At 534 Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, just west of the hulking Barclay’s Center, sits the Islamic Guidance Center. It’s an unassuming two-story building, cream-colored, with arched windows and a facade that mimics the shape of a dome at the top.

The masjid sits on a stretch of Atlantic that’s lined with Muslim businesses–Halal shops, travel agencies and convenience stores stocked with date syrup and halva. There’s even another masjid right across the street, albeit of the Sunni variety.

According to the Pew Research Center, Muslims make up less than 1 percent of the US adult population–about 1.8 million Muslims, 63 percent of whom are immigrants. In the United States, only 11 percent of Muslims identify as Shia, compared to the 65 percent who identify as Sunni. This disparity explains the scarcity of Shia masjids; there are none in Manhattan.

On a recent Monday, the mosque is slow to fill up. By 12:08, the designated time on this day for the noon prayer, or zuhr, to begin, there is only one worshipper in the mosque.

His name is Ali, and he’s a convert from the Sunni tradition. Lit only by a few yellow ceiling fixtures and the weak winter sunshine, Ali sits in the middle of the chilly masjid, facing Mecca, in a folding chair. He walks with a cane, so is unable to prostrate himself on the floor as most Muslims do. About three feet in front of him is a round stone, on which his eyes are fixed.

Moments later, the sheikh–the preferred term for imam in this tradition–Kadhim Mohammed, sweeps into the room, his brown robe trailing behind him. There’s no formal muezzin here, although the one from the Sunni mosque across the street is audible. But Sheikh Mohammed thunders out “Allahu akbar!”—God is great!–to a similar effect and grabs two stones from a basket near the door, without breaking his stride. The stones, called turbah, are one thing that distinguishes this Shi’a mosque from the Sunni one across the street.

Explaining the stones, or turbah, after the service, Mohammed says, “When we pray, we must bear down on the earth.” There are no prayer rugs here, just the turbah. Mohammed has a permanent black mark on his forehead, from years of bearing down into the stone.

As the prayers get underway, more men trickle in, including a businessman in a black turtleneck, who hurriedly snatches a turbah on his way to join the prayers. An older gentleman takes his turbah unhurriedly and goes to join the others. Toward the end of the salah, they’re joined by a quiet young man dressed all in black.

The congregants, with the exception of Ali, move in unison; first, their hands go behind their ears as they proclaim, “Allahu akbar!” and set their intentions for the prayer. Then down go their arms, to the sides, instead of crossed over the chest as Sunnis do. They bend down at the waist, in the position known as ruku, and rise up for a breath.

That brief, tense moment is shattered by sujud, the position of prostration. Sheikh Mohammed brushes his hands back with a flourish, his robes catching the air like wind in a sail. His head, adorned with a pristine white covering, moves toward the turbah as though both are magnetized.

The turbah is important to Shi’a because they believe that Muhammad prayed outside, according to Dr. Najam Haider, a scholar of Shi’a Islam at Barnard College. Turbah comes from the Arabic word turab, which translates to “ground” or “dust.” The stone is a marker of Shi’a practice, one of the small and symbolic, but important ways that it differs from Sunni. Says Sheikh Faiyaz Jaffer, the Shi’a chaplain at New York University, “The goal of religion is to get closer to God. In the Islamic tradition, the best way to do that is to practice the way Muhammad did,” hence practicing in nature—or at least with a bit of nature in your practice. Jaffer expounds on the theology, too: “Using the turbah makes you humble yourself more.”

Ideally, the turbah comes from the soil of Karbala, the site of Hussain ibn Ali’s martyrdom and one of Shi’a Islam’s holiest sites. However, the turbah can be anything natural—a stone, a plant, even paper. Dr. Haider says that some masjids in Africa use straw mats to incorporate the concept of turbah into their prayers.

But in the Brooklyn masjid, there are round beige discs, almost like small hockey pucks, which the assembled faithful keep humbling themselves against.

The salah continues, each congregant silently reciting his own prayer. Then suddenly, Ali lets out a wail: “Allaaaaaahh!” The other two congregants begin vocalizing their own prayers, holy mumbles commingling, weaving in and out of each other.

Like waves tumbling onto shore, the men’s prayers ebb in and out of audibility, punctuated every so often with an “Allahu akbar” or “al hamdulilah.” The men prostrate themselves over and over again, rushing toward the turbah in what seem to be moments of wild abandon in an otherwise regulated and predictable service.

Then, like an arrow comes the Imam’s clear, resonant voice, intoning, “Allahu akbar” to call the salah to a close. To say he silences the congregants wouldn’t be accurate, although their individual prayers cease. Instead, in that one moment, he’s drawing in all the other prayers, braiding them together into one.
Later, when asked about this moment in the salah, the Imam explained, “We praise God for His own characteristics. We love Him, He is one. As long as He is one, we can love Him.”

Statistics from Pew Research Center

Section 2: Religious Beliefs and Practices

Imam Kadhim Mohammed


Faiyaz Jaffer

Najam Haider