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

“Do not intellectualize,” he warns as he asks the men to think of their deaths, the end of this life, and what that means without the promise of paradise. Throughout the men are silent and attentive. The imam stops midway and bows his head in prayer.

The function of the imam varies from mosque to mosque. As the reader of the Quran during prayer, the imam is often the most visible member of a mosque. This prominence brings a political dimension to the position.

“One imam might be politically indifferent,” says El-Masry, explaining it is not always easy to discern the message of any individual sermon.

Describing how the sermons focus on core values like respect for family and basic Islamic practices, El-Masry shies away from finding any political meaning in the imam’s words.

“It’s murky,” he says

Igram is not so ambivalent. She likes the strict interpretation of the Quran by the imam and the conservative direction of the mosque, preferring it to the mosque she grew up with in Cedar Rapids. While she acknowledges a range of attitudes within the community, Ingram is clear about what she wants.

“It’s a collective community and this is how we want it, this is how we like it,” she says. “And we’re going to keep it that way.”

Not all Iowa City Muslims agree with the more conservative outlook at the mosque. Ilham Mohamed, a Sudanese refugee, stopped going to the mosque because of the insistence on head covering and the strict separation of the genders. She felt like an outsider.

“There’s an unspoken discrimination,” she says.

A mother to three girls, Mohamed, 48, says she prefers to worship at home with a small family group. Others in the Iowa City Muslim community have experienced the same feelings.

“They have some views that are extremist,” says Kamal Hasib referring to the atmosphere at the mosque. “They have a different way of saying this should be this way, that should be this way.”

Because he feels that some in the mosque are trying to enforce a particular practice of Islam, 51-year-old Hasib stays away from regular services and only visits mosque on holidays. As a result, his practice of Islam is more intimate.

“It’s personal,” Hasib says touching his heart and pointing skyward. “It’s between me and God. That’s it.”

At the Friday prayer service, the group of men grows as the service winds on. The original two dozen or so swells to nearly a hundred by the end of the hour. The men who arrive late perform an abbreviated set of prayers then fall into the flow of the service.

On cue the imam stops his sermon and the men, who are scattered across the room, move forward, filling the spaces left in the pattern of prayer rugs woven into the wall-to-wall carpeting. The men stand almost shoulder to shoulder, their feet turned outward touching the toes of each neighbor. In a final unified prayer the men chant, pray and prostrate themselves as one. The service ends.

In the vestibule, the men mill about, exchanging handshakes and smiles. Some put money in the donation basket. After putting on their shoes, they step out into the cold daylight. The women exit from the rear and scurry to their cars. The parking lot empties quickly.

Soon enough, it will be time for prayer again.