A few weeks ago, I was sitting in the local masjid waiting for the jumuah khutbah, and an old uncle tapped me on the shoulder and somewhat rudely insisted that I scoot forward. There was plenty of room around me, but he wanted to stand directly on the tape line right behind me to perform his sunnah prayers. Trying to be respectful, I slowly obliged, though I couldn't avoid flashing him an annoyed glance. I was in one of those moods. Yet this incident reminded me of how something as mundane as lines on the masjid floor can actually tell the story of my Islam. It may even offer a glimmer of hope to our community.
When I went to one of my first jumuah prayers at the Regents Park Mosque in London (where I also took shahada), I was really enamored with the patterned carpet that looked like a thousand prayer rugs neatly aligned in rows. I dutifully took my seat at one of the small archways on the floor. Not really knowing the rulings of ṣalāh at that time, I really enjoyed having my own little spot in the masjid. With everyone sitting down, the geometry seemed quite appropriate, one section for each man. Of course, when we stood to pray, the lines condensed, and I was like, “hey man, get outta my little archway!” Of course, I realized, and accepted, that the design was more decorative than practical.
Shortly thereafter, I moved back to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where the Islamic Center had carpet “stripes” of alternating colors to mark the lines. This was a bit more egalitarian than the London setup, and it seemed to keep everything in order. Whether brothers lined up their toes or heels, or how closely they stood together, I can't really remember. Those kind of details didn't seem too important.
My next stop as a Muslim was Texas, where I started to attend a masjid that has one large green carpet with no real indication of lines. In this masjid, I learned that forming the ranks, without any marks on the floor to guide us, was actually part of establishing the prayer. I learned that Muslims in the past could, among other great civilizational achievements, form straight lines by themselves. It was said that our lazy clinging to lines on the carpet actually robbed us of reward. It was even asserted that drawing lines constitutes a bid'ah, or innovation, something unknown to the early Muslims. This criticism of a common Muslim practice was also combined with practical advice. It is, in fact, quite easy to form a straight line, if you orient your feet toward the qibla, aligning them at the heels (and thereby, the shoulders–you know, shoulder to shoulder, foot to foot). This avoids several problems. If you align the toes, and brothers have different size feet, the ranks look like zippers. It also prevents the situation where half the row puts their toes on the line, and the other half, their heels. Then the men scowl at each other and wave their hands, forward or back, until one side of the row moves forward, or back.
After Texas, I traveled to Egypt with my advanced understanding of rank forming, ready to do things right in dar ul islaam. Of course, I was a bit disappointed to see that Egyptian masjids have the same polyester carpets with little archways, and the same tape stretched across the floor, as Western Islamic centers. I figured this must be due to colonization, or widespread ignorance of the deen, or corrupt governments…or maybe one of the other social maladies people had warned me about. I went around for awhile feeling pretty haughty towards all these simble beople. But at a certain point, after watching the way that Egyptians drive, or form “queues” at the government offices, I thought, “Man, it's good there are lines on the floor, or else there'd never be straight rows at the masjid.”
I settled into this moderate view for quite some time, at least until that recent incident at Jumuah. I also visited Morocco this summer. Though a bit more orderly than Egypt, one could make a strong case for drawing lines on the floor there as well. In some of the old masjids in Fez, it has apparently been discovered that the qibla is actually 15 degrees north of what the original mosque builders had estimated. This led to a rather pathetic display, with the imām and the four or five worshippers behind him each facing a slightly different direction during prayer. There was also a large, modern masjid where the archway carpet had started to fade and warp into long curves. There wasn't much that anyone could do to fix it.
There are enough hadith about the importance of straight lines (and from what I've heard, even long lines) in prayer that we must not simply dismiss this issue. And I always found it compelling that we should not talk of grand goals and objective before we can master the simple things. I never really abandoned those lessons learned in Texas, though it is nearly impossible to implement them. Sometimes you see a toe masjid evolve into a heel masjid, at least until an old, influential uncle confronts the young, zealous brothers who are insisting on the change. Then the young, zealous brothers, who usually haven't reached the chapter on manners, cause some greater discord…or they fall in line, resentful that the community won't follow their favorite website.
I've also come to realize that my understanding of Islam is quite limited. Perhaps my view on this subject is unjustifiably narrow. I'm sure some of the readers would be happy to enlighten me if that is the case. But there is one ray of hope in this whole line-drawing saga. Despite the little disagreements over an issue like this, we still manage to stand there together and offer prayer as one congregation. You don't have communities splitting apart over the prayer lines. You don't have major Muslim organizations issuing fatwas to insist that all Muslims in North America line up their feet in one specific way. You don't have the toe jumuah prayer getting out while other brothers pass out flyers for the heel jumuah prayer. And you don't have concerned scholars forming websites like foottofoot.com, or heelal.org. Even with our disagreements, ignorance, narrowness, sectarianism, stubbornness, bad habits, and immaturity, we somehow find common ground. It may not be ideal, but if we could apply the same approach to moon sighting, or chicken…we'd probably fare much better as a community.