This past weekend, dozens of girls and boys as young as about 8 years old ran up the stairwell to the main entrance of the musallah, or main prayer hall, of the Islamic Society of Baltimore, where President Obama visits Wednesday in his first presidential visit to a U.S. mosque. As the children rounded the corner, a stern mosque Sunday school teacher stood before them, shouting, "Girls, inside the gym! Boys in the musallah."
The girls, shrouded in headscarves that, in some cases, draped half their bodies, slipped into a stark gymnasium and found seats on bare red carpet pieces laid out in a corner. They faced a tall industrial cement block wall, in the direction of the qibla, facing Mecca, a basketball hoop above them. Before them a long narrow window poured a small dash of sunlight into the dark gym.
On the other side of the wall, the boys clamored excitedly into the majestic musallah, their feet padded by thick, decorated carpet, the sunlight flooding into the room through spectacular windows engraved with the 99 names of Allah, or God, in Islam. Ornate Korans and Islamic books filled shelves that lined the front walls.