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  • Nia Alexander Campbell

Being Surrounded by Islam

What You’ll Find in This Post:

  • The way Islam was represented visually in Qatar

  • The obvious and subtle ways Islam presented itself in the country

  • My reflections on the U.S. in regards to Islam

  • The Qatar's "Islamic vibe"

  • The effect being surrounded by Islam had on me


The National Mosque

Qatar is an Islamic State, and thus, Islam is not only the major religion, but it’s also ingrained in everything. Laws, social customs, dress, architecture, landscaping, even the timing of events . . . I saw Islam everywhere and I couldn’t help but be deeply interested in its seemingly constant presence. After all, the U.S. simply isn’t like this; our societal “melting pot” and 200-year-old political declarations (otherwise known as the 1st Amendment) prevents a singular religion from washing over the entirety of our landscape & laws.

Of course, as a U.S. citizen I was raised with an understanding that this was the best way to run things, that religious freedom should penetrate every aspect of life, from daily chores to politics. That said, I didn’t quite know what to expect when it came to living in a country where religious freedom existed, but only to an extent, a place where secularism wasn’t the name of the game. However, by the end of my stay in Qatar, I realized that being surrounded by not only a singular religion, but Islam specifically, was . . . striking. I was struck visually and spiritually and wound up reflecting on a lot of things.

So, how about we start with the way Islam visually struck me, yeah? I am an artist, after all.


The National Mosque at sunset

When it comes to the Islam-inspired visuals, I was naturally very excited to see what Qatar had to offer because not only am I a visual artist, but I’m also an art historian with a mild emphasis on Islamic art history (“mild” only because I exhausted every accessible class on Islamic art in uni, an easy feat considering there were only three available [and two of them were taught in Qatar] . . . SMH). What I found most exciting about the visuals in Qatar, though, was that I finally got to see more than just mosques, which is what most Western-dominated art history courses exclusively showcase as Islamic art. I mean, of course Qatar had mosques—a lot of mosques—and each one was visually unique in its own way, but there was so much more of Islam visually represented in a variety of ways (many of which I didn’t anticipate).

Some obvious ways Islam was represented:

The women’s prayer hall in the National Mosque

  • Mosques – There were a lot of “normal” mosques, the small and generally unremarkable ones, akin to the simple churches that tend to pop up on every third street in the Bible Belt. To me these unremarkable mini mosques were still very cool to look at, though, if only because the Bible Belt doesn’t have them; they weren’t part of the visual scenery I was accustomed to looking at. To top it all off, though, Qatar did still have some beautiful mosques, the ones that are remarkable. The biggest difference, though, was that Qatar didn’t have thousand-year-old mosques, the sorts of grand feats of medieval architecture to be found in other Muslim countries. Instead, they had newly built mosques, ones that seemed to emphasize the concept of modernity, and my favorites were The National Mosque and the Education City Mosque, completed in 2011 and 2015 respectively. Their designs were vastly different from one another, but both had a beautiful, modern, and simplistic-yet-detailed sort of magic to them. The National Mosque was more traditional than the Education City Mosque; there was a classic, movie-style magic to it when the sun set, for example. The Education City Mosque, though, was like something out of a sci-fi film; all white, dramatic silhouette, and huge minarets that jutted out at a slightly terrifying but incredibly impressive angle.

  • The call to prayer – The call to prayer happens five times a day, though I was ever only awake for two or three of them. It was always noticeable while I was out & about because I’d either hear the call from a nearby mosque or it would play on the speakers of a public space (like a mall or ladies-only beach). One minute I’d be listening to a 2000’s pop single as I walk past an H&M, the next minute I’d hear the music shut off and the prayer start up (though it only lasts for a few minutes).

  • Prayer rooms – Most public spaces have prayer rooms, including schools, malls, and parks, and there were always separate rooms for men and women. The quality and quietness of these rooms vary, but it was interesting to see signage that listed things like “Food court straight ahead, bathrooms to the right, prayer rooms to the left”.

  • Midday prayer breaks – At VCUQ (and possibly all of Education City) there was a midday break from 12pm – 2pm (although it was slightly shifted for MFA students). There would never be any classes held during that time, and any classes starting after would end by 5pm. A good handful of small businesses would close during these hours too, though only for about 30 minutes. This gap in the day was so people would have time to do their midday prayer (and, frankly speaking, get lunch).

  • Light poles – When you leave the airport, and on the highway headed toward the National Museum, the road is lined with color-changing light poles. Each pole has Arabic script printed on them and I was told that the text were quotes from the Quran. I never confirmed this, though, so take my claim with a grain of salt… though I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn it was 100% true.

  • Water – There weren’t a lot of fountains or water features in Qatar, but there were more than I anticipated. Sure, essentially every metropolitan city has mini water works scattered about, but it was a unique experience to see how water was used in Qatar because of the significance of water in Islam. Water symbolizes purification and relates to to ablution; it’s also considered to be a source of life. So, whenever I saw a water feature in Qatar, I automatically reflected on the spiritual implications of it; a fountain never seemed like just a fountain. One of my favorite public water features was Ceremonial Court in Education City, an outdoor courtyard with the traditional shallow pool I’ve seen featured in a lot of traditional Islamic architecture. There are also a lot of fountains near the Corniche and on the way to the Pearl.

  • Art exhibitions – There always seemed to be an art exhibition going on that subtly—or blatantly—referenced Islam. Shows about women in Qatar, battoulah sculptures & drawings, sophisticatedly redesigned prayer rugs, large-scale ceramic sculptures with stylized scripture, and, of course, the entire Museum of Islamic Art.

Some subtle ways I saw Islam represented:

The National Mosque

  • How clean Doha was: If I had to guess, there are two reasons why all of Doha—a city of roughly 1.8 million people—seemed so clean all the time: 1) Money tends to inspire clean spaces (compare it to a rich person with a maid) and 2) Hygiene is very important in Islam. No shoes in the prayer rooms, hoses in the bathrooms, aversion to dogs . . . you know, here’s a Wikipedia link. It’s not an 5-star source in this case, but skimming it will give you a decent overview of the relationship between cleanliness and Islam.

  • Lack of dogs: Dogs are traditionally considered dirty in Islam, so culturally there simply wasn’t an abundance of dog people in the country, which meant there weren’t an abundance of dogs. Coming from Richmond, an incredibly dog-friendly city, it was odd to just not see them. Although, I did see one stray hopping around a construction site and two of my friends, plus one teacher, just so happened to own little pooches. That said, cats aren’t thought of in the same way; Qatar is definitely extremely cat friendly.

  • Lack of buildings that are clearly marked as churches: Though Qatar is an Islamic state, the country is generally cool with “freedom of religion” as long as you don’t place religious symbols on the outside of your building or walk around town trying to convert people. This was different than my experience in the U.S. because, well, walking around just my tiny neighborhood meant passing six churches. In fact, Virginia as a whole is predominantly Christian; we’re at the very tip of the Bible Belt (where it slowly starts to fade out) and though it’s not uncommon to find people of other spiritual beliefs, Christianity—and thus, churches—is still low-key the norm. My point is that spotting churches at home was easy compared to spotting them in Qatar, and I didn’t realize how accustomed I was to churches being part of my environment until I entered an environment that visually lacked them.

  • Separation of men and women: Gender segregation in Qatar was naturally more common than in the U.S., though it wasn’t as strict as many Westerners imagine. Essentially, the more religious the space, the more likely it is for men and women to have separate spaces (think mosques, weddings, and prayer rooms). Other places, though, like malls, parks, and most schools were coed. However, it’s fair to say that on Fridays single men weren’t encouraged to enter some public spaces because Friday is “family day”, and family day is for women, children, and—you guessed it—families (and families in Qatar are thought of with the “traditional” husband-wife-child(ren) social structure . . . a single man and his cat is can’t be defined as family).

  • Lack of public references to sex, nudity, or unmarried romances: No adult toy store billboards on the highway, no discreet gentlemen’s club 10 minutes from campus, not even a lingerie commercial (despite there being plenty of lingerie shopping options around Doha). Plus, I’ll never forget the way that scene in Black Panther was cut out because two unmarried love interests decided to share a PG-13 kiss. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like the U.S. paraded sex & nudity around every corner; in fact, we’re low-key prudish when it comes to that sort of thing (especially when you compare us to many European countries). It’s just that the near complete lack of reference these subjects in Qatar is what stuck out to me.

  • Lack of reference to drugs and alcohol: I’m not a big fan of alcohol, but I was still used to seeing it around; ABC Stores, grocery aisles lined with soda, wine, & beer, and that rule about stores not selling liquor after midnight so the bars could make money was just a normal part of my environment. Qatar, though, had a totally different set of norms (which you can read more about in the post No Beer, No Bacon). And when it comes to recreational drug use, let’s be real, the U.S. is choosy when it comes to marijuana. Without getting into the politics, economics, and shifty racist policing habits surrounding the illegality of Mary Jane, I can say for certain that it’s generally easy to find weed in the U.S. and very easy to spot cannabis paraphernalia. Bongs in smoke shops with cannabis leaves molded into the glass, baseball caps with blunts printed on them, t-shirts that literally say “Sweet Dreams Are Made of Weed” . . . you’re following me, right? Though cannabis wasn’t 100% legal, there were still many casual references to it and easy accessibility, especially compared to Qatar. In Qatar they take drug use & possession very seriously, and if it even looks like you’re advertising or advocating for drugs—even if it’s just that leaf on a t-shirt—you may run into some problems.

  • The lack of anything LGBT+ related: No Pride flags in anyone’s yard, no parades, no acknowledgement of Pride Month, no casual introductions from gay men or women introducing their same-sex partner in conversation, no . . . anything. Long story short, homosexuality is illegal in Qatar and it shows through its display of unacknowledgment. It was a very different vibe than the U.S.; Richmond is very open to the LGBT+ community, and apparently VCU is one of the most queer-friendly campuses in the country.

  • Less likelihood of meeting unwed mothers: Discluding widows, it was incredibly unlikely to meet a woman with a child who wasn’t married (probably because it was illegal to have a child out of wedlock in Qatar). This resulted in a very interesting experience for me, in that every woman with a child was presumed married. In the U.S., it’s different; of course, we still tend to associate children with marriage, but we also are very well-aware of single moms being a norm. Further still, in the U.S. when we see a young mother, we assume she’s not married because of her age; in Qatar, it was different. Being married by 25 wasn’t unheard of and popping out a baby within the first year or two of marriage was normal.

Thought provokingly

In front of me is the moon rising above the heart of the city; behind me is the sun setting behind the National Mosque. It felt poetic.

Separation of church and state

All American kids are taught this concept from an early age: Religion can’t dictate politics, that’s the law. Do we practice what we preach? Not exactly (I still think it’s odd we still say “one nation, under God, indivisible” during the pledge of allegiance, for example). And do politicians always adhere to this rule? Not always, and it can be very problematic. With or without any political missteps, though, this separation was all I knew, and it’s why I didn’t quite know what to expect in Qatar. Separation of “church and state” wasn’t a thing in Qatar; religion and law were intertwined (Google Sharie Law when you get a chance). It sounds intense, especially if you follow through with that Google search, but the way it was practiced in Qatar didn’t seem nearly as strict as some other Islamic states.

The way America characterizes Islam

They give women abayas and shaylas to borrow when entering the National Mosque

The way America (and much of the Western world) characterizes Islam leaves little to be desired when it comes to the religion, the people, and Muslim-majority countries. The media typically only highlights the negatives: A few hundred bad eggs within a religion nearly 2 billion strong, brief visuals of war-torn Muslim countries, photos of women in hijabs with captions about women’s rights . . . things like this only reference a small, slanted fraction of the religion and are often broadcasted by outsiders looking in. Then when it comes to education, classes like 8th grade World History or Survey of Art History forces us to understand Islam as a compartmentalized list of facts to be graded on later, or something that only lived and breathed hundreds of years ago in grand mosques far across the ocean.

That said, even though I was aware that Islam was more than the biased scraps of information the U.S. was handing me, I still didn’t fully understand how it could look or function in the modern world until I was in Qatar. When it comes to the religion itself, Qatar only gave me a better understanding of it and when it comes to everything else—the architecture, the values, the people—my understanding has grown in dozens of unexpected ways.

The Islam vibe in Qatar

The National Mosque

Like any religion, Islam can be interpreted in many different ways, which is one reason why Muslim countries can have a lot of variance. Even if two countries play by the same religious “rules” (like Saudi Arabia and Qatar both adhering to the Salafi version of Islam), their social practices can be entirely different. The same can be said about religious extremism (as in to say, Salafi Islam has been associated with terrorism, but is not inherently “the terrorism sect of Islam”). By being in Qatar, I learned that the way we usually define religion and its near infinite number of denominations is limiting; I learned that two things can be called the same thing but be practiced in entirely different ways. In Qatar, Islam is evident, but not suffocating; it wasn’t something to be intimidated by or fearful of.

And while I’m here, let me do a mini breakdown of Islam, its denominations, and sects as I understand it, just to keep you in the loop.

Islam is the religion.

Islam has two denominations: Sunni and Shia

Salafi is a sect of Sunni Islam

Tah-dah! That was simpler than you anticipated, right? Or at least, it was simpler than I anticipated.

The concept of “family day”

Like Sundays in the U.S., Fridays were the designated “holy day”. Sure, this meant that more people ventured out to mosques and that many businesses opened late and closed early, but it also meant that it was “family day”. Unlike Sunday in the United States (our traditional [Christian] “holy day”), people in Qatar were much more serious about the holy day being coupled with the day you’re supposed to spend time with family. Back home, you see, it’s common for people to use Sunday as just a continuation of Saturday (even if you go to church). This is because our whole “melting pot” thing means that Sunday isn’t everyone’s holy day… sometimes Sunday is just Sunday, and it’s the social norm for people to spend the day however they please (with or without spirituality or family).

In Qatar, though, Friday meant that you were supposed to spend time with your family to some capacity. Maybe cousins would come over, maybe you’d all go to a movie, or maybe you’d all just sleep in and camp out in the house together. Whatever you did, though, the entire day shouldn’t be spent out and about on your lonesome or with friends. That said, there were many places single men couldn’t go on Fridays because those places catered to families (and women) for the day. It also meant that sometimes people would get genuinely offended if you asked to hang out on Friday (a mistake one American exchange student made and received a whole lot of badmouthing once she left the room).

I was very surprised to see this student receive so much flack, though, because I—as an American—didn’t see anything wrong with her request to go catch dinner Friday night with a group of friends. It was in this moment, though, when I started realizing the relationship between Islam and the importance of family, essentially the way the “holy day” became socially synonymous with “family day”.

Spirituality, Comfort, and Self-Awareness

There were a few things about being surrounded by Islam in Qatar that I ultimately wound up really appreciating, like:

The separation of men and women. For the first time in my life, I could walk into a public space and not see a single man. I know we can talk for hours about the pros and cons of gender segregation in various environments, and we could talk for years about the gender spectrum itself, but we’ll have to save those conversations for later. For now, what I will tell you is that I liked having the option; I liked having the option to enter an entire gym void of men, I liked having the option to eat in the family section of a restaurant (the area for women and children), and I loved living in an all-female dorm. The comfort of knowing I simply couldn’t be followed into my apartment off the street by a man, of knowing I’d never have to wake up to my roommate’s half naked boyfriend asleep in the same room I get dressed in, or just knowing that I no longer ran the risk of listening to my roommates screw their boytoys in the rooms next door, was incredible. It felt like nearly wherever I went I had a safe space, my own Fortresses of Solitude; these changes in my physical surroundings allowed me the mental and emotional breaks I sometimes needed.

Being able to reflect on my own spirituality. I felt better able to connect with my own spirituality in Qatar than I ever was able to in the U.S. I especially liked the call to prayer. Of the five calls to prayer, there were always at least two I’d hear while out & about during my day. The calls were all in Arabic, so I didn’t understand what was being said, but I still found them captivating, in their meditativeness and auditory scale. It was a uniquely beautiful experience to go through the motions—get groceries, walk through a park, shut down my studio for the night—and suddenly feel like I was surrounded by an infinite amount positive spiritual energy when the call to prayer started up. It’s something I’d never experienced in the U.S. and, simply put, it made me feel good.

Having built-in prayer breaks. Having prayer breaks in the middle of the day was cool (as was having all classes be over by 5pm). It wasn’t just about the convenience, though; these breaks were also healthy for me because it forced some breathing time into my schedule. It also encouraged a responsible sleep schedule (I could finally behold the magic of not leaving class at 10pm) and it helped me practice for what my time would look like in the “real world” (since most 9-5 jobs are—wait for it—9am – 5pm with a break in between, parallel to my school schedule). I was able to give myself time to do whatever; work in the studio, work at home, take a nap, say a prayer, decompress, spend time with friends, make tuna salad, eat the tuna salad. In short, the natural schedule of my day allowed me to better construct healthy habits.

Seeing how religion, tradition, and modernity intertwined. I absolutely loved seeing how those three things were reinterpreted in ways I had never seen before, in the art, the architecture, and even peoples’ dress. There were so many things that were a unique combination of classic and seemingly futuristic, and though living in an Islamic state meant that there were certain things you were encouraged to do/not to do, at no point did it feel strict, oppressive, or rigid. If anything, it felt fluid, and there was beauty in that fluidity.

Overall, being surrounded by Islam wound up being informative for me in so many ways, ways I never anticipated. I learned about and reflected upon the religion, the art, the society, the people, my own country, my upbringing, my belief system, and my way of life. Being constantly immersed in the religion—either directly or indirectly—left a permanent impact on my personal growth and I still feel it all this time later.


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