Jan - Mar 2003, Muslim converts

Lonely in the Masjid

A Recent Convert’s First Step Inside a Mosque
By Shinoa Matos

November 20, 2002

Bismillah Irahman, Irahim
En el nombre de Alá, el Compasivo, el Misericordioso
In the Name of Allah, the Beneficient, the Merciful

For my own benefit, I’ve been chronicling my progress in Islam and I recently wrote my conversion story, all thanks be to Allah. The next step I’ve taken was visiting the Masjid for the first time. Here’s my take on it…

As a recent convert (thanks be to Allah), I was overwhelmed by my feelings of closeness to Allah and my sudden desire to please the one who never leaves our side. Bottled up inside, I discovered a tremendous need to be more pious and feelings of remorse and shame came out, flooding any other desires and wants. Almost instantly, I could not wait to reform, to become anew in this God-given life. Yet the road to Islam is not one without bumps. And, one of my personal “bumps” I’ve had to steer through is getting myself to attend a Masjid (Mosque or place of worship).

Since the beginning, congregating with other Muslims and praying in unity to Allah appealed to me. The unison in the Islamic prayer was so disciplined and flowed so smoothly, it reminded me of a song. Hence, I was eager to perform the postures and prostrate with my new brothers and sisters before out creator. I was eager to shower Allah with praise and I wanted to do it among hundreds of other voices like mine, all in agreement about God and his Prophet (PBUH).

Even more so, I wanted to belong, to feel part of a community in this new life. Most of us associate ourselves with different aspects of our lives. And for the most part, I’ve always associated myself with the “Puerto Ricanness” in me. Going to plays, hearing Salsa, speaking Spanish, studying about the Caribbean, cooking our types of food, and understanding certain aspects of our culture that only another Puerto Rican or Latino could. But now, here I was, a new Muslim and I had no other Muslims around me that I knew of (with the exception of one friend, his family, and Internet buddies who were also Muslim: Sister Diane, Sister Brenda, may God bless you all). Being once Christian (and I use that term loosely for myself as I did not practice the religion as did my other Christian friends and family), I regularly attended church. Although I felt ambivalent towards the religion, the familiarity of it-the act of bonding with others in a designated place and of meeting others at a specific time and all belonging to the same “something”-would always remain with me.

Now you ask, if I had converted over 2 years ago, how had I just come to step foot inside the Masjid just this past Friday? Why did it take me so long? Well perhaps only recent converts will understand my hesitation. For us, converting to Islam feels a bit awkward at first, no matter how much the religion and Allah calls to us. No matter how much it all makes sense and how “right” it is, it still feels as if we’re learning to walk again. Furthermore, it feels a bit lonely. For one thing, I don’t speak Arabic and am now just beginning the stages of learning my prayers in the language. And every Masjid that I passed, the letters written outside were in Arabic. How was I supposed to step in there and know where to go? What times did the Masjid operate? Who would show me around? How would I communicate with that person if he/she did not speak English? These questions raced through my mind and slowed my steps to a standstill. I felt like an outsider and worried that Muslims born into the religion or even other new Muslims would think I was an imposter or “going through a phase.” A friend of mine kept telling me that I was nuts to think this way because Islam was sent and is meant for everyone, not just Arabs. One only has to look at Indonesia and the growing Hispanic Muslim population to see how true this is.

Nevertheless, I could not face walking into a Masjid alone. Thanks be to Allah, there exists a Masjid in New York (The Islamic Cultural Center of New York) on Lexington and 96th Street, where although the prayers are recited in Arabic, the Imam speaks mostly in English and translates whatever portion of his speech is in Arabic into English. My friend, Issam, agreed to take me, and we set out for Friday noon prayer.

The night before, I must have tried on a million outfits to make sure I was both comfortable and dressed presentable. I wanted to make as little mistakes as possible and look as clean and well put together as I could on my first day to praise God in a congregation. I kept imagining someone in the Masjid approaching me and asking me to leave because my outfit was unacceptable. It’s amazing what ridiculous thoughts fear presses upon your mind.

I wore my hijab outside for the first time that day, and I didn’t feel people staring at me. In fact, I felt no second glances, and no one bothered to look at any part of me except my eyes and my scarf-donning head. Strange, this lack of attention. It felt unnerving and empowering at the same time, as if I were invisible and could walk among other people without notice. The morning was crisp and bright. As we drove to the Masjid, the sun planted itself through my skin and sparked roots of excitement. I was brimming with anticipation.

We proceeded inside the huge building and my friend directed me to the women’s bathroom where I could perform wudu. I saw other women inside as I entered. No one noticed me; no one even had a clue I was new. Now that I come to think of it, how many people in there were also attending prayer for the first time like me? I saw shelves with slippers. I knew from my conversation with Issam that I could use them to walk around the bathroom and to wash my feet. There were sinks and bathroom stalls. Along the opposite wall, there were areas to cleanse the feet to complete your wudu. Nervously, I removed my shoes and socks and placed slippers on my feet. I rolled my sleeves and my pants up. By mistake, I went to the area to cleanse feet and began performing Wudu there, not fully realizing that it would soak my pants and clothes because the setup was meant for feet only. Getting up, I rushed into the bathroom stall and remained there for a few minutes composing myself.

I know this doesn’t sound like it should be a huge issue, but I think anyone can understand my reluctance and fear. If you have ever begun a new job or new school, I am sure you’ve had those butterflies in the stomach and felt “dumb” at one point or another. As I stood in the bathroom stall, I forced myself out because the reality of it all is there is nothing to fear in life, except God. Allah would get me through this, and I was here only for Him. Only for Allah. I removed my hijab, walked to the sink and began cleansing myself all over again. I finished, placed my hijab back on, and walked to the faucets to clean my feet. I completed my wudu with ease this time and less fluttering in my stomach.

I had no idea where the women’s section was and had only caught a glimpse of the prayer area when walking towards the bathroom. There was a woman in the bathroom who I thought spoke English. It’s horrible to make assumptions, but because I saw that she was wearing typical American clothing, I thought she was my best chance at making conversation. In my most frank voice, I revealed that it was my first time in that Masjid and had no idea where the woman’s section was. With such a beautiful smile (one that I pray Allah will keep in my memory), she gladly showed me where to go.

Past the men’s section, we walked up a flight of stairs to a very small balcony area, much smaller than the men’s area, which I found a bit disturbing. Issam told me that I should perform two rakats if the Imam had not begun his speech and then wait for it all to start. To be honest, I whizzed through those prayers and actually can’t remember being sincere. My mind raced with other thoughts. Was I performing the prayers correctly, should I be speaking louder than I was? Was anyone staring at me? I found a place near the wall of the balcony, behind some women. I looked around and saw all the beautifully colored headscarves and even more beautiful skins they adorned. There must have been at least 10-20 different nationalities there. Many wore ethnic clothing embroidered with gold and silver. I imagined where they were from and how they came to Islam. But to be honest, I felt very lonely. Many were talking amongst themselves. I wished with all my heart that I had someone to speak with, that I could be on that balcony speaking with another sister and thus look like I belonged. But, I thanked God that I had made it this far.

As time progressed, the Masjid became increasingly filled. By the time the Imam began his speech, it was so crowded, I barely had room to prostrate. This angered me a bit because I could not understand why they would create such a tiny balcony for the women making it very uncomfortable for them to pray while the men had this huge expanse of space. My “feminist” side came out a bit. Later, I caught a glimpse of how even more tightly packed the men were. Issam told me later that he had to wait for the man in front of him to bow first and then he’d bow after him for lack of room. Even so, the women’s area was much, much smaller. Furthermore, the balcony was shielded, and you could look down at the Imam only through a tiny crack at the bottom. Consequently, when the Imam spoke, I had no idea what he looked like or what expressions his face carried as he spoke. I was frustrated to say the least. Why can’t I see the Imam? What harm could come from that? I need to see who’s speaking to me, no?!

He began speaking with no clue that someone in the balcony was quite upset. I could not hear him despite there being a loudspeaker in the balcony, because I was slowly seething. I felt completely like a second-class citizen. However, now, I realized that a Masjid is a place to congregate not a place that was above Allah. Not a place that would magically make me holy, or prevent Shaytan (the devil) from entering my mind. I knew I needed to release the anger, and I asked God for forgiveness and mercy. So I prayed. And for a brief period, again, the Imam had no clue someone in the balcony was missing a portion of his speech. I prayed to Allah to remove those feelings of anger and resentment and bestow me with understanding and knowledge. I prayed for courage to face my fears and strength to not give in to temptation or slander. As I opened my eyes, I felt light with my anger evaporating into the air.

The Imam’s voice was soothing, and I no longer needed to see his face because I could hear him in my heart. This being the premise of why Muslims in general cover their bodies and heads- to simply be heard and judged based upon their thoughts and actions. I briefly forgot this, this extraordinary and liberating premise.

It was time to begin our prayers, and we rose to make our intention to Allah. While the Imam began our prayers, I innocently snuck a peek over the balcony, as I now was able to look over the shield. I saw the Imam, the rest of the men, and I began searching for Issam’s red shirt. And there it was, God’s helped me understand the reason why men and women are apart in prayer and in socializing outside the family circle. While the prayer was being spoken, I was being distracted by what I saw around me. The temptations, even the most innocent of the kind, are still vibrant and exist all around us, even in a Masjid. Immediately, I closed my eyes and thanked God for adding to my knowledge that hour.

When we bent forward to say Subhanna Rubiyal-Azeem (Glorified is my Lord the Great), I barely had any room. An older woman next to me kept apologizing for bumping into me. I continued telling her that her apologies were unnecessary, because there was room for us all. And there was. No one cared how close you were to one another. It actually felt warmer that way. It was also almost impossible for me to relive the loneliness I had felt earlier. The breath of their prayers blew upon my face, and the warmth of their garments rustled next to my prostrating body. I smiled more and more with each pat of her hand.

Although my prayers were not sincere, or rather, unfocused, God knows it was only because I was observing others to make sure I was correct in my approach. While clothing and appearances were different, the prayers were all the same. We finished our prayers and people began to depart. I did not rush out because I kept watching the women and the sincerity in their faces. I could only hope my conviction grows to such depths that it permeates the pores of my face as it does theirs.

Issam was waiting for me below. We walked in the crowd leaving. At least a few hundred people must have been at that prayer if not a thousand. Men were all around me as we were walking out, and at first, I felt anxious. But then I remembered that these were my Muslim brothers, descendants of those who first introduced the world to chivalry and protected women against all evil. We are their sisters, their equals, and the flowers of Allah. I knew no one was glancing at me. I also knew I was safer in that crowd of men than anywhere else in the world.

As we reached the car, I was annoyed that I did not feel “different” or more “holy.” Honestly, I do not know what I should have been feeling, but I was angry with myself for my lack of Arabic and because I could not understand some of the Surah’s the Imam was reciting. Issam calmed me down and told me that all would come in due time. I was at the beginning stages of my learning process. I had come this far, and God would bring me even further if I were willing. Am I willing? Yes, I have been exposed to a small portion of Islam. I am in awe of its vastness. Islam is immensely upon my heart. I swim in its body of knowledge, and I wish to know as much as God permits. Alllah-u-Akbar. God is greatest.

Shinoa Matos is a journalist in New York City and came to Islam over 2 years ago. She is passionate about writing and hopes to contribute to a major Islamic or Arabic news organization and cover issues concerning Muslims in the world today.