Since I was a little girl there was something special, I would even say magical, holy and fulfilling about Taraweeh (extended Ramadan prayers) for me. My family would rush through Iftar and pile into my parent’s minivan to attend prayers at the Masjid 40 minutes from our house. I’d eagerly go into the Masjid, which was at first a tiny house where men and women would overflow into the street for prayer. When the larger, grand Masjid was built I’d excitedly search for my friends to grab a spot next to them, chatting quietly between prayer during breaks excited to see one another despite living almost an hour apart.
Fast forward to when I finally was old enough to drive. I’d plead with my mom to come with me to prayers instead of praying on her own at home or at the nearby Masjid only 20 minutes away. I preferred the farther Masjid because it meant I could complete my prayers and also see my friends! As I got even older, I began to branch out and visit other Masjids where I fell in love with the Talawa (Quranic pronunciation) of one particular Iman. I’d drive close to an hour multiple times a week, even on workdays, in order to follow Taraweeh prayers led by him. I would sacrifice precious sleep in order to seek closeness to Allah (SWT) during this special month. “It’s only once a year,” I would tell myself, “Don’t be lazy!”
Then, I started to realize something – Taraweeh prayers typically have a mid-way break where a short sermon is given. The sermons started to become shorter and were instead being replaced with extended periods of fundraising that felt more like an auction than anything. Typically these lasted no more than 15 minutes and happened during the weekends when the Masjid was packed with less “regular” Masjid-goers. A small sacrifice I thought, this is after all, the month of ultimate forgiveness by God and what better way to seek closeness to Him than by making a donation to a house of worship.
The sermons started to become shorter and were instead being replaced with extended periods of fundraising that felt more like an auction than anything.
Last Ramadan was my first year away from NJ and in my new home state, California. I was excited to live extremely close to one of the biggest Masjids in the Bay Area. When I told a childhood friend where I was moving she excitedly told me about this Masjid being an incredible community and I took her word for it. I was finally going to be under a 10 minute drive from a Masjid, my dream come true!
I eagerly attended the first night of Taraweeh prayers, the night before the start of Ramadan. I kept to myself in order to focus on my prayers and only chatted with an elderly Egyptian woman who made me feel welcomed. So far so good! On the 27th night of Ramadan and what some Muslims refer to as Laylut Al Qadr (the night of power) I made it to the Masjid again. After close to two hours of prayer I felt elevated and spiritually refreshed, the words of the Quran touching my heart.
Then, much to my surprise the woman praying next to me turned to me and matter-of-factly said that my prayers “did not count.” I was stunned, how could she possibly know? In Islam only God can determine if a deed, prayer, or fasting is accepted. “Your nail polish,” she said, “it invalidates your prayer”. I left the Masjid that night heart broken and disappointed holding back tears. Here I was submitting to Allah (SWT) and making prayers that I hoped to be accepted only to have my efforts belittled by a complete stranger. I didn’t believe her of course, but her words stung and left a sour taste in my mouth. I held off on returning there that Ramadan and waited until I was visiting my family in NJ to pray the last few nights of Taraweeh in my childhood Masjid where I had always felt welcomed despite the constant hushing of some “aunties” and the sometimes disturbing shrieks from children left to wander the Masjid prayer halls by their parents.
I didn’t return to that Masjid in California for Taraweeh again until the 27th night of Ramadan this year. I made arrangements to have Iftar with a friend and her husband who live close to an hour away. We rushed through our meals, grabbed coffees to ensure we were equipped with energy and made it to the Masjid before the start of Isha (evening prayer). As my friend and I found each other in the crowd I whispered to her that someone was going to say something to us about our coffees. In a packed Masjid with children running around having a cup of coffee was a recipe for disaster. I suggested we stand near the exit to finish our coffees when a woman made a bee-line to us to tell me, specifically, that I needed to step outside to consume my coffee. “I knew it, someone was going to say something”. I obliged, stepped outside and tossed the coffee in the trash.
“Let’s pray in the quiet room,” another friend suggested. We made our way to some “exclusive” child-free room, eager to pray we found spots away from one another. Isha prayer began and was immediately followed by a sermon. I thought this was odd, I expected that Taraweeh prayers would be followed by a sermon at the mid-way break. Boy, was I wrong.
The sermon was immediately followed by an “auction-like” fundraising for the purchase of an additional facility. For the next hour we sat eagerly as the Imam pried donations from the crowd, capitalizing on a full house of worshipers eager to be attending prayers for one of the last odd nights of Ramadan where prayers are said to count 80+ fold. Imagine, a packed Masjid of over 500 worshipers eager to gain good deeds and perform prayers. But alas, we instead were feeling tricked into sitting through this process that was both excruciatingly long and mildly uncomfortable.
The “bidding” began at $100k, the Imam refusing to proceed until 10 people donated that amount for the Masjid to purchase another building and “expand”. $50k came next, $25k, $10k, $5k and so on. “Who are the believers who will donate $10,000 tonight?” he exclaimed. If one can’t cough up a hefty donation does it mean their faith is lacking? A price tag was being placed on our faith. Donate, or die waiting for prayers to start folks! Frustrated with the process and upset that instead of spending this valuable time praying we were being guilted into making donations my friends and I decided to leave after praying a few Rakat on our own, an hour was long enough, our patience had run out. This valuable time could have been spent praying in our homes or reading from the Quran. Instead we were sitting waiting for the Imam to be satisfied with a chunk of cash to fund another building in the already massive Masjid.
“Who are the believers who will donate $10,000 tonight?”
Instead of walking out of the Masjid with my heart full of the words of God and remembrance of the miracle of the Quran I walked out heart broken. The words of the Imam echoing in my ears, “I won’t move on until we get 3 more brothers to donate $5,000.” I longed for his words to instead be, “We won’t finish prayers until we complete 3 more chapters.” When we walk out of the house of Allah longing for prayers and remembrance but instead walk out in frustration you know that times have changed.
What a shame that our Masjids are capitalizing on a full room of worshipers to pry donations instead of spending this valuable time praising Allah (SWT), seeking forgiveness and strengthening our faith. My heart aches for those who may be returning to the Masjid for the first time in a long time or attending Taraweeh for the first time all together. What an awful experience it must have been for them. When a house of worship is sincere and true prayer is made, I am sure that Allah (SWT), the All Giving, Ultimate Provider will surely fund a house of worship without the need of pressuring or upsetting fellow Muslims.
I hope that the prayers, fasting and good deeds of all Muslims are accepted during this holy month. I pray that our Islamic centers return the focus on prayers instead of collecting funds during these last few holy days!