Places You'll Pray

Created and curated by Sana Ullah, 2017 to present.

"As water rushed down between the large flat rocks embedded along the stream, the trees croaked and danced simultaneously to the leaves rustling in the autumn wind. Joggers discreetly passed by with only the crunching of fallen branches beneath their feet. There was a soft hum of cars on a nearby street beyond the forest and an occasional bark from an excited dog.

Fahmiya Ismael climbed into the creek and found a large flat rock. Stable enough to stand on. Smooth enough to rest her knees. She deciphered the direction of Northeast with the compass application on her iPhone, wrapped herself in a black gown and gently laid out a small ornamented prayer mat. Ismael closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and raised her palms to her ears.

“Allahu akbar [God is great],” she whispered.

 

On a nearby bridge, strangers stopped and stared. Some smiled and watched while others shared a look of bewilderment, indifference, and/or turned their gaze beyond Ismael and into the creek beneath her. Ismael did not notice. She focused her eyes on the mat where she would gently place her forehead in prostration. Her eyes never left the ground beneath her.


Water continued to rhythmically flow around her chosen prayer space and birds echoed throughout the woods as she finished her third obligatory prayer of the day. Ismael sat on the rock and turned her head to the left. “Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullah.” And then to the right. “May peace and the mercy of God be on you.”

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She folded her prayer mat, unwrapped her purple gown and smiled as she climbed out of the creek.

 

“That was amazing,” she said. “I prefer praying in nature. You don’t have to worry about nature turning on you or having to explain yourself to a body of water.” She paused, laughed, and gathered her belongings while rewrapping her black headscarf. She then said she feels at peace and appreciates not having to explain herself to anyone that may have seen her.

“I’m always worried that I may scare someone because unfortunately, we live in a time where I could be seen as a weapon just because I’m Muslim… it’s really important that I try to make other people comfortable.”

Ismael is not alone. These sentiments are shared by several young Muslim Americans who have prayed in places outside of a designated prayer area and/or a mosque. Despite the growing number of mosques being built around the United States, Muslims often find themselves in locations far from a mosque during specific times of the day.

According to the Qur’an and the teachings of Muhammed, Muslims are required to follow five fundamental pillars that define Islam. They are listed as:

1. Believing that there is only one God and that the last prophet was Muhammad;

2. Praying five times a day to commemorate God;

3. Giving to those in need;

4. Fasting during the thirty days of the Islamic month of Ramadan;

And last, 5. Performing pilgrimage to the cities of Makkah and Medina [at least once in his/her lifetime].

Salat, or prayer, is the second most important pillar of Islam. While there are several forms of prayer that can be done for different events or situations (i.e. funeral prayer, holidays, etc.), Muslims are obligated to perform five specific prayers daily. Each of these fall at a different time of the day, depending on the placement of the sun.

 

The average full-time working American (9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) would have to fulfill two to three out of the five prayers outside of their homes. Fahmiya Ismael is a 26-year-old recent college graduate working full-time with the United States Department of Commerce (DOC). She believes allowing Muslims to pray in quiet spaces at work will also help her productivity in general.

 

“Leaving and going all the way to a mosque when there aren’t that many available and then coming back with just unreliable transportation [makes no sense]. Our prayer isn’t supposed to be a burden on us. It’s something that’s supposed to help us,” she said.

 

She says that as long as she informs her supervisor that she will need a quiet moment to herself at work in order to fulfill her religious obligation, her boss never questions her or gives her any trouble. However, such is not the case for Salman Ali, a 22-year-old contractor. Ali fears that his position as a contractor is not as solid as a full-time employee’s position would be. He says that praying while at work may cause unnecessary discomfort to his managers and possible unintentional prejudice from his fellow colleagues.

Instead, Ali will walk next door from his office to the George Mason University’s serenity room and pray with his other Muslim coworkers, or Muslim students. Though he does not pray in his own office building, Ali does hope that praying in public will become more common. He hopes that it will start educated conversations with curious individuals who may not know what he is doing.

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“Prayer to me is something that gives me hope,” shares Ali. “I would like people to ask me about it; to be in conversation and to learn.”

 

Many Muslims in the United States have agreed that praying in public can sometimes be unnerving—especially today. According to a 2002 report by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), crimes towards people of the Islamic faith increased drastically during the year after 9/11 and have doubled ever since. The Southern Poverty Law Center also stated that the FBI released a new statistic on anti-Muslim hate crimes on Nov. 13, 2016 showing that crimes have risen from 154 in 2014 to 257 in 2015. Despite these statistics from the 2000s, Islamophobia can be dated as early as the 1970s.

 

Rashid Patch, a 70-year-old man from Oakland, Calif., converted to Islam during the late 1970s. In 1978, he began to study the proper etiquettes of prayer from a Sufi center in San Rafael, California. “I’d been practicing holding notes on 3x5 cards with the words to the prayers on them,”  said Patch. “The day came when I finally thought I could do dhuhr [noon prayer] on my own without the cheat-sheets.”

 

Patch was working as a facilities manager at the California State Bar office building at the time and decided he would find the most privacy for prayer on the roof of his building. After finishing his dhuhr salat [without notecards for the first time], Patch received an emergency code on his beeper. The FBI, Secret Service, and a SWAT team were in the office lobby.

 

“President Carter was visiting San Francisco, and a spotter in a helicopter had seen ‘suspicious activity’ on the roof of the building,” he explained. “I told them I’d just been up there myself, and hadn’t seen anybody, and then I took them up to check. The very first time I tried to make salat by myself and before I was even finished, the building had already been surrounded by a SWAT team and snipers.”

 

While Islamophobia continues to become a popular topic within mainstream media, the idea was developed decades ago and can be placed under the theory of othering—the view that a person or a group of people is different from oneself and therefore treated as so. While extensive research continues to be done on this theory, many scholars like Edward Said have argued that colonialism is a large influence to the theory of othering as well as subjugating knowledge to one’s own agenda or form of propaganda. In many forms, the style of framing the big picture when reporting news related to a Muslim or Islam often times contributes to this phenomenon. Word choice and imagery are powerful tools in creating ideas and opinions. For example, a recent shooting at the Ohio State University on Nov. 28, 2016 lead a CNN headline as, “Ohio State attacker said he was 'scared' to pray in public.” One may easily say the headline was directly created as clickbait, while others may immediately assume that his fear to pray in public was also his motive to attack students.

In addition, the rhetoric of celebrity figures and/or politicians have also fueled this divide with a call to ban minorities and redefine the identity of an American. This alone creates fear in many young Muslims to the point of retracting their agreement to be interviewed or photographed prior to the presidential election results.

Nonetheless, while some fear the increase of hate crimes towards their identity, others have risen to act. Muslims around the United States have begun to raise their voices, create social media experiments, or even encourage the public to speak with a local Muslim on a personal level while enjoying free coffee and donuts.

Mona Haydar, a Muslim woman from Flint, Mich., sat outside a library with her husband, free coffee, a box of Dunkin Donuts, and a sign that encouraged passersby to sit down and talk with a local Muslim. However, Haydar wasn’t interested in changing every person's’ perspective on Muslims. She wanted to talk about things like pop culture and climate change. She wanted to prove that Muslims are just like everyone else through the simple art of casual conversation.

Student organizations across the United States have also been protesting and praying in public to share a statement that they are not afraid to be Muslim. Students of other faiths also showed their support by protectively standing around as their classmates performed the evening prayer.

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Zahed Haseeb, a 24-year-old student studying at the Columbia University Law School, often times prays inside the law building behind a staircase. He unpacks a miniature prayer rug, slips off his shoes, and lies out his belongings near him as a portrait of Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, hangs behind him. He begins to pray the first half of asr [afternoon prayer] to himself and barely whispers a sound. The room is not empty.

 

A professor is having a chat with a student nearby as people continuously walk in and out of the busy hall. Nobody seems to notice. Nobody seems to mind.

Haseeb finishes the first half of his prayer and invites me to join him in the second half in congregation. Seeing how easily his praying in public went, my sister and I  joined without hesitation.

 

“Allahu akbar,” he said.

 

He led the second half of his prayer out loud and almost immediately, I began to feel self-conscious. At first, I feared that someone would interrupt and tell us to leave. I began to wonder if the professor and the student were annoyed at us for interrupting their conversation. I was wondering whether we should have found a more private location and gone out of our way to avoid making others uncomfortable while we performed our daily spiritual obligation. And sadly, I hoped that no one would hurt us or harass us in our prayer.

 

However, once again, no one seemed to notice. No one seemed to mind.


We turned our heads left. “Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullah.” And then to the right. “May peace and the mercy of God be on you.”

 

Haseeb gathered his belongings, turned around and smiled. “To hide, to go out of my way, or to pray somewhere hidden is a disservice to myself as a Muslim,” shared Haseeb. “I don’t need to be invisible for anyone.”


All around him, hate crimes against Muslims continue to make headlines. Some people may ignore him, while others may continue to stare. And as we departed, went our separate ways and said our salams, one thing was for sure: in 30 minutes or so, we would pray again. No matter where we are.  

 

Reported and written by Sana Ullah in 2017 as part of her Master of Arts thesis from George Washington University’s Corcoran School of the Arts and Design.

Places You'll Pray: Photo Series

(Excerpt from Sana Ullah's Visual Review Chapter)

"Identity has always been an intriguing conversation for the average human, including young American Muslims. To identify a Muslim as an American has become unnecessarily complicated, yet necessary in so many circumstances. However, the narrative of what an American may look like and the narrative of what Muslims are continuously changes through media discourse and has created this subtle notion that the two cannot coexist. To place an individual in one specific group or category became a complicated subject. While the idea that an American may also be a Muslim may seem as a marvel for some, the reasoning behind it is often times overlooked.

A French philosopher, Michel Foucault, once said, 'knowledge is power.' However, over time, popular culture has strayed away from the context in which he was quoted. Foucault believed that introducing a topic or sharing a story of some sort was in the hands of the storyteller. To give false information or to manipulate a story was a power many artisans were unaware of. The same could be applied to imagery. Our truths may not be the entire truth, but to share it was the mere power we each had in storytelling.

Places You’ll Pray was influenced by several visual works as well as philosophers like Michel Foucault and Edward Said through the idea of othering. It is a collection of simple, yet vibrant images of young American Muslims praying in public spaces outside of a mosque. While some images are preconceived, others are spontaneous moments. The intention is to open a floor of open-minded and educated conversations about identity, religion, stereotypes and spirituality."

Places You'll Pray: Instagram

Images are submitted daily via Instagram through a direct message, a tag, or by including #PlacesYoullPray in the caption. The Places You'll Pray Instagram account has reached users from all over the world and has shared an image from each continent -- including Antarctica! It not only includes the daily prayers observed by Muslims, but also prayer(s) during protests, marches, funerals, weddings, celebrations, etc. 

Quick Link to Places You'll Pray Instagram

Thank you everyone for your continuous support of this ongoing community engagement project, places you'll pray! Please make sure to follow along via Instagram @placesyoullpray. You can support the work and/or the storyteller at buy me a coffee here. Thank you!

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