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Just after sunset on Wednesday, June 16, more than two dozen congregants gathered at the Masjid Al-Rawdah to perform Maghrib, the evening prayer. While the men who came to pray were asked to wear masks, it would not last for long. The mosque, located in Minneapolis’s Seward neighborhood, stopped requiring masking the next day.
One of the most important freedoms for those in attendance was the lack of social distancing guidelines, which Governor Tim Walz lifted at the end of May.
After immigrating from the U.K., Hussein Hassan has been attending the masjid for over a decade. Before the pandemic, Hussein said, he used to pray in the space nearly five times a day.
Now, following the re-opening of the mosque, it felt important to start attending again: He said he’s still committed to attending multiple times a day.
“When you come back, it’s like you’re born again,” he said, referring to the masjid’s initial reopening. Then, the adhan called him away for Wednesday’s Maghrib prayer.
Masjid Al-Rawdah has experienced various levels of restrictions throughout the pandemic. At the beginning of Minnesota’s coronavirus outbreak in March 2020, the masjid closed entirely, only to re-open in July 2020.
Since then, the masjid has implemented several public health measures to keep the congregation safer from COVID-19: enforcing social distancing, requiring its congregants to wear masks and distributing disposable plastic mats as opposed to praying on the carpet.
Other worship spaces have been facing the same questions about returning to live gatherings with the end of social distancing. Nausheena Hussain, a board member of the Brooklyn Park Islamic Center, said that her masjid has become more relaxed on mask usage requirements but still asks congregants to use personal, wipeable mats while praying.
During some parts of the pandemic, the Brooklyn Park Islamic Center offered its members the chance to connect over the internet and through Zoom. While Nausheena hopes to help open a conversation on current safety measures, Brooklyn Park Islamic Center still asks members to maintain social distance while praying.
The return to less restricted worship, however, may be playing out differently for women in local mosques, Nausheena said—an experience that highlights how some congregants changed routines during the COVID-19 shutdowns.
A source of community
Masjid Al-Rawdah was founded in 2009 and serves a mostly Somali congregation in south Minneapolis. At the start of the pandemic, the masjid informed congregants that the space would close. Imam Abdirizak Farah, said that some congregants couldn’t accept the change. A few decided they would rather leave the masjid than forgo praying shoulder to shoulder, in the traditional fashion.
“They felt like their prayer won’t be accepted until they pray by side or shoulder by shoulder, that’s what they believe,” Imam Dulyadeyn Farah said. “And then, they left us,”
Those departure came in spite of the masjid’s attempts to explain why the health needs behind the changes, Imam Abdirizak added.
To keep in touch during the pandemic, the two imams established a WhatsApp group to keep congregants aware of any changes and to collect donations. The masjid also held Zoom sessions to keep the community connected, which included Islamic classes for children who used to take their courses in person.
Hanad Mohamed, 23, still came to pray at the Masjid, even during the pandemic. While he has visited the masjid for several years, he said that maintaining social distance while praying evoked a different feeling.
“It was very different with the guidelines initially,” he said. “But it was definitely refreshing coming back. It’s almost like being away from home.”
Since the lifting of social distancing guidelines, Hanad has turned up three or more times per week.
Imam Abdirizak describes the masjid as a source of community for its congregants: a place for worship, classes, and also conversation. Women participated in a supportive “sister’s circle.”
The closings and restrictions affected that web of connections for congregants. “They have their social life through the masjid, and they meet their friends to chat with them,” Imam Abdirizak said. “But when the pandemic was here, they were very alone.”
With the lifting of social-distancing requirements, members of the Masjid have enjoyed coming back to the space, said Imam Dulyadeyn. And praying next to one another has helped rebuild community.
“Now, we pray side by side, shoulder by shoulder,” Imam Dulyadeyn said. “Even including me—we are feeling a real prayer, and brotherhood, when we are praying next to each other.”
A different experience for some women
While men have returned to the masjid, the same hasn’t been true for women congregants, none of whom were present at Wednesday’s Maghrib prayer.
Hafsa, a 24-year-old who works for the Humanitarian African Relief Organization (HARO), said that women stopped coming to Masjid Al-Rawdah in March 2020, when the building closed. Though the building is open again, women have not been able to regather, she said. (Citing privacy concerns, Hafsa said she preferred not to give her last name.)
Imam Dulyadeyn explained that the women’s side of the mosque has been undergoing construction, making it difficult for women to come back to the building.
While Hafsa said that she has been going to Masjid Al-Rawdah since 2016, she also attends three other mosques around the Twin Cities. Before the pandemic, she took classes and prayed in these places. Now, Hafsa has had a hard time returning in-person gatherings.
Hafsa described a change of habits as one possible barrier to women’s return. “Once you get into a consistent thing, it’s a lot easier to keep going back,” she said. “Whereas when it stopped you just kind of have to find the courage again to kind of come back and restart things and pick up from where you left off.”
Nausheena Hussain, who is also the executive director of the women’s organization Reviving the Islamic Sisterhood for Empowerment, offered another theory on women’s participation in mosque activities. Many women, she said, embraced the shift to online options.
“I think a lot of women, because we play multiple roles like caretaker and mother and other roles like that, along with having to wear hijab and…fully modest clothing—I think that often inhibits or prohibits her engagement with the masjid. But, when the pandemic happened and everything rolled onto online, I think she was able to participate more.”
For example, Nausheena said, if a mosque offers a sermon online, it can be more accessible to tune in with a phone or a laptop while doing something else.
Both men and women took advantage of that option, she said. The Brooklyn Park Islamic Center had a family attend religious events during the pandemic from their home in Seattle—an option that wasn’t available previously.
With the space now reopened in Brooklyn Center, however, Nausheena said the number of women has increased—with heightened enthusiasm, perhaps.
“We’ve probably had like, maybe 10 women who were showing up,” she said of pre-pandemic times. “Now, we’re taking up four rows.”