It’s Friday afternoon at a Lexington mosque.
Wearing a maroon hijab covering most of her dark brown hair, Nada Shalash is standing with a group of women who are shoulder to shoulder at Lexington’s Masjid Bilal during Friday prayers.
“The significance of that is when you stand in front of God to pray there is no title. You may be a physician standing next to a lawyer, standing next to a teacher and not even realize the only thing bringing you shoulder to shoulder is your identity as a Muslim and your devotion to God,” she said.
The 24-year old just graduated from a master’s program in social work at the University of Kentucky and has been a member of this mosque for 5 years. She said Friday is considered Muslims’ holy day of the week. She compares it to Sunday for Christians and Saturday for people of the Jewish faith.
“Friday we have a sermon. The sermon will be twenty minutes and then the prayer will be ten. The whole thing is half an hour but people stay and socialize before and after. It holds great significance for Muslims,” remarked Shalash.
The community at Masjid Bilal opens its doors to all people who are interested in attending the prayer service.
On this day Shalash welcomes Transylvania University Professor Kremena Todorova and a class of Todorova’s students. In the wake of hate crimes like the attacks in two New Zealand mosques a couple of months ago where dozens of people were killed it’s easy to have some fear, said Shalash.
But her friend, Todorova, a practicing Roman Catholic reached out to Shalash with love and support and an interest in attending prayers at the mosque.
“Having the community members that aren’t Muslim there makes me feel safer. Not because they’re gonna protect me. At the end of the day someone that wants to hurt others will hurt others. But it makes me realize that for every person that has their own issues and hatred in their heart there are dozens of others who are supportive and want to stand with people of other faiths,” she said.
After the attacks in New Zealand, Todorova made a commitment to attend Friday prayers at Masjid Bilal for seven consecutive Fridays. She and her colleague Kurt Gohde used social media to invite others as well to show love and support for the Muslim people.
“I do realize that a lot of people have never been to a mosque as I never had before I made friends with people in the local Muslim community. And a lot of people wrote to us with questions asking us how to dress, what’s the proper behavior, can they bring their babies. So a lot of people who aren’t Muslim joined us because they knew us, they trusted us, they knew we were not Muslim and so they felt comfortable coming with us if we were already here,"said Todorova.
Todorova believes it’s really important to support the Muslim community. She comes to Friday prayer not in response to tragedies like the shootings in New Zealand or the fire set intentionally in a New Haven, Connecticut mosque a few weeks ago.
Todorova said, “If anything, it’s responding to where we are as a society. Non-Muslim people are really still so fearful of Muslim people. I hope we can all continue to challenge ourselves to unlearn those pre-conceived ideas.”
The chair of the Kentucky Chapter of the Council on American -Islamic Relations or CAIR, Waheeda Muhammed is among more than 300 people attending prayers on this Friday.
The soft-spoken director of CAIR is proud the community at Masjid Bilal is so welcoming. She encourages people who have pre-conceived ideas of what Muslims are, what they believe and how they live, to come to the mosque.
“So when we interact with people on a one-on-one basis it gives them an opportunity to know Muslims themselves and develop their own idea of what a Muslim is and how Muslims worship and what they believe” said Muhammed.
A recent study published by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding reports that from 2017-2018 Islamophobia has increased in the United States. Dalia Mogahed is director of research for the institute.
“We’ve created an index to measure the level of Islamophobia in the public. And according to our index, (the range of this index is 0-100), Islamophobia has crept up 4 points. That’s not a dramatic increase but it is still a significant one,” she said,
Muhammad said many people in Lexington have joined the members of Masjid Bilal during this month of Ramadan. Ramadan is observed by Muslims around the world and considered a month of fasting, prayer, introspection, and community.
“One of the beautiful blessings of Ramadan," she said. "Is that our Lexington community has reached out to us and has come to the mosque. Has shared meals with us, shared prayers with us.”
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