For Shia Muslims, a special place for Fatimah, daughter of Muhammad

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.

 


For the devout Shia Muslim, Thursday night is also a time for prayer

On a recent Thursday just after nightfall in New York’s borough of Queens,  cars whoosh by on the Van Wyck Expressway, faintly honking in the distance. But inside the Imam Al-Khoei Islamic Center, the day is hardly over – even though mosque-goers have already finished the last of their five daily prayers.

 

On Thursdays, Shia Muslims traditionally recite Dua Kumayl, an extra prayer they attribute to Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and the first Shia imam. It’s not obligatory; just a highly-respected custom.  One place where it is taken seriously is  at Al-Khoei at the corner of Van Wyck Express Way and 89th Avenue.

 

In the curtained-off women’s section, a community member, Zehra Zaida, finishes her final prostration, her forehead resting for a moment on her turbah, a traditional clay tablet, before she rises. She finds a spot against the wall of the women’s section and sits down on the plush Persian carpeting, a slim Arabic book in her lap. Her daughter sits next to her and fills in a bubble chart with names of the prophet’s family. Her son holds a book of his own, though he’s hardly old enough to read it.

 

On a large, flat-screen TV, Zaida can watch the prayer leader sitting on the floor of the men’s section just behind the gold curtain, a microphone angled toward him. His voice rises mournfully in a minor key:

 

“Bis-millahir-rahmanir-rahim…”

 

“In the name of Allah, the all-merciful, the all-compassionate…”

 

The other worshippers read the words quietly to themselves from their books and iPhones.

 

“Oh Allah, forgive me for those sins which draw down adversities.”

“Oh Allah, forgive me for those sins which alter blessings.”

 

“Oh Allah, forgive me for those sins which hold back supplication…”

 

As the singsong notes waft over the divide, the tone of the room shifts. An older woman in a checkered headscarf, a tissue balled up in her right hand, seems to hold back tears.  Zaida’s wide brown eyes are serious, her long black hijab draped around her. She also sniffles quietly.

 

“Oh Allah, I find no forgiver of my sins, nor concealer of my ugly acts, nor transformer of any of my ugly acts into good acts but you,” the prayer leader continues.

 

“There is no God but you.”

 

The prayer goes on to appeal to God’s mercy. It asks God to forgive the reader for “every sin I have committed and to every mistake I have made,” to enable humility and gratitude. It begs God to come close, to build a relationship with the reader despite her human frailties.

 

“Some part of it makes us scared of our sin,” Sheikh Fadhel Al-Sahlani, the imam of the mosque, explained later that night. “Some part of it gives us [a] kind of hope [in] the mercy of God.”

 

Dua Kumayl also poses an argument to God, Al-Sahlani said. “If Your mercy is everywhere, where will You put me to punish me?” The prayer reminds people to do better, but also reminds God that punishment is against the divine nature, he said. Dua Kumayl ultimately “gives a hope and also gives a precaution.”

 

According to Shia tradition, Imam Ali imparted the prayer to his companion Kumayl Ibn Ziyad Nakha'i, who memorized it and shared it with others in the seventh century.  Eventually, it was written down and named for Ali’s friend. While Shias can recite Dua Kumayl anytime, it’s customarily said on Thursdays, the eve before Jummah or Friday prayers. It’s also recited on the 15th day of Sha’ban, a holiday in the lunar month before Ramadan. Traditionally an auspicious day for God’s forgiveness, Shia communities spend the entire evening in prayer.

 

Zaida has been reciting Dua Kumayl every Thursday night since she was a kid. Now she brings her own children to the mosque to hear it. It’s a commitment. The prayer generally takes up to 30 minutes to read. There are only five other women there, compared to the 20 or so men who also braved the below-zero cold that evening. But it helps her to introspect and set her intentions for the week.

 

“We try our best to do all the good deeds, but still, we are human,” she said. “We do so many sins and mistakes… Every Thursday, it’s a reminder for us that we have to [stay] away from the bad deeds and stay on the right path. It’s constantly asking for forgiveness.”

 

The imam’s voice rises and falls, and Zaida continues to murmur. She occasionally leans toward her son to playfully bump foreheads, breaking the night’s somber tone if just for a moment.

 

Twice, the room joins together in a refrain set to a simple tune that sounds like a sigh.

 

“Ya rab-bi ya rab-bi ya rabb.”

 

“Oh lord, oh lord, oh lord.”

 

It’s 9 p.m. Zaida has been at the mosque since nearly 7:30. After a few more interludes of private prayer with the imam’s voice alone in the background, the congregation  joins together for the final words of Dua Kumayl.

 

“Bless Muhammad and Muhammad's household, and do with me what is worthy of You.”

 

“And Allah bless His messenger and the holy Imams of his household, and give them abundant peace.”

 

Zaida and the other women exchange kisses on the cheek and filter out of the mosque, the Van Wyck Expressway a little less busy now. They’ll be back next week.