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

As the men enter the mosque, they remove their shoes. Shoe racks just inside the door overflow as grungy work boots rub up against polished loafers in a scrum of footwear. The vestibule is small, quiet and spare. Notices about a bus trip to Chicago and an ad soliciting drivers for a local cab company are pinned to a small bulletin board. At the far end of the space, men enter and exit a bathroom in a steady flow. The door to the prayer room is marked with a small sign.

Inside the bathroom, a tall dark-skinned man stands at the sink, sleeves rolled up past his elbows. As he performs wudu, his required ritual cleansing, he whispers a prayer under his breath. He finishes, shakes off his hands and leaves. On one wall a pictographic sign explains the pre-prayer cleansing ritual. Next to that sign is another outlining all the ways the cleansing can be abrogated, become impure.

The multitude of obligations in Islamic practice regarding prayer, diet and hygiene lead some to call the faith legalistic and rules-bound. Shawn Safdar, the Iowa City mosque finance director, disagrees.

“Muhammad taught such a wide variety of acts of worship and achieving peace and faith that it would be impossible to complete them in their totality,” Safdar, 25, says. “Muslims understand that they take that which is appropriate and necessary for them as individuals.”

While acknowledging that there are many rules in Islam, El-Masry sees them as an opportunity rather than a hindrance to faith

“Rules are part of the revelation,” he says. “They are those things that provide the human being with necessary spiritual structure and allow him or her to attain closeness to God.” El-Masrey feels that the rules become a “naturalized” part of a Muslims life.

“They do not feel like rules anymore than waking up each day, brushing one's teeth, eating breakfast, and taking a shower are rules,” he says.

Inside the prayer room, some 20 men sit praying. A few more are scattered around the edges reading the Quran. A skinny young man sleeps in a chair against the wall.

The faces are mostly brown – some darker, some lighter. The exceptions are a shambling Caucasian in khakis and an oxford shirt kneeling, towards the front of the group and a Bosnian in a shiny Adidas tracksuit. There is a sprinkling of Asian faces, mostly Malay. All are quiet; greeting each other with a hand to the heart and sometimes a quick hug.

Safdar says at its former location on East Prentiss Street, the mosque was comprised mostly of single men, many of them students at the University of Iowa.

“It was kind of like a fraternity,” he says. Safdar welcomes the families who now come to the mosque community but misses the closeness he felt with the men.

“We were like brothers,” he says.

The imam begins his sermon with a long prayer in Arabic, the words flowing one after another in an easy rhythm. In a few minutes the prayer segues to a pointed lecture, in English, on the importance of having a strong inner life, an inner life shaped by and strictly following the Quran. For, as the imam intones, it is only through the Quran that these men will find paradise. Otherwise, they will surely face hell-fire. In the sermon, the imam makes clear that there are no exceptions to that path.