Skeptic at the Mosque
As teenagers, my friends and I would slip away to the pizza parlor while our parents worshipped. Years later, I realized I’d missed something.
Women and girls, some as young as 11 and others stooped with age, all covered in dark headscarves, gingerly removed copies of the Quran from the peeling bookshelf in the women’s prayer hall. It was the night before the 23rd day of Ramadan, one of three sacred Nights of Power, Laylat al-Qadr, when Muslims believe God revealed the Quran to Muhammad.
The city’s only Iranian mosque, the Islamic Institute of New York, fills a block in Woodside, Queens. It opened in 1995, in a drab, converted piano warehouse, when I was nine. I remember clutching my mother’s hand as we crossed dangerous Queens Boulevard. From the Calvary Cemetery, we saw the mosque’s blue-tinted glass pyramid top. We passed Naked City, a strip club with a violet-and-gold awning. Even then, I’d laughed at the juxtaposition.
More than a decade later, the glistening grey marble in the hallway squeaked beneath my bare feet. In the large pray hall, with its crimson Persian carpets, I smelled rosewater, incense and saffron rice pudding (thanks to a decade of accidental spills), and was transported back to an adolescence of the Saturday nights my family spent here.
Growing up in Queens as the daughter of parents born in Iran, these Saturdays were more social than religious to us. My mother and her friends would chat and laugh until the lecturing imam issued a stern warning. Groups of children played noisy tag. My friends and I would spend a brief time inside to mollify our parents, then go to a local pizzeria. In high school, I stopped going. I told myself I believed in God and identified myself as a Muslim, but that I didn’t care much for practicing Islam.
This Night of Power was the first time I’d been inside in five years. I meant to better understand the practices, for a journalism school assignment. But gradually it became a personal endeavor: to discover the significance behind each belief, each movement, and each practice.
First, we broke the fast together, with feta cheese, dates, rice pudding, plates of chicken and Styrofoam cups of tea. Then at 7:30 p.m., the ceremony began, with the recitation of Joushan Kabeer, “Chain Armor,” a prayer with 100 sections. Others used versions translated into Persian, but, even though I learned Persian as a child, I brought a copy translated into English, so I could grasp the essence of every word.
Ten men took turns reciting verses in lyrical, passionate voices with a musical beat. As their voices blared, I read, feeling elated at the rhythmic pulse.
I was particularly moved by the 41st verse:
“O He Who removes misfortunes, O He Who overhears secrets, O He Who rescues the drowning, O He Who saves the distressed.” When they chanted, “O He Who restores the sick to health,” I thought of my great-uncle, recently diagnosed with lung cancer. When I heard “O He Who makes His slaves laugh and weep,” I thought of each day’s blessings and anxieties.
Later, the imam cried out his prayers, chanting about the sadness and hopes of human life. His desperate voice inspired tears—quiet whimpers and loud wails. Silhouetted in the darkness, I saw trembling shoulders and swaying bodies. The imam pleaded with God to forgive our sins, to guide us, to salvage our souls. With quivering voices we repeated after him.
In the final hour, everyone rose, and I felt awakened. Facing Mecca, we lifted our Qurans, placed them gently over our heads and extended both palms high into the air. The tears collected at the rims of my eyes and trickled down, full of mascara. With holy words over my head, I closed my eyes and prayed for everything that came to mind: faith, friends, family, health, education, food, shelter, and passion. Surrounded by people, their lips moving in the stillness, I realized I’d been wrong to shun the mosque just because people socialize here, and spend time in idle chatter. Prayer resides in the purity of each individual’s mind and heart. I’d found joy in discovering my own means of practicing Islam.
I left at 1 a.m. feeling buoyant and fulfilled. I nodded toward the church that’s replaced the strip club, and whispered a prayer for Christians resting in the nearby graveyard since I was a little girl. Muslims believe this night is equal to a thousand months. Maybe, I thought, my prayers will last that long.