room over. He spoke to them for a while in Arabic; I don’t speak the language so I was a little lost during this part, and then he led them into those familiar prayers with all of the women in the room standing and sitting and kneeling together. It was really beautiful to watch as all these women were united under their common belief.