Tarawih at the Secret Mosque: On accessibility, community, and Ramadan

As I turned onto the side street, my pulse quickened a bit in anticipation. The setting sun painted the sky a rich orange. While the new crescent moon could not be seen this far north, I knew it had been sighted a few hours earlier in South America. Ramadan was about to begin.

It wasn’t just the start of Ramadan I was excited about. For the first time in my nearly 17 years as a Muslim, I would be joining the tarawih prayers at a mosque tonight.

For a long time, tarawih had seemed an impossibility. I’m not able to drive and am dependent on public transportation, yet the buses don’t run late enough to get me home from a mosque after midnight. When Ramadan is in June, the nightfall prayer (`ishaa) comes after 11 pm and tarawih follows after that.

I “remosqued” in January 2015, but had to pray tarawih at home that Ramadan. Several months later, the prospect of a new mosque in town got my hopes up, but that project did not come to fruition.

Then in November, completely by chance, I discovered there was already a second mosque in my city. It doesn’t appear in any of the listings Muslims have made of local mosques. Nobody had mentioned it in any of the discussions about the proposed new mosque. If I hadn’t come across its filing as a charity online, I might still be unaware of its existence.

I remember staring blankly at the charity filing when I saw its address was just half a mile from my home. There’s a secret second mosque here and it’s within walking distance?! Truly, when Allah takes away one thing, it is often to give us something He knew would be better.

The Friday after finding the charity filing, I headed out at mid-day to the address it had listed. Down a side street across from the local high school, tucked between a Ukrainian church and a Hindu temple, I found an unmarked building – I could have walked right by it and not realized it was a mosque. But I saw a couple of Somali women in long veils going in, so I followed them. (I suppose that’s one way to figure out where the side entrance is!)

It was indeed a mosque and I’d arrived just in time for the Friday jumu’ah service. Only about half a dozen women were present, and there was no signage to indicate any events or activities. As I continued to attend jumu’ah over the coming weeks at what I thought of as the “secret mosque”, I learned that it was very new. They had only finished remodeling the interior a few months earlier and would not hire a permanent imam for another month or two.

Many of the things that had frustrated me about my old mosque are still issues at the secret mosque. The women pray in our own room closed off from the men’s prayer space, so I’ve never seen the imam. Information about prayer times, events and activities is shared almost entirely by word-of-mouth through family and ethnic community networks – something that doesn’t work for me as an unmarried female convert. The khutbah (sermon) in early January about how it is forbidden to say “Happy New Year” to non-Muslims tipped me off that this is a strict salafi mosque – a school of thought I don’t follow.

And yet… and yet being able to walk to the mosque and back saves me 50 minutes on Fridays compared to taking the bus to the old mosque. With my accessibility limitations, getting to a mosque had been a significant burden, and now it’s not. For that alone, it would be worth it.

Now, tonight, it would be worth it again. Tonight, the first night of Ramadan, I was at the mosque.

The building is still unmarked. While the men’s entrance was open at sunset and a few brothers chatted in the parking lot, they had to unlock the women’s door to let me in and the lights were off in the prayer space. I began the maghrib prayer standing alone, following the imam via loudspeaker. This mosque is still a community in the making, and it shows sometimes.

A couple of sisters joined me partway through the prayer, though. More trickled in over the next two hours as I read Quran and made remembrance of Allah, and by the time we stood up for the `ishaa prayer, about two dozen women were present.

I wouldn’t call my secret mosque “home”; I’m on the margins there and probably always will be. But it’s the first Muslim space in 17 years that’s genuinely accessible for someone like me. It’s the first time in 17 years I’ve had any connection with community in Ramadan.

As I left the mosque at 12:35 am and started the 10-minute walk home, that thought made me choke up a little. Thank you, secret mosque!


Laura Poyneer is a convert who lives near Seattle. Her writing has appeared at Love InshAllah, altMuslimah, Hindtrospectives, and Patheos altmuslim. She volunteers with the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative and with Rabata. Follow her on Twitter at @muhajabah.


Photo Credit.

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