Recently, Twitter user Amy Mek shared a video of a public prayer on the street. What looked like a scene out of a Muslim majority country in fact took place, as she pointed out, in New York.
Not in Pakistan, Afghanistan or Egypt, but in Queens, NY – June 2019.
Noise complaints are ignored… pic.twitter.com/j0Y0rxBlUw
— Amy Mek (@AmyMek) August 6, 2019
As the conversation around Islam continues to unfold, one of the puzzling scenes is that of Muslim public prayers usually carried out on the open street. In the digital age, it’s not hard to capture a video and share it on social media. And without any further information, it’s very easy to run with the video and jump on the bandwagon bashing Muslims for their faith.
The question of public prayers needs to be addressed, but it’s a layered conversation that depends on the context.
Mek described the event as taking place in June of 2019, which raises another question: Was this an Eid prayer?
Eid prayers usually happen in an open public space like a park and with a permit — not on a public street. Park prayers allow Muslims to gather together on a day the celebrates community, without being a public nuisance to non-Muslim neighbors.
Performance prayers — like public prayers in ridiculous places often causing inconvenience to others — is another issue. There’s nothing in Islam that says prayer should be a spectacle. On the contrary, prayer is meant to be private, and offered where and when possible without causing an issue for others. Street prayers where either one Muslim or a community of Muslims obstruct roadways or walkways is plain anti-Islamic.
When I was living in Japan, I had a group of devout Indonesian and Philippino Muslim friends who never missed prayers. It didn’t matter where we were, we found a spot to pray in. As a South Asian Muslim, I was more accustomed to the idea that you can always do a kazaa prayer, which is a “late” prayer that allows you to make up what you missed.
Instead, with this group, I prayed on time. It was an entirely new experience for me and deeply spiritual to put a relationship with the Divine ahead of the time or space you were in. Still, our prayers were never obstructing others.
We prayed in a nook outside a museum once, the building sheltering us from the rain and using the half-drenched concrete as our prayer mat. We used rain water for wazuu, the ritual washing before offering prayers. Another time we were in a subway station and prayed by the side of the wall, away from the foot traffic.
Some people looked, others didn’t care, but the point was we fulfilled our spiritual duty without it being a theatrical spectacle or public nuisance, which is what prayer is meant to be.
These acts of invasive street prayers need to be called out by other Muslims. It further damages our reputation as Americans and does us no favors when it comes to creating peace with our communities. Public prayers on open streets and sidewalks are one thing and one thing only: obnoxious.