The ‘unmosqued’ discussion has spawned a host of conversations, coffee shop conversations, desi dinner party fodder, tweetable soundbites, virally shared facebook updates, and even a couple of blog articles right here on MuslimMatters. To say that this topic interests me is an understatement (I even started a website dedicated to trying to steer leaders into running their masjids better). When it comes down to it, there’s a few core arguments at play that everyone is going back and forth on. Grab some chai, sit back, and let’s figure out just what’s going on here.
Where’d this all get started?
Well it starts with a term from the Christian community referring to people who haven’t attended services in some time – Unchurched.
At the end of November, a video hit the internets called ‘Unmosqued’ delivered by a friend of mine, Abu Yusuf. The talk was delivered at a Rad Talks conference (a TED style conference for Muslims with short “lightning talks” on various subjects). Here’s the original unmosqued talk:
I felt this talk was 100% on target and articulated a lot of points that many people were thinking but hadn’t said in a formal setting.
This talk prompted some people to make a documentary, a trailer of which was released a couple of months ago as a teaser. This trailer really got the momentum on the discussion going as it highlights a number of issues as well as some well known personalities:
Part 2 of the trailer [more recently released]
There’s a side discussion that happened with this second trailer, and that is the issue of masajid having separate entrances for brothers and sisters.
This screenshot highlights some of the issues that people have with the documentary as it’s currently being advertised through its teaser trailers. There is a common theme between these 2 comments, and some of the discussion from Haytham’s post on our site. In this case, a masjid was apparently shown to be the opposite of what even the producers admit that it was. In the case of the fiqh issue with separate entrances, the response is that the movie is simply telling a story. And therein lies the problem.
A documentary will only tell the story that its filmmakers want to tell. The story told in the trailer is that the Nueces masjid is a typical example of a place with no proper women’s entrance. Why tell this story in the trailer if it’s not the case?
In regards to the fiqh issue, I feel this is a cop out. You cannot responsibly raise this issue of separate entrances and then hide from the fiqh debate. Yes, it’s telling a story – but you control the story being told as well. If we’re going to have an honest discussion about reforming our masjids, then we have to have the academic integrity to show this side as well. You can’t say you’re not in the business of getting into fiqh debates if you’re going to give a one-sided story that starts one.
Anyhow, with that small tangent aside, I wanted to highlight 3 arguments that I feel are at the heart of the unmosqued discussion.
Argument 1: Criticism vs. Involvement
“I hate the way you run the masjid!”
“Well then why don’t you volunteer and get involved? Stop criticizing and do some work!”
“I tried, but you guys won’t let anyone outside your little circle get involved!!”
This is perhaps one of the most contentious parts of the unmosqued discussion.
Masjid Administration: We’ve put in an unmatched level of work. We raised the funds, got the building permits, lobbied the city, found building contractors, and tons more. In fact, most of the people complaining about unmosqued learned their Islam from the very Sunday schools that we established! So you want to change things? Go ahead. Come and raise funds to run the place. Go represent us at the interfaith gatherings and law enforcement meetings. Sit down on Friday and handle all the zakat requests. You want us to build you a gym? We can’t trust you with it. You don’t have a track record of showing up. How are you going to raise the funds, find an architect, get city approval, and manage the construction? How about you at least teach at the Sunday school without calling in sick twice a month before we can trust you?
Community Members: We’re tired of how you run things. You never take our feedback – in fact we don’t even know how you decide what you decide. You don’t follow the federal laws that require you to post meeting minutes so we can know what’s going on. In fact, you don’t even hold the general body meetings to get our input as mandated by the masjid constitution that you wrote! Moreover, we tried to get involved but you shut us down. We tried to organize an all-night event for youth, and you said no. We tried to do a food drive, and you wouldn’t even let us make an announcement after jumu’ah. In fact, a few of us tried to run for board positions and when you thought we might win, you changed the constitution of the masjid!
My Take: There’s a lot of truth to both sides of this argument. A lot of times the people who complain are willing to put in work – but not necessarily all the work that’s needed. Most of us don’t understand the level of sacrifice that went into just getting our masajid off the ground in the first place. And the average community member usually doesn’t even know a lot of the work that’s going on behind the scenes. Something as seemingly simple as just coordinating a khutbah schedule can take up a couple of hours a week.
At the same time, it’s time for the elder generation to move on to the next level. I don’t say that they need to step aside, or even retire. They need to shift their focus from running the community to mentoring the next leaders. The chairman of the board that has been there for 20 years needs to be transitioned in a dignified way into an honorable chairman emeritus position. A little more respect and work from community members can go a long way in making this happen.
The elders also need to realize that there comes a point where the “get involved” rhetoric becomes a crutch or a facade to mask deeper issues within the administration itself, and people are not blind to it. Many people have tried to get involved and gotten burned. In other cases, people get involved, but their help is not acknowledged because elders feel that getting involved only happens if you assume the title of board member. This causes them to further look down with disdain at community members.
For these administrations for which it seems there is no hope, there is only one solution. They have to be taken to account by the community at large. What I’ve noticed in communities where administrations are run amuck is that the community simply does not care. The more apathetic they are, the more that boards get away with. Their apathy drowns out the good ideas and common sense of the few who are challenging the board.
Fixing that is not easy. You have to be in it for the long haul. What do you do during that long haul? Focus on your pocket of excellence. Make yourself so invaluable to the community that they can’t afford to ignore you. It’s either that or study your masjid constitution like you’re preparing for the MCAT and have a 2 year plan to run the table at the next election.
Argument 2: Women in the Masjid
Having 2 young daughters, my wife, mother, and sister – I feel quite strongly about how sisters will be included in our masjids moving forward. I won’t rehash the discussion about women being marginalized, not being included, and not having adequate accommodations. I think they’re painfully obvious to even the most casual of masjid attendees.
But what I do think is important is to understand a little bit of context. The needs and demands of our communities have changed drastically in the last 20-30 years. Islamic schools have gone from a rarity to being seen by some as a necessity in every major community. Masjids have gone from having an empty field (i.e. future construction site) for kids to play on to having full blown gymnasiums. Social changes have greatly impacted how masjids interact with their non-Muslim neighbors.
Many masjids were established by immigrant families who came from places where women attending the masjids was not emphasized. It might be wrong – but it’s a fact, and many of them simply did not know any better. The demands voiced by sisters now are different than 15 years ago. Even if they’re the same, they’re much more vocal now than they were before. So how do we change it?
Physical accommodations are a real problem. This problem needs a bit of context though. Some masjids are stuck – they were built long ago, or built by people who (unfortunately) didn’t have the foresight to properly make an adequate sister’s area. Fixing this is not easy – making a physical change requires lots of funds, building plans, city approval, and so on. In some cases, it just might not be an option due to land restrictions. Communities will have to find ways of working around this. One thing that a number of places have adopted is simply having sisters only programs in the men’s area at off hours (i.e. daytime on weekdays).
The ugly side of this discussion is when unnecessary fitnah is created. And by that I mean when sisters go into a masjid seeking conflict (a tell-tale sign is that cell phone cameras are already recording just waiting for an antagonized uncle to flip out), and then run to the media to make a big deal out of it. You have to first try to work with the system as much as possible before just giving up on it.
Even with that being said, there does come a time where the system is failing and something else needs to be done. Understand the limitations of the community and try to come up with solutions. One thing that I hope will come from the unMosqued documentary is highlighting people who have successfully solved these issues and present a model for others to follow.
I don’t know about existing solutions, but going forward I have a few ideas for what needs to be done. Sisters need to be included in administrative capacities in the masjid beyond being made the social events coordinator, secretary, or the “affirmative action” board member who gets marginalized – i.e. when the 6 male board members meet privately and agree on something and then come to a board meeting to “vote” having rendered her vote irrelevant.
Floor plans must be made to give women proper sight to speakers. I’ve prayed in a masjid where I couldn’t see the khateeb, and it was annoying, deflating, and took away from my jum’ah experience. There need to be ways to accommodate not just sisters, but sisters with children (younger children and older children) so that everyone is able to attend and benefit from a program in relative peace.
Argument 3: Imams
I’m quite tired of the “immigrant” imam debate. Being an immigrant is not the make or break issue. I have seen many immigrant imams who have had not only profound impacts on their communities, but even on me personally. If you grew up here, who taught you how to read Qur’an when you were young? Who taught you the basics of your religion? I’ve also seen plenty of imams who were born and raised here, and “understand the culture” that are flat out a destructive presence in their communities.
Everyone feels they’re entitled to a certain type of imam, and everyone has different expectations of one. Some communities think imams are just ignoramuses who can’t do anything but teach Arabic alphabets, and some imams feel like all they do 24 hours a day is teach classes, lead prayers, and provide counseling and emergency (counseling/janazah/hospital visits) services in all their free time. Ask the child of an American imam how much they saw their dad growing up. They’re busy serving the needs of the community – many times they are needs that 80% of the community doesn’t even realize they need because they’re behind the scenes.
Communities need a clear vision of who they need in an imam. I had a chance to sit down with Sh. AbdulNasir Jangda to talk about how communities can find the right imam:
Also I’ve written about this issue in a lot of detail over at MuslimSI in the Imams category.
It all comes back to the community at large. An apathetic community will be content with whoever the administration parades in front of them regardless of quality or qualification. A serious community will seek out the imam who best fits their needs and take good care of him.
We also need to branch out beyond the imam role. Our masjids desperately need both a brothers and sisters youth director, counselors for men and women, and other people in such ‘pastoral’ roles under the direction of a main imam or resident scholar.
I was really happy when I saw the initial unmosqued talk from Rad Talks. It’s my hope that this movement, or discourse, will bring about positive change in the community. To do that though, the story told through the film must be one that is able to penetrate the hearts of those who need to hear it most. If it’s just a rah rah movie that further empowers disenchantment and disengagement [as some argue the existing trailer seems to do], then it’s a failure.
My greatest fear is that people who are frustrated with people and circumstances (no matter how legitimate) will become content with being unmosqued. I feel it’s only a matter of time before I run into a practicing Muslim brother and ask him which masjid he attends only to have him say, “Oh, I don’t really go to the masjid, I’m unmosqued.” I’m also worried that things like misrepresenting masjids (as the Nueces example at the top) will make problematic board members even more defensive and prevent them from being able to hear the message they need (much less watch it in the first place if they just dismiss the documentary as “obvious lies”).
My greatest hope is that the upcoming film reaches those running our institutions and is able to convey to them – from an ‘unbiased 3rd party’ point of view the issues being discussed, and it becomes a catalyst for them to make changes.