Mouna Photography for the Wisconsin Muslim Journal
On a rainy Sunday at the end of September, the reception area at the Islamic Resource Center bustled with activity. Next to a wall of bookshelves, Rindy, a South Side mom, watched as her 10-year-old daughter Jayden’s arm was given an elaborate henna design by Nayfa Naji.
Two thin, blond ladies from Brookfield were taught how to wear hijab by Ream Alaeddin. Another table offered buttons with visitors’ names spelled in Arabic. And behind the counter that held the treats and ethnic foods, Israa, a nursing student at MATC, welcomed visitors.
Sana Shakir led a tour of the facility, located on South 27th Street. A family from Slinger had come to look at the art on display throughout the Center, including the large event room, which featured a series of color photographs from around the Muslim world. Folding panels on the history of Islam taught visitors about the compatible relationship between the faith of Muslims and American democracy. Visitors to the Islamic Resource Center were also able to see a touring exhibition of award winning photographs by Palestinians from Dar Al Kalima, a Lutheran College in Bethlehem.
The occasion was Doors Open Milwaukee, a “two-day public celebration of Milwaukee’s art, architecture, culture and history,” according to the Milwaukee365 Web site. Doors Open, organized by Historic Milwaukee, Inc., was held on September 28 and 29.
In 2018, almost 32,000 people participated in Doors Open, visiting more than 170 different sites throughout the city, including “commercial properties, sacred spaces, apartment buildings, breweries, art galleries, community gardens . . . stretching from downtown to the surrounding suburbs and the neighborhoods between,” said the Milwaukee365 Web site.
For some participants, Doors Open was an opportunity to learn more about Milwaukee’s Muslim community, its faith, and its “sacred spaces.” This year, three locations highlighting the Muslim community participated in the weekend event.
A Salam High School senior named Ameen led a group tour of the Islamic Society of Milwaukee’s South Side facility. In the prayer hall at ISM, the group heard Ameen’s description of how Muslims pray.
Ameen explained that “the movements and fundamentals” of each prayer are the same. Each of the five daily prayers – Fajr, Zuhr, Asr, Maghrib, Isha – includes a reading of verses from the Qur’an but has a different number of cycles of movements and prostrations.
The visitors learned that in the 1950s through the 1970s, Milwaukee area Muslims prayed in people’s homes and in church basements around the city. After purchasing the New Road school building in 1982, the Islamic Society of Milwaukee began holding prayers there. In the early 1990s, Salam School was founded and the formal education of Muslim children in the Milwaukee area began. Groundbreaking on the current ISM building on 13th Street, with its tall minaret, took place in 1994.
Today, the prayer hall at ISM and the balcony that holds the women’s area are often filled to overflowing. Ameen pointed out an array of cameras that project prayer into the gym and other overflow rooms around the mosque. He explained that the community is hoping to expand and to “have a much bigger grand mosque.”
When asked if the vibrant green carpet in the prayer hall was symbolically significant, Ameen explained that “We don’t do statues,” that Islamic art is “more abstract, like calligraphy” but the carpet design is mostly there to “help people get in straight lines.” That drew a laugh from the group.
The high school senior also showed visitors photographs of the original New Road School building at the ISM site, where Salam High School, grades 7-12, is located, though the red brick MPS building is no longer visible from outside.
Visitors asked if classes at Salam were held in English or Arabic. All classes are held in English, Ameen said, except, of course, for Arabic language class.
Outside the gym were photos and framed news stories about the girls basketball team, the Salam Stars. “Headscarves, Hoops, and Victories” said one headline. CBS Sports has filmed a documentary about the team.
Inside the gym, Sahar and Umber, both seniors at Salam High School, skillfully created henna designs for visitors.
Tables were set up in the gym near a buffet of falafel, samosa, hummus, bread, fruit, and cookies. Dr. Sulfiqar Shah, the religious director of ISM, chatted with an older couple who were curious about the difference between the Shia and Sunni Muslim traditions.
Religious curiosity drove many of the visitors. In the conference room at IRC, a video on a continuous loop showed a British woman talking about her conversion to Islam: “I had to go where reason led me,” she said.
And in the event room at the IRC, Soumaly, a math teacher at South Division High School, carefully studied the history of Islam. “I have a lot of students who are Muslim,” she said. Soumaly said she provides a corner of her classroom for her Muslim students to pray. She worries during Ramadan, she said, telling her students to make sure they get up early and eat a full meal. And when she has a potluck in her classroom, the chicken is halal. “They trust me because I show them the label,” she said.
Soumaly, a member of the Laotian Buddhist community, explained her openness to other traditions. “We are all teaching the same thing. Be grateful, be kind, help others.”