mosque


“Nice boots….”

I finished the final zip on my knee-high leather boots and stood up to an incredibly friendly smile greeting me in the middle of the regular post-Jummah shoe chaos. While being jostled and pushed, I smiled back and said thank you — vaguely distracted as women and children dove in between us to claim their shoes before rushing over to the community lobby for veggie samosas and hot chai.

With one eye on Ivy as she struggled to put on her shoes (on opposite feet, and emphatically by herself!), my new friend and I briefly spoke about where I got my boots and how they looked “steampunk.” Which, covered in rivets and a classic Victorian brass heel, is exactly the style I’m wearing these days.

Of course, the topic of my boots and the random recognition of my favourite neo-Victorian genre, made this the most exciting conversation I’d had at the mosque in a very long time. And was an instant spark of light after a previously long string of negative experiences.

Especially seeing as I was just about on my way out the door. Fully prepared to add this mosque to my growing list of places to which I’d never return.

pray

Ivy and Eryn just being kids in the mosque gym.

An hour earlier we were singing Eryn’s favourite “going to the mosque song” in the car and I was excited to be finally attending my first Jummah in almost six months. The last time we came to this location was for ‘Eid ul-Fitr, and my heart burst with joy and pride when the imam delivered an incredibly inclusive khutbah on mental heath. This mosque represented an island sanctuary in an ocean of disappointment and judgement.

And it was a harsh betrayal when I was asked to leave the main prayer hall.

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There’s something about Habib Ali Al-Jifri’s smile and glowing face masha’Allah — that makes me excited to be married to a Yemeni.

This is what he has to say in response to a question on the desperate exclusion of women in mosques in the UK.

Here’s an exert of the good stuff if you don’t want to watch the entire thing:

It hurts me deeply that most Muslims today do not implement the commands of God and the counsel of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) in regards to women. Women in our societies do get oppressed. And one of the worst expressions of injustice that women are exposed to, is that this oppression in many circumstances is vested with the garment of religion. And the time has come that we who represent religion, who speak on behalf of religion, to move away from defending the faith and how it sees women — to defending women by using the faith itself…

In the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) women used to enter the mosque from the same door as the men. And she used to take part in doing things for the mosque in exactly the same way the men took in working toward the betterment of the mosque. And she would go out of the mosque to the marketplace and ensure the marketplace is living according to prophetic code of moral character in its business interaction — exactly like the men would.

I know this. You know this. He knows this. And insha’Allah one day I’ll be sharing a video of some of Islam’s prominent female and male scholars discussing and supporting a serious action plan on how we can change the status of women in the majority of our mosques.

Via Side Entrance.

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?

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People celebrating at Philadelphia’s Islamic Heritage Festival.(Photo by M. Kennedy)

At the beginning of this post series, I related a story about a mosque that I no longer attend. This past summer we drove by that mosque to see bouncy castles and a huge community barbecue in full swing. I felt betrayal and annoyance — but not regret. Circumstances and an uncomfortable atmosphere drove my family away and we were clearly not missed. But figuratively, they did miss us — and we are one more family who no longer support, attend or enrich that community.

So we’ve done what some do when the mosque becomes an unbearable place — we try to make connections to other communities. Now every ‘Eid, we celebrate with the Muslim Association of Canada — who runs programs and events at various secular locations, with bouncy castles and barbecues too. We engage with live-streaming programs from Seeker’s Hub, a learning centre and self-claimed non-mosque, dedicated to community service, social engagement and education through a group of brilliant scholars. And when we can, attend conferences like Reviving the Islamic Spirit. I also attend the occasional gender-inclusive Jummah prayer at the El-Tawhid Jummah Circle and through this blog, have made amazing connections to fellow Muslims all over the world.

But it’s not perfect. Having a liminal or disjointed community base can also at times be unfulfilling. And sometimes, the answer is to create one’s own community as many of our participants have done.

I’m curious to know where or if you find connections to a community, or if you’ve created your own “mosque” community — please join our discussion in the comments!


Since leaving the mosque, where/how do you find community or connection to other Muslims?

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un·mosque·d – adjective \-ˈmäsk\: not connected with a mosque or masjid, people who do not regularly attend masjid services. (source)

A still from the Unmosqued trailer.

A still from the Unmosqued trailer.

While descriptive of many people who feel excluded from mosque culture and who experience community and spiritual fulfillment outside the mosque, the term “unmosqued” is problematic for those who were never “mosqued to begin with.”

For some, women in particular, culture and preference dictates that worship and community building happens in the home or at organized, private functions outside the mosque. Some women have never been inside a mosque — and their first experience is when they come to North America.

Others have never had a mosque community to begin with, or by way of circumstance, can’t settle down in one place long enough to become an “insider.” There are those who love attending mosques, but can’t reconcile feelings of being unwelcome with the “expectations” of finding serenity in communal worship.

And depending on one’s geographical location, sometimes the one mosque in town is the only place to meet another Muslim, and regardless of community problems and challenges there is no option to leave. Others, like myself, mosque-hop around the city — not belonging to any one community, but picking and choosing where to fulfill different spiritual needs.

The motivations and reasons why Muslims are, “emotionally and physically disengaging from their communities” vary greatly — but it may be fair to say that the now empty mosques were unprepared to service the needs of a very diverse community.

Then there are those who don’t feel unmosqued in the slightest and are enjoying a rich and fulfilling communal and spiritual life with their mosque community.

Have you left the mosque? Do you think this phenomenon is a fair representation of Muslims in North America? Share your stories and experiences in the comments below and check out what our participants have to say!


What are the factors that have led you to becoming “unmosqued”?

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Finding the participants for this roundtable was exciting. It gave me the chance to speak to people I respect and admire as well as meet some amazing new ones. Their reflections vary, but are equally provocative — and despite differences of opinion and experience, there’s no denying an overwhelming consensus that many mosques are disconnected from their communities.

But before we get too far into the discussion questions, I’ve asked each participant to give us a brief description of who they are by way of introduction. Please join me in welcoming:

Ify: Washington D.C. A Muslim convert and registered nurse.

Randy Nasson: San Francisco. Husband, Father, Son, and Brother. I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like. And I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.

Maryam: Canada. An editor who wishes there was more time to write.

Javed, aka HijabMan: Southwest Virginia. I focus on believing in God, doing good, and cloth diapering.

Omar: Calgary. A Muslim professional with sarcasm to spare.

Sajida: New York City. Graduate Student. Field work nomad.

Furakh: US East Coast. Wandering student, hoping to land my feet somewhere.

Ida: Ottawa. Doctoral candidate, youth worker and humanitarian.

Khaiam: Toronto. Studying to be a Muslim Chaplain after years of feeling like an outsider in his own religion. Gave up Islam, but Islam didn’t give up on me.


When was the last time you went to a mosque? Were/are you involved in Muslim community events?

Ify: My last visit to a mosque was about two weeks ago for a Friday evening lecture by a visiting speaker. I used to be active in my local mosque and attended regularly for prayers and activities. Now, I only go for specific events or programs. I’m involved in other programs within the Muslim community that take place outside of the mosque environment.

Randy: The last time I was at a mosque was for Eid ul Fitr in 2012. However, I used to be extensively involved in Muslim community events. I worked at Zaytuna Institute for 2 years from 2004-2006 in a fundraising/development role, and was immersed in the Bay Area Muslim community and exposed to many other communities around the United States.

After leaving Zaytuna, I was involved with a social group in San Francisco called SF Muslims, which facilitated parties, volunteering, and other community events. Prior to the birth of our son, my wife and I attended the annual AMILA retreat, a weekend of reflection and focus at the start of Ramadan. Until very recently, we were both involved with a weekly halaqah that began seven or eight years ago. Over time, our meetings became more infrequent due to changes in family life, member relocation, and professional demands.

Maryam: The last time I went to an actual mosque was probably about a month ago, just because it was the most convenient place to pray near where I was. I normally go to a university nearby for juma, which used to be great (the space is decent, and the khutbas were often really good), but the khutbas have gone downhill over the past year, and I’ve felt generally uninspired about going lately. The only thing that (sometimes) keeps me going there is to meet up with friends for lunch afterwards.

I also used to go fairly often to a Sufi centre, which is lovely in so many ways, but there’s been too much sexism (among other problems) expressed in some of the talks lately, and I’m unfortunately needing to take a long break from that at the moment.

Javed: A few months ago for a free food thing in the mosque basement. I’m generally not involved. At one point I helped start an alternative prayer space in my house, but I lost interest.

Omar: I went to the mosque this past weekend. I am involved in Muslim community events that are usually not related to mosques.

Sajida: A couple of weeks ago. I was really involved in various communities while researching in Toronto. I went to Jummah either at the University of Toronto, El-Tawhid Jummah Circle, or the Noor Cultural Centre. In terms of events, I went to classes held by the Muslim Chaplain (Amjad Tarsin) at the University of Toronto and MSA dinners.

Furakh: The last time I went to a mosque was in my parents’ town. I had gone for jummah, but I ended up simply praying dhuhr by myself since I didn’t feel comfortable with the set up for congregational prayer there.

As for being involved in Muslim community events — I finished my undergraduate this past December, and while I at university, I had an on-and-off relationship with the Muslim Students’ Association. I started to get involved with organizing events in the MSA, but that tapered off after a semester or two. The attitude of the group just didn’t end up being one that suited me — the checks and hoops to pass through to maintain the MSA’s image and reputation weren’t things I felt I wanted to devote my time to. My personal policy ended up being that I would help out if someone asked me to do a particular task — those tasks usually involved quick posters or taking photographs — but nothing more than that.

Ida: Last time I went to the mosque was this winter break when I was in the Middle East.

I am very involved in youth work in the Muslim community here in Ottawa — I coordinate a halaqa for university students, am working on a city-wide youth committee, and help organize a winter youth camp during the reading week weekend. I attend Muslim socials on occasion.

Khaiam: Can’t remember the last time I went to a “mosque” event in a religious context.


Read more in this series:

Unmosqued: A Roundtable Discussion

Why are Muslims Leaving?

Finding Community

Making the Mosque Relevant Again

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

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