CPWR’s “Sharing Sacred Spaces” Program Has Its Finale at the Chicago Downtown Islamic Center

The 99 Names of Allah, on display at the entrance to the prayer area of the Downtown Islamic Center, Chicago. On each tile is an attribute of God, which Muslims use to help understand and worship God. Photo from CAIR-Chicago.

by Sarah Fentem

Mohammed Kaiseruddin, a member of the Downtown Islamic Center Board, is the first to admit there is nothing intrinsically special about the space that houses the Downtown Islamic Center (DIC).

“The DIC spaces are hardly unique”, he said.  “If anything, the DIC demonstrates that our place is sacred not because of its design but because of its use.”

The DIC can only be found if you know where to look. Housed in multiple stories of a former commercial building on State Street downtown, the mosque blends seamlessly into the retail shops around the Jackson Street Red Line stop, its front door easily confused with the entrance of the apparel store adjacent.

The DIC was the final destination for the Council for a Parliament of World Religions’ “Sharing Sacred Spaces” project, a series of events that brings together different Chicago-area communities of faith and practice. Since October, one of eight participating faith communities has opened their doors each month to showcase their sacred space and share their beliefs and traditions.

The Downtown Islamic Center served as a fitting capstone for the program, demonstrating Sacred Spaces creator and Chicago architect Suzanne Morgan’s affirmation that “spaces become sacred through the meaning they have for the members of their communities.“ What makes a space holy is not what the building looks like for, as in the case of the Downtown Islamic Center, appearances can be deceiving. Instead what counts is what goes on inside.

Originally established as a space for Muslims working downtown to attend daytime prayers, the building was more of a “home away from home” than a religious center in its own right.  In the past 15 years, however, the DIC has grown to become a large and vibrant religious presence downtown, with the weekly Friday prayers (Jumu’ah) attracting hundreds of people.

The youngest of the three Abrahamic religions and the world’s second largest religion after Christianity, Islam has 1.5 billion followers, or 1 Muslim for every 5 people worldwide. The defining statement of Islam is “there is none worthy of worship except God, and Muhammad is His messenger.” Muslims live lives based on the Qur'an, taken to be the literal words of God revealed to Muhammad, His prophet.  Islam is based on the 5 basic acts of faith (“pillars”) as the declaration of faith in God, praying five times a day, giving to charity, fasting during the month of Ramadan, and performing pilgrimage in and around the holy city of Mecca at least once during a lifetime.

Visitors to the May 12 event were able to witness afternoon daily prayers. Visitors were ushered into a large, mostly unfurnished space on the 5th floor of the building, which could have easily been mistaken for a conference room or banquet hall at a hotel or university, save for one ornately lit, marble-covered corner on the Northeastern side of the room and diagonal, parallel lines drawn across the carpet.

The marble corner, or mihrab, is a niche that indicates the direction in which Muslims are to pray, or qiblah. No matter where they are in the world, Muslims face towards the Kaa'bah, a sacred stone building at the Great Mosque in Mecca, said to be built by Abraham (in Chicago’s case, to the Northeast).  Those taking part in prayer at the DIC faced the Mihrab and, guided by the lines in the carpet, lined up neatly touching shoulder to shoulder. Except for the initial call to prayer, the praying was mostly silent.

Before entering the main prayer area on the fifth floor, visitors were asked to either remove their shoes or don fabric booties over their footwear before walking on the carpet. The removal of shoes is customary in mosques as a way to show respect when one stands before God. For the same reason, the DIC has two locker-room like facilities on the fourth floor so worshippers can perform wudu, or ritual cleansing, before praying.

Even for the visitors, the rituals lend a sense of holiness to the space. When forced to pay close attention to normally mundane activities like walking across a carpet, a person is made to become similarly aware of the things one says and does.

The holy feeling permeates the entire space. “The DIC is my spiritual home in Chicago,” said Ahmed Nyamuth, a DIC member. “As soon as I cross its threshold….a kind of peace and tranquility descend on me.”

While most Americans might think of the Middle East when they think of Islam, Muslims are most numerous in Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, a statistic reflected in the makeup of the DIC community. As the center has grown though, so has the diversity, making the DIC home to what Chairman Syed Khan calls “A true rainbow of Muslims.” The DIC is made of immigrants and Americans of all age groups and walks of life.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the DIC is that it is run entirely by volunteers. The center is governed by a voluntary board, with administrators and services taken over by members of the community. Knowledgeable Muslims like professors give weekly sermons, and any capable person in attendance is able to lead daily prayers.

The fact that the center is run entirely by volunteers emphasizes the commitment and love its members have for their faith and their community. Said Qudsia Khan, “I feel blessed that such a space is easily and readily available to me,” underscoring a “Sacred Spaces” visitor’s comment during the tour: “It’s the people who gather that make the sacred space.”

Click here to learn more about Sharing Sacred Spaces and join us at our culminating event on the Federal Plaza on June 10th!

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