How Muslim Prayer Rugs Are Made and Used

prayer mat
Wikimedia Commons

“Religion Behind the Scenes” spotlights the less discussed, but no less crucial, tasks that keep religious communities running, and the people who make it all happen.

From nearly the beginning of time, the dust of the ground, the dirt of this earth, has been perceived as “defiling” in various cultures and religious traditions. Ritual washing has long been a means of cleansing the worshipper before he or she approached the divine in prayer. Each of the Abrahamic traditions have manifest, at various times and in their diverse denominations, a ritual distaste for dirt and its defiling characteristics.

In Islam, prayer is traditionally seen as an ascent into the presence of the divine. Thus, practicing Muslims engage in a ritual washing prior to engaging in ṣalāt—their ritual prayer that is customarily said five times each day. Once the pre-prayer-ablution has taken place, practitioners of Islam stand and kneel on a prayer mat as they converse with Allah—thereby ensuring that the place in which they pray is clean, non-defiling, and an appropriate space in which to commune with God.

In this installment of Religion Behind the Scenes we visit with Tara Cetinkaya, the CEO & Co-Founder of Modefa—the United States’ largest supplier of Islamic prayer rugs. Tara teaches us a bit about how Muslim prayer rugs are made, how and why they are used, and what they contribute to the spiritual life of practicing Muslims.

Your company’s name is “Modefa.” I like that. You created that name yourself?

Yes. When we started, we were looking for names that were unique. But, at that point, it seemed like all the good names were taken. When we first started, we were focused primarily on fashion—selling hijabs and other articles of modest clothing. So, “Modefa” is a combination of the words “modesty” and “fashion.” It means, “where modesty meets fashion.”

What took you down the road of starting your own business?

Well, I’m a convert to Islam and, after I converted, I wanted to start dressing more modestly. But I quickly realized that there were limited options for modest clothing; and I was getting really frustrated with the lack of choices—not just in regular mainstream stores, but also with Muslim retailers. It was really hard (at that time) to find anything online. And so I just realized that there was a huge void in the market for quality hijabs and for modest clothing generally.

I also noticed that Turkey has really good quality clothing, but they also make stuff that’s not just “traditional” (in the sense that most people think of Muslim clothing styles). They seemed to have more modern styles of modest clothing—which are a bit more my personal esthetic. Modern and fresh looking, you know? So, we started working with some popular hijab brands in Turkey, and bringing them here to the U.S.

If you started out selling clothing, what took you down the road of selling Islamic prayer rugs?

Well, as with all our products that we’ve added to the business over the years, we would just be struck with the thought, “Oh, Muslims need this” or “they need that.” And then we would add items to our site based on needs we saw.

Turkey is it one of the biggest producers of Islamic prayer rugs. And they are very well known for the quality of their rugs as well. My husband is from Turkey—and in the area he and his family are from, there happened to be a prayer rug factory. And so that’s kind of what triggered it. We knew Muslims here in the United States needed prayer rugs as well, and there's not many options for good prayer rugs that you can buy here or even online. So, we added prayer rugs to our site, and it has become a thriving part of the business. Our prayer rugs are actually one of the things we sell the most of.

So, your rugs are made for you in Turkey. Do you have a single supplier? Or do you use multiple Turkish rug makers to weave your products?

Oh, we have three main suppliers for our prayer rugs. And the rugs are our own brand—so they are made specifically for us. They have our own tags and labels on them. And we work directly with the manufactures in making these. They aren’t just generic rugs that we’re purchasing from a supplier.

The manufactures of these rugs have such high quality, and we were impressed by that when we met with them and looked over what they were producing. And so we wanted to share that superior quality with our customers.

What can you share with our readers about the process of making these prayer rugs?

So, they're mostly machine made, on a rug loom. When you visit the factory where we make them, it’s really a very cool process to see the loom operating and how the craftsmen hand finish them, including weaving in the tassels on the ends. So, the main part of the rug is woven on the loom and then the weavers sew on the tassels, the tags or labels, and the finishing details. They’ll finish the edges, and stuff like that. So, some of the rug is made on a loom, some is done on a sewing machine, and some is done by hand.

prayer rug factory

Talk to me a little bit about why Muslims use prayer rugs. What's the symbolism or the purpose behind that?

Yeah, so we believe that when we pray, it's really important for us to have a clean space to pray on. Of course, prayer rugs haven’t been used from the very beginning of Islam. It's something that started being used gradually, over time. So, as far as my understanding, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) didn't actually have a prayer rug, per se. But he would have used things that were clean, that were available to him, that he could set down on the ground when he prayed. So, if he wasn't sure that the spot he was going to pray on was clean, he might put something down. But it wasn’t a formal prayer rug at that point in history.

In our homes today, we’re likewise just trying to be careful that, as we pray, the space on which we’re praying is appropriately clean. And so that’s where the prayer rugs come in.

I’ve had Muslim friends who have describe prayer as mi’raj or “a spiritual ascent into the presence of God.” As a Muslim, before you engage in ṣalāt (or prayer), you go through a ritual washing. Tell us a bit about the connection between that pre-prayer washing and using a rug (when you pray)—so as to avoid having contact with dirt or filth on the ground.

Yeah, going into prayer, we should be clean. And so we do the wudu—the ritual cleansing. The purpose of that is to make us physically and spiritually clean. So, you wouldn’t want to go through the wudu, only to then kneel down on a space that is dirty. So, it is important that the space on which you pray is clean—and that includes the prayer rug that you’re praying on as well. Otherwise, what good was the wudu you performed?

So, a Muslim would use a prayer rug for their five prescribed daily prayers (or ṣalāt). When else might they need or use a prayer rug? During other prayers? When reading the Holy Qur’an? Other times?

So technically, there are some who don’t use prayer rugs. It is a minority who don’t, I think. But some feel like—if they are praying at home and they know it is clean—they don’t need one. Some people have a specific room in their house that they primarily use for prayer, and perhaps they keep that very clean.

But, to your question, for the most part, prayer rugs are just used for Ṣalāh. Some people may, after completing their prayer, sit and make what we call du′a—which is kind of a freeform prayer, just speaking to Allah. Some people may stay on their prayer mats for this, or for using the prayer beads and making dhikr, which is remembrance of Allah. Some people may also sit on their prayer mat (or set their rahle or Qur’an stand on their prayer mat) when they’re reading the Qur’an. But it's kind of “To each his own.” Outside of ṣalāt, there isn't really a set usage for prayer mats.

Are there parameters as to what a rug has to have—whether in size, or colors, or fabric? What qualifies something to be used as a prayer mat? Or does it even matter?

No, that’s mostly determined by culture. But really, your mat can be anything. And I've seen lots of different materials. I've seen handmade satin ones in Turkey. There are ones that people use for traveling, which are more like a nylon kind of parachute material. (Those clean very easily.) But there’s no set colors or designs, or anything like that.

The only thing is that we wouldn't want to use as a prayer mat anything that has words on it, or that has animate objects on it—such as pictures of animals or people. So, you wouldn't want to pray on anything that has those kinds of things on it. But other kinds of designs or geometric patterns would be fine.

foam prayer rug

I would assume that inscribing a passage of the Holy Qur’an on one’s prayer rug would be inappropriate since you're setting it on the ground. Correct?

Yeah, you wouldn't want to do that, specifically because it's going to be on the ground. And also because you'll be sitting or standing on it.

We actually have one of our prayer rugs (that we sell) that has the design of the Kaaba on it. As you probably know, the Kaaba has this tapestry that hangs over the outside of it—and that tapestry has Qur’anic verses written on it. So, we have a prayer rug that depicts that—though it doesn’t actually have any actual writing on it, just a pattern. But I’ve had some people who were not comfortable with that, because they felt it's a little too close, you know? And yet other people love it. Most Muslims are totally fine with it, and they like it. But there are some Muslims who are really strict and feel like it’s inappropriate to have that on the floor. So, everyone is different.

prayer mat

On your site, you have beautiful rugs—and so much variety. Who designs your prayer rugs?

Well, the factories we work with will often present us with designs that they have come up with or recommend, and then we will choose ones we like. We pick the colors from swatches and then have them create those designs in the colors we want.

If we had a specific design we wanted to do, we’re able to go to them with that and they’ll create it—though it costs a little bit more because of design fees and things like that. Because our business is so busy, we really don’t have the time to do all of the design ourselves, so we rely heavily on their design expertise.

Knowing the importance of ṣalāt in Islam and recognizing that the vast majority of Muslims feel the need for a prayer mat (in order to fulfill that commandment to pray), it seems to me that you’re providing a really important service to the Islamic community. What would you say is the most sacred side of what you do?

Well, the whole reason we started Modefa was because we wanted to make sure that Muslims had what they needed to live out their faith. Sometimes, engrossed in the day-to-day details of running a busy business, it's hard to remember that. But there are times when you get reminders of the importance of what you do, in the form of reviews, phone calls or chat messages—where our customers are just so appreciative that they have these options to choose from. We're the largest prayer rug seller in the USA. And before we came along, many felt like they had to go back to their country of origin in order to get a good prayer rug. They’re not something that was readily available here in the U.S. And so, being able to provide these for people—making it easy for them to buy, and giving them lots of options—that’s always been really important to us. To be able to fill a need that basically all Muslims have is really special to us.

Is there an aspect of your work that you’re proud of or that you feel like is a significant achievement?

Well, I suppose there are multiple things. As I mentioned earlier, being the number one brand of prayer rugs in the U.S. is something I’m very proud of. But I’m also proud of the influence we’ve had on other sellers of prayer rugs. For example, before we were selling our rugs on Amazon, if you went and looked for Muslim prayer rugs, there weren't very many. I remember going and looking for what was available at the time (like 10 years ago), and the number one rug had the worst picture. The photo was uploaded upside down, and it looked like it had been thrown on someone’s kitchen tile floor so that they could take a quick photo of it. The whole presentation of the product was awful. And that was the top selling prayer run on the site.

And so, we came in and started taking prayer rug photos in a whole new way. We spent time wanting to make sure the photos were really nice, that the color wasn’t off because of the lighting, that all of the details were accurate, etc. The presentation was important to us and, after we started selling there, other buyers started copying us. So, you can kind of credit us for what you see on Amazon—in the way prayer rugs are presented, in terms of how much variety there is, and even in the quality. Everyone there is basically going off of our script, both in the way we take the photos, but even in how we will often include a free tasbih and free kufi (or prayer cap). Other sellers are starting do some of those same things.

Any unusual stories about what you do—designing, producing, and selling Islamic prayer rugs?

Yeah, there's two things that come to mind. One of them was a little annoying, and the other one was more of a nice story. Let me start with a nice story.

It's always nice when I see that our customers have a connection with our products, when something we sell is meaningful to them. I recall an experience with a woman who really connected with someone on our site. One of our prayer rugs is called “Floral Mosque Blue”—and it is a blue rug with a floral pattern on the bottom and a mosque near the top of it. Well, this one Turkish woman saw this particular rug and really connected with it, because it reminded her of the Blue Mosque (in Istanbul). This was meaningful to her because her father was Turkish, and the Blue Mosque was special to their family. So, this actual prayer mat had been out of stock, and we didn’t have any of them available—even though she really wanted this specific rug. And it just happened to be coming back in stock right at the time that she was requesting it. So, she was really excited and happy to be able to get that specific rug that had so much sentimental value to her. And it was meaningful to us to be able to provide that.

mosque blue

The other story has to do with a foam prayer rug that we produce. It is about an inch thick because some people have trouble praying on hard floors and want something softer that will make praying more comfortable. Well, you can never make everyone happy—and this is a prime example of that. Originally, the foam mats were softer, and some people complained that they were “too soft.” They said they could “still feel the floor” when they kneeled on them. So, we made them more firm, and now some complain “They’re too hard, and they hurt my knees.” Others have said, “They’re too thick. I can’t stand properly on them. It makes me lose my balance.” We always listen to customer feedback and implement what we can. But this is one of those where, no matter what you do, you can’t please everyone.

How would you say that this work has changed you for the better or influenced you spiritually?

Well, there’s a lot I could say on that subject—good and bad. As I said before, I’m happy to have a job that, for me, is so meaningful. I enjoy what I do, and I find meaning in it. That’s really important to me. When we started this business, we didn’t start it to get rich, or anything. We just felt there was a need, and that we could meet that need, providing a service to our community. And so, that's what we did. And we've been fortunate to have been so blessed, with a business which has done very well.

But it's definitely draining as well, and especially around Ramadan (when we’re really busy). Because of how hectic work is at this time of the year, trying to make sure our customers have a meaningful Ramadan, we may not be able to have a normal Ramadan ourselves. So, it's harder for us to kind of enjoy the holiday for ourselves. The first couple years or so, it was easier. But in the last three or four years, we’ve experienced a lot of growth, and that has made focusing on our own religious practice a bit challenging.

And yet, I work in an environment with other Muslims, and our customers are Muslims. Even the products we sell are all Islamic. So, all of that definitely causes me to think more on a daily basis about my religion and the things that matter. I just wish I had more time to spend in prayer or reading Qur’an, or things like that.

Are there things about prayer rugs—whether the making of them or the use of them—which might surprise some people?

Well, mostly what we talked about earlier—that a prayer rug can be pretty much anything that’s clean. I think most people would be surprised to hear that. In a pinch, we’ve used clean hotel towels, and put those on the ground for our prayer mats. We’ve used a blanket when we didn’t have a mat with us. I think I read somewhere that even the Prophet (PBUH) would use something small that his head and hands could be placed on—something much smaller than the prayer rugs we use today. So, a prayer rug can be pretty much anything.

pile of rugs

It seems like it would be a challenge or a burden to have to have a prayer rug with you everywhere you go, so that you could engage in ṣalāt at the appropriate times of the day. Is it a burden for practicing Muslims?

Yeah, I think it can be. As a consequence, I think there are a lot of Muslims that will keep with them a sort of pocket prayer mat. We call it a “travel prayer mat.” They might keep one in their car or in their purse—so that, when they are out and about, they can easily pray and not have to worry about finding a clean spot.

It’s actually more challenging in the winter months, because the prayer times are based off of the sunset and sunrise. The time of day is more condensed in the winter. So, you have less time in between prayers during that time of the year, and prayers feel almost back-to-back, making it harder to get all five in at the right times of the day, particularly if you’re out and about.

Obviously there has been some evolution in the manufacturing of rugs over time. For example, they used to all be made on hand looms, but now most are created on a mechanized loom. How has the creation of prayer rugs changed since you began your business? And do you see it changing in the future?

Well, for the most part, the process of manufacturing prayer rugs has pretty much followed the same path as carpet manufacturing, because it's basically done by the same companies who make area rugs. (For the most part, that is.) And so, the makers of prayer rugs use the same technologies and things that they do for the carpet industry.

rug factory

I think one thing that we’ve started seeing a lot more of is digital printing on rugs. They’ll make a plain, woven prayer rug, and then they’ll print a digital image on it—some kind of attractive pattern. So, thinner prayer mats that have a digital print on the top of them are becoming more popular.

There's a lot of other things people are doing to make prayer mats unique as well. On Etsy, for example, there are people who offer to embroider someone's name on a prayer rug, or things like that. So, people are doing creative things with their prayer rugs.

I think there’s also a current trend towards people wanting a higher quality and superior design level in their prayer rugs. They’re using this five times a day, and many want their mat to be really nice. For some people, it brings more meaning to them and to their prayers if they have a nice prayer rug that has a quality feel to it. So, I think that's where it's heading.

You’ve kind of made this your life’s mission, and you're doing something important. What's the mark you're leaving on the world?

Well, as I’ve already suggested, our goal has really just been to make it easier for Muslims to be able to buy what they need in order to live their religion; to make these items commonly available. You shouldn't have to go to another country to get what you need. The things you need to live your religion should be easily accessible—and not just easily accessible, but also of good quality and at an affordable price. So, that’s been our goal. And I suppose that would be my legacy—being part of this movement to make it easier for Muslims to live their religion fully and conveniently.

I know that there are other companies who are doing similar things, and maybe for different products—like the various hijab companies out there. And they share this same goal of making it easier for Muslim women to find and wear hijabs. I’m just proud to be part of the Muslim retail industry, as it began and as it is continuing to grow.

I started my career in social work. That was meaningful. Now, I help Muslims have what they need to practice their faith, and its meaningful in a different way. I think helping people live their religion more fully—whatever that religion is—is a meaningful way to live one’s life.

Interview conducted, transcribed, edited, and condensed by Alonzo L. Gaskill.

7/13/2022 10:02:28 PM
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