Women pray in the back at Masjid Darussalam, one of two SF mosques without a wall separating men and women. Image vis MissionLocal.

Women pray in the back at Masjid Darussalam, one of two San Fransisco mosques without a barrier. Image via MissionLocal.

Over the past two weeks, we’ve heard from diverse voices speaking on their experiences at mosques throughout North America (South Africa, Europe and the UK as well).

Many are driven out of the mosque by an insular and disengaged mosque culture, by misogynist and patriarchal structures, or were never involved with the mosque to begin with — either because they chose not to, or circumstance has kept some Muslims isolated from larger pockets of the community.

Others argue that the unmosqued movement is flawed, and that it’s not the responsibility of the mosque to cater to every type of Muslim. Commenter Sabina feels that her struggles with the mosque is her jihad, and that it’s worth it to remain connected to the community despite some negative experiences.

Regardless of the reasons, it is clear that there are growing numbers of Muslims who feel excluded. Discussions like this blog series and the Unmosqued movie are needed to help bring this discussion out into the public — so mosques can recognize, and hopefully address the facts that they are becoming insignificant, are failing community members and will slowly be replaced by other community institutions, unless something drastic happens to change the situation.

As an active proponent for inclusive women’s spaces in the mosque, I was not the least bit surprised to hear that both men and women are unmosqued because an overwhelming amount of mosques are unfriendly toward women. When half of the ummah is excluded from positions of power, from participation in sacred knowledge, from even entering a mosque — why then are people surprised when entire families stop attending the mosque? The Hubby and I refused to get married at a mosque because we wanted a mixed setting — one where my non-Muslim parents could sit together during the ceremony, and not one mosque agreed to accommodate us.

Commenter FloweryHedgehog said it perfectly:

When mosques are set up in ways that make it difficult for women to participate,… and then our further exclusion is justified by the fact that we don’t show up to the mosque anyway, then something is seriously wrong in our communities.

Just because mosques overflow during Ramadan and the two ‘Eids, it’s not reason enough to rest upon these laurels. Muslims are disappointed in their mosques as the central community institution and are actively pronouncing their disappointment by leaving.

It’s time to reshape and reclaim the mosque.

According to our participants, mosques need to change attitudes, create positive spaces for women and concentrate on outreach programs — be consciously committed to creating, open, fun, inclusive spaces and evolve to include the growing and diverse Muslim population. They need to become involved in the greater human community — to champion social causes and be known for their good works. To become welcoming interfaith spaces and community build. They need to actively serve their people so their community can become empowered materially, ideologically and spiritually.

I want to thank all of our participants again for this thrilling discussion and extend a warm thank you to all the commenters. We’ll close up this roundtable with just one more discussion question — but let’s keep the discussion going. Share your opinion in the comments. And if you have a mosque that you’re absolutely in love with, tell us all about it!

What do you think mosques need to do in order to be relevant today? How can mosques reconnect? Do we even need them anymore?

Ify: I honestly am not sure I see much purpose to the mosque today. It’s a good place for people who are new to a community to network and make friends but less so if you’ve already established a social network. The mosque can still serve as a Muslim gathering place and mosque email lists are useful for marketing events.

Randy: Do we need them? Yes, but only if they evolve.

First and foremost, mosques need indigenous Imams, ideally who live and grew up in the same locality as the mosque. While the Imam exerts no formal authority over the congregants, he nevertheless sets the tone via Friday sermons and daily interactions. Social and cultural relevance by way of a personal understanding and affiliation is crucial, and it’s a detriment to have an Imam that doesn’t intimately understand the daily lives of the local community.

Friday sermons and other services (marriages, funerals) must be based in English. Most Muslim adults in the US don’t speak Arabic beyond prayer rituals, and their children almost exclusively speak English. I witnessed a dramatic showdown of sorts in an Afghani mosque several years ago during a Friday sermon in which two men argued over whether the sermon should be delivered in Arabic or English — the advocate of English sermons made a compelling plea, citing that none of the people in the mosque were under the age of 30 and that if they didn’t start catering to their American children, the mosque would be “dead” in the next 20 years. The Christian community evolved beyond the Latin Mass — Muslims can and should do the same.

Mosques also need to stop shunting women and small children aside, and instead afford equal space in the communal prayer area. It’s not a men’s social club. The United States is not a suitable environment for such callous and unnecessary gender discrimination.

Mosques should also do a better job of creating a welcoming space for people of other faiths who are curious or want to engage in some capacity with the Muslim community. Many mosques are not well-maintained, bereft of beautiful architecture, artwork, color, or sound — consisting almost entirely of carpeted prayer space and bathrooms covered with splashed water. Every mosque cannot be grand, just as every church cannot be a cathedral. However, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t make an effort to be welcoming and to create an appealing environment.

Finally, the tone of the mosque must not be that of critique and judgement but rather that of hospitality, tolerance, compassion, and humility. The Imam and the mosque board of directors have to lead by example.

Maryam:  To answer the last question first — I think there is still a need for mosques, as long as they’re structured in a way that makes them relevant. It’s nice to have somewhere to pray, to meet people, to learn, etc. I’ve seen some mosques with sports facilities and classes, and with good areas for children, and I love this concept of mosques being able to provide a lot of different services to the community, and to be a place where people can go for fun.

I think fixing women’s spaces, and just treating women like full participants and not like an afterthought, is a pretty urgent change that needs to happen. One of the criticisms that I had of the trailer for the “Unmosqued” documentary is that, while many of the issues they raise are valid, there are a lot of mosques where women can’t get far enough into the mosque to even worry about those problems — for example, they can’t even hear the khutba well enough to have issues with what’s being said in it. I think this is a really basic need if we want the rest of the problems to be addressed by the whole community and not just by men.

Javed:  They need to change or new ones need to be established — different in terms of how they are designed, different in terms of leadership. I’m not hopeful that this will happen anytime soon though. Alternative prayer spaces are still on the “fringe” and will be that way for quite some time.

Omar: They need to hire trained Imams and leaders who are not just well versed in theoretical knowledge. Community members need to be taught and encouraged not to “lash out” when they see something un-orthodox, like a teenage boy that has a tatoo or earring, or a girl without a hijab, or even when kids are making noise during prayer.

Sajida: There isn’t just one thing that mosques need to do to be relevant to all people. But mosques should meet the needs of their communities. Those needs will differ from community to community. Apart from providing people with a safe and comfortable place to pray, it needs to be a place where people can access resources to empower themselves, spiritually and otherwise.

At El-Tawhid, this has manifested as an incredibly inclusive, queer friendly “mosque” focused on gender egalitarianism, because the community consists of those who felt discriminated based on those issues. Maybe other mosques will focus on empowering immigrants, or youth, etc.

So, I think it’s simple. If mosques want to be relevant, they have to speak the language of the people that they are trying to serve, and meet their material and ideological needs.

Furakh: I think mosques can still serve a purpose in our lives, and while I don’t attend any at the moment, it is something that I want in my life.

Mosques need to consciously commit to creating open, inclusive spaces. It’s a house of God — everyone should be made to feel welcome, not have barriers placed in front of them. One of the things that I think needs to change in order to achieve that is that we need to be able to be honest. There’s too much arrogance, too many unwritten rules with regards to etiquette when dealing with authority in the religious community. We need to be able to give and receive feedback if we’re to have some sort of community — we need to be able to work together to solve problems rather than see the mention of problems as a threat.

Ida: Canada is my home. I know I have the right to change things and if given the ability, I probably would. So, I am able to get upset a lot more here, than in the Middle East, when I see things I do not like.

For me the most important thing is the quality of khutbas. I ask all khateebs to think of their choice of words and delivery, what messages are within their khutbas, and their audience. If there is an inconsistency in any of these, you are bound to have people leave Friday prayers not with heightened sense of iman.

This has been what I have felt the last few times I attended Juma’a khutbas at the university, and that is why I do not go anymore. I think this would apply for both male and female. Second, with respect to female prayer space — I personally prefer being able to see the imam directly. However, I know some women who like the barrier. If you need one up, please make sure the sister’s section is beautiful too. I do not like praying in front of a bed-sheet.

Khaiam: It’s not the mosques (that is to say, the people attending), it’s the leadership that needs to evolve.

Muslim leadership has been telling us we’re shitty Muslims for so long that we don’t feel motivated to attend. Then we get called shitty Muslims for not attending mosque. In the triad of Muslims, Islam and leadership, one is wrong, and it obviously isn’t Islam. We’ve been told time and time again that it’s not the tradition, but us sinful youth who are too kafir and so forth.

Read more in this series:

Unmosqued: A Roundtable Discussion

Meet the Participants

Why are Muslims Leaving?

Finding Community