This post is meant for the the Muslim communities in the West where Islamic Centers and masājid are the hub of community activity. When referring to a masjid, we do not mean where we make the actual ṣalāh, we mean the whole institution, the center and the community that it envelopes. It is a blessing that this conversation is taking place. As the response to, “Mosques are Missing the Point” pointed out, this topic resonates with so many; there is a thirst for many to come back to the House of Allāh.
Amenities are great, but people matter more; I look at the churches here in the Northeast – phalerate structures with stained glass windows, cavernous sanctuaries, and shiny steeples. They were probably built by devout settlers hundreds of years ago, on large parcels of land, but they are empty, dead spaces. The people who built them must have sacrificed, much as our elders have, in making them.
Don't get me wrong; my heart sings when I see the copper domes and the carved wooden mimbars of our mosques. But what use are these if no one is coming to these palatial masājid? It seems that the boards of Islamic nonprofits invest in physical assets rather than human capital. Only 44% of all Imams are employed full-time and paid. Half of all mosques have no full-time staff. Program staff such as youth directors or outreach directors account for only 5% of all full-time staff. With all due respect to their knowledge and status, 66% of Imams were born abroad and many cannot relate to my generation, much less that of my children.
What is happening in our mosques?
People stop going, they stop attending. This doesn't mean that they do not pray, it means that they are not attached to one particular masjid on a regular basis, nor is the masjid a relevant part of their lives. They do not know the people alongside whom they worship. The masjid is not a place they would reach out to if they were sick or needed help, to learn or to give.
In many communities, the very place that was meant to bring Muslims together has become an anathema for the community— associated with fighting, control, and divisions like little fiefdoms.
A recent hashtag on Twitter - #unmosqued – offers a poignant look into reasons why people have stopped attending the masjid or stopped being an active part of the community. This was spurred by a RadTalk on the topic, and has now evolved into a major documentary.
Some of the tweets and comments particularly caught my eye because they said things that many of us do not want to hear. The majority of grievances were from three major groups who have had abusive mosque experiences – new Muslims, youth, and women.
A sister shared an experience on how some of a particular masjid's members asked a person to delay taking their shahadah until the next Jumu'ah, so more people could be there to see the “trophy of the day.” Boards tout how many conversions take place in the masjid but have nothing to offer the new Muslims after shahadah. This solid blogpost (and its responses) on what masājid need to do for converts, is very relevant to the discussion.
Aser Mir, a UK citizen, says the downfall of the youth as they turn to drugs, alcohol, and fornication in Muslim majority areas where there is a mosque on every corner is a troubling matter, “Many simply turn to mosques for Friday prayers or just ritual worship only. Many don't turn to mosques at all. Others feel they can't turn to their mosques. So, in effect, you can be attending the masjid or not and still be unmosqued.”
In a recent report by Ihsan Bagby regarding mosques in America, many mosque leaders shared the difficulties they are facing. Bagby writes, “The real challenge for them is not radicalism and extremism among the youth, but attracting them and keeping them close to the mosque.”
“The brothers do not know the concept of lowering their gaze and love grouping themselves in front of the doors.”
This is a common complaint by women who feel intimidated or are made to feel less because they 'dared' venture into a masjid.
I personally don't have this issue since I have access now, but there were years when my only access was online fatwas, until I met a young British scholar. But once she left the country there were years where I didn't know who to turn to for my questions. Many Muslim women face this issue.
Other MuslimMatters contributers have had similar experiences. Ify Okoye tweeted, “At some mosques, unwelcome mat is unfurled w/ indignities tht remind us tht 'this isn't the Islam women were promised' #unmosqued.” She has written prolifically about her experience at masājid.
Like many women, MM's Ruth Nasrullah has been unmosqued because she was tired of not being included in the decision-making process at her local Islamic Center, and when her opinion was asked it was so uncomfortable.
For all those who don't believe that this is the role of the masjid and that it should be purely a place for ṣalāh, read this hadith related by 'A'isha :
“There was a black slave-girl who belonged to an Arab tribe. They set her free and she stayed with them. She said, 'One of their girls once went out wearing a red leather jeweled scarf. She put it down or it fell off, and a kite flew by it as it was lying there and, thinking it was meat, made off with it. They looked for it but could not find it, and so they suspected me of taking it.' They began to search her and even searched her private parts. The girl went on, 'By Allāh, I was standing with them when the kite flew over and dropped it and it fell among them.' I said, 'This is what you suspected me and accused me of and I am innocent of it. There it is.'”
'A'isha said, “She came to the Messenger of Allāh, may Allāh bless him and grant him peace, and became a Muslim. She had a tent or small hut in the mosque. She used to come to me and talk with me. She never sat with me without saying:
'The day of the scarf was one of the marvels of our Lord
Yes indeed! He surely rescued me from the land of unbelief.'
“I asked her, 'What is it with you? Whenever you sit with me, you say this. So she told me the story.” (Sahih Bukhāri)
She was a woman, a youth, a minority, a convert, oppressed, poor and lived IN the masjid of the Beloved . Today she may have been unmosqued.