One Friday afternoon, I went to do one of my four self-selected field trips for school, at a mosque in the Tenderloin. The building that houses it is old and shabby. I took the elevator up to the third floor and there, lo and behold, was a mosque taking up nearly an entire floor.
I met with the imam in their library before the sermon and prayers to ask for his advice on caring for Muslim patients. The imam set out a chair for me opposite his folding chair, a good six feet away, and told me that, with San Francisco real estate so expensive, there are few mosques in the city. Most choose locations in the suburbs. This mosque is, on the one hand, in the heart of the city and quite convenient to downtown and the Civic Center, but also in a pretty lousy neighborhood, which is what makes it possible for it to be there. The imam said it is the largest mosque in San Francisco and that there are three or four other smaller mosques in the city.
He said the mosque is open for prayers five times a day, seven days a week. He said it’s perfectly possible to pray on one’s own, but it’s nice for people to do this in community. He said they rely on donations to keep going, but don’t have members per se: “Whoever comes, comes.” He estimated that 300-400 people visit, with maybe 50 of those being women; children also attend. Members of the community volunteer to help with essential tasks.
He said it is not necessary for an actual imam to lead the daily prayers. Someone (a male someone) with proper familiarity with the Koran can do it. Besides the daily prayers and the Friday sermon and prayers, other activities are support for the 30 days of fasting at Ramadan. The mosque offers food at the end of each day, as it can be hard for a student or working person to fast and attend school or work all day and then prepare food. They also celebrate the ten days in August when people traditionally make a pilgrimage to Mecca.
The imam said that when he is not at the mosque, he visits people who are in the hospital, and he visits schools to teach about Islam, and offers spiritual direction to students who are Muslim.
Around 1 p.m., people started arriving for the sermon and prayers. The imam selected a scarf from a rack in the library for me to borrow, showed me how to put it on, and smiled at the effect. I made my way to the women’s area, in a rear corner of the large main room. The carpeting is raspberry colored, with green stripes. The walls and ceiling are painted dull yellow and orange. There are colorful tiles and panels here and there, and pillars throughout the room with rugs or tapestries fastened around them at the bottom—decorative elements and also soft places for people to lean against.
I watched the room slowly fill with people, most of whom sat down on the floor; a few sat on folding chairs. Eventually, there may have been 300 men and 30 women. When I realized that was the ratio, I felt slightly nervous, as I have read and do believe that places where there are way more men than women tend to be unsafe for the latter. However, I felt I was unlikely to be victimized at a worship service. It took me longer to realize that there were also 330 people of color in the room and precisely one European American, which did not cause me any anxiety at all. (Though I’m not sure that the people in the room all necessarily self-identify as people of color, per my brief research on this topic, so it may not be correct for me to identify them as such.)
The sermon was given, in quite a bombastic manner, by someone other than the imam, a man standing in an ornate area across the room from the women’s area. He delivered his remarks in Arabic and then English. I was annoyed to hear him say something snide about women he knows “who have 200 pairs of shoes.”
Most of the women didn’t make eye contact with me, but a couple, particularly older women, smiled and nodded. It seemed to be acceptable to play religious music on your own phone in the mosque before the service began, and to use your phone for silent activities during the service. Once the service began, everyone stood up and got into rows along the green lines in the carpet, which I then realized were spaced just far enough apart to allow for kneeling during prayers. At some moments, there was chanting, but only by the men; women remained silent throughout.
Afterward, I retrieved my shoes and returned my borrowed scarf to the library, where I said goodbye to the imam. I made my way out of the building in a crowd that seemed to be only men. Most ignored me, but one or two were very polite, motioning for me to go ahead of them. One younger fellow seemed to glare at me, maybe wondering why a woman with an uncovered head was present.
I learned from the imam several pieces of information that will be helpful in caring for Muslim patients in the hospital. I know that learning about a group takes us only so far, as no group is homogenous. The imam also mentioned this, and shared some thoughts. The first was that it’s important not to intrude on the privacy of a male or female Muslim patient—not to look at the patient’s body if it is uncovered or in an immodest position, such as with legs spread. He said that Muslims do not eat pork, which must be taken into account in meal preparation. He said that a Muslim patient might want a Koran, and might want a visit from an imam, and that the best thing I can do as a chaplain is to be responsive to such requests. There probably are not readings I can offer myself, which might well be in Arabic. He said it’s better just to offer patients a Koran.
He said that some male Muslim patients would avoid shaking hands with or otherwise touching a woman, but not all; it depends on the person. (However, he said it’s best not to shake hands in the hospital, anyway, to avoid the transfer of germs.)
He said that Muslims would typically pray to “God” or “Allah,” that either is fine, and that one might begin, “Oh, God,” and continue, “We ask you to heal this person and make things easy for him.” My prayer for healing for the patient can end with “Amen.” When I offer prayers for a Muslim patient, I should have my hands in front of me, fairly close to each other, fairly close to my body, palms up.
When a Muslim patient is approaching death, his or her family must prepare to wash his or her body after death. The family contacts a mosque or funeral home, and then typically the deceased patient is taken from the hospital to the mosque or funeral home for washing, and then prayers are offered at the mosque or the burial site.