unmosqued“Sister, you must cover your jeans. Your prayer will not be accepted if you pray wearing pants. Sister, hold your child. You really shouldn’t be in here while we’re praying. If she’s noisy you will disrupt the prayer and the fault will be on you.”

I was so angry, I couldn’t breathe let alone remember the words to al-Fatiha, the opening chapter of the Qur’an. Words that I’ve said literally thousands of times over the past decade. A small congregation was praying in the women’s balcony section of a local mosque — following the men below by way of a speaker system — when a woman began lecturing everyone on the “proper way to pray.” She spoke through the first takbir, and continued her gruff, intrusive monologue until the first ruku. That’s when she joined us in prayer.

This was the last straw in a long list of offenses.

At this mosque, women pray in a clean and nicely decorated space, but have to go through a mean-spirited representative to communicate with the mosque administration and defer to her authority to be among the “inner circle” of preferred worshippers. Being verbally berated during prayer is beyond unacceptable and the least complaint — I previously watched this person belittle and reduce another woman to tears because she didn’t understand how to register her children for a Qur’an class. Others have complained directly to the administration about the combative environment in the women’s section, and have received no response — either because the administration supports the attitude of their representative, don’t care about their women congregants, or simply don’t bother to check the mosque e-mail.

This is not simply an issue of personality conflict between myself and one person, but reflective of an overall attitude of administrative hubris — an exclusive mosque culture, when our community leadership should be exuding and encouraging peace.

I can’t articulate just how heartbreaking it is to feel like my family does not belong in a house of worship. That we’ve stopped attending mosques because of gender segregation, hostile prayer spaces, higher-than-thou attitudes, discrimination against mothers and their children, horrible sermons, and barriers, basements and balconies. Mosques are supposed to be the spiritual centre of the community, open to all without criticism, judgement or discrimination, supporting those who need it, fostering equality, and engaging in public service.

Instead, many are physically and spiritually cold, rife with cronyism, exclude women from prayer and positions of power, are unfriendly toward the LGTBQ community, plagued by sectarianism and racial divisions, and are insular institutions incapable of connecting to the youth of today. Imams produce sermons more concerned with discussing parking and unruly children, than openly discussing domestic violence and sexual assault. And while it is true that you can pray anywhere on the clean earth, and find spiritual fulfillment in spaces created outside the mosque — one just needs to look at a picture of the swirling masses around the Ka’bah in Mecca to be reminded that prayer is central to Islam, and how important the mosque is as a place of community. Islam’s first mosque was attached to the Prophet’s home and became a place of entertainment, community building, learning, welfare, and religious instruction — thus imparting the expectation that the mosque exist as a central institution for our communities.

But today some mosques have become “mimbar-centred spaces,” raining down judgements and anti-West tirades, and are more worried about fundraising on Laylatul Qadr, than making sure kids experimenting with drugs and sex have something other than a basketball net to support them. People all over North America are dissatisfied with the mosque and many mosques today, are simply missing the point.

The Unmosqued movie project aims to highlight this growing problem, by identifying why people are leaving the mosque and exploring what mosques need to do in order to reconnect to the community:

After watching this trailer I was inspired to ask others about their relationship with the mosque — and over a series of posts, am excited to host a roundtable discussion to find out why people are dissatisfied with the mosque, where they are finding community, and to learn what they think mosques need to do in order to be relevant today.

I contacted interested participants through my personal networks and put a call out over social media to gather an amazing group for this discussion. The people who participated are brilliant and wonderful, faithful and searching, converts, immigrants and second-generation, “unmosqued” and regular attendees, geeky and hipster, parents, LGTBQ, sisters, brothers, religious and unapologetic heretics.

This post will be the first in a five-part series on the unmosqued roundtable, and only shows a glimpse into a provocative and timely discussion on the state of our mosques and our rapidly changing community. I hope you will also join in the conversation and share your experiences and ideas in the comments as well.

Read more in this series:

Meet the Participants

Why are Muslims Leaving?

Finding Community

Making the Mosque Relevant Again