It’s noon on a Friday. Dozens of men in baseball caps and kufis overflow from the men’s section into the main hall of the Imam Al-Khoei Islamic Center, slowly settling into rows. Behind a curtain, nine women sit on the floor, scattered throughout the expansive women’s section.

 

Sheikh Fadhel Al-Sahlani, the imam of the mosque, strides up to a dark wood podium. He looks the part with his clipped graying beard and scholarly glasses. He wears a white turban and a brown flowing robe.

 

“There are a lot of [theories] about the martyrdom, the death, of Sayyeda Fatima Zahra…” Al-Sahlani begins. He speaks a halting but florid English, his Iraqi accent carried by the microphone.

 

He refers to Fatima, the daughter of Prophet Muhammad, as “sayyeda,” leader, and “zahra,” lady of light. Fatima is a celebrated figure in Shia Islam as both Muhammad’s daughter and the wife of Ali, the first Shia imam.

 

While mosque-goers gather weekly for a sermon and Friday prayers at Al-Khoei – on the corner of the Van Wyck Expressway and 89th Avenue – today is special. It’s the 20th day of the Islamic month of Jumada al-Awwal, one of the three times a year Shias commemorate Fatima’s death in 632 C.E.

 

“You cannot ignore your history,” Al-Sahlani continues. “You have to study the life of Sayyeda Zahra to find out which is the right road to be followed and where is the wrong road to be followed.” He gesticulates with his right hand for emphasis, his left gripping the podium.

 

As the imam speaks, a stream of girls filter into the women’s section in navy blue dresses and light blue hijabs, students from the Al-Iman School next door. Their clothes match but with their own individual touches – different waistlines, pockets, and pleats. Some wear their hijabs like a kerchief, others wrapped like a headscarf. Small children peek glances at the older women. Teens whisper to each other as school staff in stickered nametags guide students into neat rows.

 

Al-Sahlani continues, describing Fatima as a fighter for justice and “the connector” between four major leaders in Islam: Muhammad, Ali, and her sons Hassan and Hussein. He emphasizes her role as a loving daughter, citing one of her reverential titles “umme abiha” or “mother of her father” because she was said to treat her father with a maternal level of kindness.

 

Kids “in this society” are often more rebellious than Fatima, the imam says. And once they become adults, you can’t try to change them.

 

“The tree when it’s raised straight, and you take care for it, it will remain straight,” he says. “But if you leave it for the wind, then it will be curved, and this curve will continue for the rest of their life.”

 

That’s why religious education is so important to him. “When we teach our children, when we teach our daughters,” Fatima should be upheld as a model, he says. “Hopefully they will follow half of what Sayyeda Zahra taught us.”

 

The girls watch Al-Sahlani on a wide-screen TV from the women’s section. The little ones fidget with their scarves. Some of the older girls chatter and giggle softly, gently quieted by teachers who don’t look much older. If they’re aware the imam is talking about them – daughters – they don’t show it.

 

Al-Sahlani goes on to praise the marriage of Fatima and Ali, citing a passage from Bihar al-anwar, an 11th century collection of Shia teachings and stories. According to the text, Ali said he never made Fatima angry, he never forced her to do anything she didn’t want to do, she never upset or disobeyed him, and when Ali looked at her, “all my sadness, all my problems… disappear.”

 

There’s a pause, then a wave of murmurs like leaves rustling. One voice rises, then another and another. The congregation is punctuating Al-Sahlani’s sentence with salawat, a phrase Shias say when they hear the names of the prophet and his family members.

 

“Allāhumm-a Ṣall-i ‘Alā Muḥammad-in Wa Al-i Muḥammad.”

 

“Oh Allah, may you grant peace and honor on Muhammad and his family.”

 

Al-Sahlani chuckles. He didn’t pause for people to say salawat, he says. He was just struck by the quote. Who sees his wife and forgets his problems?

 

The men laugh. A couple women smile. The kids continue to look preoccupied.

 

“I don’t know why people [are] laughing,” Al-Sahlani says with the grin of a man who just made a dad joke.

 

In a more serious tone, the imam encourages couples to emulate Ali and Fatima’s partnership, and soon after, the sermon slips seamlessly into Friday prayers. On the women’s side, teachers drop multi-colored rosaries into children’s outstretched hands. They bow together as the prayer leader’s voice rises and falls.

 

As soon as they’re finished praying, teachers usher the girls out of the room and back to school. There’s an announcement in the background. That night and the next, there would be more programming to commemorate Fatima, and the following weekend, a forum on domestic violence.