30 Mosques in 30 Days

amanbassam.pngAman Ali and Bassam Tariq are taking a journey through New York City’s Muslim communities by visiting a different mosque in the city each night of the Ramadan month. They are documenting the experience in writing and with photos at 30 Mosques in 30 Days.

musala.jpgNYC has over a hundred mosques and the project offers an interesting peek at their diversity, their histories and the communities that gather at each place of worship. It has also caught the attention of TV, news and blogs, but Tariq’s mother wasn’t really into it at first.

“She was like, be careful, the FBI is going to follow you,” he recalls. “I said, ‘don’t worry, mom. Things have changed. We have a black president now. Things are going to get better.’” (NY1) (As it happens, the most recent update on their site notes that someone at a Bosnian mosque asked Tariq for his ID because of an “incident with the FBI.”)

Tariq also told TV network NY1, “sometimes we’re the only ones that are South Asian, and the place will be all Indonesian or all African American, and we’ll walk in and everyone will be very happy.”kids.jpgThe photos they took of the places, people and food help to convey the spirit of these places of worship, small and large. Ali described what made a particular mosque undergoing construction a beautiful place. Even with rolled-up insulation in the open and wooden planks underfoot, the people managed to strategically use carpets and lighting to create a cozy environment.

There was something incredibly humbling about this place, that’s hard for me to put in words. You don’t need things like extravagant domes and fancy calligraphy on the walls to make yourself feel at home in a mosque. Because there’s more than one way to make a place look beautiful, as the people here have done. (link)

While the images and writings on their site often give a sense of the warm welcomes they received and the delicious-looking assortment of foods offered for breaking the fast, they don’t limit themselves to sharing the purely positive aspects of the experience.

For example, during a solo visit to a mosque in his neighborhood attended by West Africans, two blocks away from a Bangladeshi one, Tariq felt uncomfortable.

In fact, it was only when I started to wonder how the rest of the congregation percieved me that I began to feel uneasy. I felt like a freeloader coming in — barely eating the food offered to me — and then leaving abruptly aftewards. A bad exhibitionist, if you will. Though no one in the masjid might have felt that way, I wonder if anyone asked themselves, “Why didn’t he just go to the Bangladeshi mosque?” Maybe it’s my own insecurities that raise the question.

Overcoming personal insecurities and stepping out of one’s comfort zone to meet and pray with new people from different cultures every night does not sound like the easiest thing to do. I give Ali and Tariq credit for doing that on a regular basis during their Ramadan journey across the city, after a full day of fasting and holding down their respective dayjobs as a stand-up comic and copywriter.

I haven’t had a chance to read all the write-ups and photo essays yet but did notice visits to Brooklyn’s Masjid Khalifah, a mosque started by Malcolm X followers, Staten Island’s Albanian Islamic Cultural Center, mosques in Harlem and in the Bronx, and one in Queens with a predominantly Indonesian congregation. Some mosques had previous lives as dance halls, truck companies and banquet halls.

Besides crossing geographical boundaries, the project also involves crossing community boundaries between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims. A visit to a Shi’a mosque prompted Fatima Ashraf, one of the women contributing to the project, to reflect on what it’s like for Shi’a Muslims.

I felt like such an outsider. Other than the piece of clay and praying with my arms at my side, I had no idea what I was doing. I reflected on my discomfort – Shi’as are such a minority in the Muslim community all over the world. But in the states, when we are all minorities, and mosques are numbered, how must Shi’as feel in Sunni masjids? And since there are far more Sunni masjids than Shi’a ones, it must be a pretty common that Shi’as find themselves in Sunni land. (link)

I’m not Muslim or familiar with how things work at mosques, so I appreciated the chance to get a glimpse from the inside of various NYC Muslim communities as provided by Ali, Tariq and other contributors to their project. I am also curious to see how they might continue their exploration and interaction with NYC’s mosques and their communities after the 30 days is over.

What do you think of the 30 Mosques in 30 Days project?

Related:

New York Masjid: The Mosques of New York seems to focus on the architecture of Muslim places of worship in NYC: slideshow of photos from the book, additional photos and interview with the co-authors.

A quick Q&A wiith Aman Ali about 30 Mosques.

The Brian Lehrer Show radio interview with Ali.

32 thoughts on “30 Mosques in 30 Days

  1. I love the idea especially during Ramadan. It seems like a special way to connect with other muslims of different cultures. I am kind of surprised at the cultural segregation though . I go to a diverse masjid in Fort Worth where every color of the Islamic rainbow is represented (including shia members).A masjid is an open place ,a house of god ,people should always feel welcome no matter what their color , cultural background or even religion. Ramadan is a time a lot of Masjids use to invite people of other faiths to share iftar (breaking of fast meal) to promote harmony and cultural exchange.

  2. Great idea; also an eye opener to a lot of people who associate only Arabs with Islam.

    “Overcoming personal insecurities and stepping out of one’s comfort zone to meet and pray with new people from different cultures every night does not sound like the easiest thing to do.”

    I am not religious, but in my experience, I have found mosques to be such welcoming places for people of any skin color and race. ie, if you are going to pray. if you are just visiting, depending upon the situation, things may be different. i know there are places, including kaaba, where non-muslims are denied entry.

  3. Please forgive if this is an ignorant comment but; why would non-muslims not be allowed in certain mosques? If someone is respectful of the rules ie. covering your head/ body and washing etc why can’t they enter?

  4. New York City religious composition in 2000

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_New_York_City#Religions

    About 5% are listed as not (christian or jewish), and taking the overall population as about 8 million, means about 400,000 in that category.

    I guess various “new” groups sometimes find it necessary to overstate their presence (“we are really here!”) – not a crime by any means – but sometimes it confuses people unnecessarily.

  5. I got the 1 million estimate from the Global Voices news story. Maybe, as Jinendra and Al beruni say, it is wrong. It sounds like it might be hard to get an accurate number because the census does not ask about religion. A 2007 Pew report used surveys plus census data on nationality and nativity to estimate the Muslim population for the entire U.S. at 2.35 million. I would be interested in better recent estimates for NYC too.

  6. a final note on “ethnic inflation” – our prez recently claimed there were 7 million muslims in the US – versus the 2.35 million figure from the Pew report. So lots of people are confused :-)

    Now where is razib when we really need him??

  7. Pavani, to be funny, a “better” estimate than “one million” would be “zero”! It looks like the truth is more in the neighborhood of 200,000.

  8. I really loved this article, and forwarded it to one of my friends who is new to NY and had trouble finding a mosque that representing Muslims from diverse backgrounds. I have to say I was especially touched by Fatima’s experience. I myself am Shia and frequently pray in Sunni masjids, however am afraid to engage in a dialogue. I’m not really a mosque-going person, but when I am out and need to pray and there is a mosque close by, regardless of the denomination I’ll pray there. I love hearing of the efforts that people make to draw the Muslim Umma (community) closer together, because really there are issues within our own communities that need work, and efforts like these really work towards bridging any divides that may exist.

    Bravo Ali, Tariq and Fatima, and all other folks working on the project and giving the world a look inside all these mosques. Wonderful work.

    Oh and chivasregal, your question:

    “Please forgive if this is an ignorant comment but; why would non-muslims not be allowed in certain mosques? If someone is respectful of the rules ie. covering your head/ body and washing etc why can’t they enter?”

    That’s is not an ignorant or racist question at all. There are NO rules on who can or cannot enter a mosque, regardless of what ANYONE says, it is simply untrue that certain people cannot enter a mosque. It is a house of God and thus all human beings are welcome there, regardless of their belief system or racial background. There are rules however, mostly to the effect of removing ones shoes, women dressing modestly and covering their hair and being segregated. However, I have never in my 29 years heard of individuals not being permitted to enter, that is simply incorrect and unjust. And if there is an establishment that is doing that, a compliant should be lodged with an higher authority, perhaps another mosque so the caretakers can be disciplined.

    Thanks for posting this Pavani!

    S

  9. chivasregal on September 16, 2009 3:00 PM said: Please forgive if this is an ignorant comment but; why would non-muslims not be allowed in certain mosques? If someone is respectful of the rules ie. covering your head/ body and washing etc why can’t they enter?

    Chivasregal, the question I often ask is – why does someone of another faith want to be allowed into a diffeernt place of worship. What does a Christian who does not believe in Islam want to gain by visiting a mosque? Why would a Muslim who does not believe in polytheism or idolatory want to visit a Hindu temple?? Most often the reason seems to be simply curiousity to see whats happening inside, or sight-seeing (maybe to appreciate art & architecture). I’m not sure if religious, faith-based places of worship are meant to serve these other curiosities.

  10. Why would a Muslim who does not believe in polytheism or idolatory want to visit a Hindu temple?

    Wow, what a friendly person you are. I’m sure my Hindu friends would be lovely with your characterization of them practicing “idolatory” [sic.].

  11. Sahar/Jinendra, Instead of ridiculing me, why don’t you explain what’s nonsensical about my question? What’s the purpose of visiting a place of worship if you aren’t going to worship? What’s the purpose of visiting a place of belief, when you don’t believe in that faith?

  12. I’m not sure if religious, faith-based places of worship are meant to serve these other curiosities.

    While people of different religions may not worship in the same way, that doesn’t mean they don’t benefit from and enjoy the sanctity of a religious space irrespective of the God it was designed to glorify.

    I suppose it is a little easier for a Hindu open to the idea of praying and accepting blessings in a Church or a Mosque than it would be the other way but it’s not unheard of. Evangelists, moral crusaders, and purity trolls notwithstanding, most normal people are able to respect and coexist with people from different traditions as well as GHASP taking other people’s religious beliefs seriously without melting, recoiling in terror, or having their heads explode. Though I am Hindu, for example, I feel my life would have been much less rich had I been denied the opportunity to see the Pieta or experience Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica.

    Now in some contexts, like in India where certain temples and mosques bar non-coreligionists from entry, it is primarily a security issue. They don’t want people evangelizing, vandalizing, or otherwise disrespecting the congregants or their beliefs and it is easier to stop it before the fact rather than waiting after the golden, bejeweled artifacts are desecrated/lifted. While a blanket ban is a rather ham-fisted way of going about it I can grant that they are within their rights to regard it a regrettable necessity. But, were we to live in a country not so riven by tensions, I would sincerely hope we could cultivate enough of a spirit of mutual respect to trust our neighbors to respect each others’ sacred spaces so that Muslims may likewise be able to visit Tirupathi or Somnath.

  13. Choker: what an ignorant, nonsensical, pointless and futile comment. Speak for yourself.

    Hey, be nice. The guy had a legitimate question worth exploring.

  14. Religion is also about culture and history. You can visit temples / churches of other religions and or denominations to learn about others and history.

    And a lot of religions advocate being welcome to all – heck, even the Sikh Sri Guru Granth Sahib has writings from both Muslims and Hindus and every gurdwara is welcome to all; so are most Christian churches, synagogues, etc I live close to a Hindu temple in Bartlett IL which is visited by many non-Hindus as it is like visiting India with its beautiful marble architecture and artwork.

    I have heard many stories of people who won’t go into another religions holy place (and instructing their kids to do the same) as it is heathenish or ‘against their religion’, or they can’t ‘bow’ down to another god(s). You can’t learn much about your fellow neighbors on Earth if you live life that way.

  15. Chivasregal, the question I often ask is – why does someone of another faith want to be allowed into a diffeernt place of worship. What does a Christian who does not believe in Islam want to gain by visiting a mosque? Why would a Muslim who does not believe in polytheism or idolatory want to visit a Hindu temple?? Most often the reason seems to be simply curiousity to see whats happening inside, or sight-seeing (maybe to appreciate art & architecture). I’m not sure if religious, faith-based places of worship are meant to serve these other curiosities.

    Huh, thats a little strange and frankly completely contrary to indic religous thinking. I think its a matter of basic religous education to be aware of how your christian or muslim neighbors worship. And no better way to do it than to visit a mosque or synagogue or temple when a festival or sacred day is being commemorated. And, yes, it does take some sensitivity and care – you are right that it shouldnt be treated as a form of casual tourism.

  16. I live right outside of NYC (in New Jersey), and it certainly does not seem like there are 1 million muslims in NYC. Perhaps the muslim population of the greater NYC region is 1 million.

  17. Choker, sure!

    “why don’t you explain what’s nonsensical about my question? What’s the purpose of visiting a place of worship if you aren’t going to worship? What’s the purpose of visiting a place of belief, when you don’t believe in that faith?”

    What’s the purpose in going to school when you doing enjoy it? What is the purpose of reading something that doesn’t relate to you? What’s the reason behind so many daily practices that may appear futile on the onset but go a long way in enhancing our understanding the world, humanity and our general meaning of existence?

    Why should an atheist visit any place of worship?

    Because I believe that knowing is better than living in a state of oblivion. I mean sure, you can live like an ostrich if you wish, and borrow your head in the sand when something makes you uncomfortable, but that doesn’t make the problem disappear, only your desire to deal with it. Understanding the manner in which a system works for someone helps reaffirm why you chose to believe in what you do or lack thereof, and how all religions essentially function in the same way and elicit the same positive and negative feels its practitioners may have. Having been raised as a Muslim, my best friends growing were Hindu, Christian, Buddhist and atheist, including many others. We all co-existed and built fruitful relationships My friends mother would give my mother and I parsad, and if I chose to behave ignorantly and irrationally I could totally dismiss how these offerings are shared by so many faiths. And how it’s a wonderful thing.

    Knowing is coming to terms with and respecting something, even if you believe it is not for you.

    Which is why I think you comment is futile, nonsensical and ignorant.

    Again,

    “- why does someone of another faith want to be allowed into a diffeernt place of worship. What does a Christian who does not believe in Islam want to gain by visiting a mosque? Why would a Muslim who does not believe in polytheism or idolatory want to visit a Hindu temple?? Most often the reason seems to be simply curiosity to see whats happening inside, or sight-seeing (maybe to appreciate art & architecture). I’m not sure if religious, faith-based places of worship are meant to serve these other curiosities.”

    What we gain is a million things, including what I believe, most importantly, an understanding that we are all doing the same things ‘hopefully’ in those places of worship, even if the people in them have ‘ideas’ about others, and make peace, build relationships that express respect for one another. And with this understanding we can learn to co-exists peacefully instead of the hate-mongering and cultivation of xenophobia.

    I’m being nice, I just don’t believe when some people are making the effort to give people who’ve never visited the said places of worship in this post, that we undermine their efforts by saying it has no point. There is a point to it, a very positive point!

    And so, I respectfully disagree with the relevance of your comment Choker. However, you have a right to your opinion, as I have a right to mine.

  18. re: the number of muslims nationally, 2-3 million seems like a good moderately conservative estimate (probably closer to the low bound if you ask me, but i wouldn’t be surprised by a number around 3 million either). muslim organizations, like many religious organizations, have a tendency to exaggerate (the only group which doesn’t exaggerate on the unorganized non-religious, who have actually doubled between 1990 and 2009). but there’s some fudging in the numbers because how someone defines membership varies by religious group, or organization doing the estimate. e.g., traditionally many protestant churches have had narrower criteria for who is a member that roman catholics, so you would have to correct for the discrepancy when assessing the data reported by the organizations themselves.

    pew religious landscape and american religious identification survey both arrived as a number for muslims of 0.6%. that’s somewhat a coincidence at the small sample sizes for muslims, but suggests that “6 million muslims” regularly quoted, and would be 2%, is probably too high in terms of how people self-identify.

    also, if 1 million new yorkers are muslim, that means 1 out of 8 new yorkers is muslim. does this pass the smell test? just do a little algebra with the racial breakdowns in the city of new york (which we know from the census) and you get some really confusing inferences.

  19. re: the number of muslims nationally, 2-3 million seems like a good moderately conservative estimate (probably closer to the low bound if you ask me, but i wouldn’t be surprised by a number around 3 million either). muslim organizations, like many religious organizations, have a tendency to exaggerate (the only group which doesn’t exaggerate on the unorganized non-religious, who have actually doubled between 1990 and 2009). but there’s some fudging in the numbers because how someone defines membership varies by religious group, or organization doing the estimate. e.g., traditionally many protestant churches have had narrower criteria for who is a member that roman catholics, so you would have to correct for the discrepancy when assessing the data reported by the organizations themselves.

    pew religious landscape and american religious identification survey (links redacted, google it, otherwise get caught in spam filter) both arrived as a number for muslims of 0.6%. that’s somewhat a coincidence at the small sample sizes for muslims, but suggests that “6 million muslims” regularly quoted, and would be 2%, is probably too high in terms of how people self-identify.

    also, if 1 million new yorkers are muslim, that means 1 out of 8 new yorkers is muslim. does this pass the smell test? just do a little algebra with the racial breakdowns in the city of new york (which we know from the census) and you get some really confusing inferences.

  20. Huh, thats a little strange and frankly completely contrary to indic religous thinking

    i actually got into a little argument about this with my friend aziz poonawalla over at talk islam in this vein. i would contend that this sort of inclusive attitude extends beyond indic religious traditions (nor does it define all indic religious traditions), but surely it is probably more prominent today among indic traditions in explicitness (this is pretty evident in world values survey data i’ve seen, so muslims are religiously ardent and exclusive, hindus are religiously ardent and inclusive, and east asians are religiously lax and inclusive). these arguments of course reflect really deep differences in assumptions, as evident when some commenters and contributors on this weblog simply can not fathom why people would want to convert others to their specific religion (hint: they think you’re going to hell), or, in the case of the commenter above who unartfully assumes that everyone else must be making exclusive and plain truth claims when it comes to religious belief and practice and so has no comprehension why referring to hinduism as idolatry might be offensive (he/she probably assumes you think islam is just as false and fake a delusion and he/she believes hinduism is).

  21. Jinendra why are you afraid of the number 1 million? There is nothing wrong if there are more muslims in NYC than Hindus or other minority religions, we are all humans regardless! Created by one God!

  22. I like the concept, but I think the execution could have been a little better. A lot of the posts are a just a hungry young man’s food blogging –”I ate this … then I ate that…”. Ramadan is more than a food court.

    Still, some interesting insights — an uncomfortable Sunni in a Shia mosque. A desi breaking thru the “brown bubble” (eww) in an Egyptian mosque. Failing to do so at a Bambara-speaking mosque. The contrast between the I-banker mosque in Manhattan and the taxi-and-convenience-store-worker mosque in the Bronx. Getting asked for ID at the Bosnian mosque. The gender-equality at the Indonesian mosque, and the lack thereof everywhere else.

    I think the whole thing could have been better organized, with more discussion between the “infiltrator” and hosts, and maybe some big picture analysis. But a great first effort.

    And the pics are fantastic.

  23. It’s a great project. The brothers came up with it organically, on a lark, and they bring to it the kind of fresh, non-professional enthusiasm and true, thoughtful curiosity that makes it more interesting journalism regardless of its lack of polish. Living in NYC and with a lot of friends in the Muslim community, I still had my mind blown by some of the entries, like the old steel works on Staten Island that has been turned into a masjid.

    On the demographic point, yeah, the NY1 piece which offhandedly referred to 1m Muslims in NYC was obviously wrong. There aren’t 1m Muslims in the 8m population of the city intra muros. However, I am sure there’s easily a million Muslims in the greater New York metropolitan area. The 2010 census will help figure this out — right now all data are stale, and the community has been visibly growing every year. Another thing you notice in NYC — and the brothers mentioned this in one of their posts — is how easily Islam weaves into the culture of this city, making it much more comfortable for Muslims to announce, display, or simply live their faith without being stigmatized for it.

  24. I suppose it is a little easier for a Hindu open to the idea of praying and accepting blessings in a Church or a Mosque than it would be the other way but it’s not unheard of

    Hindus treat Allah or Jehovah as yet another incarnation: so, they have no problems going there. However, for Christians and Muslims, Allah/Jehovah is one and only True God: there can’t be multiple True Gods. That’s why Indian devas are notated with a small g (as in gods). The notion of truth in pagan traditions–whether of graeco-roman pagans or of Indian heathens–is hypothetical: that’s why they have tolerated multiple paths precisely because such a notion of truth is hypothetical. Call it epistemic truth; but this is different from the Truth Christians/Muslims talk about: the cosmos that was, is, and will be, is the Will of a Being who is outside of such cosmos. How do we know that it is the case? Because such a Being revealed to us humans. Why He revealed? Christianity answers thus: to save us.

    Of course, many of our Christian friends come to temples, but they partake in some prasad. This doesn’t mean that they accept that your hindu god is a True one.

  25. Pedro, It is true that Hindu devas are multiple, uncountable even. However, they are paths to approach the supreme truth, the highest reality. The notion of truth in Hinduism is not hypothetical at all. It is called Brahman or Param Brahman. Since there can be infinite possible ways to approach this God, you might see Hindus praying to Jesus or visiting Dargahs (ekam sat viprah bahuda vadanti). In this, I see similarities with the Catholic worship of saints and the reverence for peers in certain sects of Islam. The only difference it has with revealed religions is that Hinduism doesn’t accept a particular path as the only and exclusively true one.

  26. I just can’t believe in the supposed sense of unity and humanity in these photographs when I can’t see a single girl or woman in them. Sorry, but until women are allowed to worship in a mosque side by side with men, I just don’t believe that they are places that value humanity or equality.

  27. Hindus believe this, basically: “God is One, and His Forms are Many.” Incarnation isn’t always the most accurate term to describe the different faces of Brahman, because it implies that there is a linear relationship between Brahman –> Incarnation.

    I’m Hindu, and I have prayed at mosques and churches and dargahs. I believe in Jesus, and I believe in the wisdom of the Prophet and Allah. I don’t see it as contradictory to my religion because Allah is God no matter what, and He loves me no matter what name I address him by.

    I loved reading this Ramzan blog. I agree, it does sound slightly food-obsessed, but it’s such a personal and sincere look into the Muslim society of NY that it really comes off as a valuable snapshot of Islam in America in the early 21st century.

  28. What does a Christian who does not believe in Islam want to gain by visiting a mosque? Why would a Muslim who does not believe in polytheism or idolatry want to visit a Hindu temple??

    The choice of words when it came to Hinduism was interesting. It could have been in the same lines as the prior sentence that discussed a Christian and the religion Islam: “Why would a Muslim who does not believe in [Hinduism] want to visit a Hindu temple?”

    “polytheism” “idolatry” then a later post of another person refers to non-abrahamic religions as “pagan” or Indians as “heathens.” In Middle Eastern Abrahamic so called monotheistic religions (Judaism/Christianity/Islam) polytheism/idolatry/pagans/heathens are looked down on as vastly inferior. I remember reading somewhere in pre-Islamic Arabia in the Kaaba there used to be 300+ idols from a number of religions in the region. That was tolerant. Go try building anything but a mosque in Saudi Arabia today.

    What is it about those monotheistic religions? Does being monotheistic mean you have to be such a snob about other religions that are not monotheistic? Or can you create a monotheistic faith that is truly tolerant and respectful of non-monotheistic faiths – not that others are inferior, but merely different?

  29. I am writing my dissertation on Muslim in NYC and I was wondering if I could interview both of u. I live in by Central Park.

    Sincerely, Javed

  30. in response to Jinendra who wrote:

    ‘Jinendra – Wow, what a friendly person you are. I’m sure my Hindu friends would be lovely with your characterization of them practicing ‘idolatory’

    Uh – you Do keep idols and portraits at your places of worship don’t you? While the choice of words was poor – I doubt your tone makes you any less ‘friendly’ than the people you criticize.

    P.S. ‘my Hindu friends’ – YOUR friends?! Oh, you’re offended for “them” and not yourself – Wow, I’m pretty sure you buy porn at the newsagents for ‘them’ and not yourself! Project your insecurities much??

    As far as the one million Muslims being false is concerned – you’re right – One million Indians would be much more accurate judging by the rate at which people keep leaving that supposed ‘superpower’ nation like rats deserting a sinking ship!!!