Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Problems in your Masjid? thoughts on the Mosque in Islam and Western society

The Mosque in the West

It should be noted, first and foremost, that the role of the Masjid [Mosque] in the Western context is very different from that in the Muslim world. In the Muslim world, the mosque is simply a place of prayer.Some Mosques will have funeral services, and of course students may take it as a quiet refuge to study, but essentially it ends at that.

In the United states, the Mosque has these roles and much more. It serves as a symbol of Muslim presence and culture, as the picture above shows. It is of the Shah Jahan Masjid in Woking [Surrey], United Kingdom. Marriages are performed, as well as various social gatherings, dinners, counseling, community work, political organizing, and so much more.

In short, the role of the Mosque in the West is the same as that of the Church. The Imam gives advice, marriage counseling, plays a role in local politics, in the same manner as the Pastor of the local Church. It's not an issue of right or wrong, this is just a reality.

Problems in the Masjid

In the Muslim world, the Mosque is basically on every corner. Generally speaking, it is also maintained and controlled by Government ministries, so the 'average' person has no role or responsibility in the Mosque. He [and almost never 'she'] will attend Friday prayers, and perhaps some of the daily prayers, in Jama'ah at the local mosque, and leave it at that.

Sectarianism in Mosques does exist, however it's very limited and varies from nation to nation. In places such as Pakistan, where the Sunni/Shi'ah divide is multiplied by sub-divisions, political and personality issues, attending the Mosque can be actually dangerous, as repeated bombings of Mosques, prayer gatherings and funerals show.

In places such as the United states, sectarianism is further complicated by class and ethnic divisions, which is dealt with two broad solutions..

[A] In small towns, Muslims of all sects and ethnic backgrounds will worship in the same mosque.They will offer friday prayers at the most convenient location.

[B] Muslims of the same sect or group, such as Shi'ah, Salafi, upon having sufficient numbers, will form their own mosques. Now, while Muslims outside of these groups are welcome, it is understood that this particular mosque is dominated by one school or ethnic group.

What next?

In the two 'solutions' given above, at some point problems, both on an individual and communal level, develop. It is unavoidable. When people of various thinking patterns, understanding of religion, as well as having different personalities, are enclosed in small spaces, feelings get hurt. Resentments form. Sometimes there are power struggles. Such problems are almost unheard of in the Muslim world, but they are an unfortunate reality in the Western context. Such problems exist even among followers of the same sect or same ethnic group. All of us think 'our way' is the correct model of Islamic practice and theology!

At some point, it becomes necessary for us as individuals to figure out what is beneficial to us in terms of our Islamic practice and spirituality. If we go to places where we don't feel comfortable for reasons, such as those mentioned in this text, we can easily find another Mosque. Another solution can be to limit one's participation to friday prayers only [after all, Friday prayers are obligatory according to the Qur'an 62:9] and avoid the politics. Sometimes, our boards and Imams need some perspective. Give them advice.

Religion is sincere advice [or sincerity, Naseehah in Arabic], [for the cause of] Allah, to the messenger, to the leaders of the Muslims and to the general public. [Sahih Al-Bukhari, 2:42]

Remember that the entire Earth is a Mosque [Sahih Al-Bukhari,8:56], prayers can be conducted anywhere that is clean and reasonable. We living in the West, especially having children, use our Mosques not only for prayers, but as cultural hubs, as sanctuaries and the like. So, just leaving it is not easy. Deep contemplation is required, as well as knowing the situation of other Mosques, before making such decisions. Seek Allah's guidance, and he will give you direction.Consider all options.


Reeshiez said...

I think the issue of mosques in the Western world is a complicated one. First of all, like you said, since Muslims are the minority, the avenues and places they have to express themselves as a community are limited. As a result, the mosque functions as a community center and not as a simple place for prayer. In the Muslim world, debate on many of the political and social issues facing muslims happen outside the mosque and thus there is less reason for conflict (of course the exception to this is the sunni/shi'ite issue). The only time in which political and social issues are discussed in the mosque are during the friday khutba. Like you said, many of the mosques are government controlled, and in that sense the khutba becomes irrelevant to many. In addition, if a muslim does not like the imam's khutbas he can simply go to another mosque or just not attend friday prayer at all without losing a sense of community. Now in the Western world, all the community issues are dealt with in the mosque. This becomes problematic because as the muslim community grows in number, differences will emerge whether they are religious, cultural, political or social. This is inevitable. Muslims who do not like the dominant culture of the mosque that they attend can simply split and form another mosque that performs the same community functions. The issue is of course how to deal with this and maybe how to prevent this. I do think that it is idealistic to believe that all Muslims can come together despite their differences (although I would like it to be this way) especially when the numbers increase. We are, after all, a very diverse group of people. We also have to take in account the role of geography. The chicago metro area is huge for example, with most muslims concentrated (I believe) in either the northern suburbs of chicago or the southern suburbs of chicago. As a result, several mosques/community centers are necessary. But what also happens is that new muslims moving into the area will pick an area with a community that is more like them, making the different mosques even more distinct.

Now these issues all aside, I think it is best to first deal with these community splits in a preventative way - i.e. how can we prevent smaller muslim communities from splitting as they grow larger. This is of course a very difficult task. However, I believe that the best way to approach this is to create a more inclusive mosque. For example, sunnis and shias have a slightly different way of praying the jumaa prayer - perhaps one week we can have the shia style of prayer (with sunnis choosing to participate praying the sunni way - with their hands on their chest) and one week the sunni style (with shia choosing to participate praying the shia way with their hands to their sides). Of course this may be a bit much so perhaps, instead (if the two communities are large enough) one can have a sunni jumaa first, and then a shia jumaa. Although this may seem problematic, this will preserve the mosque as a community center (i.e. for marriage purposes, resolving social issues, political discussions, iftars etc.) while allowing for some diversity in interpretation. Some people may feel that the other way of prayer is incorrect and may see this as a big issue in which there is no compromise - but surely preserving the muslim ummah is more important. Of course there may be a lighter ay of resolving this and this is simply emphasizing is every khutba the validity of the two sects and how our differences are minute. Another way is to focus on the greater issues instead of the smaller ones - i.e. social justice, love for one's neighbour, zakah, etc. instead of less central ones. For example instead of chiding women who don't wear hijab which will only make them either less interested in islam or lead them to create as they call it a "progressive muslim" mosque, imams should focus on the importnce of humility and straying away from materialism. Anyways, these are just my thoughts. Great blog by the way!

Reeshiez said...

One more thing, I think it is important to create different venues for muslims to come together that are separate from the mosque. This will foster our sense of community without highlighting our differences. I am a lawyer for example and am part of the Muslim Bar Association in New York. There should be professional organizations, organizations for Muslim victims of domestic violence, sport centers (e.g. like the role the "Y" plays in Jewish culture), literary and art centers, charity organizations etc. Of course all these organizations can work together with their local mosque or if there is more than one mosque in the community then with all the mosques. In addition, different mosques in the same area can work on different projects together. This will also foster a sense of community

Shamsuddin Waheed said...


As-Salaamu-'alaikum and Ramadan Mubarak. Thank you for the well-thought out response. I have been thinking about all that you have stated here, and I can [and do] agree with much of what you have suggested.

On an individual level, all people cannot be comfortable at the same place. It may have to do with the fact that everyone is not equal in their Islamic or spiritual state. Whatever the case, the above is the reality more often than not. What I wanted to convey is simply this " to always remember why we attend the Mosque, i.e. to worship Allah, and to learn something about Islam." So, if a person feels these requirements are not being fulfilled, then he or she has to make the decision of what to do next. But that decision should not be hasty. It should be well thought out, because of the reality that we live in the West, where Mosques are not on every corner.

[A] Prayer methods

This actually has taken place for a long time in some Indian universities, the friday prayers having the 'Sunni" Jumu'ah first, followed by the Shi'ah when the previous service ends. The only issue with "taking turns" [i.e. one week sunni prayer method, and the following shiah] is that not everyone would be comfortable praying in the fashion of the other sect. Many would rather not pray behind the Imam from the other sect. I think that would create more problems and confusion, but I do agree that the Mosque should always try to be inclusive and welcoming, regardless of one's views or sect, ethnicity or economic situation.

This is what we try to do at our Mosque.

syammim said...

Dear Shamsuddin assalamualaikum

Mosque, or masjid comes from the word sujud. Technically wherever there's a mass of people performing sujud, that place can qualify as masjid.

The fact that mosque has been used as various kinds of tools by different people exist even in the time of Prophet as in the case of Masjid Dirar. If I can correctly remember the masjid was used to instigate the movement of munafiq - which eventually was stopped by the Prophet pbuh through his order to destroy the masjid.

In Malaysia, in a few of the states where the People Coalition had wrested from the traditional National Front alhamdulillah mosques and musolla start to become 'normal' again with religiousness - and not just ritual religiosities. Normal in the sense that there's more taalim, more social activities, classes, etc etc. I hope mosques in Malaysia will become more active in this sense, rather than being place for daily prayers/funeral/wedding alone - which in a lot of ways resemble the role of churches.

Shamsuddin Waheed said...

Waalaikumus salaam my Dear Syammim,

Can we interpret from your statement that the role of Mosques in the West more closely resemble that which existed at the time of the Prophet, Sall-Allahu 'alayhi wa sallam?

That's a thoughts that had not occurred to me, but I think I agree. Are you also saying that the Malaysian Mosques are slowly returning to this role that existed in the Prophet's time?