Men pray at the Iowa City mosque. The prayer mats are woven into the carpet and face east towards Mecca. Photo by Steve Silva

A Mosque in the Heartland

Opening the Friday afternoon prayer service at the Iowa City mosque, the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer. His amplified voice overwhelms the space, resonating through the bodies of the gathered men as they stand shoulder to shoulder facing east toward Mecca. The adahn ends, the sound reverberating against the stark white walls for a split second, and the muezzin hands the microphone to the imam. Friday prayer has begun.

Traditionally, the mosque, or masjid in Arabic, is the centerpiece of Muslim community life. Not only a space for the required five-a-day prayers, it is also a gathering place for teaching of the Quran, the Muslim holy book, the Arabic language and social events like celebrating Eid ul-Fit, the end of Ramadan, the month of daily fasting.

As the Muslim community in the Iowa City grows and becomes more diverse, the mosque also seems to have become something more. It has become a source of identity.

“The mosque fulfils your needs,” says Mohamad El-Masry, a doctoral candidate at the University of Iowa. Having attended the mosque for the past six months, El-Masry, 31, finds himself becoming more devout.

“I think there’s a burgeoning Islamic spirit,” he says, remarking on increasing mosque attendance both in Iowa City and in his visits to family in Cairo, Egypt. El-Masry believes more women covering their heads with the hijab and the growth of Islamic social service organizations are signs of Muslim renewal.

Others in the mosque see much the same recent intensification of Muslim identity.

“We have this sense we have to really identify ourselves,” says Nadia Igram, a 21-year old international studies student at the University of Iowa. “We have to figure out who we are and where we’ve been.”

For Igram, the mosque is where that feeling manifests itself.

“It’s a place of sanctuary,” she says. “I need to have time to myself and bring that Islamic aspect back into my life. I know I can go there anytime of day, whenever.”

A low-slung building on Benton Street, the mosque, a former Jehovah’s Witness hall, sits atop a rise overlooking the Universalist Baptist Church. A no parking sign in English and Arabic is bolted to a pole jutting cockeyed out of the driveway.

On a Friday afternoon before prayer, men, their hands jammed into coat pockets against the unexpected spring cold, enter the main entrance, pausing to hold the door for each other and exchange greetings. Women, their heads covered in the hijab, enter at the back.

While not every mosque requires that women cover their head or separates the genders so rigorously, the mosque in Iowa City does. Live video pipes the weekly sermon into the women’s room.

“Personally, I like the set-up we have here,” says Igram. “I can go in anytime and relax and not have to worry if there is anybody there. Because there is a separate area I can relax and do my own thing.”

As for wearing the hijab, Igram has covered her head since age 13 believing it is a “commandment” to do so. While this is a flash point for many Muslim scholars and critics, Igram is not without some humor about the issue.

“People think that because you cover your head, you can’t look good,” she says about dressing well. “But let’s face, you can still match.”