Muslim Neighbors: What I Learned When I Visited A Mosque

You asked, and we listened. When we recently ran a poll in the Life in the Bay Community Facebook Group, asking ‘Which religion are you most curious to learn about?’ You overwhelmingly responded with requests to learn about the Muslim faith, or ‘Islam’.

So, on a sunny Saturday, Gita, David and I set out across the San Mateo Bridge, to meet our Muslim neighbors at the Muslim Community Center of the East Bay. Zarina Kiziloglu, a board member of the MCC graciously invited us to attend the event, which included a homemade lunch, followed by a panel of speakers demystifying the faith, and most importantly, plenty of time to just chat with our Muslim neighbors.

Although I was exposed to the Catholic faith growing up, I’m more of an agnostic as an adult. This was only my second time in a Mosque, and although I have interacted with many Muslim students and families over the years, I have to admit that I was a little nervous about attending. Should I have worn a headscarf? Was this going to be an event to try to convert the general public? (As I have experienced at events I have attended for other faiths). As soon as we arrived, all of my worries were dismissed. This truly was just an opportunity to come together, to get to know each other as individuals, as humans, as neighbors, and learn.

Here is what I learned about Islam, and my Muslim friends in an afternoon:

Sharia Law

A Collection of Qur'ans - The Muslim Holy book

The Myth: In the media, Sharia Law is often referred to as strict laws taken from the Quran, which all Muslims vehemently adhere to. The media often portray Sharia Law as the reason or justification for terrorist acts carried out by ISIS or ISIL.

The Truth: In Arabic, Sharia means ‘A path to a body of water’ or more commonly ‘a path to salvation’. As the panel explained, Sharia Law is more a set of guidelines for being a good human. It sets out 5 categories: obligatory, recommended, permissible, disliked, and forbidden. Muslims are encouraged to be mindful throughout their daily life; to consider each action, and make a determination as to which category it would fit into to.

Think of Sharia like a moral chore chart…You get points for the obligatory and recommended actions you take (such as praying) and you get points deducted for taking part in forbidden activities, like drinking alcohol (although the deduction doesn’t apply to disliked activities). At the end of your life, you hope to have accrued more points than you have lost. The prize at the end is not a later bedtime or a new toy, but it is entrance into heaven.

5 Pillars of Islam

These are the 5 things that Muslims must do to be a part of the Islamic faith

  • Faith: in order to become a Muslim, a person must recite “There is no god but God (and) Muhammad is the messenger of God.” This is called ‘shahada’ and typically recited in Arabic, regardless of the first language of the person.
  • Prayer: Muslims have an obligation to pray 5 times a day, always facing Mecca. Before prayers, the person must perform ablution (Wudu) that aims to purify oneself from impurities. Prayers are also recited in Arabic. The position of the body during prayer is also important. As Catholics often kneel for prayer, Muslim pray on hands and knees.
  • Fasting: To encourage mindfulness and repent for sin, Ramadan is observed during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset, consuming only water during the day.  In 2017 Ramadan will take place from Friday 25 May – Sunday 25 June. The end of Ramadan is marked by Eid al-Fitr. Eid includes a feast and represents a time of celebration, a time for family and friends to come together and celebrate their faith.
  • Charity: ‘Zakat’ is required for all Muslims, and is the encouragement of giving to those in greater need than yourself. If you have surplus income, 2.5% shall be designated as Zakat. If you are not monetarily wealthy, you can ‘pay’ charity by performing good deeds.
  • Pilgrimage (or hajj): All Muslims who are physically and financially able to make the journey to Mecca are expected to, at least once in their lives. Certain traditions are practiced during the visit, including wearing specific clothing and visiting specific sites. The journey is meant to be a time to reflect on ones’ faith in God.

The Hijab

The Hijab, translated from Arabic means ‘barrier’. Headcovers in Arabic is actually called Khimar.  Wearing a head covering is encouraged since modesty is a key element to the Islamic faith. Muslim women typically show their commitment to modesty by wearing a headscarf, long sleeve tops, and long pants or skirts. Guidance suggests that the face and hands should be the only visible parts of the body. However, Muslim women are not monolithic, they are on different parts of the spectrum with regards to exercising their faith. Cultural backgrounds also play a role in the clothes they are wearing, which gives the diversity to the shapes and fashion of the head coverings that we see nowadays.

Hijab Fun Fact

  1. Did you know that Muslim men often wear a head covering too? Although their ‘hats’ typically stand out less to the general public, they represent the same commitment to modesty.
  2. Modesty is present in many religions, although expressed in different ways, depending upon religion and culture. Amish women cover their hair and wear simple clothing. Christian women often cover their head when attending church, and Jewish men wear yarmulkes. Christian nuns wear attire very similar to that of the Burka, however society generally leave nuns to practice their religion how they see fit.
    – Here is a really great article/transcribed interview which discusses modesty and faith.

Islam and ISIS

If you believe mainstream media, ISIS leaders are carrying out violence around the word on the behalf of Islam and the Quran. The truth is however that what ISIS is doing has no basis in Islam. Panel members at the MCC spoke on behalf of the Muslim community, wanting the general public to know that Muslims around the world are just as confused and infuriated as you and I, by the violent attacks being carried out by ISIS.

One panelist said it best.

“ISIS is to Islam as the KKK is to Christianity.”

Arabic symbols in the Mosque


This was the first Arabic word that I learned about 10 years ago.

When you’re speaking to a Muslim person, they will often finish the sentence with “insha’Allah”. It always stood out to me, but it took months of hearing it (usually as part of a discussion about a student’s hopes and dreams for the future) before I finally asked someone what it meant.

Insha’Allah translates into ‘God-willing’. It is a common way for Muslims to finish a sentence, implying that their hopes or wishes are at the mercy of God’s will.


Do you still have questions about Islam or you Muslim neighbors? Message us.

We also encourage you to visit your local Mosque, in fact, the MCC East Bay and Muslim Community Association Bay Area often hosts events for the public to learn more about Islam, in an effort to encourage community, respect, and understanding. Take a leap, spend some time out of your comfort zone, and you’ll see, Muslims are just people like you are me.

About Michelle Laker

A California native; I spent 10 years living, studying, working, (and falling in love) in the United Kingdom. I returned to the Bay Area in 2011, with my British husband in tow. I am re-adjusting to life in the bay, feeling more like an expat than a local. I have spent my career working with international student & families. I love learning about other cultures, languages, and traditions. My desire to welcome newcomers, and help you make the most of your new life in the Bay Area comes from the unforgettable memories (and mistakes) I made during my time in the United Kingdom. If you've just arrived, and don't know where to start, email me ( I am happy to help!

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