Tag: 30mosques.com

Reflections on the 30 Mosques Project

Aman Ali from 30 mosques

I received an email from Aman Ali, co-founder of the 30 mosques project. He shared the following note from a college sophomore in North Carolina who saw his 30 mosques in 30 days presentation:

“Dear Aman and Bassam:  I attended Aman’s presentation at “X” University the other night to, I must admit, merely fulfill a requirement for a class. I am a lifelong Christian and I hate to say I don’t know much about Islam. To say I was enlightened by your presentation would be an understatement. I was profoundly moved by the experiences you shared with my fellow students, citizens, and me. I hope I get a chance to see one or both of you speak again, because the hour and half I spent hearing about 30 Mosques in 30 Days was absolutely worth failing a quiz the next day. Keep up the good work, and if you haven’t already, I hope you get the chance to visit my hometown, Milwaukee.”

Aman Ali and Bassam Tariq are two young guys who had an idea: Visit 30 mosques in 30 states in 30 days over Ramadan 2010.  They looked for funding, rented a car and mapped out a plan. They made some calls, sent some emails, packed up the car and hit the road. They had no idea what to expect, but were ready for an adventure.

Bassam Tariq presenting in Prague, Czech Republic

I met up with them on day six of their journey, interviewed them and blogged about it. During those thirty days last summer, I checked their blog, daily, to learn more about the people that they were meeting along the way. Aman and Bassam became teachers to me and thousands around the world as they racked up the miles, slept on couches across the country, and broke fast with strangers who quickly became friends. CNN caught wind of their trip and joined them on the road for two days. And when “30 mosques” ended up on the home page of CNN, Aman and Bassam just keep “truckin’ on” in their humble fashion.

I met up again recently with Aman when he presented at a local college (solo on this occasion.) His audience this time was primarily from the campus’ Muslim Student Association.  After his presentation (see a 2 minute clip below), I spoke with some of the young people in the audience. Some had heard about 30 mosques, others had no clue what the project was before that night.  But this audience did have something in common – they were overjoyed to hear a presentation that allowed them to swell with pride. The students were truly astonished by what Aman shared about the history and diversity of Muslims in the United States. Several expressed to me how frustrating it is been to have to regularly defend their religion. Aman’s presentation gave them a reminder that is was okay to feel proud.  It was more than okay – it confirmed that there was much to be proud of! They had been eager for meaningful dialogue that did not include having to defend Islam, and the 30 mosques project provided it.

After a recent 30 mosques presentation in the mid-west (US), I received the following feedback from the the college’s Global Opportunities office:

“It was awesome Missy!  The students, staff and faculty who attended were very touched by their presentation. I’m still reflecting on their experiences and I feel a great sense of hope that I haven’t had in a long time. Some of my colleagues want to keep in touch with them, follow their work and even visit them some day in New York!”

I remembered why I created the Melibee speaking series after meeting Aman and Bassam: It was because I felt inspired by their project and wanted to share it with others.

As an educator that spent many years behind a desk on a college campus, I know how many hours it takes to meet and exceed all of your students’ needs, let alone find motivating speakers that will challenge your students to think about their role in the world AND who will make them want to learn more about a subject.  I wanted to find speakers who would move students (and faculty/staff) to put their smart phones away for 90 minutes because they would be so truly engaged by what they were hearing.

Why? Because they would be inspired. Inspired enough to not care about their email and Facebook for a whole ninety minutes.

As I reflect on the 30 mosques project, I am so grateful to Aman and Bassam for their adventurous spirits, their humble dispositions, their generosity (they will be volunteering for two days at the model UN in NYC), and for reminding me how much young people have to offer to those of us behind a desk each day. This project has offered the gift of inspiration, and it comes through the hearts of two Muslim New Yorkers – two guys who write for a living but took a month off for a really cool road trip. Needless to say, these two were raised by parents who supported their kids’ goals and dreams, one mosque at a time.

Please enjoy this clip of Aman talking about his visit to the mosque in Ross, North Dakota:

Aman Ali from 30 Mosques – 2 minute Presentation from Melibee Global on Vimeo.

Here is more information about their visit to Ross, North Dakota from Day 22 of their 30 day journey.

Aman and Bassam are available to speak from March – July 2010 (in the US and abroad.)  They are also able to present in the NYC area during the week of September 11, 2011. (Note: They are not “9/11 speakers,” as the events of that day are not what sparked them to create 30mosques.) Aman and Bassam are not sure yet if they will present after September 2011. If you’re interested in booking Aman and Bassam for a presentation, please email me at [email protected] or via the contact form.  Other inspiring Melibee speakers can be found here.

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Interview with Aman Ali and Bassam Tariq from “30mosques.com”

That’s me on the right, at the Masjid Ash-Shaheed mosque, enjoying conversation with some fabulous women. (Photo courtesy of Bassam Tariq, from www.30mosques.com)

I have been writing a lot about Islam lately and my last post was about 2 young New Yorkers, Aman Ali and Bassam Tariq, who are currently traveling to 30 mosques in 30 days.   I have been fascinated by their journey and the controversy surrounding the proposed Islamic Center near Ground Zero. I realized that while I write about Islam, have Muslim friends and have been to mosques before, I have never actually attended a prayer service at a mosque.  So, I decided it was time to experience this.  I contacted Aman and Bassam to find out where they’d be on the east coast and I managed to meet up with them at the Masjid Ash-Shaheed in Charlotte, North Carolina (US) on August 17th. Here is my interview with these 2 delightful guys.  Please check it out and then read on to hear my thoughts on my experience breaking fast with them and the congregation at Masjid Ash-Shaheed.  

(Please note that any edits in this interview are simply to cut out my voice or any of Aman or Bassam’s verbal “hiccups”;  no content was cut from this interview.)

I didn’t take any photos of the mosque or the people I met.  I interviewed Aman and Bassam and then put the camera away.  I felt it was important to focus on my experience, my thoughts, observations and feelings.  I didn’t bring in my notebook or pen.  I wanted to experience this visit to a mosque as I’ve experienced religious services at churches and synagogues over the years with friends and family.

I put a pink scarf over my head and entered the mosque, which as Bassam describes in the video, was a small, one level structure. From the road it looked like a little office building).  The women were putting out a beautiful display of food for break fast in the small lobby area.  I was warmly greeted by several women (who had no idea who I was or why I was there. It appeared to be a primarily African American congregation. Many men were also in the lobby and shared kind greetings. But the sisterhood definitely prevailed here; the women hugged me and introduced me to other women.  I offered to help in the kitchen, but they were all set, so I gravitated toward a little girl who reminded me of my niece. I have often found in my life that children are our best teachers. She was 8 years old and proved to support my belief that when you want information, ask a kid!  I told her it was my first time at a mosque for prayer and asked if she could help me.  She told me that there was a prayer room with white lines on the floor and that we take off our shoes and go in and stay behind the “boys” and we line our toes up along the white line.  And then she relayed the movements for the prayer including the kneeling/bowing and the expressions in Arabic that I should listen for.  She told me to put my hands upon my chest, but that my right hand should be over my left. (I later asked an adult why this was important. She indicated that there is some evidence that Mohammad prayed this way, or with his hands to his sides.) Then the little girl quickly switched subjects, telling me all about her school, her friends and how her bus stop is not super close to her house but around a corner. Ah, from the mouths of babes…. 🙂

When the call for prayer came, the congregants moved to the table of water and dates.  They each sipped some water and ate a date, then took off their shoes and headed into the prayer room. One of the women came over to explain to me that when breaking fast, it was important to eat something “natural” first.  The women entered the communal prayer space through a different door and we lined up along the white line in the back of the room. The men lined up in the front.  The women coached me to stand close together, with our arms nearly touching. I simply followed along, as the prayer was in Arabic, so I was simply mimicking what I observed around me. There was some standing, some kneeling, some bowing, some hand gestures, some repeating of phrases. Yup, it reminded me of a bit of church but without the pew….and a bit of the synagogue, as I didn’t understand the language there either!  But I knew that there was something being said that was resonating deeply with the congregants and that was giving them peace and strength.  Toward the end of the approximate 10 minute prayer, a women explained to me that the congregants were repeating some silent phrases about God and counting the number of times that they said them on their fingers (using their thumb on the right hands to touch their other fingers to keep count.)  At the end we all cupped our hands in front of our faces to pray and then took our cupped hands and ran them over our head, faces and down our bodies.  The woman explained that the prayer was washing away sins and that the good of the prayer was in our cupped hands, so we were to wash it over our bodies. I later asked someone what the prayer was about – and because I left the journalist in me outside the mosque, I can’t tell you verbatim what was said. However, I do recall that the gist of it was thanking God and taking time to be close to God.

When we were done, the brother leading the prayer announced that Aman and Bassam were part of the 30mosques.com project and he welcomed them and wished them a safe journey.  And then he joked about their New York accents and everyone had a good laugh. And he giggled as he told us that his stomach was growling, so it was time to eat!

We left the room and the men set up tables in the same space for us to break fast.  We all served ourselves from the huge buffet that was prepared by the women before our arrival.  Several congregants also brought covered dishes and non-alcoholic drinks.  I sat with a group of women and we talked a lot about the same things I talk about with friends at home. At one point, we were hysterically laughing about our common experiences dropping our cell phones in water (including one woman’s story about going to the bathroom and hearing the phone plop into the water…and literally saying out loud “oh no you did NOT just fall into the toilet!” We gabbed about how we have all had to figure out how to dry out the battery when that happens (rice in a bag was the agreed upon best method.)  We talked about recycling.  We talked about shopping at Walmart. We talked about work.  It was life. Every day conversation. Except this time my new friends and I were all wearing scarves to cover our heads because Islam believes that the headscarf is an outer manifestation of an inner commitment to worship Allah – that is it a commitment to piety.  As a visitor to this mosque, I was fine covering my head, just as I’d be covering myself while visiting a more conservative church or synagogue.  I did catch myself, a couple of times, having to check that the scarf was still on though. I’m clearly not well versed in the beautiful craft work required to cover my head completely with a scarf – but I did okay considering I’m no fashionista!

In the interview, you heard Aman and Bassam offer me sage advice when I asked them about the role of women in Islam.  I took this advice and asked several of the women about their role and the perceptions of how women are “treated” in their faith.  One women shook her head gently and told me that her faith doesn’t oppress her at all.  She said it gives her the strength to be a good mother, her most important role.  She said that men and women inherently are different and that Islam simply recognizes this.  She said if someone feels oppressed, it is because they allow themselves to be. Another woman told me that women praying behind men is simply a way to avoid any distraction. She said it allows her to focus on her prayer and not feel self conscious of others looking at her.  My sense is that the women had a very strong sisterhood and that any issues with gender were mostly from outsiders, not internal.

Based on our conversation about the subject, one of the women I met with did give me a pamphlet about the status of women in Islam.  It closes by saying:  “There does exist a gap between the rights of women outlined in the Qur’an and the prevalent reality in the Muslim world.  However, images of Muslim women as ignorant, oppressed and submissive are stereotypical.  They do no justice to the large number of Muslim women whose conviction in Islamic concepts of family, cohesiveness, happiness and individuality ensures their sense of self- fulfillment.” In my experience at this mosque, the women that I spoke with appreciated their roles and contributions in their religion, embraced the sisterhood and valued their religious community.  No one was forcing them to be there; they were there because they have deep faith and feel comforted by it, similar to what I’ve experienced congregants in churches and synagogue services.

I did have a conversation with one woman who felt that there is a huge challenge for women in the faith. She said she has been to mosques that have a separate entrance for women and that it makes her feel less than valued in the structure.  Having traveled to Muslim countries, I had a sense of what it feels like to not be treated the same as a woman would be in the US.  But I also recognized that I was not in the US, and shouldn’t expect things to be the same.  I don’t go to a mosque regularly and I’m not Muslim, so I don’t feel that it is right for me to tell a Muslim woman how to feel about her faith.  Each mosque has its own norms and I can see from reading the 30mosques.com site that there is a wide range of experience within each community despite the common denominator of Islam. Clearly, it is a sensitive issue – and perhaps Aman and Bassam say it best in the video above – if you have questions about this issue, ask a Muslim woman. I’m really glad that I did.

Personally, professionally and spiritually, this was easily one of the most beautiful learning experiences that I’ve had on my life’s journey.  I am grateful for the opportunity and thank the people of Masjid Ash-Shaheed for welcoming me with such open arms. I’d also like thank Aman and Bassam for taking the time to speak with me and Melibee readers – and for allowing me to tag along for this leg of the journey.   Be sure to check out their overall journey as we can all learn something from their bird’s eye view! Meanwhile, I look forward to your comments.

(By the way,  if you would like a good laugh, check out Aman’s stand up comedy web page. He and Bassam are very talented outside of their 30mosques.com lives!)