Planning a visit to the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh?
A little bit about the center…
An Islamic house of worship is called a Mosque in English, or masjid in Arabic. Some Muslims will attend the masjid as many a five times a day for daily prayers, while the greatest weekly gathering takes place a little after noon on Fridays.
Each masjid is often referred to as a “House of God” because it is maintained for the worship of Almighty God the Creator (Allah in Arabic). So the masjid is a respected place that Muslims try to keep clean at all times.
Islamic Centers are managed directly by paid or volunteer staff, as well as an elected board of directors, sometimes called a “Shura” (Arabic for “consultation group”).
The Prayer Hall
The Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, like nearly all mosques in America, will have a lobby area and perhaps a hallway or even stairs that lead to the main prayer hall. All visitors, Muslims and non-Muslims, are expected to take their shoes off before entering the prayer hall. There should be a shoe rack for your convenience. This is because the prayer hall will likely be carpeted, and because as a part of formal prayers, Muslims will prostrate on the floor of the prayer hall, with knees, hands and forehead on the floor. So we want to keep that area clean(!)
You will notice that the prayer hall is oriented northeast, as that is the shortest distance to Makkah, the sacred city that Muslims face during prayers. Muslims face Makkah because it is the site of the Ka`bah, the first house of worship built for humanity by Prophet Abraham.
Separate Spaces, Separate Entrances
Many Islamic centers and masjids across the country and around the world will have not only multiple entrances to the building itself and to the prayer hall, but all separate space for prayer for both women and men. That space could be separated by a permanent wall, a moveable partition, or the two prayer areas could even be on separate floors, like a main floor and a mezzanine, or even separate rooms or buildings. The reason for this is so that the masjid be a place where each individual worshiper be better positioned to focus on their connection with their Creator, and not be tempted to stare at or impress members of the opposite gender or being the focus of another’s unwarranted attention. The masjid is a place where worshipers work not to give numbers to interests but to hand over our helplessness to God for contentment.
What else goes on in a Masjid?
In Muslim majority countries, the masjid is only used for daily and weekly prayer services and occasional admonitions and lectures about Islam. In America however, the masjid has evolved into far more, hence the term “Islamic CENTER”. Islamic centers often have a Saturday or Sunday school, and they may have a Quran school, or even a full-time private pre-k through 12th grade Islamic school joined to the same building! The masjid may also have a cafeteria, banquet hall or basketball court. One should expect to also see an office for the imam, and larger Islamic centers especially in big cities may have support staff. Some Islamic centers also contain libraries, free clinics, and a variety of social services. The ICP has a cafeteria and office suite. Most of the services at this particular masjid are listed elsewhere on this site.
What are the functions of the Imam?
While the imam traditionally leads the daily prayers, their position has evolved significantly in the West. They often engage in interfaith work with leaders of other faiths as well as outreach with local organizations, clubs and schools seeking an Islamic educator. They also teach classes at the masjid for young and old—whether informal in between some of the prayers, or in a formal classroom setting as part of a Sunday school or other curriculum. And just like ministers, Imams will meet with individuals one-on-one by appointment to discuss faith related issues and guide them in their spiritual growth or counsel them through difficult times. Similarly, they will officiate marriages, and assist in funeral proceedings and burials. The imam might also perform research to create Islamic compliant solutions for Muslim dilemmas. With all these duties, some Islamic centers may have multiple imams who each share specific duties.
Common rituals performed at the masjid
- Ablution: this is a ceremonial washing that Muslims perform before observing any formal prayers. Muslims may perform this at home before coming or at the masjid in the washroom before entering the prayer hall.
- Call to prayer (“adhan”): this is a series of Arabic phrases that begin with Allahu Akbar (God is Greater) that one of the worshippers will recite loudly at specific times of the day to signal the beginning of a new prayer block.
- Formal prayer (“Salaat”): this is more than what we usually think of when we hear the word “prayer”. The Islamic formal prayer consists of a series of standings, bowings and prostrations while reciting Quran, praising and invoking Allah. During the congregational prayers, worshipers will line up and perform these actions in unison while the imam leads them through. If you ever see a Muslim sitting or standing still, hands symmetrical, and appear to be looking down, be sure not to disturb them or walk directly in front of them.
- Quran recitation: worshipers may spend some of their time in between regularly scheduled prayers by reciting the Quran in a quiet voice to themselves.
What should I keep in mind during my visit?
It is not required for all Muslims to attend all prayers in the mosque, so you may or may not find a group of people gathered at a given time. If you contact the mosque ahead of time, you may be greeted and hosted by the Imam, or another community member. If you visit during prayer time, female visitors may be guided to the women’s area, while male visitors may be guided to the men’s area. Visitors will be guided to sit quietly in the side or back of the room to observe the prayers. In other cases, there may be a common gathering room where all community members mingle. If you are a non-Muslim but want to join the in the prayer line, you may be asked to stand at the edge.
It is best to ask about parking and doors when you contact the mosque ahead of time or go with a Muslim community member who can guide you.
As for the ICP, street parking is available for up to one hour on Bigelow Boulevard as well as Parkman if you come from that direction. Traditionally, men enter through the main entrance while women have a side entrance on the other side of the playground. But if Muslim women enter through the front, they can either walk through the prayer hall to their section, or they can walk downstairs, to the other side of the cafeteria, and back up to where the women’s regular entrance and shoe racks are. For non-Muslim tour groups, you can expect to enter and congregate in the main lobby where your tour guide will meet you.
· Muslim women cover up during prayer—and upon visiting the mosque by extension. Their traditional dress covers their hair and is wide, non-transparent, and long sleeved and often avoids flashy colors.
· As mosques are sacred spaces for connecting with Allah, it is not appropriate for either men or women to wear shorts or sleeveless tops. In most mosques, visiting women are not requested to cover their hair, although the gesture is welcome. We would hope you do so during your visit to ICP. Long trousers and shirts or t-shirts are suitable for men, and maxi long-sleeved dresses, long skirts or trousers and long-sleeved shirts that completely cover the chest with a hat or scarf covering the hair are suitable for non-Muslim women. Visitors should also avoid wearing any perfume when visiting the masjid.
· Photography is permitted inside of mosques, however, you should seek permission before doing so, and especially avoid photographing children, or any adults without their express consent.
· When meeting Muslims for the first time, it is customary to offer a handshake only to those of the same gender. Many Muslims will nod their heads or place their hand over their heart when greeting someone of the opposite gender. It is advisable to wait and see how the person initiates the greeting.
· Security is a concern at houses of worship, sadly, and so firearms are not allowed inside. Coming to the mosque with excessively baggy clothes, backpacks, or getting “lost” from the tour, etc., might be seen as suspicious behavior which could be followed up with calls to law enforcement or the FBI or further inspection and inquiry from ICP security team.
When visiting a mosque, it is not essential to be overly concerned with the details of etiquette. Muslims are usually very welcoming and hospitable people. As long as you attempt to show respect for the people and the faith, small missteps or indiscretions will certainly be excused. We hope that you enjoy your visit, meet new friends, and learn more about Islam and your Muslim neighbors.
Visiting during Ramadan?
Visitors should be particularly sensitive about smoking, eating, or drinking in the proximity of mosques during the fasting month, though, as many followers of Islam will be giving up these cravings during the daytime.
It is best to visit mosques before sundown during Ramadan to prevent disturbing locals enjoying their potluck-style iftar dinners, which are sometimes hosted inside the mosque. But if the mosque has an open-door policy during Ramadan for its sundown dinners—as ICP traditionally has done, but you should call to make sure—then you are more than welcome to enjoy the free ethnic food.