Hospitals Set Aside Space For Muslim Prayer Rooms

By Janice Neumann
Religion News Service
Saturday, August 26, 2006

OAK LAWN, Ill. -- The corridor of a bustling hospital is not the best place for kneeling in devout prayer, many Muslim families and doctors have learned. But praying in a chapel comes with its own set of problems -- forbidden pictures and statues of living beings, pews facing in the opposite direction of Mecca and worshipers wearing shoes on the floor where Muslims kneel to pray.

So when a nondescript Muslim prayer room recently opened at Advocate Christ Hospital and Medical Center in this Chicago suburb, families and staff were "flying from happiness," said Refat Abukhdeir, the hospital's Muslim chaplain.

"Usually, you find a little quiet corner or some spot and hope nobody trips over you," said Habibah Ayyash, 25, of Frankfort, Ill., who was praying in the hallway on breaks from visiting her father-in-law in the hospital until the prayer room opened this year.

"Especially when someone is in the hospital, you're already down, so it's helpful to have a room where you can sit and pray," Ayyash said.

The room, which holds 10 to 15 people, is one of about a dozen that have sprouted up in hospitals nationwide since the late 1980s in areas with large Muslim populations, according to an informal survey.

Georgetown University Medical Center, Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and Texas Medical Center in Houston have Muslim prayer rooms. More generic interfaith prayer and meditation rooms are far more common, according to several hospital chaplains.

Located on Advocate Christ Hospital's Telemetry Unit, where special equipment is used to monitor patients' hearts, the Muslim prayer room is more convenient to Muslim patients, families and staff who pray five times a day than the chapel in the lobby.

The prayer room has four prayer rugs, a shoe rack, copies of the Koran and two pictures of boats on a lake. There are no pictures of people or animals, which are forbidden because they might be mistaken for idols. Worshipers won't be distracted by someone walking in front of them, which could be mistaken for praying to that person, rather than to Allah. And their prayers won't interfere with anyone else's religion, either.

"Sometimes you are praying [in the chapel] and other people meditate or pray in a different way, so I don't know if you are causing some embarrassment or discomfort for other people," said Muhyaldeen Dia, a cardiologist at the hospital.

Though the hospital features a cross on its roof and is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the United Church of Christ, the Rev. Wendell Oman, the facility's manager of spiritual services, said it was important to meet the religious needs of everyone in the hospital, regardless of religion.

"Our sense was that when you come, you bring your faith with you," Oman said. "We're not trying to downplay our Christian heritage, but we respect the right of people to have their faith. We also want to accommodate their ability to express their faith, as long as it doesn't get in the way of medical care."

Though Muslims can pray anywhere, a prayer room can make it more convenient and comfortable, said Valerie Hoffman, associate professor in the Program for the Study of Religion at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Kneeling on prayer rugs rather than the hard floor, cleanliness from removing shoes before entering and a lack of distraction all make prayer rooms beneficial, Hoffman said.

"I think having a space where they [Muslims] wouldn't be stared at or made to feel uncomfortable in any way, where they could just focus on their prayer . . . that's very important for anybody [praying], really," Hoffman said.

Muslim staff at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston made due with praying in a chapel until 1999 when the masjid , or prayer room, with space for 10 to 15 people, opened at their request. In 2005, a mihrab , a special niche in the prayer room wall, was added that indicates the direction of Mecca and displays Islamic sayings and symbols.

"As the [Muslim] community grew, it simply became pretty evident to us it would be important for them to have their own space to do this [pray], so they would not feel sort of wedged in, and at the same time we could sort of dress it up with a mihrab and keep the rugs on the floor," said the Rev. Michael McElhinny, director of Mass General's chaplaincy program.

McElhinny said the hospital reserves a conference room for Muslim Friday prayers, where between 100 and 200 people regularly attend. At Advocate Christ Hospital, about 35 Muslims use a chapel at Advocate Hope Children's Hospital, an adjoining, affiliated hospital.

Like other Muslims who have used a hospital chapel or hallway to pray, Firdosh Pathan, a pharmacist at Mass General, said a separate prayer room seemed more appropriate and comfortable. He said the prayer room was crucial to patients and families facing medical crises, such as a cancer patient whom he said came all the way from Florida mainly because of it.

"For somebody who is dying of cancer and has no hope, the last thing they do is hold onto the strings of religion," Pathan said.

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