Technically, Jerusalem is one of Islam’s holy cities. But you’d be astonished by how differently it affects you. At its holy sites, families hold picnics on the very stones where angels supposedly perched. Children scream in ridiculous laughter, bouncing like pinballs between shrines of visible age. No such vitality or antiquity comes across in Mecca and Medina, which round out the trinity.

In sharp contrast to Jerusalem’s, Mecca’s and Medina’s original characters are mysterious. A precious few pictures, which escaped the great petrochemical overhaul, suggest what once was. In Medina the grounds of the Prophet’s Mosque have been steamrolled. In Mecca hotels crowd like paparazzi around the Great Mosque, looming and leering over the Ka’aba without a shred of humility. Where saints and scholars once worshipped, Saudi Arabia’s fundamentalist-capitalist complex sells you Whoppers in the food court of the world’s third-tallest building. To be fair, Mecca and Medina have to accommodate millions, the kind of numbers Jerusalem would get were her political circumstances different.

But Jerusalem stands out not for the children or the undeniable historicity, but for the women. They walk around like they have a right to the place.

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In 616 Mecca expelled Muhammad and his tribe and put them under sanction. Muhammad traveled the unyielding desert with his uncle, Abu Talib, and wife, Khadija, the first Muslim. In 619, the “Year of Sorrow,” both Khadija and Abu Talib fell ill and died. So despondent was the Prophet that God sent the Archangel Gabriel with Buraq, a winged horse of otherworldly celerity, to carry Muhammad to al-Quds, the Arabic name of Jerusalem. From a Rock in Jerusalem, Muhammad ascended to heaven and stood before God’s throne. Less than a hundred years later, Muslims commissioned the Dome of the Rock at the site.

I expect an unhappy man of hairy countenance to boot the teenagers out. He never does.

Instead of hiring an architect, though, it seems the caliphs of Damascus requested the services of a jeweler, who mounted, on a preexisting podium, a structure of astonishing beauty whose bottom half is an outgrowth of local limestone and whose top half seems to have descended from a perfect sky.

Later dynasties built al Aqsa nearby, which is the proper mosque; the Dome of the Rock is “just” a shrine. I describe its gorgeousness not merely because of its effect—though you can stare at the Dome of the Rock till you come down with sunstroke—but because of its use. Come Friday prayers, when tens of thousands fill the Noble Sanctuary, the men worship at al Aqsa, while women use the smaller, but far more delightful, Dome of the Rock.

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American Muslims are a pretty well-educated and prosperous bunch. We are extraordinarily diverse, too—before a sermon in suburban Oregon, I was informed that the congregation spoke 34 languages. I couldn’t cease wondering which tongues these might be. But though we’ve gotten some kind of handle on pluralism, over gender we still stumble.

What we might call orthodox Islam, be it of the Sunni or Shia variety, mandates certain proprieties, such as: so much of your body must be covered for worship; men and women should not pray in physical proximity; men should lead mixed congregations in prayer. But what such modesty demands is not what Muslim culture supplies. Instead of creating a comfortable and welcoming space for meditation, contemplation, and prayer, too many mosques—and the Muslim communities behind them—go out of their way to push women out.

A sign in a mosque in bourgeois Virginia: “All sisters, please stay in the kitchen.” In Long Island, there is a mosque whose main door, reserved for men, must have cost tens of thousands of dollars. But the women’s entrance leads to the kind of staircase you expect to be mugged in. In rural New York, a men’s entrance that opens out onto the main prayer area, while the women’s area is not only dumped in the damp basement but also set apart by a rusted chain-link fence.

This is Islam?

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In a conservative culture, unrelated men and women keep their distance, and there’s an enforced dress code, but that’s par for the course. The reservation of the nicer space for women, however, is unusual. And this is an understatement in the case of the Dome of the Rock, one of the grandest structures Muslim civilization has gifted humanity. Plus, outside of congregational prayer times, women sit, pray, and worship nearly wherever they please.

To the southeast of the Dome of the Rock, there is a staircase that looks like the entrance to a New York subway might after a few thousand years. You find yourself passing through a series of astonishingly large underground chambers and finally Mary’s mihrab, where Muslims believe Gabriel interrupted Jesus’ mother, deep in prayer, for a very important announcement.

“You’re pregnant.” 

“But I’m a virgin!”

• • •

Six or seven Palestinian teenagers, in a rainbow of hijabs and matching black coats, sit up front, closest to Mecca. Some are praying. Others while away the time, passive resurrections of the Virgin Mary—who, let us recall, almost never appears in public without a hijab. I expect a congenitally unhappy man of hairy countenance to boot the teenagers out, declaring that the front is for men and the back is for women. He never does.

There’s a checkerboard of gender, male and female, alone and in clumps. Most of the men are busy napping. Those still conscious are unmoved by the women all around, working on their rosaries as if they’d been doing just that when Saladin dropped in. This is the last thing I expect to encounter, and it’s the first thing I tell people when they ask me what Jerusalem is like. Finally a place where we can think about God, and not about putting each other down.

I say this fully aware of other kinds of architecture—how comparatively easy it was for me to get in, and how hard it is for the Palestinians who live here, especially those from the West Bank. Don’t even ask about the Gazan Palestinians.

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I squeeze in every minute I can under the Rock, the “well of souls” where the Holy of Holies would have been hidden in times of danger. In that same cavern, one is free to pray for as long as one pleases. Alongside me, similarly caught up in congress with the divine, are a group of Singaporean women and an extended Nigerian family. All are okay with the proximity.

In America, many of our mosques fail our youth, their rhetorical exclusiveness embodied in their very design. Young people vote with their feet. Other mosques will rise up to meet them, to welcome them, to do as such spaces should—empower while they console, elevate while they humble. The kinds of sacred spaces we worked for are not just possible; they exist. On the other side of the planet. Under occupation.

Photograph: Adam Jones