For Muslims, praying in public can be risky.
Dubbed a “social experiment,” one recent viral video of a Muslim woman praying in the streets of New York City showed how negatively some passersby reacted to her. In it, one man asks the woman if Islam is linked to terrorism, while another tries to physically stop her from praying.
Although Muslims often pray in public spaces, they tend to find less busy areas to do so (in high school, I prayed in the library and computer lab when classes were over, for example). Praying in public isn’t ideal but it’s often the only way Muslims—who pray five times a day—can avoid delaying the act.
Prayer, which typically takes five to seven minutes, involves standing, bowing, kneeling, prostrating, and reciting verses from the Qur’an. Most Muslims pray on a prayer rug if they’re not in a mosque.
Sana Ullah, a Muslim American born in Florida, started an Instagram photo series in January 2015 called “Places You’ll Pray” to combat negative images of Muslims in the media. It features photos of Muslims praying in public spaces across America.
We talked to Ullah, 24, to find out more about why she started the project.
How did “Places You’ll Pray” start?
Many years ago … I was going into the journalism field with this idea that I could tell stories about anything other than Islam and Muslims because it felt like I would be pigeonholed into that. If someone looks at me, they will be like, “Of course she is going to tell stories about Muslims.” I don’t know why I had that mentality.
As I got older and started to take more images, and meeting more mentors in my life, a lot of them told me, “If you don’t tell stories about Muslims, someone else will do it. If you don’t tell your truth, no one else will know it.” So, I started this project during my break from undergrad to grad school. I kept thinking in my head that I want to do a project that connects me with Islam and photography. I couldn't think of anything because at the time, hijab fashion was in, and everyone was doing that. There were many stories about Muslim professionals, and that was also becoming popular. So I was like: I need something completely different.
I was with my sister [to go] shopping one day, and it was time for prayer. So my sister was like, “Sana, let’s grab a shirt, and go into the dressing room to pray.” At that moment, I thought that was so silly … There are so many places where people have prayed, but [non-Muslims] who are passing by are not familiar with what is happening. A lot of people don’t realize that [praying] is so common, and it connects us in a very simple way. From there, I came up with the idea of taking photographs of people praying outside of a designated praying area … When I shared [photos] on Instagram, the first person who responded was a person from Indonesia praying on the beach. From there, it just grew. It's been really exciting to see what everyone from around the globe is contributing to this project.
What’s the goal of your project, and how is it breaking barriers?
“Places You’ll Pray” can change perspectives and gives [Muslims] a chance. We are constantly seeing images of Islamophobia, and constantly seeing images of hate crimes. This is [othering us and] making it seem like we don’t do anything but cause chaos—and that is not true. There is a majority of Muslims not [portrayed in] mainstream media who I am trying to show today through this project. If someone can see an image of a Muslim praying peacefully in a place that is very common to everyone, then that is [the first step to understanding]. We are no longer seeing negative images, but rather seeing more positive.
What kind of feedback have you received from non-Muslims?
A lot, actually. In the beginning, there was a pagan woman who was following our page; she was wonderful, and sent messages saying she really appreciated [“Places You’ll Pray”] and that it reminds her a lot of her prayers. I got comments from people from different religions. When I introduced it to my classmates, they were very intrigued, and asked many questions about Islam and why we pray five times a day … It is exactly what I wanted: discussion and questions. I wanted people to ask, rather than walk by and have something in their head but never ask.
Praying is a very personal act; why do Muslims pray in public places?
I do question why we have to pray in public, and we shouldn’t have to. But when you think about it, there is not a mosque on every single block. If there was a mosque on every single block, then people would take the opportunity to pray at a mosque. But when it’s time to pray, it’s time to pray. Even if you have to stop and do it somewhere publicly, then you will, but safety is always first … If you are alone, especially right now, make sure you are safe.
And this is not a project to try to start some kind of statement; it is a project that is showcasing what Muslims do during prayer. Most of the time, if you are an American Muslim that works from 9 to 5, you are not at home for two of your prayers. So, you're bound to pray where people are around.
Do you believe “Places You’ll Pray” is bridging a gap between non-Muslim Americans and the Muslim American community?
Absolutely. There was a really funny comment on one of the photos where someone was thinking it was yoga. It’s not yoga, but if you want to join in with whoever is praying, then go for it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Alaa Basatneh is a human-rights activist and a writer at Fusion focusing on the Arab world. She is the protagonist of the 2013 documentary "#ChicagoGirl."