At the inner-city mosque that broke off from the Nation of Islam, the imam stood to address the room. He sported a trim beard and skull cap. Words didn’t just slide out of his mouth and tumble to the floor, they leapt and danced and marched. “People educate their minds, but they don’t educate their hearts,” he declared.
Muhammad’s guidance for how leaders are to address gatherings is to “speak from the heart.” I noticed that talks given in mosques had a stream-of-consciousness quality to them. They tended to be looser and more spontaneous than speeches I had heard at the worship places of other faiths. This one possessed that same quality, but was delivered in an oratory style reminiscent of Martin Luther King, Jr.
“If you want to change your life, you have to change your heart,” the imam said. He paused to let that sink in. This congregation, perhaps more than any I had visited, lived by those words. Every Saturday and Sunday, they operate a program called “Feed Our Neighbors” in which the parking lot transforms into a food distribution center. Pictures on the website show the down-and-out crowd waiting in a line stretching up the street. By some estimates, they hand out 20,000 meals a year. Though far from affluent, this congregation stays true to Muhammad’s instruction to help the needy. The imam took a deep breath and scanned the audience with an intense gaze. “Expand the heart…and you expand the mind!”
By the time we were ready for the communal prayer, a handful of newcomers had shifted the demographics of the room. Before, it had been 100 percent African American, now a small percentage were something else—from various places in the Middle East. I imagined they worked downtown and had found this mosque both convenient and compatible with their needs. As we went through the prayers and my forehead made contact with the floor, I let the last traces of worry melt into the ground.
Our bodies were positioned towards Mecca, but what we were really facing was the little structure in Mecca called the Kaaba. Long before Muhammad was born, the Kaaba had been used as a communal shrine to the various gods worshipped by the different tribes who lived in the region. Muhammad’s message of a single, unified community, or ummah, relied on the unity of the monotheistic one-God concept and his objective became to bring to the Arabian people this fundamental notion promoted by the Jews and Christians before him. When the idea of monotheism gained enough traction in the region, Muhammad repurposed the Kaaba by tossing out all the icons it contained and dedicating it to the one and only Allah.
On my way out of the mosque, I stopped at the information area and picked up a zakat form. I thought if I was going to make a charitable donation, one of their programs would be a worthy recipient. I looked more closely only to see what I thought was an appeal for contributions was actually a zakat application. This was the first I had seen anything like it. Anyone could take one and request financial assistance. The applicant had to specify why aid was needed, circling from a list of options that included housing, electricity, gas, water, telephone, food, transportation or other.
“Sister!” someone called. I turned. It was the friendly man in white from earlier; he was calling me sister. “Come back and visit again.”