Taleef Collective

August 19, 2020

Located in the East Pilsen neighborhood of southern Chicago – an up-and-coming, hipster, artsy area– Taleef is different from most mosques in the U.S. It is called a collective rather than a mosque or Islamic center. It is one of the first “third spaces” founded by American-born Muslims; the first was founded in Fremont, California, in 2005, and the second in Chicago in 2010. While the collective holds Friday prayers and some other prayers during events, it is not open for five daily prayers and is more casual than a traditional mosque. It offers programming that appeals primarily to American-born and younger generations of Muslims, including many converts.

I arrived for my first experience of Jumu’ah prayer (Friday prayers) since COVID hit. When I registered, the email they sent me was full of warnings and guidelines, mentioning that they were taking people’s temperatures at the door. I arrived slightly early to be able to set up my recording device. Despite all the warnings, they did not check my registration or take my temperature. They did not seem to adhere to the check-in system guidelines they sent in the email I received.

Upon entering a narrow lobby, I walked through a plain passageway that led to a large hall. The first thing that struck me was the silence in the room despite it being full of people waiting for prayers to begin. Everyone sat in their allotted prayer spaces on their own carpets or on the ground, looking at their phones but not chatting. In regular times, congregants catch up with friends and greet those around them as they get settled in for prayers.
The hall has an industrial look with exposed brick and ducts lining the walls and a very high ceiling. Complementing the aesthetic was a variety of modern Islamic art decorating the walls. I noticed that everyone was carrying their own prayer carpet with them and placed the carpets on the floor on top of taped-off areas, leaving ample space between people. The placement of the Qibla, or direction facing Mecca, was in the corner of the room, so everyone sat in diagonal rows facing the corner, where a simple podium was set up for the imam to give his sermon.

Lined along the floor about two-thirds of the way at the back of the room were silver Ikea lanterns to denote the boundary between men and women. About 25-30 men flowed in leading up to and during the sermon. I sat in the first row behind the lanterns, alongside two other women. I set up my recording device on the side of the room on a raised stage, in between the men’s and women’s sections. I wanted to capture the sound and ambiance of the entire room. At the same time, I also recorded the service on my phone to capture how it sounded from the back of the room where the women sat.

All of the worshipers in attendance wore a mask and hardly anyone spoke with one another. It was eerily quiet compared to the usual pre-COVID hubbub of communal prayers at mosques. The prayer session began with a man giving the call to prayer that resonated throughout the spacious room. The imam gave a short khutba, or sermon. Listen to a recording of the khutba from the men’s section and one from the women’s section. Right after, the imam led the congregation in Jumu’ah (Friday) prayers. Listen to a recording of the Friday prayers from the men’s section and one from the women’s section.

Because of the room’s spaciousness, the sounds of people quietly chatting echoed throughout the entire hall, as did the sound of the air conditioning. The small number of people in attendance were careful about socially distancing themselves from one another. As soon as the prayers ended, the imam gave a warning about social distancing and sadly informed the congregation that the collective had canceled Eid celebrations due to fears about COVID.

Most people dispersed quickly, with very few people chatting with one another and others sticking around to complete their Sunnah (additional) prayers. Within a few minutes, everyone was gone, unlike pre-COVID times when people often linger to socialize with their friends and congregate for an hour or more at the mosque after Jumu’ah prayers.
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