If you happen to walk past the front of the Islamic Center at the right hour, you'll catch a flurry of activity: people greeting each other, pulling off their shoes, entering the mosque and leaving several minutes later. The commotion along with the structure's piercing minaret, exotic ornamentation and collonaded porticos is enough to warrant a look inside.
What you're witnessing is one of five mandatory prayers of the day. The majority of the attendants are men because they're required to pray at the mosque daily at dawn, at noon, during the afternoon, at sunset and in the evening (specific times are adjusted according to the sun's location in the sky). But, if certain conditions are met, prayer can take place anywhere, according to Islamic law. And because of women's traditional role as caregivers in the home, they are only required to pray in a mosque on Fridays.
The popularity of the Islamic Center for resident Muslims stems from its long history in Washington. The mosque was dedicated in 1957, making it the oldest Islamic house of worship in the city. Now people from 75 different nations pray here. (At one time its prime location near diplomatic posts accounted for heavy foot traffic, but now many embassies conduct their own prayer sessions.)
Like other religious houses in the area, the building was a result of gifts, with the majority of the center's support coming from foreign governments. Egypt sent the solid bronze chandelier, the Shah of Iran donated the carpets and the Turkish government gave the tiles lining the mosque walls. Craftsmen from Egypt were sent to execute the artwork of Koran verses on the ceiling.
Be advised that Fridays are not the best time for a close-up view of the building, as prayer at the mosque is mandatory. As many as 6,000 people come. The crowds fill the center's front yard, often spilling onto the Massachusetts Avenue sidewalk. There aren't any restrictions on visiting during prayers, but on this day parking is nearly impossible, and you may not be able to see the inside of the mosque.
But for people new to Islam, Friday prayers are worth a visit. You can usually hear chanting throughout the neighborhood as the call to prayers is read from the Koran. (In the past, calls were sounded from the minaret, the tower on top of the mosque, but with advances in loudspeaker technology, that's no longer necessary.) The center welcomes visitors inside the mosque as long as they follow the rules: Shorts, sleeveless shirts and short dresses can't be worn inside, and women must wear head coverings. Silence should be observed during the reading of the Koran, Friday prayers and or speeches.
Group tours, arranged in advance, involve a short talk about Islam and then a period of questions and answers. Although there aren't any tours for individuals, you can take a look around yourself and stop by the library to ask any questions afterward. You can also buy materials in the bookstore, which keeps the same hours as the mosque.
Next time you hear Arabic being sounded at the edge of Rock Creek Park, stop by the Islamic Center. This is one case where you might learn something by following the crowd.