Religion and spirituality are…complicated. They are philosophical concepts complicated by contextualization per region and time period. Thus, being a female Third Culture millennial Muslim is hard. I appreciate religion and am quite fond of Islam, but I also have my bones with it. I like the closeness with a Divine being. I don’t like the sexist rules dictated by subjective interpretation of ancient scripture (e.g. inheritance law in Islam, whereby sons are left double what daughters are). I like Friday prayer and the community vibes of a congregation and shared messages. I don’t like the blind memorization of a single language text without universal understandings of its teachings. So, religion and spirituality can be a glass case of emotion and internal tumult. Religion and spirituality can also be beautiful and uplifting anchors. It’s complicated.
One example of the real daily struggle of attempting to be whatever the hell a “good” Muslim + human being is: finding the “right” congregation in a new city. One that sings from the same spiritual song sheet, if you will, as your heart and soul. Easy, right?
In November 2019, I moved to LA. In addition to finding a new apartment, yoga studio, go-to-coffee shops, friends, and general directional orientation in that intriguingly manic place, I also had “find masjid’’ on my to do list.
And no, I don’t pray 5 times a day, and no, I don’t wear a scarf, nor do I only eat zabiha (halal) meat (though I don’t eat pork, because…ew), but I do love going to Jummah (Friday prayer). I like that there is this unifying event in every city in every country, anywhere on the planet every Friday. It’s familiar solace in a chaotic and unfamiliar world. It’s a constant I can count on, and draw grounding from no matter where I am.
Sure, some locales are less friendly to the idea of Muslims concentrating en masse for an Allahuakbar session, but we work with what we got. Usually, it’s hard for me to get away from work to get to Jummah, but it’s always a personal treat to me when I can make it. I never really talk about Jummah, mainly because it never comes up, but more importantly because it’s my own personal jam sesh with God, and I prefer not to cramp my style with other people’s opinions or questions about it. In fact, when people learn about my dirty little secret, I often get the loathed, “oh wait I didn’t know you were a GOOD Muslim”, or “I thought you weren’t a GOOD Muslim” or my personal fav, “Wait why?”.
Seeping with ignorance, these statements reduce an entire person’s identity to a rigid set of rules and to-do lists. Not to mention these comments are riddled with hypocrisy and entitlement because, I’m sorry, but what the fuck do you — non-Muslim and/or atheist — know about MY religion?? Or the complexities of reconciling the various elements of religious identity?! Bye, Karen, don’t talk to me.
So, I start googling “Mosques in LA”, and get the 3000 search results for the greater LA area. From there, the search process gets rather arbitrary with regards to ideology or ethnicity. It’s more of an exercise in time efficiency and ability to park. Welcome to LA. I pick the biggest two mosques I find, and vet them with a friend who has lived in LA for a bit longer than me. She also happens to be very socially and politically engaged, which is important, because I can’t be going to a mosque with questionable ideologies or political leanings. Her response: “The first one has trash racial politics, but their gender politics are good”. Ok let’s give it a shot.
Mosque 1: On the day I decided to test drive Mosque Option 1, I was working from home, and realized I was running late after a morning of video calls (pre-Covid, so this was novel), so driving and finding parking was not an option. Of course, LA parking. I hop into an Uber and rush over.
On the way, I realize that my phone is at 20% battery, and there is a high likelihood that my phone dies whilst I’m out in the middle of LA on this spiritual journey. Edging into panic, I ask the Uber driver if I can borrow her charger. Karen responds, “Oh um sorry no, the app uses a lot of battery so I can’t give it to you”. Are you kidding? Ok, stay calm, you’re on your way to be one with God right now, don’t let Karen ruin it for you. I snap a pic of the back of her blond head and blast her to my 200 followers on Instagram. And then, I pray my phone doesn’t die.
We pulled up to our destination. There was one entrance, with a police guard out front. Cool. I love feeling like a criminal when I’m about to get my spirituality on. The vibe inside was reminiscent of my childhood mosque. A little older, mismatched carpets, eclectic congregation. I never much liked my childhood mosque, so this homely vibe wasn’t going to work for me long term, but for now, it got the job done.
The sermon was fine, low key and general. I did love the post-sermon video montage they shared about a member of the community who had passed away earlier that week. An old man who spent his life caring for mentally disabled foster children. Even after his wife passed away, he cared for these children who were forgotten by the system and society. I wept. I stayed for his funeral prayer. Then, back to work. My phone managed to stay alive long enough for me to call another Uber. This time, with a Cuban immigrant driver. We spent the whole ride exchanging life stories in Spanish. The beauty of LA.
And no one was the wiser about my Islaming for the day.
Mosque 2: Despite being a beautifully constructed mosque reminiscent of something you’d see in the Muslim world, its namesake and key funder is a Saudi royal. This gave me pause initially because, well, Saudi Arabia. Where do I start? War on Yemeni civilians, arms deals with anyone, extra judicial killing of a journalist, national policies marginalizing women. You get the idea. Not only do I have to figure out timing and parking, I also need to make sure I’m not inadvertently supporting despotic injustices in my attempt to satiate my spiritual compulsions. Casual.
First, I’m running late because, you guessed it, LA traffic. I arrive at the location on my GPS, but as my luck would have it, I went to the wrong location because I had hastily tapped the wrong saved location pin on my Google maps (my Google map is riddled with pins of places I was endeavoring to explore as I acclimated to the city, most of them cafes).
I rocked up to the cafe, realized my errors, and ran back to my car, all while cursing to my best friend on the phone. Yes, another contradiction — Should I be swearing on Friday, on my way to Friday prayer?!? No, Nancy, I shouldn’t be, but here we are, at a coffee shop in Culver City already 20 minutes late for prayer. I rushed over to the actual address, and as I’d imagined (and seen on a friend’s Instagram) this mosque was MAJESTIC. Gorgeous minaret and dome. Islamic geometric art. I got that familiar feeling I always get when I go to a new mosque — like a warm hug from an admired person in your life assuring you that it’s all good.
But now PARKING. I circled around that mosque for 15 minutes, and proceeded to miss the sermon and prayer. Well, Allah Damn it. As I’m driving around like a looney toon, my friend on the phone is reading me the background and history of the mosque, and the Saudi Prince. “Ok, but was he an evil sociopathic despot??”, I press.
Ok obviously I should have done this research well before, but I’m here now, so damn it I’m praying here. Since I’d missed the congregation prayer, people were starting to leave, and parking was becoming available. As I made my way to the building, the familiar post-prayer meet and greets were in full force. Muslim brothers saying salam and bromancing before heading back to work. I love that part. One guy was selling full plates of Turkish food out of his car. Amazing. I walk up to the parking lot and start looking for the women’s entrance. Oh, there it is. In the back. Like the HELP, I grumble to myself, as I fix my hijab over my curls.
And that’s the thing, I have great affection for something that I often am at odds with. Why does the women’s entrance have to be in the back? Why is the most beautiful mosque in LA financed by a possible supporter of state sanctioned terrorism? Am I still a good person if I practice in a place like this? Can I be a good person AND a good Muslim AND be my truest self? Which is what in this moment? A young Muslim woman trying to go to Friday prayer, who uses curse words, and doesn’t appreciate human rights abuses? Ugh I’m EXHAUSTED. It’s exhausting.
What is good, anyway?