By Lani Siddique
Back in 2004, my husband and I were finished with school and training and were finally looking for a place to get a job and settle down. During our interview process, my dear college friend gave me some golden advice that I still suggest to other Muslims today. She said to try and find a job in a place that has a strong Muslim community. I had never been part of any mosque/Islamic center or their activities while growing up in New Jersey. Thanks to Allah (SWT), we settled in Lehigh Valley, PA and became members of the Muslim Association of Lehigh Valley (MALV), which had a modern center with a large prayer space, a big lobby/greeting area, a social hall and classrooms for what would be a full-time Islamic school.
My first Jumuah there, I imagined that sisters would be welcoming me with open arms as a newcomer and include me in their friend circles. Boy, was I wrong! After a few Jummahs of still being alone and not meeting anyone, I realized that in order for me to become part of the community, I had to take initiative and introduce myself. Alhamdulillah, I made lasting friendships and finally felt a sense of belonging. When Ramadan came around, I was eager to participate and celebrate the month with my fellow Muslims.
Every weekend, the social hall was abuzz with hundreds of people having iftar and dinner together. The place was full of life and organized chaos. But one year, the best experience of being part of that Islamic center was in the last ten days of Ramadan, the days when Muslims try to spend the night in devotion hoping to make the best of Lailatul Qadr, the most special night.
I had suggested to my husband that he use some of his vacation days to take time off and go to the mosque during those last days for itikaf. I asked if I could join him at least for a couple nights since I was all alone at home. He said that he noticed only one elderly woman (I’ll call her Moona) who sat in the prayer hall day and night on a chair in the ladies’ section, so he thought it should be alright for me to join her. The ladies’ section was separated from the men’s area by a waist-high wooden partition. But at the end near the wall, the barrier was taller than our heads and women needing even more privacy could sit in that area. I joined Sr. Moona there along with one of my closest friends and we set up our blankets, sleeping bags and pillows.
The crowds left after Taraweeh prayer and the kids had their fill of ice cream from the ice cream truck in the parking lot, and the large carpeted prayer hall was left with just a handful of us. There was no fixed imam at this center so one was flown in from Egypt to lead the prayers and give lectures specifically for Ramadan. When he spoke about Qur’an and Hadith late into the night, the people who understood his Arabic would weep and then translate for us. Then we would weep at the beauty of not just his recitation but also the Islamic knowledge he was conveying to us. He would suggest we sleep a little and then the caretaker of the mosque would wake us up for extra night prayers around 2am. I don’t know if it was the stillness in the prayer hall, the lights being low, the hum of people making dhikr or reciting of Qur’an, but I have to say, it felt magical. I knew that most women didn’t have such a unique opportunity to give up wordly things for a few days and nights in itikaf. Many women I’d talked to would do it in the privacy of their homes and in other countries women usually don’t even attend mosques for Friday prayer. I felt so blessed that MALV was so welcoming to women and did not hinder us from our desire to perform itikaf.
When it came time for suhoor, the men said that they would handle the food. Not only did they prepare the food but they also brought it to us where normally food is not allowed. They were so respectful of our privacy that they would gently push the trays through the space at the bottom of the tall partition. We had covered the partition with a sheet so that even the cut-outs in the wood were obscured. They brought us tea and bottles of water and asked if we needed anything. The daughter of Sr. Moona came to visit and explained to us that her mother would finish reading Qur’an every two days for the entire Ramadan. She performed the full itikaf each and every year.
A couple years later my mother-in-law and father-in-law were also able to spend the entire last ten days of Ramadan at MALV with their son. My mother-in-law to this day describes that time as one of the best experiences of her life. She still says that the people at MALV were so welcoming to her and other women and she never felt uncomfortable. She was thrilled that they even had shower facilities and that everything was always kept so neat and clean. But most of all, she and others could clear their minds of the world and spend night and day in the house of Allah (SWT) worshipping Him on some of the most special days and nights of the year.