Un-Mosqued | Leaving the Mosque Behind

Leaving the Mosque Behind

We are leaving. Leaving what? Leaving Islam for some, leaving the mosque and and sense of greater Muslim community for others, carrying with us the broken and unfulfilled promise of an Islam, which really did elevate the status of women and truly does view women as full active and contributing members of society worthy of respect, dignity, and inclusion. Not that we were ever truly welcomed here by so many ofย our communities. A victory of sorts. Victory for those asking us to convert out of Islam for challenging the status quo, victory for those who believe women should neither be seen nor heard nor step outside of her home, and victory for those who say Islam is an intolerant and backward faith in need of reform.

The Un-Mosqued

In the film Me and the Mosque by documentary filmmaker Zarqa Nawaz, Dr Aminah Mccloud, a professor of Islamic Studies at DePaul University notes that many Muslims are “un-mosqued.” These are the Muslims (the absent and mostly silent majority) ย that have been unable to find or participate in helping to create a mosque space that welcomes and reflects the desire of (not only) Western Muslims, especially but not limited to women, to have a real voice and equitable space (and other) consideration within Muslim communities, near and far. For many reasons, mosque attendance has become associated with multiple levels of pain and anguish so much so that many have given up on their communities and have become un-mosqued. At the recent Muslim Public Affairs Council’s annual convention, Imam Johari quipped that while Muslims may be un-mosqued they are not “un-Muslim.” In some communities, attendance at the mosque for prayers, lectures, events or weekend school is a kind of litmus test for one’s faith. Those who come more frequently are often assumed to be more pious and to have stronger faith than those that come infrequently.

It’s not only women who have grown dissatisfied with the general attitude of non-concern, which permeates many Muslim communities whereby more than half of mosques in North America relegate women to basements, penalty boxes, balconies, partitions, and other substandard accommodation in addition to excluding their meaningful participation in the affairs of the community. Professor Jeffrey Lang, recounts in a three-part video lecture his personal and devastating experience with his own daughters as they gradually became un-mosqued. Unable to find a place to nurture their faith in the man-cave of the mosque, which never welcomed them, many women have grown accustomed to developing and practicing their faith outside of the mosque without a sense of greater community. Again, a victory for those who emptily parrot the hadith that the salah of a woman receives more reward in her home as though that can capture the full range of meaningful experience of vital importance to cultivate and strengthen one’s faith.

Why do we seek to engage in our communities through the mosque? The reasons are many and includes so much more than just the multiplication of reward for engaging in salah. The mosque is not only a place to pray but also a community gathering space. Yes, when out and about and in need of a place to pray, I delight in praying comfortably in a mosque. The mosque is also a place to see the diversity of Islam’s adherents and meet other like-minded Muslims, I think I’ve met the majority of my friends either at the mosque or through mosque-led events. Being in community and interacting with others with its attendant joys and bearing its harms is a way to put one’s faith into practice. Getting up in the early pre-dawn hours, day after day, to pray fajr and other salah in the mosque teaches you discipline and time management, standing next to a fellow Muslim in prayer inculcates the beautiful manners of Islam including patience, gentleness, humility, forgiveness, and a concern for others, and breaking fast together or performing other communal worship strengthens one’s own faith, deepens the ties of connection, and fosters a sense of real community.

So the loss of the mosque in one’s life is acutely painful. Practicing one’s faith alone can be lonely. It’s profoundly disheartening to experience the disconnect between the theoretical Islam where Muslims happily recount the list of Muslim-first achievements (women having the right to own property and inherit, to keep their own names, to whatever) and the repeated use the easy hijab and gender stereotypes, while the ugly reality of inequity and belittlement, which is experienced by so many simply on account of their gender exacts a heavy toll on one’s faith. Those that bear witness to such inequity mainly do so with either silent acquiescence or protest. I’ve tried the former and am increasingly convinced the latter is better. Protest can take many forms chief among them is the prayer coupled with action.

Pray in Protest

Moving out from behind the partition and penalty box, the basement and classroom, and the balcony and other inferior disconnected spaces, I’ve decided to write and continue to highlight the words of other strong and eloquent writers on the issue of women’s prayer space and community inclusion, here and here, which continue to generate much discussion. In addition, I’ve started a photoblog to highlight prayer spaces around the world. Recently, after publishing pictures and my own reflections of the experience at a local mosque, a board member at that mosque responded in the comments excusing the substandard accommodation and promising reforms and improvements in the near future. A small but important victory of sorts.

Among the beneficial aspects of highlighting the issues surrounding women’s prayer space and inclusion within the Muslim community has been to find a community of Muslims around the world who have been struggling for improvements for years and increased awareness and attention paid to these issues by Muslim writers, activists, and imams. In the last year, Suhaib Webb, Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, and Yasir Qadhi have been speaking out against the shameful ways women are treated in our community, of which one aspect manifests in poor accommodation in mosques.

The decision to leave the mosque behind in search of a safe place to nurture one’s faith is not taken lightly by one deeply connected to the mosque and Muslim community. But for some Muslims, it’s a retreat that is needed in order to hold onto both faith and sanity. We may be leaving the mosque behind but we’re not leaving our faith, at least not most of us. As for me, I’m not willing to give up on my faith or the Muslim community or the mosque and so I will continue to utilize my energy to improve the situation and continue to pray in protest.

๏ปฟ

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Author: Ify Okoye

Muslim woman, RN, & rebel with a cause.

28 thoughts on “Un-Mosqued | Leaving the Mosque Behind”

  1. Thank you for this. I am also an unmosqued Muslim– male however, and also disturbed by the environment of mosques… both the gendered spaces and the general vibe

    1. Thank you for stopping by HijabMan, it’s true both men and women, young and old are fleeing from the mosques. My hope is to either find a community that is open and inclusive and relevant or to help in creating one for us and future generations.

      Islam places great emphasis on the communal aspects of community and worship so being un-mosqued makes me feel as though I’m missing out on an integral part of my faith.

  2. As Salaam Alaikum!

    I guess i could consider myself an “unmosquer.”But there are other reasons besides women’s treatment that many leave masjids.

    After 30 years, I’ve learned to adapt to whichever Masjid i visit . If i know at a certain masjid the women are upstairs, i go upstairs, etc. I look more for the camaraderie amongst the women, the ‘vibe’ of acceptance because i’m Muslim vs. a suspicious paranoia because i’m not of the dominant tribe of the mosque, or ‘new.’ I’ve always been able to find a masjid that has no barrier, women sitting behind the men on the same level, even participating poltically, but there is no ‘real’ sense of community. Instead there is a bunch of political fitna as folks jockey for position creating an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mentality. Or again, because my family is not usually of that tribe, we’re treated like visitors all the time.

    I’ve learned not to expect much more and deal accordingly. I don’t choose to fight for changes in these already established masjids. I do what we can in our rather large jamah/family. I understand many women and families aren’t as big as mine and can end up feeling very alone.

    What’s most worrisome to me are the children. They’ve never experienced a sense of multi-ethnic, I love you cause we’re brothers and sisters in the faith” community. Many times they are ostracized by other children aping their parents. As soon as they’re old enough to say ‘i won’t go.’

    And that includes the children of the masjid!
    something is drastically wrong when our children cannot relate to their places of worship!

    Masjids should not be places to work out old school alliances and politics. It should be aware of the upcoming generations and make efforts to include them socially, emotionally and most importantly, Islamically. Changes need to be made on many fronts…Allah Help Us All!

    1. Wa salaam alaykum,

      Amen! Welcome asiila and thank you for sharing your thoughts. For me, it’s rather devastating to see the way our communities rather than being open and welcoming to all has become a place where we’d rather just flee to protect ourselves.

      Thankfully, I have experienced great harmony and love within the Muslim community based primarily on our shared faith amidst the normal pettiness of racism and sexism and classism. Part of my struggle to hold on to my faith and my sanity requires that I challenge what I see as injustice within my local community.

    2. Salaams Sister:

      I too have experienced the great harmony and love you speak of. Alhamdulillah. It’s one of the reasons i don’t get too upset when i run up against it in various masjids, and float around. I have memories and life long Muslim sisters (and brothers) i can maintain the same kind of relationships with. I know how to ignore and adapt to certain aspects too….i’ve figured out the rhythm, depending on where i go.

      Part of it is age too. After 50, you tend to pick your battles. Unfortunately, it may take my generation dying out until you see some REAL change, but at the same time the loss of some of the traditions that really are important to maintain.

      I converted in 1979 when the Iranian Islamic Revolution exploded on tv. Suddenly Muslims were ‘in.’ Believe me when i tell you that was the incident that revived Islam worldwide. Muslims came out the closet and tried to get back to their Prophetic traditions. It was beautiful…EVERYONE got along: all sects, races and nationalities truly felt like brothers and sisters. and get this….it stayed that way until we began to build the masjids! Up to that point, coming together to figure out where to hold jumah and Eid prayers, how to get more information on Islam, good copies of translated Qurans, etc. were are main concerns.Everyone tried, and most got married and stayed that way (til this day!). It was a totally different vibe.

      It wasn’t until the masjids were built that these real ingrained issues began.

      A generation and a half later, things have changed DRASTICALLY. we have thousands (millions?) more believers; thousands more masjids, but the camaraderie, cooperation and respect—the love–is at an all time low. ‘Unmosqueing’ is merely a symptom on how people have had to cope with maintaining their faith in this zeitgeist.

      Yes, stay active and change the wrongs you see—Allah bless you with success. It really hurts me to see so many, mostly american converts, feeling so disenfranchised with the institutions we prayed and worked for.

  3. The unmosqued me has been holding on for a few years now and I have assimilated into a society that is strange for me (USA) although I’m American. I’ve been Muslim for 30 years now, it’s tough to hold on with no community (of sisters) to even chat with let alone, do meaningful things with. I tell no one I’m Muslim as I live in the Bible Belt-Islam is ‘news’ only down here. I’m now comfortable with what has come my way even if it still is unfolding as we speak. I’m not sure IF i want to ‘join’ a group of Muslims who are what you’d call-stuffy, ignorant or culturally bound.

    I lived in a muslim country for nearly 10 years before returning to the states, getting divorced and now, living on my own. So as we speak, I take what I have learned over the past 30 years-hang on and ask Allah to watch me as HE never has before because I’m a stranger in a strange land.

    I have plenty more I could write but i must get to work now and I don’t care to spill more than necessary now. The article referred to gender bias in the mosque-that does not exist in the mosque in my town. If you’re Pakistani, Palestinian, Lebanese or any one who speaks Urdu, Arabic or any other ME language-maybe you want to come here, you’d had plenty of friends once you hung out for about 5 years and your husband (the doctor) made some nice friends at his hospital.

    Pray for me as I hold on to the little I have outwardly and that my ‘bank’ of being a muslimah for nearly my entire adult life, having 4 kids born in Islam and being with Americans who were ‘trying’ to become Muslims for 25 years and now, I’ve split from their deviant version of Islam, that this bank-pays great dividends now as I struggle with my faith and how it has adapted to life in 2011.

    Fi Aman Allah

    1. Salam Diana, may Allah make it easy for you and us, it can be so tough. At times, I feel my faith is bruised and battered. The struggle to maintain faith, let alone develop and nurture and deepen it is one issue that I don’t think is spoken about enough in our communities. People become un-mosqued for a myriad of reasons, each acutely personal and sometimes grows out of personal suffering.

      Practicing our faith alone or in community is a challenge which gets compounded by the political, ethnic, religious, you name it strife we are constantly exposed to. This is one reason I blog, so that I can have real conversations with real people (albeit online) about the real issues.

      Write anytime, I’d love to hear more of your thoughts and experiences. I was not paying attention in class reading and thinking about the responses here. Did you intend say there is no gender bias in your community? Suhaib Webb has some good quotes linked over at my other blog about how faith in the 21st century must be negotiated and how our even when we attend the mosque we can still feel very alone, which has really resonated with me. I’ve almost been Muslim for 10 years and I love to hear and learn from those who have walked this path before me. I hope I can reach 20 or 30 years in Islam and wonder how my faith will manifest at that time, insha’Allah.

      May Allah protect us all. All the best.

  4. you should visit the IIT mosque in Toronto. It has a single huge hall (a gym) as the prayer area, with men in front and women at the back, with no divider but just an empty row in between. Everyone can see and hear the imam.

  5. This is a really great article. It really spoke to me. I wish people who felt like us could band together and just make our own equal access, unsegregated mosques in the US. I sure would like a better community. It should start with my own action, I know. But I ‘meet’ likeminded people a lot online and am surrounded by more conservative people in ‘real life.’ I feel afraid to speak up. So I just stay home. Sad.

  6. As salaam alaikum!

    This is very important, indeed. My mother was a convert, and was un-mosqued, so I never grew up in the mosque in the first place (add Christian father to the mix…), and so I tried really hard and never got into the mosque…and remain at the outskirts of the community.

    And the thought of trying again just makes me really anxious and so for the sake of my functioning, yes, I’ve perished the thought, essentially.

    Reading this and hearing the strength in your words gives me courage, though, that maybe communities can form that are more accepting of women and newcomers and people like me will finally find a place in the mosque…

    Nice site!

  7. I loved this. Thank you for speaking what so many of us feel.

    I am 37 & it is only this year that I finally found a mosque where I feel comfortable in my Pakistani-American Muslim female feminist skin. It feels strange to have finally found a second home. I find myself holding my breath, waiting for the spell to break.

    It gives me hope for all of us.

  8. Mezba, thanks for stopping by, I’ve missed your tiger gravatar, don’t think it shows up on MuslimMatters, does it? When next, I’m in Toronto I’ll have to do some mosque-hopping, thanks for the tip will add IIT to the list, insha’Allah. The mosques I have previously visited in TO leave something to be desired, no visuals at all for women.

    SYH: We linked to your post a few weeks ago on the PrayinProtest facebook fan page. Sadly, it’s so true, can definitely relate to “the disappointment, indignation and injustice felt” when we enter these places of worship.

    luckyfatima: We must band together even though it may be fraught with difficulty. The communities closest to me are pretty conservative and generally when I discuss the issue with other women, even those who would like better spaces and more inclusion feel intimidated by the community pressures to remain silent.

    And if you challenge the status quo, the character and iman assassination begins, which can be tough to deal with, really have to develop and thick skin and focus on our prayer and connection with God. After some of my articles last year, can’t tell you the number of people angrily telling me I should convert out of Islam. Yet, I didn’t convert for them and I won’t leave Islam because of them.

    May we all find and participate in communities where peace and dignity is extended to all.

  9. Wa salaam alaykum,

    Chinyere: It’s hard, it took me almost a year to make my first foray into the mosque, I didn’t know what to expect and was so afraid of making any faux pas. Thankfully, I was helped along and encouraged by an Iraqi family I worked with. Hearing the stories of other women around the country and the world gives me the strength to continue.

    A couple of months ago, I brought two friends with me to Friday prayer and was happy to show them that we pray without a partition behind the men in a rented facility. However, on that day expecting an overflow of men they put the women in the dark and cold basement with some piped in audio and no visuals. It was so sad. Another woman who had taken off from work to come to jumu’ah told me she was “excited” to finally be able to attend prayer until she saw we were in the basement and she was so disappointed that she almost turned around and walked out.

    Dearest Baraka, I hope you and your family are well. Your name is so apt, always feel you bring a bit of baraka and hope with your words and photos here and when I visit your blog. I’m only starting to begin to feel more comfortable in my skin. All the best.

  10. assalamualaikum. u are correct in stating that the facilities for muslim women are not suitable. As women-whether or not we are constant visitors-it is we who end up coming b4 the men leaving after them bcuz we have to set up or clean up or bring food or organize something. So the area we pray in should be just as clean, organized and roomy enough for us too. Most imporrtantly as moms we bring our children to the mosque. I would definitely not send my child to someones home if they dont keep it clean, so we must make sure the womens area is clean and child friendly. The mosque is definitely a place where i want my children to grow up in and have good ties with their muslim neighbors. sometimes there are more ppl in the womens area due to kids and moms rather than in the mens area especially during taraweeh salah-so it should be accomodated for. as for building relations ships with others that does take time. i try to go to mosques where there are volunteering opportunities or weekend or full time school. that way there are so many others to build relationships with. thanx for allowing my opinion Assalamualaikum!

    1. Wa salaam alaykum asra, I agree I also tend to form friendships through volunteering for activities or through fun get-togethers. The importance of good company cannot be underscored enough.

    1. I shall, insha’Allah, one of my sisters moved to San Francisco about a year ago and loves it there and another sister spent some time, a few years ago, not too far I think in Richmond and also loved it there.

  11. As Salaamu Alaikum;

    Alhamdulillah, I’m so happy to have found your site and this article in particular.
    I was born and raised in Islam to 2 American parents Alhamdulillah, but we never frequented any masjid. Growing up the only Muslims I knew were my own family.

    When I became an adult and moved to Philadelphia you can only imagine my excitement when I saw Muslims EVERYWHERE!!! I smiled from ear to ear and was so thrilled to give salaams to everyone. Then, I went to the masjid. Ok, I went to *many* masajid. All of them had the same cliquish atmosphere and it was a competition to get in or become a part of anything. I never felt any sense of community.

    I had a short visit to Texas and experienced a moment of feeling included and loved even if only for a Jumah or 2. Allah SWT knows best if this is the true atmosphere or if the people are just more friendly than Philly.

    Now I am completely unmosqued and don’t even have any motivation to fight for improved prayer areas or equal access to see and hear the Imam. No matter how nice the space and view might be, for me, it’s the sisters themselves that make or break the sisters’ area. I’d pray daily in a closet next to a toilet if there were welcoming sisters there who had knowledge to share. But from my own experience there are little to no classes for sisters and the sisters aren’t pleasant to be around either.

    I pray for my brothers and sisters in the Philadelphia area. I also pray for those of us who are unmosqued and hope we can all find a 2nd home one day Insha Allah.

  12. Wa salaam alaykum Bint Hajj, welcome to the blog, I’m glad you found it as well and ameen to your dua! Yes, the people can help make or break or space and may we all find communities that are open and welcoming and that treat us with dignity.

    Thankfully, I’ve found some good communities, which have provided a much needed and cherished form support. But even if I were to pray alone, which often happens within the mosque spaces I visit, I’d like that space to be dignified and reflective of the values we claim and that Islam demands of us.

    I often wonder how much more vibrant and wonderful our communities could be if the un-mosqued could find a home within them. And also of what it would take to reach out and bring us in.

  13. Assalamu alaikum
    I am from the Indian subcontinent and still live here.
    It is very rare here for women to goto masjids and almost no masjid has any arrangments for women. To tell you the truth it never bothered me. Most of them menfolk who goto the neighbourhood masjids just go and pray the salat there and come back home. There is no ‘sense of community’ around the masjid. They pray Fard Salat because it is more incumbent to pray in Jamaat if they can. For women there is no such command. So I can’t see why people make such a fuss about this issue then ?

    1. Wa salaam alaykum farah,

      It seems the situation is quite different here in America where much of community life is centered around the mosque and for converts like myself, the mosque serves as a much needed place to learn about the religion and meet other Muslims. So if I there is no mosque or I am un-mosqued I miss out on a vital part of my faith thus the urgency and “fuss.”

  14. I have seen many of the experiences that you have recounted here in so many mosques. I think part of the problem is that people do not want to look beyond their definitions of what a mosque should be. In China Muslims have hundreds of years of year old tradition of all female Mosques.

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