going to mosque

The pious (and blurry faced) family

I was hoping to write this yesterday, with my experience fresh on my mind, the every thought still vivid, but any Muslim reading this will know how hectic the first day of Eid is, and it was certainly no exception for us. But, it was the first thing we done that was the most, perhaps only one with religious significance. My first trip to a mosque.
The feast prayers were starting at 9am, but when you have a toddler alarm clock that isn’t particularly early. Still full up from the night before, having breakfast wasn’t a worry and instead I focused on getting ready. Firstly there was performing wudu, I knew after I done that I wasn’t allowed to go to the toilet or even so much as fart as I just did not have the courage to perform wudu again at the mosque. I then slipped on my abaya and began pinning my hijab. Now that was a challenge, despite having a month of practise I didn’t know how conservative I had to do my wrap for mosque, how long should my scarf be at the front and back, how tight under the chin? And socks! Was I supposed to wear them? Was my feet meant to be bare? I felt like I was messing up before I had even got there. After a frantic SOS post on a FB group I decided that I shouldn’t wear socks (thankfully I didn’t read the posts that later disagreed with the first reply, I think my head would have imploded). And then we were off.
What if I was one of only a few women? What if my clothes looked nothing like anyone else’s? What if I completely mess up the prayer? Will people see my hands shaking?
According to the website the building can hold 300 people with room for women. I’ve heard some horror stories about the women’s spaces in mosques, and that some didn’t allow women at all. What if I was stuffed into a dark closet sized space, in the sweltering heat, not hearing what the imam was saying?
My heart really was pounding in my chest. I did feel slightly better when we pulled up near the building and the street was lined with cars and Muslims pouring out. Plenty of women that I can just follow to show me the way, and the more women the less likely my total inexperience will stand out.
Outside the building there were mats laid down just in case the men couldn’t all fit indoors. Surely that means women really will be crammed in some tiny space as the men will take priority (as men have to pray in a mosque but women can pray at home)!
I spotted a small doorway to the side of the building that women were going through. I don’t think I have ever experienced segregation like that, to the point of a different entrance. I admit it, it seemed very reminiscent of black/white segregation in America less than a hundred years ago. What was waiting for me inside? Was the feeling of second class citizen going to continue?
With a pounding heart I said goodbye to my husband and son and went to my door. Just on the inside of the entrance were shelves to place shoes, thankfully I was already aware of this. I took my shoes off and slowly edged forward. To my left was a bathroom where women were removing their hijab and performing wudu, I was glad that I get to at least avoid the stress of doing that publicly. But then, was I supposed to do it there? If I didn’t would people criticise me? I couldn’t deal with the added stress that I may already be making a mistake, and instead focused on the room to my right.
From my angle all I could see was a line of chairs full of women chatting away. I wasn’t sure if that was where I was meant to go, of if that was some informal meeting. Well, it was either in there or the bathroom, so holding my breath I entered.
As I stepped in a realised this was certainly no closet space! We wasn’t even in a separate room to the men, instead the hall was divided by a barrier, probably no more than 6ft high. And not only that, but the barrier divided the room equally. I was shocked, of course more men would be coming to mosque, but still they made the space 50/50. The barrier was placed diagonally (to indicate the direction of mecca, the direction we have to face to pray), and we had fans! Large fans lined the back wall, keeping us cool on the hot summers day, a luxury the men did not have.
Women were sitting on the chairs in the back or in little groups chatting away. There was still plenty of space, so after a moment or two looking dumbfounded, I shuffled slightly away from the door and quickly sat.
There was still fifteen minutes before the prayers began, so I assured myself that there was nothing I needed to do other than sit and take in my surroundings.
salwar kameez

The type of clothing most were wearing


The women were pouring in and my did they look stunning! I wasn’t in a room with women in black burkas looking miserable, but a room alive with fantastic colours and sparkles. Some were in diamante encrusted abayas like me, but the majority were wearing the Indian/Pakistani salwar kameez in the most gorgeous bright designs. Hijabs were wrapped in all the ways you can think of, some accessorised with flowers and brooches. Bangles and earrings didn’t seem off limits either, and to my relief there was a mix of socks and bare feet.
Looking around though I noticed I was the only one sitting alone. I felt like I was in a no mans land circle as women came in and then went off to greet their friends and family, leaving the space around me bare, and making me feel more and more lonely.
“Ria?”
My name that has been with me all my life didn’t make sense to my ears at that moment, after all, who would know me here, who would speak to me here?
I turned and expecting to see no one, but instead I saw a face which seemed somewhat familiar from years ago smiling at me.
She reminded me of her name and that we had gone to school together. I think my wide, petrified looking eyes very quickly gave away that I had no idea what I was meant to be doing, and probably with sympathy she sat down with me and we began to chat.
I couldn’t have been more thankful and my nerves finally began to calm. I didn’t mention the blog but did say I have spent the month reading and learning the Quran and hadn’t done any official declaration of the faith. I regretted not being more honest from the get go, but to be fair I didn’t feel like I had much control over what I was blurting out of my mouth.
She invited me to come sit with her mum and herself, an invite I gladly accepted. Her mum greeted me warmly, as a British convert to Islam, married to a man from a Muslim country, she seemed to emphasise with the manic emotions I was feeling.
Eventually people began to sit in their rows. Although crowded, there was enough space for me not to worry that my backside was going to go in someone’s face when I had to bend down. The Imam was speaking from the other side of the barrier, not like I could really hear him. This wasn’t the fault of the barrier though but the women! Despite the Imam constantly reminding people to be quiet, the women chatted away endlessly, all distracted with their “Eid Mubarak’s” and kissing cheeks. The nerves that were fading returned with vengeance however when I heard the Imam explain the differences in the prayer. Differences? My husband hadn’t warned me this prayer was different to any other. All I heard was something about four “Allah Akbar’s”. I was certain I was going to mess up.
And then the prayer began. I didn’t have to worry about messing up, after the first “Allah Akbar” most of the women then moved on to the bending down position, only to quickly realise their mistake and stand up straight again, my husband later told me the men had done the same *phew*.
My mind was blank, I forgot the little part of the prayer that I had learnt, instead I just went through the motions trying to look like I had been doing this for years. And then there was another bit of unknown territory. After the prayer, people stayed sitting with their hands raised and palms towards their face. Unsurely I done the same, I don’t know if they were reciting quran, or saying some other specific words, but something told me, rightly or wrongly, that I should pray, this was my time to ask God anything I wanted from him.
So I did. I asked (perhaps cliché) for a sign.
What the sign should be is personal and needed to be shown before the end of the day, but it wasn’t something like moving a mountain, appearing in front of me, letting me win the lottery etc. I also knew that even if the sign came, it would still be the start of a long, perhaps difficult journey, but it would also be the only time in my life that I seriously prescribed to the idea that God is actually real.
After the prayers we all got up and once again the room was alive with kissing cheeks and happy Eids, dates were also passed around. After giving my thanks to my old school friend for taking me under her wing, I made my way out and found my husband and son (who had been given a lollypop).
Despite the nerves I left on a buzz, it wasn’t a negative experience and many parts of it pleasantly surprised me. I didn’t feel like a second class citizen, and the women didn’t look solemn and oppressed. Praying in a group is perhaps something that takes getting used to, and the more you go the less you would be taking sneaky looks around and just fully immersing yourself in the prayer. Although the sneaky looks around did prove fascinating as well. I saw elderly women performing their own version of the prayer with the aid of a chair, children either attempting it or just watching on, and then a couple of girls sitting on the chairs in the back, sporting the camel bump hijab and sleek abaya, with a sour, bored expression as if they were the cast of an Emirates version of “Mean Girls”. Yes, the room was certainly diverse in more ways than just race.
I wish I had gone during Ramadan, although I’m not sure if it is always open as a mosque/Islamic centre , or just for the special prayers. But I have to say it was not what I was expecting at all, and there really is nothing to be worried about, even if you are not lucky enough to have someone recognise you.

As for the sign I asked for. Well at some parts of the day I actually thought it would come to pass, I was ready to declare “la illaha illallah” (there is no god but Allah) the moment it did, and although it might take a long time to truly understand what that means, and what path that placed me on, I was ready to take the first step.
It didn’t happen. I’m trying to work out exactly how I feel about that, is the disappointment simply stemming from the fact I didn’t get what I asked for, or because of something bigger? Why do I feel slightly betrayed?
I know I know, people will come up with every excuse- “God has already given you the signs”, “look around you isn’t that enough”, “you can’t manipulate God”, “maybe he didn’t give you it for a greater purpose”, etc etc etc. I know all that, but obviously those “signs” that other people find enough doesn’t work on me, and God knows they don’t, not because I choose to ignore them, but because I look at things such as the universe, nature, birth etc, a different way. After starting the day on a religious high, as midnight came I was at a low. Tomorrow is the last day of the journey but right now I’m not sure where to go from here.

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