They are armed with a handful of obscure Hadith and Qur’anic verses. They are loud and pushy. They speak with authority. They rain down judgment. And they are sincere with their advice, even if they’re power tripping.
Every mosque administration has an unofficial volunteer on board, policing the congregation, offering suggestions for ultra-pious living and worship, announcing the “correct” way to do just about everything.
Often times this secret police is an unwanted hazard. As Muslims, we are enjoined by God to think critically, to question our spiritual leaders and to right wrongs when we see them. This occasionally invites a special breed of person to walk into a congregation and start ordering people about. While they are truly sincere about the knowledge and opinions they spread, they unfortunately come across as being pushy, opinionated, no fun, nay-saying Grinches.
My favourite example is the prayer police. This brand of secret police will literally march up and down the prayer lines during the prayer, to correct perceived wrongs (never mind that their own prayers are delayed… correcting others is a higher duty to God for this SS). No matter the location, the prayer police will interrupt your prayer by telling you that your clothes are wrong, wear a skirt over your jeans, your hands are in the wrong placement, your hijab must cover your chin, wear socks, you must stand foot-to-foot with the people next to you, your objections are wrong, you are an affront to how Islam should be practiced and that any violation will result in your prayer being invalid.
I normally don’t get involved with the secret police. It’s just not worth my time to discuss how I worship with someone who will refuse to hear my points of discussion. Years ago, I would enter into heated debates and stand my ground. But after realizing that the police are judge, jury and executioner, and that no amount of theological debate will change their mind (especially for a convert who “couldn’t possibly know all of the subtle, nit-picky rules of worship” despite her masters degree in Islamic law and history), I decided to simply acquiesce.
Now when offered correction, I’ll just say thank you and smile. That seems to work. The police will feel sated that their correction has been accepted (whether or not it actually has) and they’ll move on to the next victim.
Except for this past ‘Eid.
This year in North America, ‘Eid fell on a Friday, the traditional day of congregational worship for Muslims. But being a day of celebration, the normally obligatory congregational prayer is optional — so about half of those who normally come to the Jummah prayer actually show up.
We decided to go to the local Turkish mosque. They have a gorgeous mosque, the recitation is beautiful, and they sell the most awesome, on-site, freshly baked bread.
The mosque has a single entrance — but men and women enter the prayer space from different sections in the main hall. The guys take the first staircase on the left, and women take a route past some classrooms to a staircase on the right. Normally, the prayer space is wide open, with no barrier, with the women sitting behind the men. Sometimes, a ceiling-to-floor accordion partition divides the room — especially when the administration knows that the room will be packed, and a request for separate space is made. Rarely, the women are requested to pray in one of the classrooms when there are too many people to accommodate in the prayer room (the men also spill over into adjoining offices, the main foyer, and into the parking lot).
So Hubby carried Eryn and walked with me to the women’s section. Halfway to my destination, a man pointed to my husband and said, “You can’t go there. The women pray here.” At first I thought he was worried that Hubby was going to check out the women, but when he repeated himself and emphatically pointed to one of the classrooms, I realized that he was talking to me.
Ok, fine, I guess the women are praying downstairs today. I grabbed Eryn and we walked into the biggest mess.
Just an hour previously this classroom was used as an ‘Eid celebration station for the kids — and you could tell. Streamers hung like soggy spaghetti from the ceiling, balloons roamed the room like tumbleweeds and cookies and cake pieces were all over the floor. They couldn’t possibly expect me to pray here. There were a few women sitting on chairs in random places, obviously recuperating from the ‘Eid excitement — they certainly didn’t look like they were getting ready to pray.
Forget this. I’m going to the prayer room.
I walked upstairs to find a fair amount of women waiting for the prayer, the partition dividing the room, and the same man, verbally berating two women. His complaint was that we were in the women’s section. Le me repeat: his complaint was that WE were in the WOMEN’s section. He continued, it’s Jummah and the men will need this space. Go pray downstairs in the classroom.
Oh hell no.
So I joined my sisters and explained to him that the partition was already up. The administration must therefore expect us to pray here. He said we couldn’t be here, we must be downstairs.
More back and forth. Some in English, some in Turkish. I pointed out that he was in the women’s section and wasn’t welcome.
The more heated it got, the more we stood our ground.
One of the other ladies mentioned that barely anyone will come to the prayer because it is a day of celebration and he should calm down. Nope, go downstairs, you must.
I told him we will all gladly move when the men’s section begins to overflow.
In the end, it was a standoff. Three really pissed off women staring down the police. I ended the conversation with, “We’re not moving.”
And we didn’t. And no one else asked us to leave, and there was no overflow of men.