A Saudi in the USA: Where Should He Pray?

American Bedu, November 2007

I remember when we had Saudi family members visiting us while we were still in the USA. It was their first time to the States and naturally we wanted to show them the best and positive of the USA. Towards giving them a greater and broader picture of “Americana” we rented an RV (recreational vehicle) and traveled cross-country to Orlando, Florida. Yes; Disney is among the top destinations of Saudis visiting America for the first time. Because we were in an RV we did not have to stop and look for a restaurant when we became hungry. We chose to fix our meal ourselves within the small kitchen of the RV. Usually we would pull off the interstate and park in a rest area. One time we had parked in a busy rest area where just about all the parking places were taken. We managed to find a spot which fit the RV and I started to prepare our lunch. A young man in our group went outside to walk around and he realized it was time for the mid-afternoon prayer. He knew which way was East (towards Mecca) and sauntered over to a shady area where he made himself ready to pray.

At this time we were in Southern Georgia where it seemed most passer bys were not familiar with the sight of a young (unbearded) muslim man performing his prayers openly. More and more people slowed down to watch, to point and to chat amongst themselves. The young man to his credit (and he was also focused on his prayers) paid them no mind. When he finished his prayers he politely wished the onlookers a ‘good afternoon’ and returned inside the RV. People continued to stare and point at the RV. They also looked discomfited when they saw me (a typical blond hair, blue eyed American woman) step out of the RV. Most placed a nervous smile on their face and walked away.

The incident prompted me to encourage the young man in the future to say his prayers from within the RV. While it saddened me I felt I needed to explain to him that while the United States is open with many more freedoms than Saudi Arabia, in other ways the society could also be very closed and fearful of what was unknown or unfamiliar. The young man understood and had no issue with the request.

Now my question is for those following this blog because you are interested in Saudi, may be living in Saudi Arabia, are a Saudi citizen, are an American in the USA who has or has not been exposed to the custom and culture of Islam, what is your view? Do you think it was most appropriate to request that he pray inside in private? Do you feel that in general because of the unknowns and unfamiliarity with Islam, the majority of Americans are discomforted to see a muslim openly praying in the USA?

This posting is not meant to start any kind of attacks or finger pointing about Islam or muslims. I will state upfront if anyone tries to post a comment that I believe is inappropriate to the context of the message, I will delete it. This posting is however to promote dialogue and exchange of views in an informative and positive manner.

16 Responses

1. John Burgess, on November 18, 2007 at 6:44 pm Said:

I think a Muslim needs to assess his/her location.

There are things that I would or would not do, as a typical American, in some places in America, unless I was seeking to attract attention.

While a Muslim can pray almost anywhere, it will attract more or less attention depending on exactly where s/he decides to do it. Witness the flap over the group of American Muslims who were praying at an airport in Minneapolis.

It depends, too, on how a particular Muslim feels about praying with a non-Muslim audience. It can be seen as an intrusion, as an opportunity to undertake dawa, or as nothing very much at all.

2. delhi4cats, on November 18, 2007 at 6:49 pm Said:

I know in the case of our family member it was very natural without any thought of attracting attention but simply recognizing it was time to pray. But having a discussion on cultural perceptions and reactions opened his eyes that his actions could have mixed reactions in the USa where they would not receive a second thought or glance in KSA.

3. Valerie, on November 19, 2007 at 12:23 am Said:

In America religion is a private matter where religious rites are usually only performed in the home or house of worship. Even between friends, religion is rarely discussed. I don’t think the reaction your family member got was intended to be disrespectful, but in this country we view religion as being a private matter so people were probably not used to seeing someone pray out in the open.

4. ummadam, on November 19, 2007 at 3:55 am Said:

I am an American Muslim and pretty much timed most of my outtings around the prayer time (I still do that in Saudi as I prefer to pray at home). However, from time to time I would need to pray while out. I would try to find the most secluded area (dressing rooms) but even then that was not always possible. I remember my first public prayer in a non-Muslim environment. I was at my car dealers with another American convert and the time for prayer came in . This was a ‘cool’, moderate, and liberal sister – so I was shocked when she said that we had to pray here and now. I was all ready to delay the prayer until I could find a place more convient to pray, but she insisted that we do it there and then. We were in the inside show room and went behind a car to pray. A few people saw us and walked away giving us our privacy. I was embarrassed but she was very comfortable. I’m still shy about praying in public, even in Saudi where many are watching to see how the American prays, which I fear could subconsciusly lead me to perfecting my prayer for them and not for Allah.

5. delhi4cats, on November 19, 2007 at 5:26 am Said:

Valerie & Umm Adam, Thank you both for your comments and perspectives.

I agree that in America prayer is in a sense more private yet on the other hand, noone will blink twice if a family in a restaurant were to gather hands and pray together before their meal.

Myself, I have always chosen to pray privately. That’s just how I feel more comfortable.

6. Abu Sinan, on November 19, 2007 at 1:43 pm Said:

I think I am with John. Georgia is not a place most Americans would associate with openess to things different, especially foreign things. Now this perception might or might not be correct, but there it is.

Had this happened here in Northern Virginia I dont think almost anyone would have looked twice. I, myself, have prayed in the open here several times when we had no choice.

7. Marianna, on November 19, 2007 at 7:01 pm Said:

I agree with Abu Sinan, the South is one of the most conservative areas of the United States. Coming from the Midwest we are plenty conservative here (just look how we tend to vote during the presidential elections). I admire the man for saying his prayers out in the open and I think it extremely rude for passerbys to just gawk. Imagine if they were saying their prayers somewhere and people stood around and looked at them like a zoo animal.

I agree again with Abu Sinan that if you guys were on the east or west coast this incident would not have really been such a spectacle since these areas tend to have more of a healthy mixture of individuals from different faiths and creeds.

8. Marianna, on November 19, 2007 at 7:03 pm Said:

I agree with Abu Sinan, the South is one of the most conservative areas of the United States. Coming from the Midwest we are plenty conservative here (just look how we tend to vote during the presidential elections). I admire the man for saying his prayers out in the open and I think it extremely rude for passerbys to just gawk. Imagine if they were saying their prayers somewhere and people stood around and looked at them like a zoo animal.

I agree again with Abu Sinan that if you guys were on the east or west coast this incident would not have really been such a spectacle since these areas tend to have more of a healthy mixture of individuals from different faiths and creeds.

9. delhi4cats, on November 19, 2007 at 8:45 pm Said:

Abu Sinan, Marianna: Thanks for posting your perspectives. Just like the variances in the Kingdom, your comments illustrate the distinctions in perceptions and mindsets depending on where one is located in the USA.

10. Yamaneko, on November 20, 2007 at 12:36 am Said:

The same thing happened on the I-65 rest stop near Wolcott, Indiana. Two men had finished their ablutions at the rest stop’s washroom and were preparing to begin their prayers. The lady supervising the area offered them a room in back, but they preferred the room. It was so tempting to gawk, but Midwesterners only gawk if there has been a traffic accident.

By the way, your friend probably should have prayed toward the east-southeast.

11. Lynn, on November 20, 2007 at 1:25 am Said:

I don’t think that you should have advised him to pray inside the RV. I think that that could have given him a very bad impression of Americans. He was, and is, free to pray where and when he wants. If, and only if, he was uncomfortable with people looking at him wondering what he was doing then he might choose to pray somewhere more private.

12. Shabana, on November 20, 2007 at 1:34 am Said:

I grew up in the deep south (USA) and my family would take road trips quite often to various parts of the country. When it was time to pray, we would pull into a rest area, make our ablutions, and then find a quiet spot to pray in the grass or under a tree. People probably stared and wondered what we were doing. My parents wanted to encourage us to practice our faith openly and without embarassment. Their reasoning was that even if people stared, then it was opportunity to share our religion with them, whether they asked about what we were doing or not. And anyway, no point in being embarassed, because it’s not like you ever saw those people again anyway.

As an adult on my own, I think if I am by myself in public, I would probably seek out a private area to pray. If I am in a group, I don’t mind praying out where everyone will see us.

13. delhi4cats, on November 20, 2007 at 4:57 am Said:

It really is helpful and very interesting to hear the differing perspectives and I believe from those who are living in the US and in the Southern/Mid-western area.

In regards to the posting what is done is done but I hope that the posting and these comments and future comments will be beneficial to other muslim visitors to the States who may find themselves making similar decisions.

14. delhi4cats, on November 20, 2007 at 6:43 am Said:

My thanks to Yamaneko to catching my typo where I inadvertantly had typed our family member prayed to the West. When in Saudi, Mecca (the Kaa’bah) is West but from North America the direction is indeed to the East.

15. pakistankiawaz, on November 20, 2007 at 10:01 am Said:

It does not matter that he pray inside or outside because praying is not and offensive thing at all. It is very noble, safest and pure thing to do. If Americans are not familiar with this and have no idea about it then praying outside will help them to know about something which they never faced in past. That can help them to get the real of idea of Islam, may be some of them start paying attention to study about Islam and life and may be they become more good Muslims then born Muslims.

16. sisteramy, on November 20, 2007 at 7:17 pm Said:

For my own part, I don’t mind praying in public. Usually I try to get out of the way so I’m not obstructing anyone’s path, but I don’t mind if people can see me. When possible at school I try to pray in a room just to avoid the noise of the hallway, but I have prayed outside before. I would pray at the rest areas sometimes when I would travel, and pick a nice shady spot. I’ve prayed in airports near to a wall rather than completely in the open, but then so I don’t have to worry about people walking directly in front of me. But I don’t see reason to be afraid of praying in public, to be wary of people gawking or looking. That doesn’t bother me, if a crowd gathered and started to disrupt the prayer it would be a problem, but I don’t think Americans do that. Even in the South. And I live in North Carolina, between Georgia and Virginia, and really it’s not that bad with people watching. They’re just curious.

But I did want to add, the direction to pray is neither due east nor southeast, it’s actually north east. The world is not a paper map, but it’s round, and the “shortest route” towards Mecca is north east. We are praying towards the Ka’ba of course, not a meridian running through it. 🙂

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