Small but Significant: The Use of Turbah in Shi’a Prayer


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


Imam Kadhim Mohammed



Faiyaz Jaffer


Najam Haider

From the Conch Shell to the Saxophone, ISKCON Worship Thrives on Music

Subway trains rumbled underfoot and cars honked outside the ISKCON Center on Schermerhorn Street in downtown Brooklyn, but inside the dimly lit hall, all attention was focused on the man with the conch shell. A priest, draped in simple white cloth with a red border, blew the conch to signal the start of the evening’s gaura arati ceremony.

The conch sound is an essential aspect of the ritual; the sound is said to purify the air of evil spirits, and its high-pitched timbre creates high-energy vibrations that are thought to encourage a more enlightened state of mind. The shell’s trumpet-like buzz drew participants closer to the pitha platform even as the priest himself withdrew behind a gilded curtain to make his preparations.

The crowd clustered around the assistant priest, a tall man who wore a wool sweater and socks in addition to his thin white robes. With a mridangam (a wooden double-headed drum) slung on his shoulder, he began a slow a capella chant. The he began to beat a simple rhythm on one end of the drum, while complicating it with tonal pitch variation on the other drumhead. Participants joined in the song, picking up finger cymbals and raising their voices in the call-and-response pattern.

The music swelled, and the peacock-feather-patterned curtain was pulled back to reveal statues of the deities in elaborately decorated robes. Krishna, flautist and lord of the dance, is the supreme god of ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) followers. He and his consort Radha represent the unity of male and female energy, and offer unconditional love to their devotees.

As the mridangam continued its syncopated patterns, the deities were offered incense, fire, water, cloth, and a pink rose. Once all offerings had been made, the assistant priest laid down his drum and settled himself in front of a small harmonium. A relative newcomer to Indian classical music, the harmonium, a small pipe organ, is now used in bhajans around the world. One hand played the melody, while the other worked the bellows to produce a constant reedy drone. Hari das began singing a plaintive tune, and participants quickly picked up the melody. A chorus of voices crooned, “Namaste narasingaya,” before everyone sank to the floor in a yogic child’s pose.

For the Zopey family, visiting from Los Angeles, the evening gaura arati ceremony was a chance to connect to the oldest ISKCON community in the US. While the first ISKCON temple was established in the East Village in 1966, the Brooklyn location opened in 1968 and has remained the heart of the New York ISKCON movement.

“We wanted to be here, at this temple,” said Lena Zopey. “It’s like a pilgrimage.”

During the ceremony, Lena, still dressed in her peacoat, raised her arms, and swayed as she sang. Her husband Ashok clinked small metal cymbals between his thumb and forefinger, as did several other participants.

“It kind of resonates in your soul, because you become part of the Lord as you chant,” said Lena. “I love the whole process, the process of devotion.”

Ashok especially loved the evening’s music, a Bengali song performed only at the penultimate arati of the night. “Namaste narasingaya” is a song about the half-man, half-lion form that Vishnu once assumed to vanquish a demon, a rakshasa.

The Zopeys’ son Mohan was preparing for a medical school interview the next morning. Visiting the temple to sing “clears my head and makes me feel less stressed,” he said. Though he admits he hasn’t always been observant, the music has drawn him back in. “I’m starting to see that good things happen from this singing.”

Hari das, the evening’s musician, encouraged Mohan to continue his practice. A Nigerian-born saxophone player, Hari das is now content to use his musical talent in his role as assistant temple president.

“It’s like another wind instrument,” he said of his resonant singing voice. He converted in the 1970s after hearing a devotee named Agni dev singing for two hours at a stretch. “I was transfixed,” he recalled.

As Hari das related this story, Lena started in recognition. She, too, converted after hearing Agni dev sing. Both said they were delighted to find that the devotional music is what had brought them to their ISKCON practice.

“There must be something in that, that attracts people,” Lena said.




Taking Out The Torah at Rego Park Jewish Center


Two hundred people might easily fit in the sanctuary of Rego Park Jewish Center – but by 9 a.m. on Saturday morning, barely 10 have taken their seats for the start of the service. As the first hour passes, more and more worshippers filter in, reaching for the prayer books in their niche on the back of the seat. They join in with the service with varying levels of vigor as soon as they find their place on the page.

The building dates back to 1948: its main sanctuary is painted pale green and pink, with wooden wall paneling and unusual Art Deco flourishes, like the two spindly menorahs that flank the stage. The walls are lined with stained glass windows in purples and blues – names like “Sidney and Mary Sekula” or “In Memory of Anna Hess” picked out in white against images of hands, books and scrolls. Two round metal light fittings, gleaming like spaceships, hang from the ceiling. On the stage, two flags – Israel’s and the United States – hang limply to either side.

Rabbi Romiel Daniel stands on the stage and faces away from the congregation, rocking gently backwards and forwards on his heels as he chants in Hebrew. To his left stands the sexton, known as the gabbai, in a black velvet yarmulke. Occasionally, he will call out into the room: “Page 25! Please stand. … You may sit. … Now, page 51…”

A little over an hour into the service, Rabbi Daniel steps to the ark in the center of the stage. It has a purple velvet curtain, embellished with gold and edged in silvery beading. There is a large Star of David in the middle above some Hebrew text. He tugs on a cord once, twice, three times – the curtain opens. Inside, five or six scrolls are nestled snugly together on a shelf, up off the floor. The congregation rises as one and chants together: ‘ein kamocha baelohim adonai v’ain k’maasecha…” (“There is none like Thee among the gods, O Lord, and there are no works like Thine…”)

Four other men come onto the stage to help remove two of the scrolls from their spot on the shelf. The scrolls are the size of small infants: the helpers take them in their arms and hold them against their torsos, resting the wooden ends of the scroll on their right shoulders. One scroll is wrapped in an embellished purple mantle, similar to the curtain that hid it from view; the other in a plainer taupe cloth with a colorful embroidered pattern. The other helpers reach for a dazzling silver crown and a set of matching finials, decked with little bells. Rabbi Daniel takes one of the scrolls from the helper and begins to walk. The others join him, moving slowly down the stairs and in an anti-clockwise direction around the pews.

The men and women of the congregation slip gracefully to the end of their benches, ready to greet the parade. Before, there had been whisperings between them of the outside world (“So windy outside!” said one woman during the chanting, shaking her head), but now there is only the quiet repetition of “Shabbat shalom” from one worshipper to one another. Hands are lightly shaken, but every head is turned towards the procession, like a field of sunflowers looking to the light. The scrolls and the texts they contain may be the central reference and at the center of the liturgy, but more than that, they are at the center of the faith – to be adorned as treasure and, in turn, treasured.

The scrolls are paraded down the aisle: as they pass, people reach out with their prayer books, knocking them against the mantle as softly as a kiss. Almost every man wears a fringed prayer shawl around his shoulders – these too are stretched out over the fingers and touched against the scroll. Some worshippers simply reach out with their bare hands, and then bring their fingers slowly to their lips. They look enraptured.

The procession moves in a U-shape down one aisle, across the back of the room and back up the other, more swiftly than before, before returning to the stage. The crown and finials removed, one scroll is laid on the podium and the other returned to its shelf. The congregation sits once again.


Pleasing the Gods: The Washing of Lord Ganesh

From a back room, a priest emerges. He is wrapped fully in a white robe with red lines around the linen edges. Across his forehead can faintly be seen three white lines; this religious forehead mark delineates his adherence to the Śaiva sect of Hinduism. The priest walks with a bit of a hunch, arms straining at his load. His hands carry a large silver bucket with a long handle; a piece of crinkled aluminum foil loosely covers the top. In the crowd of worshippers sitting in front of the statue, a father prods his inattentive son, gesturing to the bucket excitedly. The boy immediately perks up.

A second priest emerges from the sheltered altar place to receive the bucket, nodding his thanks before pulling off the foil. With the practiced ease of one who has done something thousands of times, he pours the liquid into the smaller, slightly dented vessel. The substance is thick and white and pours out unevenly – some large chunks are mixed inside of the liquid. It is thinned yogurt – a particularly auspicious gift to the gods.

The priest lifts the vessel, and its contents begin to dribble over the elephant head of Lord Ganesha. The process is repeated on the left side, where the deity’s hand clutches a large conch shell, and then on the right, where a stylized axe rests partially across Ganesh’s massive knee. Slowly, the large black granite statue becomes entirely covered, turning Ganesh pure white as the yogurt oozes down him. At this, the devotees gasp and press their palms together. In this moment, Hindus believe the deity is transformed. Suddenly, Ganesh’s features seem more expressive, the objects in his hands pop, and the whole of his being stands out against the matte gray backdrop of the altar.

This ritual is part of The Hindu Temple Society of North America’s weekly service at 45 Bowne Street in Flushing, New York. This service is in honor of Lord Ganesha, who Hindus believe is the son of two other gods, Shiva and Parvati. At 11:00 a.m. on Sundays, devotees, some wearing traditional saris and dhotis, others wearing Western fashion – though all with bare feet – stream into the temple’s large center room and prostrate themselves in front of the center altar. The puja is about to begin, in which Ganesh, the temple’s patron deity, will be worshipped for nearly an hour in a number of rituals, including the washing of the deity with a series of liquids.

  1. Padmanabhan, the temple’s public relations officer, says the purpose of the washing is not only to clean the deity, but also to present it with substances that are particularly sacred in order that the devotees present will receive the pleased god’s blessing.

“Milk, yogurt, honey, fruit juice, coconut water…” Padmanabhan recites reverentially, ticking them off on his fingers, “these are holy things. We give them to the gods because they like it.” He goes on to describe the blessings that each of the gods and goddesses would bestow upon the devotee once they are presented with these gifts. When Ganesh is worshipped, for instance, Hindus believe that he removes the obstacles standing in the devotee’s way – whatever they may be.

Following the washing of the deity with yogurt, the priest leading the service begins running his palm over the deity, rubbing away the whiteness from Ganesha’s trunk, from the crevices of his knees and arms, from his objects and toes, from the scrolled levels of statuary that he sits upon. With quick flicks of the priest’s wrist, the yogurt falls away to the floor. This step has not been undertaken with the other sacred liquids used, and is perhaps done because this will be the thickest substance used to wash Ganesh during the service.

Once a satisfactory amount of the yogurt has been whisked away, the priest once again grasps the smaller silver vessel. This time, it will be used for water instead of yogurt. Quick, expert scooping motions rinse the vessel of the remaining liquid, and then quickly fill it with clean water from a huge tub near the altar. As with the yogurt, the water is poured first over the deity’s head, then his sides. The yogurt hides in some places, but soon Ganesh sits clean and listening and, in the eyes of the devotees, newly consecrated.

At a Sikh Temple in Queens Even the Air Around the Guru Granth Sahib is Holy

An elderly woman approaches the raised platform in a Gurdwara Sikh Center of New York in Flushing, Queens, where the holy book of the Sikhs, the Guru Granth Sahib, rests comfortably on a small bed. For all Sikhs, this platform is immediately recognizable as the takht, the Punjabi word for throne.

The woman’s feebleness is evident through the cane that supports her every move. When she finally arrives at the takht, she drops a dollar as an offering. Then she drops her cane to floor, takes a step back and falls to her knees. She places her head down and stretches her arms out to the Guru Granth Sahib.

Directly across from her, on the other side of the tahkt, an old man adorned in white garments and a white turban waves a traditional ceremonial whisk known as the Chaur Sahib with the flick of the wrist to cleanse the air surrounding the Guru Granth Sahib.

After a succession of living Gurus, the Guru Granth Sahib was appointed as the eleventh and final Guru by the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh. For Sikhs across the world, Guru Granth Sahib, a collection of teachings compiled by the fifth Gurus and his successors, is seen as the ultimate teacher of Sikhs.

According to Sartaj Alag, a practicing Sikh in Virginia, the ritual of the Chaur Sahib represents a symbolic acceptance of the Guru Granth Sahib as a Guru rather than merely a holy book. During the time of the Sikh gurus, it was custom for someone to wave the Chaur Sahib to protect the Guru from the heat and flies. Not only was this a display of deep respect but an opportunity for the volunteer to be as close to the Guru as possible. This traditional act of reverence for the living guru carried over to the Guru Granth Sahi. In this Gurdwara in Queens, both men and women share this coveted role known to Sikhs as the Sevadar.

Another indication of the divinity of the book is the incense that saturates the air near the tahkt. In Hinduism, the smell of incense is said to be the fragrance of the gods. While there is only one god in Sikhism, the use of incense is common in Gurdwaras across the world. Alag suggests that the use of incense to mitigate flagrant smells was common during the time of Gurus. So like with the chaura, the practice of incense continued when Guru Granth Sahib was recognized as the final guru. In his own religious practice, Alag finds the smell of incense conducive to his meditation and reflection on Holy Scripture.


On the right and left corners of the tahkt, bouquets of flowers decorate the holy space of the Guru Granth Sahib. Accorring to Alag the use of flowers in religious display is a tradition carried over from Hinduism with a key difference. In Hinduism flowers are offerings to the gods while in Gurdwaras they are used to create a welcoming environment for both the Guru Granth Sahib and the congregation.

In between delicate bouquets of flowers, nine curved swords, known to Sikhs as kirpans, are carefully laid out. The fierce display of kirpans acts in a symbolic protection of the Guru Granth Sahib. When Sikhism was first founded under Guru Nanak in the 15th century it flourished under the Moghul Emperor Akbar. Although Akbar was Muslim, he was tolerant of other faiths.

Akbar’s successor Jenangir, however, was militantly protective over Islam. Due to the increasing number of Muslim converts, the fifth guru, Guru Arjan Dev was summoned and executed by Jenagir’s orders. The execution had an immediate influence on Guru Arjun’s successor Guru Harobind, who first conceptualized the idea of the kirpan through the notion of the Saint Sipachi, or “saint solider.” The tenth Guru further enhanced the importance of the kripan when he suggested that the kirpan must be one of five religious artifacts every Sikh must wear.


Members of the Sikh congregation expain Sikh Tradition to Columbia Students

Ana Singh

After a moment or two, the woman emerges from her deep bow. She picks up her cane and inches to her left where three Sikh men are singing the punjabi hymms of Shabad from the Guru Granth Sahib while playing traditional Indian instruments. Since the first Guru, Guru Nanak, religious musical expression has been an integral role in Sikh worship as a way to praise God. The poetic lyrics, enhanced by the sounds of the musical instruments, can be heard throughout the Gurdwara.

The woman then walks around to the other side of takht. She gives a brief acknowledgement to the sevador before bending slightly into a light bow to the Guru Granth Sahib.