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Mosques in the United States have been prominent in the news, from the ones that are allowing their sermons to be streamed online during Ramadan to the controversial "Ground Zero mosque," a 13-story Islamic cultural center and place of worship that is scheduled to be built near the site of the Sept. 11 attack in New York.

As of 2009, about 2.5 million of the world's 1.57 billion Muslims lived in the United States, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. According to National Public Radio, at least 100 mosques are in New York City alone — two near Ground Zero — and 1,000 across the country. Yet many of us have never set foot inside of one.

Just what’s inside? To answer that question, we invited Salman Syed, a member of the Islamic Circle of North America, an education and outreach organization, to walk us through a typical mosque.

Upon entering a mosque, it's customary to remove one's shoes and place them on the rack in the entryway. This is done out of respect and to avoid dirtying the interior prayer hall floor — prayer halls have no chairs or benches, only row upon row of carpets, aligned to face Islam's holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

"The primary purpose of a mosque is to organize five salat/namaz, a form of Muslim prayer, in congregation," Syed explained. "The mosque is usually opened an hour before each obligatory, or Fard, prayer, although big mosques are open throughout the day."

Men and women in mosques

According to Syed, men (but not women) must attend Fard prayer five times a day and each prayer time has its own name: before sunrise (called Fajr), afternoon (Dhuhr), midday (Asr), after sunset (Maghrib) and after dusk (Isha'a). Six prayer "clocks" in the mosque indicate the appropriate prayer times — five for the Fard prayers and one for the Friday prayer (Juma'a). Friday is the weekly holy day in Islam.

The Quran does not forbid women from entering mosques, but certain rules exist governing interaction between men and women. Women worship in a separate chamber, usually from where they, too, can see the imam (the congregational prayer leader), although some mosques show the imam via television instead.

"Under some interpretations, women are preferred to worship at home instead of coming to mosque," Syed said.

Prior to praying, it's customary to perform a cleansing ritual (called wudu), washing the ears, face, hands, arms (up to the elbows) and feet. Many larger mosques have washrooms set aside for this purpose, with a large central fountain circled by small benches; wudu may also be performed in a pool or fountain outside. In both cases, the facilities are usually located in the courtyard, and men and women carry out wudu separately.

Worshippers enter the prayer hall by stepping with the right foot first and saying, "Oh Allah, open the door of mercy for me." Once inside, the worshippers perform two cycles of a prayer (rak’a), a mosque salutation (called Tahiyatul-Masjid), with the traditional sequences of standing, kneeling and prostration.

What it looks like inside

Near the front of the worship space is a structure called the Minbar, the raised steps from which the imam delivers the sermon at the Friday prayer. Near the Minbar stands a roofed niche called the Mihrab. This nook indicates the direction of the Ka’aba, the cube-shaped building in Mecca that is the most sacred site in Islam. All mosques are built facing the Ka’aba, and Muslims should always face in this direction while praying.

The words of the Quran, the holy book that Muslims hold to be the words of Allah (God) revealed to the prophet Muhammad in the 7th century, are everywhere in the prayer hall, often in flowing Arabic script. The hall may also be decorated with intricate patterns running the length of the walls, pillars, ceilings and floors. Pictures or statues are absent, in observation of the warning in the Hadith (the sayings, actions or traditions of Muhammad and his companions that are not part of the Quran) that depictions of living things can lead to idolatry.

Shelves lined with books on Islamic philosophy, theology and law, along with collections of the sayings and traditions of Muhammad, are common features of any mosque. Copies of the Quran are also made available to worshippers, along with wooden book holders (rihal/tawla) that are provided so that readers can avoid placing the Quran on the ground.

Every mosque has a place for zakat, or charity, where Muslims may donate money to help the poor or to support the mosque.

In addition to prayers, mosques often host meetings for spiritual revival and adult education (halaqa). Many mosques have an attached school, or madrasah, in which children learn the traditions, laws, holy books and prophets of Islam, and the Arabic language.

This article was provided by Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience.