The carpets make a soft booming sound as they’re rolled out on the floor of Dwight Chapel—eight of them, long and narrow, arranged at an angle between the old stone columns. A few young women, their faces covered, have already said good morning to me. Now I sit down near them on one of the rugs toward the back of the room.
I’ve come to the jummah prayer service at the invitation of Imam Omer Bajwa, but you don’t need an invitation to attend this weekly worship of Yale’s Muslim community. “In an age of such blatant xenophobia,” Bajwa says, naming not only Muslims but other marginalized groups as well, “this is about building bridges and getting to know people.” Non-Muslim neighbors are “always welcome to come and engage with our community… literally just to get to know us,” he says.
Jummah means Friday in Arabic, but its etymology also points to the idea of people gathering, Bajwa explains. Friday is a holy day, and worship is held at one o’clock in the chapel in Dwight Hall, originally built as Yale’s library and now home to the student-run service and social justice nonprofit of the same name.
The azan, or call to prayer, is sung by Yale undergraduate Nazar Chowdhury just before the top of the hour. As if in reply, bells chime out from Harkness Tower across the street. People file in, remove their shoes, quietly greet one another, find a space on a carpet and begin their own silent or softly spoken prayers, recited through a series of standing, bowing and prostrating. Men and women sit separately. “In this ritual space of talking to God, one wants to minimize distractions,” Bajwa explains. The women are seated in the back because, “out of modesty, men should not be standing behind women during prostration, which can be seen as a physically vulnerable position.” The women have all covered their heads, though guests aren’t expected to do the same. They’re also not required to sit on the floor. There are plenty of stacked wooden chairs along the edges of the room.
Bajwa greets the congregation, which begins about 70 strong and soon swells to 100. Chowdhury repeats the call to prayer. Then Bajwa takes the podium and delivers a sermon for the new month of Rabi al-Awwal. It’s the month in which the prophet Muhammad was born and died, a month in which his biography is traditionally reviewed because “in the prophet of God, you have a beautiful example to emulate.”
Bajwa’s sermon is delivered at his signature breakneck speed, as if he has much more to say than time in which to say it. He speaks mostly in English, with Arabic words and phrases familiar to the congregation sprinkled in. Jewish visitors may recognize the sounds of this “sister language” to Hebrew—salam and shalom, for example, both mean “peace.” People of all three Abrahamic faiths are likely to recognize the message. This particular afternoon, illustrations of love, mercy and kindness from the hadith, a collection of sayings and traditions related to the prophet, are all part of the address. Bajwa finishes with one famous hadith in which Muhammad, sitting with his companions, tells them he misses his brothers—and sisters, Bajwa adds. When they remind Muhammad they’re right there beside him, he clarifies that he means the brothers and sisters who will follow. The prophet, Bajwa tells the congregation, wishes to know you more than you can imagine. The service ends with a communal prayer.
One striking characteristic of the jummah gathering is its diversity. Yale’s Muslim community includes gray-haired adults and small children, people of many races and ethnicities and walks of life—not just students, faculty and staff. Many commune after the service for lunch down the hall, a tradition that Bajwa, who became Yale’s director of Muslim life in 2008, says he borrowed from the post-worship coffee hours and gatherings he’d observed among Christian friends.
Yale junior Daud Shad says he hopes visitors will come to worship and stay to eat. “Especially if you don’t know much about Islam, or even if you have a negative connotation with it, it’s important to go out and see for yourself what the religion’s about and what its followers adhere to,” he suggests. “I think it’s really important to learn about the religion because it’s one of the largest in the world, and it’s growing in America, too.” Indeed, the Pew Research Center reports that American adherents of Islam have grown in numbers from about 2.35 million in 2007 to about 3.45 million in 2017 and now make up about 1.1% of the nation’s population.
“As human beings, when we think of different people, the first feeling is an anxiety, and we don’t know how they will see us, we don’t know how they will treat us, we [worry we] won’t fit in,” sophomore Amal Altareb says. But she hopes people will step “beyond that anxiety, that first ‘I won’t understand them, they won’t understand me’” and look for the things that unite us.
It begins with sitting beside one another.
Jummah Prayers at Yale
Dwight Chapel – 67 High St, New Haven (map)
Fridays at 1 pm (open to the public)
Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.