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 of 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)  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.


Zaid Shakir & Mohamed Magid | Curbing Violent Extremism in the Muslim Community

Cross-posted on Muslim Matters

(Audio removed by request, but may be back at later date)

A few weeks ago, I attended the “Curbing Violent Extremism”  hosted by the ADAMS Center in Sterling, Virginia. Zaid Shakir, an Islamic activist and teacher at Zaytuna College spoke alongside Mohamed Magid, the imam of the ADAMS Center and the new President of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). I found the discussion invigorating and refreshingly frank. Below is a recap of some of the major points and the Q&A that followed.

Imam Zaid Shakir

Zaid Shakir opened the discussion by recognizing that the issue of violent extremism is “a very complex, sensitive, and emotive topic and one that stirs up a lot of emotions” so he mentioned by way of reminder the hadith in which the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) advised a man three times to not become angry meaning to “not act out of your anger.”

The most “dangerous manifestation” of violent extremism here in the U.S. in Shakir’s view comes from those who seek to gain positions of prominence in the government to advance an agenda that will prove detrimental to Muslims. However, Shakir stated that his primary focus is on how the American Muslim community can “empower or diffuse” the agenda of those who seek to inflict ever greater levels of harm upon innocent Muslims around the world. He posits that the real targets in this climate of increased attention and hostility towards Muslims are not Muslims themselves but rather the “disappearing white middle class.” The fear of Muslims and Islam is conveniently used to distract attention away from the difficult economic climate.

According to Shakir, we should also be concerned with what Muslims do because “we are a people of personal and individual responsibility. We are not a people who play the victim card or blame others for our actions.” Muslims must learn the lessons of history and look internally to remember that “we are the responsible actors for effecting change and not anyone else.”

Shakir then noted that, “we have some Muslims who are just as wedded to violence as this cabal of neo-cons, extreme Zionists, and [some] Christian fundamentalists in this country.”  However, there is a significant difference between the two groups as the latter group has access to the instruments of mass destruction while the Muslims do not. Shakir then noted the example of General Ken Waller during the first Gulf War who responded to Saddam Hussein’s boast to “fight the Americans until the last Iraqi” by saying that “we’ll grant them their every dying wish.”

Imam Zaid counseled the audience to not be so naïve as to think that the claims of those including candidates for public office who say we need to wipe Islam off the face of the earth or bomb Mecca or intern Muslims are so far-fetched if the political reality changes, for “what human beings have done, humans can do” and the examples from history are numerous. In the face of such a concerted effort, the Muslims promoting a violent ideology would not be able to effective counter measures.

Shakir answered critics who say that the violent extremists are only following a literal reading of the Quran with the verse, “Allah does not forbid you concerning a people that have not fought you over your religion nor expelled you from your homes that you have amicable and just relations with them and Allah loves those who are just.” Some may respond by saying that “the Americans are driving people out of their homes” but Shakir countered this by saying “most Americans I know haven’t driven anyone out of their homes.” Rather, he advised Muslims, especially frustrated and angry young Muslims that want to do something to join forces with those Americans like Michael Ratner and Chris Hedges that have dedicated their careers to shutdown the Guantanamo Bay prison and oppose the invasion of Iraq.

“Michael Ratner has dedicated the last 8 years of his career with others in trying to shutdown Guantanamo Bay. What have you done to help him in this effort, did you go to law school or learn about the political mechanisms of this country and add your voice, organize your community, educate your neighbors, use the media…Where were you when Chris Hedges and Veterans for Peace chained themselves to the White House fence and were arrested while trying to draw attention to those veterans protesting the war? Had Shakir, a military veteran been here, he says he would have a joined them.

Out of frustration, Shakir said that some Muslims claim “the only thing they can do is to blow something up and kill their neighbors who never did anything to them” all the while strengthening the forces that are salivating to go to war against Muslims. He then reminded the audience of the hadith where the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) said, “Don’t any one of you insult your father.” The companions replied, “How could any of us insult our father?”  To which, the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) said, “You insult another man’s father and in return he insults your father, you’re the cause of your father being insulted.” Similarly, “if you were to go and blow up a bunch of people and these people become filled with rage, vengeance and retaliation and they kill thousands of times the number of people you killed, do you think that none of that blood would be on your hands?” Shakir probed the audience, “There are millions of able-bodied Muslim men that can bear arms and fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, why do they need an American to go over there to pick up an AK-47? Is that why Allah put all of these Muslims here in America? Allah has given us so many opportunities here, access to education, the ability to organize and mobilize politically, to critique and stand against our government and its vicious war machine.”

Shakir closed his opening remarks with a final reminder, cautioning Muslims not to be used as unwitting “pawns” in a geo-political game and exhorting Muslims to stand up for justice and to recognize that if the community does stand up, that many other Americans will also stand with them.

Imam Mohamed Magid

Imam Magid opened his remarks by acknowledging the unfortunate reality that despite the many condemnations of terrorism by Muslims, the wider American public will still say that they have not heard this message from the Muslim community. Violent extremism, in Magid’s view has three components – ideological, political, and social.

Ideologically, verses and hadith are taken out of context. Politically, many Muslims do not believe they have an effective platform or may be afraid to speak about foreign policy grievances for fear of being labeled a “terrorist sympathizer.” Zaid Shakir offered that “if you are against American foreign policy, its brutality and its excesses and you are called a sympathizer, then you should know that is nothing new in American history…you should understand that you are part of a proud tradition” of groups that were labeled for standing up for what’s right. And socially, Muslims may become frustrated and angry by the public attacks on Islam and/or by the personal bullying they have experienced for being identifiably Muslim, the last two factors, which Magid believes if taken together may lead to “social isolation.”

In Magid’s view, the Muslim community must respond by engaging in various means of dialogue to deconstruct the arguments used to justify violent extremism. Imam Magid advised the audience that “no Muslim should be intimidated, scared, or afraid to engage in political discourse or to stand up and say that I disagree with the American government on a specific issue because you have the right to free speech.” Commenting on the fears some Muslims have expressed about having their phones tapped or receiving undue scrutiny, Magid responded by saying, “even if that is the case, we have to fight the fight of civil rights and civil liberties as that’s how each people gain respect in this country.”

He also emphasized that “on a political issue if you disagree, you have to use a political platform to make that disagreement known. Trying to take up arms in Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Iraq does not solve the real underlying issues.” In addition, Magid believes there is a need for Muslims to work to combat the negative portrayals of Muslims in the media and to offer young people an opportunity to learn “authentic and true Islam” to minimize the reliance on sometimes dubious internet sources.

Questions and Answers, for more complete and thorough answers, please listen to the mp3 audio above. Zaid Shakir has also written an extensive set of responses to questions received after the publication of his Letter to a Would-Be Mujahid article, which can be found here: Answers to “Would-Be Mujahids.”

1. What is violent extremism? Why is that we seem to be adopting the language the corporate media assigns to people struggling for self-determination in their own countries? Continue reading “Zaid Shakir & Mohamed Magid | Curbing Violent Extremism in the Muslim Community”