You might have heard the sound of Islamic prayers in films, news coverage, in a documentary, or perhaps while visiting a mosque. However, have you noticed that most depictions show the prayers from a male perspective? Apart from a few documentaries and shows by Muslim women, the media portrayals usually illustrate only men’s practices and experiences of prayer.

This exhibit will combine audio, visual, and textual narratives to offer a window into the prayer experience from the perspectives of women in U.S. mosques in Chicago and Southern California. As a scholar of religious studies and an ethnographer who is also a Muslim American and a woman, this narrative and the audio recordings were affected by my personal experience. Therefore, I also decided to focus on my personal auditory experience, which conveys a lot about women’s experiences in mosques throughout the U.S. and beyond.

My experience as a woman attending prayers during COVID was heightened as I was often the only woman or one of a handful attending prayers. As mosques began to reopen carefully and slowly in the middle of 2020, some went as far as only to allow men, banning women, children, and sometimes senior citizens from attending. Women’s attendance at mosques in the US has already been historically lower than men’s, not usually exceeding more than 20% at Jumu’ah (Friday) prayers, which is the most attended prayer service in the week. Couple this phenomenon with COVID, and fewer women than ever decided to risk attending prayers.
To get the best sound quality of a prayer service, logically, a recording device would need to be placed next to the person leading the prayers. As women typically pray in the back of mosque prayer halls or sometimes in entirely different rooms, I made strategic decisions about where to place my recording device. As I have never been able to pray at the front of a mosque, where the sound quality would be superior, I wanted to capture the sound quality that is usually available to me because of my gender.

Sometimes I asked male congregants to position the recording device at the front of the hall by the imam to get a clear recording of the service. At other times, I purposely kept the device with me to give people an auditory sense of praying in the back of a room or a completely different area altogether. When the device was at the front of the room, the sound quality was clear, whereas when it was with me, it was crackly, and other noises could be heard, such as air conditioning, echoes, and other distractions. This accurately represents the auditory experiences of Muslim women in U.S. mosques. Hind Makki has cataloged the spatial and visual experience of mosques in the U.S. and around the world on her blog, Side Entrance.

More conservative mosques prefer to have private prayer areas in the mosque set aside for women. Often the women are hidden from the main prayer area for men, either on a separate floor, behind a partition, or in an adjacent room. Men sometimes prefer not to get “distracted” by women so they design mosques to help facilitate this. Some women enjoy their privacy and would rather not be seen by men during their prayer times or socializing with their friends, whereas other women prefer to pray in the main prayer space next to or behind the men. The interpretations about the placement of women’s sections in mosques vary widely from mosque to mosque and can be a contentious issue in some Muslim communities.

As you read the narratives of my visits to the mosques, take a listen to the accompanying audio. The clips offer glimpses into the sonic landscape of these sacred spaces, but with particular focus on how they sounded from a gendered perspective. In some of the examples, you can listen to the same prayer session, one recorded from the front of the men’s section and the other one recorded from the women’s section. Notice the difference in sound quality and other noises that enter into the audio field when one is farther from the main prayer area.

Project Context

When I began my research, I intended to record the sounds of Muslims praying in public places, away from the mosque, the area where Muslims are usually seen engaged in prayer. I wanted to explore this, as most Americans are exposed to the audio and visuals of prayers in Hollywood films and other places such as the news media.

In these depictions, one seldom comes across ordinary Muslims praying in unexpected places. Whereas most Muslims don’t pray in mosques regularly, the primary way that Americans are exposed to Muslims praying is in mosques. In reality, Muslims who pray might be doing it more often in their workplace, the park, in a church or synagogue (it’s not uncommon for Muslims to rent out other communities’ sacred spaces for communal prayers), their school or university, an empty hotel conference room, or in the dressing room of Target.

Muslims who pray in these more public and secular spaces often choose to do so despite the possibility of being harassed or even attacked. I was particularly interested in the aural qualities of this experience and in hearing the sounds of Muslims praying out loud amidst everyday American sounds: in a church, hearing the intense echoes of the imam leading his congregants in Friday prayer; in a park, hearing the sounds of play on a nearby playground; in a conference room, hearing the sounds of nearby conversations and rustling bodies; as Muslims pray on their own, hearing their quiet whispers. These sounds offer up a very different soundscape of Muslim ritual sounds, depicting more variety and diversity with regards to what Islamic prayers sound like.

I was getting ready to begin my project in March 2020 when COVID started to spread like wildfire. All of a sudden, our entire lives moved from public spaces to the privacy and safety of our own homes. I could no longer find any Muslims praying or doing anything outdoors, especially in the early months. Mosques shut their doors tightly and reverted to online programming. As days turned into months, with no sign of an end to the pandemic, I had to consider another way to record the soundscape of U.S. Muslim prayers.

In some parts of the country, mosques began to open (and then close again) during the summer of 2020. This was before vaccines were available, so most people were exceedingly cautious about their interactions with people outside of their bubble.  Visiting Chicago after taking a slow cross-country road trip, I decided to take the utmost caution and venture into indoor places other than my home for the first time since stay-at-home rules went into effect. The mosques were eerily quiet as worshipers were scared to speak to one another and were still adjusting to wearing masks and the COVID etiquette of interacting with other humans. I noticed that the auditory experience in these spaces changed entirely due to the diminished number of people and awkward experience of being indoors so early on in the pandemic.

I wanted to capture this experience with audio, words, and photos. This was an historical moment that might never happen again (God willing), and so the sounds and images of these socially distanced prayers offer a bit of a time capsule to help us remember the devastation that was wrought by COVID-19 and the precautions most people took to stay safe. Muslims and other religious communities lost their physical community for some time, going online for some of their religious practices and events. Even when they were able to attend a mosque in person, it was a much more muted affair than in the past.

What follows is an audiovisual story about how Muslims managed to keep praying together during a pandemic, as well as the sounds of this experience from a gendered perspective. The CDC and local authorities frequently released guidelines for public gatherings throughout the pandemic, especially before vaccines became widespread. As life has gone back to a sense of normalcy in the U.S. and globally, Muslims once again crowd back into mosques, forgetting that they were once banned from being close to one another and that social distancing was the norm for a short time.
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