Layers of violet silk pile on top one another as Mahera Soonasra eases herself onto the well-worn brown carpet.
Seated alone, she smoothes the folds of her gown, called a shahrarah, and pushes her back against the wall of the empty mosque.
Within 15 minutes, the tiny room is crammed with women seated shoulder to shoulder in neat lines that leave scarcely an empty spot on the floor.
From the outside, the Chew Street building in Allentown looks like little more than an abandoned city store front. But for Soonasra and the 100 families who worship here every week, this run-down former movie theater serves as a makeshift mosque for the Shia Ithna Asheri Jammat of Pennsylvania, Shia Muslims.
Space is tight and not always ideal in the middle of one service, mice created an uproar when they scurried across the floor where the women were seated.
But the Muslims still appreciate their modest space. In 1979, when the congregation had grown too large to continue meeting in private homes, it was the height of the Iranian Revolution and the congregation had difficulty finding a new place to worship. Then, a group of Jehovah Witnesses learned of their plight and offered to sell them the Chew Street building they had been using.
And so it has become the religious home to Lehigh Valley residents of Shiite faith. It is where they come to celebrate holidays and marriages, mourn deaths and honor prophets. It is a place they have made their own.
It really speaks to the immigrant experience in America, says Soonasras husband and mosque board member Mohamed Rajmohamed.
A spacious new mosque, complete with the domes and arches of traditional Islamic architecture, is being built in South Whitehall Township.
But in many ways, the old mosque is a symbol of what it means to practice the religious and cultural traditions of Islam, an eastern faith, in America, a western nation.
Sometimes, says the soft-spoken Mohamed, whose niece has been taunted at Parkland High School because she wears the Islamic head-covering, we have to adapt.
In the Lehigh Valley, the Shia Ithna Asheri Jammat of Pennsylvania is the only Shia mosque. The majority of the worlds 1 billion Muslims, including those in the Lehigh Valley, are Sunnis.
But many Muslims, both Shiites and Sunnis, say the differences between the two groups are slight. And many say that in the Lehigh Valley as across America Middle Eastern immigrants from both faiths have undergone similar adaptations as they practice an Eastern religion in a Western world.
In addition to the Shia mosque, there are at least five other mosques in the Lehigh Valley and surrounding region. The majority of the world's 1 billion Muslims are Sunnis. Sunni mosques here include the 500-member Islamic Center of the Lehigh Valley in Whitehall Township, the 150-member Islamic Society of Schuylkill County in Pottsville, 600-member North Penn Mosque in Lansdale and the 130- member Stroudsburg Islamic Center.
The Masjid-Ath-Thuba, a predominantly black and Latino mosque in Allentown, is not affiliated with either Sunnis or Shiites.
Shia is a major branch of Islam whose members are called Shiites. The Shiites believe the prophet Muhammads descendants are his successors. The Sunnis believe that his sucessors were elected.
Shiites here belong to Ithna-'Ashariyya or Twelver Shia, the largest of the Shiite schools of thought. Their name springs from the fact they believe prophet Muhammads descendants were the first 12 imams, or leaders, of the Shia community.
In the Lehigh Valley, there are also differences between the Shia and Sunni mosques: The Sunni mosque has a modest, almost stark interior; the Shia mosque features a velvet-covered pulpit and gold-colored figurines in the shape of hands. The hands symbolize an arm of the third Shiite imam, which was severed.
But in recent years several Shiite leaders, including the Iranian political leader Ayatollah Khomeini, have advocated Shiites establish solidarity with Sunnis.
The Islamic community: unity, variety and change
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