Islam is a popular religion that is practiced all around the world, including in St. Louis. Muslims all around the world are not only connected by their beliefs, but also by how and where they practice them. Many faiths contain a central place of worship where its followers practice and for Muslims, this is a mosque. A mosque is comparative to a church in the Christian faith and a temple or synagogue in the Jewish faith. It is a holy meeting place where the majority of Muslims attend a service and prayer on a regular basis. As places of worship and community centers, mosques become deeply rooted in the lives of Muslims around the world. In St. Louis in particular, there are a number of mosques including one within the campus gates of St. Louis University: Masjid Bilal Ibn Rabaah.
The Muslim faith is an integral part of St. Louis’s religious history and the Masjid Bilal Ibn Rabaah mosque has helped add to the city’s religious background. According to recent estimates by the Association of Religion Data Archives, there are more than ten Muslims for every 1,000 residents in the city of St. Louis and nearly two Muslims for every 1,000 residents in the St. Louis County. Since Muslims make up a sizable demographic in the St. Louis area, it is important to take the time to learn something about Islam and mosques in order to better understand the people who follow this religion.
The mosque is an integral part of the lives of all devout Muslims. This is a holy place where Muslims gather to pray and connect with each other through their religion. The traditional mosque is a place of maximum collectivity and religious authority in a community; it is an academy of effective learning through all aspects of life and religious significance. Today's urban mosque includes all of the aspects of a traditional mosque with increased emphasis of social and community aspects (Kahera). Masjid Bilal Ibn Rabaah was founded in 1974 and is a perfect example of an urban mosque. It is most importantly a center of gathering and worship for St. Louis Muslims, but is also a health center, provides social services, and educational services for children and adults. A devout Muslim will center his or her life around the mosque. The mosque provides a space to center men and women of faith and serves as a designated place to connect people of the community. Masjid Bilal offers a circle of community in which members can provide each other with encouragement. Like all mosques, the prayer rooms (see below) of Masjid Bilal face east to Mecca, symbolizing the significance of the place of the genesis of their religion. Because the building that now occupies Masjid Bilal was not built with the intention of ever being a mosque, the men's and women's prayer rooms have been divided across two levels. Men pray in a room upstairs with the Imam, or prayer leader, in the front of the room. The women and children prayer in a very similar room downstairs with the Imam livestreaming on a television. (Dr. Muman)
Probably one of the most notable Muslim practices is the five daily prayers. All devout Muslims are required to pray five times a day. Some Muslim cultures excuse women from fulfilling this requirement in mosques because of the history of women staying home to care for children (Dr. Mamun). Many Muslims attend Friday afternoon prayers at mosques, even if they can't attend other communal prayers throughout the week. At Masjid Bilal, each prayer is called over loud speakers throughout the mosque. Current St. Louis law prohibits the calling of prayer, officially called the adhan, over public loud speakers but Masjid Bilal is still able to attract worshipers for the five prayers. This is the adhan called by muezzin, a person dedicated to leading the call to prayer. The call does have lyrical qualities but is not supposed to be a song. Instead, it is intended to be a sort of chant that calls people to remember their faith. The muezzin is a position of honor in the mosque and he is chosen for his good character and loud, beautiful voice. Five times a day the muezzin calls out:
God is Great
(said four times)
Ashhadu an la ilaha illa Allah
I bear witness that there is no god except the One God.
(said two times)
Ashadu anna Muhammadan Rasool Allah
I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God.
(said two times)
Hurry to the prayer (Rise up for prayer)
(said two times)
Hurry to success (Rise up for Salvation)
(said two times)
God is Great
[said two times]
La ilaha illa Allah
There is no god except the One God
This prayer is always called in Arabic no matter what country it is being called in. Below each Arabic line are the English translations. Note the striping in the carpeting in the video. This indicates to worshipers which way to face when praying so they are oriented towards Mecca (Huda).
The two most practiced religions in the world today are Islam and Christianity. Although Islam is one of the top two, it is very often misunderstood and many people are unable to see its similarities to other religions. The Muslim faith is centered around the belief in one god, Allah. Allah is the Arabic name for God and, according to Dr. Mamun, is the same God that Jews and Christians believe in. One of the biggest distinctions among these religions is the belief of who Jesus is. Muslims believe that Jesus is one of the prophets, along with Abraham, Noah, Moses, and Muhammad. Christians believe that Jesus is the savior and the son of God. Jews believe that Jesus is neither a prophet nor the son of God according to Dr. Mamun. Dr. Mamun is a devout worshiper at Masjid Bilal and plays an important role in the leadership of the mosque. He agreed to let us interview him and he showed us around the mosque as well as invited us to attend the Friday Service.
Dr. Mamun helped us to better understand the importance of mosques and of Masjid Bilal in general. He explained that Muslims around the world believe it is much more rewarding to pray together, as a community. Being able to pray in a community allows worshipers to feel more connected to each other and to Allah. Masjid Bilal is no exception to this. Dr. Mamun explained that for many immigrants and SLU students, Masjid Bilal offers them a community and a place of worship that is within the gates of the campus. Although the mosque is not a part of SLU, its location within the campus gates allows Muslims in the SLU community to feel more at home at Saint Louis University in general. This specific mosque is also the oldest one in Saint Louis. Because of this, it has a history of helping people feel connected and welcomed in Saint Louis as a whole.
Friday Service is somewhat analogous to Sunday services in the Christian tradition. Dr. Mamun was kind enough to invite us to stay for the Friday Service and I, Allison Fallon, was able to stay. I sat in a chair in the back of the women and children’s prayer room and observed. Before the service began and the people entered the prayer rooms, the men, women, and children washed their hands and feet in the wash rooms. Then as the call to prayer was chanted and played over the speakers throughout the building, worshippers began to trickle into the space and began to pray or meditate on their own. Then, after the call to worship, the Imam went to the front of the room and gave a lesson, in English, for about twenty minutes. This week, his lesson discussed the importance of not letting your eyes guide you to your perfect spouse, let your heart. During his speech, more women and children kept coming in preparing to pray by getting comfortable on the ground and maybe even saying a few prayers on their own. After the speech was done, the rest of the service was completed entirely in Arabic. The muezzin chanted some more which caused all the worshipers to stand up and move side by side in the front of the room lined up with the carpet. As everyone got close together, I noticed that all the children who were too young to fully understand what was going on stayed behind. Children who were previously sleeping in their mother’s arms or lap were placed gently along the side of the room. Some young children chose to follow their mother and some even tried to copy their every move while praying. The praying that occurred after the chant including the worshipers standing up, sitting down, kneeling over, and more. Elderly women were allowed to sit in chairs and do the actions as best they could. After the worshipers finished praying together, the service was over, but some people decided to take time for more individual prayer. Overall, it was an incredible experience being able to observe a Friday Service and even though I personally am not a Muslim, I could still feel the presence of God within the prayer room during the service.
St. Louis is a diverse city with any different faiths, races, and ethnicities mixed together to form one community. The Muslim community, which makes up about 1% of the overall adult population of the metro, mingles and thrives with others in the city (Pew Research Center). The Muslim community was not always as influential as it is currently. The city struggled with population loss and urban decline during the late 1980s and into the early 1990s. According to the 1950 federal census of the city, there were 856,756 people living in the city. Soon after, due to white flight, suburban sprawl, and people moving away to more industrialized cities in america, by 1990 the population had plummeted to 396,685 people. This decline of more than 50% of the population left areas of the city abandoned and in poor repair. This was, however, an important time for the Muslim population of St. Louis because it was about to get a whole lot bigger (Rice).
In the early 1990s civil war broke out in Yugoslavia and displaced tens of thousands of people. Bosnian Muslims fled religious persecution in what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina for new homes in St. Louis. Thousands of refugees settled in the city, especially in the hard hit neighborhoods of south city. These refugees turned these rough areas into productive neighborhoods often starting up new businesses like bakeries, butcher shops, coffee shops, construction and heating and cooling companies, insurance companies, etc. This population boost and a plethora of new businesses turned the most downtrodden parts of the city into economically thriving parts of the city. With these refugees came their Muslim religion which has mingled into the culture of St. Louis. The mosques built by these refugees are now used by Muslims of all nationalities and they continue to forward the muslim community here in the Arch City.
Currently, the Muslim community of St. Louis is very strong. Members of a faith are able to be strong and support each other in times of need because they have a community that shares the same values and the same religious faith as them. They are able to have this community because of the community center, the mosque, temple, church, or any other religious community center. Masjid Bilal is a great example of a community that surrounds people of the same faith because it is a religious center that is both a place of worship and a place of community full of accepting people. It is a place where people come to talk, pray, and be in the presence of one another and of Allah, or God. Without a central place of worship, people of faith would struggle to form a strong community where they can discuss and practice their faith in the company of others.
Researched and written by Elizabeth Cooper, Neal Dodda, and Allison Fallon
Islamic Foundations. Accessed October 15, 2017. http://islamstl.org/.
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Dr. Mamun. Personal Interview. 1 December 2017.
Grammich, Clifford. 2010 U.S.Religion Census: Religious Congregations & Membership
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