Back when I lived in Seattle, I really only had a working understanding of what it meant to be Muslim. I’ve prayed in Seattle mosques before — usually Masjid Al-Noor in White Center or Masjid Abu Bakr in Tukwila — but like many young Somali Americans, I was just going through the motions rather than actively strengthening my faith.
As I grew further away from my childhood upbringing in Somalia and assimilated to the West, I also lost hold of my visceral, spiritual connection to Islam.
I was in awe of the older Somali folks in my life and their unbreakable sense of spirituality, their endless patience, resolve and determination. They seemed to draw an intangible strength from their faith in God that they used to overcome any obstacles that presented themselves along their path. It was a strength that I was unable to imitate.
When I decided to move back to Somalia a few years ago, I was worried that my lack of a spiritual connection would make me an outsider in my own country of birth.
The sanctuary of the mosque in the West
An integral part of this deep reservoir of faith that Somalis in the diaspora regularly call upon can be found in the neighborhood mosque.
Mosques are a gathering place for Muslims to come and worship side by side up to five times a day, regardless of race or socioeconomic status.
As soon as you leave the sanctuary of the mosque, you’re thrown back out into the brutal divisions enforced upon us by Western capitalistic society at large.
But while you’re inside of the mosque, you’re brought down to the same level of humbleness and piety as your fellow worshiper in Islam. You stand shoulder to shoulder with a common goal in mind: to get closer to God through the power of communal meditation. All your worldly troubles and woes fall to the wayside as you slip into a deep trance, as you seek balance within yourself and focus on the surreal tranquility that can only be found in a house of worship.
In non-Muslim countries, mosques play an especially pivotal role in creating a safe space for people of color…
Although the mosque can be filled to capacity during prayer, it’s often quiet enough to hear a pin drop.
In non-Muslim countries, mosques play an especially pivotal role in creating a safe space for people of color who live in communities that are often hostile towards anyone with too dark of a skin tone or unfamiliar religious beliefs. Within the walls of the mosque, they are free from the stinging lashes of both prejudice and persecution for who they are and how they choose to live.
For the Somali community in Seattle, the mosque acts as an incubator for the retention of cultural practices that can be easily lost to the never-ending influence of the great American melting pot. You can hear old friends catching up in their native Somali tongue both before and after prayers. You might see a Somali elder giving counsel and imparting wisdom to a young teen about a problem that they’ve been grappling with. You’ll see people smiling and hugging, laughing and bonding over traditional Somali aphorisms.
These are all great aspects of mosque life in the diaspora, and even if I wasn’t able to draw the same strength from my faith as my elders did when I was in Seattle, this sense of refuge attracted me to the mosque on that rare Friday, if for no other reason than to gain peace by proxy.
The thing is, worship in a secular country requires a lot more strength and conviction of faith than doing so in a country whom you share a religion with. There is a lot of nuance that gets lost in translation, which leaves a large learning gap that less resolute worshippers shy away from attempting to overcome. This creates a growing sense of hopelessness for those who wish to understand the intricacies of their faith but have no idea where to begin.
The Somali mosque
It was altogether intimidating for me to walk back into a Mosque for the first time in years (in Somalia, no less), when I had forgotten everything from the basic steps of performing ablutions to the many intricacies of prayer itself.
I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of people my age who seemed to have every aspect of worship down to a T, who had not missed a single prayer since childhood. My biggest fear was that I would make an egregious technical error at some point and my cover would be blown, that I would be seen for the charlatan that I was: someone who moved to a Western country and lost all sight of who they once were.
In reality, that unfounded paranoia was just a product of the effective Westernization that I underwent during my time in Seattle. Not only were people willing to assist me in correcting my innumerable mistakes back home, they did so with pride and smiled at me as if staring into the eyes of a long lost sibling who had finally returned home.
Ignorance itself is not a sin, but a failure to proactively seek religious education due to laziness is tantamount to one.
In the West, it is taught that one should “fake it ‘till they make it,” and that any display of ignorance is a shameful one. But as I learned in Somalia, it’s better to ask a question when you’re unsure of something than it is to pretend like you know the answer just to protect your precious ego. This is especially true when it comes to our religion: ignorance itself is not a sin, but a failure to proactively seek religious education due to laziness is tantamount to one.
I was introduced to the intricacies of this concept by a young friend of mine, Abdul Wasiq, who I had met at a nearby mosque when I lived in Borama, Somaliland. We would sit near each other in quiet silence, studying our subjects of choice after each pre-dawn prayer as the sun slowly rose to signal the start of a new day. He would often ask me questions about my life in America or the ins and outs of the English language itself. In turn, I would ask him questions about the history of Somaliland as a breakaway nation and, more importantly for me, all the pressing questions about practicing Islam that I had.
I asked him if committing an act that was against our religion was still a sin if you had no previous knowledge of its sinfulness. He told me that it wasn’t a sin, but at the same time, you couldn’t use that as an excuse for the rest of your life. Willful ignorance is never an excuse, because you can lie to yourself but you can’t lie to God.
There is no way to describe the sheer beauty of listening to overlapping adhans being sung out from every mosque in the city five times a day. This was something that caught me off guard at first in Somalia because it had been so long since I actually heard a call to prayer broadcast over loudspeakers.
At first, it seemed like a jarring aspect of my new life in Somalia that I wouldn’t be able to overcome. Before I knew it, however, I began to look forward to the adhans and they became as much a part of my life as breathing. And much like a runner who’s struggling to overcome hypoxia after a race, I took ever deeper breaths to try and sate the proverbial thirst of my reinvigorated spirituality.
In Seattle, you won’t ever hear the call to prayer broadcast over loudspeakers at the neighborhood mosque due to noise pollution ordinances. Not being able to hear the daily calls to prayer is one of the biggest differences between practicing Islam while living in a secular country as opposed to a Muslim one.
There are two calls to prayer, known as the adhan and the iqama. The adhan serves as the first reminder of the upcoming prayer and the iqama is recited immediately before the prayer begins. This allows you adequate time to prepare your body for prayer through the performance of ritual ablutions. It also creates a buffer zone wherein your mind is allowed to slow down from the hectic pace of everyday life so that you can be in the right mindset for prayer.
The role of mosques in a divided country
Once I’d gotten over my initial fear of embarrassment and become a well-seasoned mosque-goer in my new home, I discovered that their role was very different than back in Seattle. Mosques in Somalia have evolved to serve countless functions that the political, economic and sociological realities of living in an incongruous nation necessitate. Thanks in large part to rampant corruption at every level of the fragmented pseudo-governments in each region of Somalia, a lot of needy people end up falling through the cracks of society.
The only mercy that can be found for someone who’s down on their luck in Somalia is the generosity of their brothers and sisters in Islam.
Whereas one can access countless social safety nets in a place like Seattle, the only mercy that can be found for someone who’s down on their luck in Somalia is the generosity of their brothers and sisters in Islam. In the U.S., you can’t be refused service at a hospital regardless of your ability to pay. If you’re in need of medical assistance, the hospital has a legal obligation to treat you of your ailment. If you don’t have cash in Somalia, you won’t even make it past the receptionist, let alone be evaluated by a doctor.
The mosque in Somalia acts as a temporary solace for those in need of emergency financial assistance and who have exhausted all other options. Immediately after prayer, as you sit there in quiet contemplation of your blessings and hardships alike, it’s not at all uncommon to see someone stand in front of the entire congregation and give a heartfelt plea for assistance.
One of the first people I saw doing this was an old, feeble man with a gaunt face and paper thin ankles, a simple sarong and well-worn dress shirt hung precariously off his frame. He had just lost his entire herd of livestock to the droughts that so often plague Somalia, his wife was in desperate need of life saving medicine and he walked roughly 20 miles in the unforgiving desert sun to reach the mosque that day. I could see the sorrow etched into his eyes, the worry lines working their way across his forehead as if earthworms were burrowing just under the surface of his skin.
Faith in God, faith in each other
Somalis are world renowned for their generosity and the pious in Somalia are often the most generous; even if they have only one package of dates to their name, they’ll offer half of it to you without hesitation. Those that consistently worship at the mosque are known to be the most pious and well respected in the community. Baring your heart and soul for an audience is never an easy thing, but knowing that your audience will most likely be receptive to and even offer assistance for your plight makes it that much easier.
In a place like Somalia, you come face to face with the universal struggle between life and death with no safety nets.
Living in a place like Seattle as a black, Muslim immigrant comes with its fair share of drawbacks, but you also get the privilege of being shielded from a lot of harsh realities that the majority of the world is subjected to. While it may be a struggle to make ends meet for working class people in the U.S., those ends almost always get met somehow.
In a place like Somalia, you come face to face with the universal struggle between life and death with no safety nets. You find people that have little in the way of material possessions but are rich of spirit. It pains you to hear of someone in the community dying from a preventable disease on a weekly basis. You hear stories of triumph and tragedy, trauma and turbulence in equal measure. You see your people rally together to help someone in distress, 1,000 Somali Shillings at a time.
In the quietude of a nondescript Somali mosque, inside a simple building comprised of four stone walls and a flat roof, white paint chipping off the sides, with a minaret and simple loudspeaker jutting from the top, I finally began to understand why the elder Somali generation in the Diaspora is so grateful for what they have, why they work so hard and why they send so much money back home every month. How else would my people survive in a country that has had, to this day, no actual government for 25 years?
Through the power of faith; faith in God and faith in each other. That faith was the last piece in the puzzle of finding my way back to the inner child that I had turned my back on all those years ago, when I made the conscious decision to dump tradition in favor of assimilation.
For more photos from Somalia, follow @ikramisse and @juventina52 on Instagram.