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Unmosqued Series: Role of the Masaajid – East vs. West


When I was in Houston this past summer, my children, 15 and 12 years old—and even the 6-year-old – dragged me 98 miles almost every day during Ramadan to attend the Masjid in Clear Lake (CLIC). The days we couldn’t go to CLIC, they still begged me to take them to any masjid rather than staying home.

When we came back to the Middle East though, all of their enthusiasm and excitement of going to the masjid seemed to have been left behind in Houston. Even though we are a two-minute walk from a beautiful and luxurious masjid, I have to force my son to keep up with his prayers in congregation. My daughter has never set foot there.

Masājid are in abundance here. One can hardly cross a road without seeing a masjid. Congregational prayers are facilitated at school and work places. A prayer cannot be missed simply because there isn’t a place available to make wudu or pray. The police even excuse illegally parked cars halfway up the main road around the masjid during prayer times.

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When I moved to the Middle East three years ago, I was especially impressed with the way masājid were taken care of – exceptionally clean, bathrooms distinctly spotless, and carpets freshly vacuumed and perfumed at all times, a huge selection of books (though in Arabic), and hundreds of du‘ā’/adhkār leaflets for free distribution.

There are no dirty “masjid politics” either, nor any uncles or aunties to be bossed around by. Yet, in three years, I have only been to the mosque next door once (Ramadan excluded). I have to remind my son multiple times to say his prayer at the masjid. My daughter, who used to pray Jumu’ah very enthusiastically in the beginning, now prefers to pray at home.

It took me a while to realize that with all of the facilities in the masājid here, there is a sense of “emptiness” that creates a barrier from becoming attached to the masjid, especially for the youth.

For those of us from the West, who had been actively involved in the masājid, regularly took our children to pray at least Maghrib and Isha, met our masjid-fellows more than our own family, and ended up making masajid our second homes, the masjid became an integral part of our lives. We didn’t go there to only pray but to learn, inspire and get inspired, socialize and make friends.

Unfortunately, “masjid spirit” is something totally lacking in this part of the world. It is not something you feel or even realize in the beginning. If someone was actively involved in the masājid back home, as time passes by, the lack of connection with the masājid creates a void in our lives.

I made some of my closest friends in the US through the mosque. These friendships started at the house of Allah, bonded us through our faith and still continues to connect us at opposite ends of the world. Over here, however, there is rarely ever any exchange of salaams in the masjid. No one stays longer to find out how the fellow Muslims are doing. Neighbors could be attending the same masjid, but may not even know the name of the person standing next to them. There are no activities for the youth and no classes for ladies. The huge structures fill up for the prayer and empty as soon as the prayer is over.

We have often complained about the masājid in America and found ourselves frustrated about the neglected masjid, the dirty bathrooms, smelly rugs, unfinished and improper parking lots, infamous “uncle/aunty politics”, and last but not least, the mistreatment of sisters at the mosque. While I was once amongst those complainers, I would be the first to admit now that living in the eastern part of the world taught me to value what I didn’t before: masājid in America are far better than the masājid in “Muslim” countries.

With all the problems that the masajid have in the US, at least there is an opportunity to change things and there is room to make a difference. All roads don’t lead to dead-ends and most importantly, there is freedom to raise your voice.

Over here, each and every masjid is controlled by a single organization which is not only restricted to men but it is nearly impossible to get through to them with any suggestions or constructive criticisms.

I admit that at times it is quite challenging to keep up with all of the masjid politics in some parts of the US. I remember when I felt like quitting, I complained and criticized about how unprofessionally issues were handled in the masjid. I went through the “un-mosqued” escapade after moving away from Houston to a different city in US. Now I realize that at least opportunities were available to improve situations; and over time, with some effort, we were able to work on and resolve our issues, and were able to become a part of the masjid.

Over here in the Middle East, we don’t have the freedom, nor the opportunities, to even address the problems let alone find any solutions for them.

Once my son was in the mosque, and a lady walked in to get her son admitted for Qur’an classes. The way my son described the scenario was both funny and sad at the same time. All the imams ran inside the office because none of them spoke to women directly, then they sent a small boy out to ask her what she wanted and why she was there!

The sisters’ area is beautiful in the masājid here – usually upstairs where the imam is visible to the sisters. However, sisters cannot communicate with the imam nor can they contribute anything towards the masjid. All of the masjid decisions are made by one major organization that controls all of the religious activities in the country. From what I’ve heard, the people in-charge usually shy away from even speaking to women!

I understand that in the US, we don’t have ideal imams in every mosque who take sisters’ or youth issues under consideration, but at least the channels of communication are open. If one mosque is unapproachable, we can move on to another mosque, knowing that the two mosques will not be running under the exact same principle.

I ask my brothers and sisters in the West: Don’t be disheartened, keep up the good work you are doing in your communities, even though it may seem impossible, know for a fact that there are no dead-ends there.  Value the freedom and opportunities you have to be active and involved in the houses of Allah, azzawajal and make a positive difference, even if it is just a little. At least, you are making a difference.

Previous articles in this series:

UnMosqued Primer: What You Need to Know About the Arguments

UnMosqued ReMosqued: Western Masajid and the Search for Community

UnMosqued Series: Dealing with Masjid Community Fatigue

UnMosqued Series: Unmosqued Unmasked, A Critical Review of the UnMosqued Trailer

Keep supporting MuslimMatters for the sake of Allah

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Saba Syed (aka Umm Reem) is the author of International award winning novel, "An Acquaintance." Saba has a BA degree in Islamic Studies. She studied Arabic Language & Literature at Qatar University and at Cairo Institute in Egypt. She also received her Ijaazah in Quranic Hafs recitation in Egypt from Shaikh Muhammad al-Hamazawi. She had been actively involved with Islamic community since 1995 through her MSA, and then as a founding member of TDC, and other community organizations. in 2002, she organized and hosted the very first "Musim Women's Conference" in Houston, TX. Since then, she's been passionately working towards empowering Muslim women through the correct and untainted teachings of Islam. She is a pastoral counselor for marriage & family, women and youth issues. She has hosted several Islamic lectures and weekly halaqas in different communities all over U.S and overseas, also hosted special workshops regarding parenting, Islamic sex-ed, female sexuality, and marital intimacy.



  1. Hyde

    May 27, 2013 at 3:30 AM

    Ah, what a refreshing article especially compared to some of the last few you posted sister!

    But in all seriousness you have brought up a very important issue.
    My conclusion: be happy with what you have in the West! I readily enjoy my broken basement masjid, where at least everybody is familiar with everybody else.
    It is not even in the middle east but mostly throughout the muslim world where masjids are generally for Jummah prayers only. And the youth, forget it. I doubt most young people are going to halaqas or islamic gatherings (too busy having affairs, as they like to say it). And is there a muslim countries where women are involved or allowed to go into majids ? I think perhaps we should go back these places and inform them what is what.

    That is why I propose the thesis that the future of Islam is interdependent on Muslims in the West, particularly in the United States. Most “muslim” countries are noxiously secular and even with the multitude of religion masses, the secularized elite sway the spectrum. So perhaps the next great Islamic revival will come from the U.S ? What do you think ?

  2. Fatima Ariadne

    May 27, 2013 at 8:16 AM

    I live in a secular muslim country myself and found too that lacking of “masjid spirit” is rather out of individualism matter more than anything. This is when masjid was merely viewed as place to pray and nothing beyond that. But in schools and universities, there are many youths that light up the masjid with interesting activities and that’s when we truly feel a sense belonging in the community. Other place where this was profound is rural area. But that’s not because the masjid itself. Outside this, people have already bond each other. In the West, I guess it’s not individualism or secularism, but rather a feeling of becoming minority in other people’s land.

  3. Arif Khalil

    May 27, 2013 at 9:46 AM

    First I congratulate for taking up this important topic. This would lead to understand: What Masajid are what these should be? inShaAllah.

    The situation you have described about Middle East is not too much different than we have in Pakistan other than the diversity of following two-three major schools of Fiqh within Islamic jurisprudence and mostly being run by private local organizations, to add further with poor hygienic conditions, though. The main points which I would argue are same like Middle East.

    Firstly, the use of structure only for prayers and reading al-Qur’an al-Karim very distant from the culture you are growing in the States of developing a community around a Masjid making it important, having several components run at one place making full use of the space and structure.

    Secondly, by not permitting the better half of humanity – our sisters, even to enter or pray. You in the USA do so not only to better organize space and events run on that but to provide them space out of living room and traditionally limited only to the kitchen. This also provides them with the exposure that helps in becoming their active and responsible citizens, good mothers, to work elsewhere and bring little extra income to home and many more other benefits to person, family and society.

    Thirdly, we do not use Masajid to create consensus on social and cultural concerns. I did not mention economic, political and religious here deliberately :) for Hadith of Rasulillah, for concern of governments and due to the fear of extremism but to our disappointment all three are there and the two essential: civic and cultural are absent. You have got their right proportions in the States and make use of them as empowering institutions not only for yourselves but to help out the suffering humanity elsewhere.

    While reading through your article I was earmarking the values we were taught and powers we were given then we placed those in the incapable hands, alas! The power of argument; the value in consulting the original sources of knowledge; the value and power of being independent of any coercion, fear or interest; the value in love and care for Allah’s house.

    Still the time we have to make Taubah and Istighfar… to shun our interests to enjoy the freedoms our Deen came with and calls for.

  4. Hassan

    May 27, 2013 at 12:00 PM

    It will be very interesting to know what locals in that community feel. Specially since you brought up women, can you ask local women how they felt about it?

    Honestly I believe it is not right vs wrong, but rather mere cultural difference. People in middle east (religious committed people) will be more than happy how masjid is functioning. For any other activities (social gathering, etc), they do it outside the masjid. Since everyone around is muslim, there is no urgency to go and be community at masjid (which is strong in west).

    Having grown up in middle east (and my sisters and mother living there as well), I personally had no issues with masjid. In fact the convenience of walking five times a day with no fear and no hurdle (job etc) was blessing. As for women, they were pretty satisfied in praying home (getting more reward), and any other community/social activity was outside of masjid.

    And also the expats community was huge as well. There were enough Pakistanis to socialize with. Although I am not part of jamat-e-islami, nor my father was, but we always attended their picnics and their duroos etc. Women has their own duroos etc.

    Now coming to CLIC, I think it is something different all together. Perhaps it is the place where I grew up in America so I was too much attached to it as well. When I was in Houston, I would pray out of 35 prayers in a week, at least 30 in CLIC, where occasional missing of fajar, and some times when I go to south west area, then I will pray Madrassa Islamia. Ever since I moved to DFW, I pray hardly 4-5 times a week in masjid. So not sure why is that, I can only blame myself for it.

  5. M

    May 27, 2013 at 1:41 PM


    I believe the situation you have mentioned in the article is because of one basic reason. Community requirements are different in “Muslim” and non-Muslim countries.

    you don’t need community activities in the mosques in “Muslim” countries. since it is a “Muslim” country they already provide such activities (Like, learning to read the Quran) elsewhere, in schools, homes etc. As for the sense of community, sometimes the only place where you could meet a Muslim or get exposed to Muslim culture in the west is the mosque, whereas this may not be the case in those countries.

    Also, I believe it is more rewarding for women to pray at home, but then again, in the west, the only place you might meet a Muslim, or get to know more about Islam is the mosque, so it becomes very important for, say, women reverts to attend the mosques.

    In “Muslim” countries, the mosques are controlled by AWQAF, They usually funded by the government, and are responsible for the building and maintenance of the mosques. Such an organisation may not be possible in non-Muslim countries because government will not support them. Although them being completely governed by men and them refusing to talk to women is why I’ve been putting the word ‘Muslim’ in quotes, because that’s what they are, most “Muslim” countries are not following Islam the way it should be followed. In fact I’ve noticed a lot Muslims becoming closer to their religion and getting a better understanding of it in the west rather then their “Muslim” countries.


    May 27, 2013 at 7:23 PM

    Good insightful article Mash’Allah. Masaajids play the same role here in Saudi Arabia, they are primarily meant to be places of prayer. I was once told that the reason why masaajid remain locked for most of the day is so that they don’t become places of congregation for people to discuss about affairs of the Dunya (such as anything social, political, economic, etc).
    I’ve also heard that in some masaajid here they do hold classes on Islam, particularly for women, but the classes are taught in Arabic. About the youth, some masaajid also hold tahfidth classes for kids in the afternoons, although there are also special schools/community centers that are also set up to teach kids about Quran. But yes masaajid here are not meant to serve the same functions as masaajid in the west, since the environments in both places are different. What’s interesting though is that at least in some countries (like Egypt, Turkey, and even China) women are becoming more actively involved in the affairs of the masjid, by providing classes on Deen to others, running charities from the Masjid, and providing counselling services.

  7. A

    May 28, 2013 at 4:23 AM

    I always feel uncomfortable when people talk about “the Middle East” as a single entity. The Middle East is a diverse place with many different countries, cultures, and traditions. Speaking for Jordan only (where I have lived for several years), women and children are active in the mosques. There are women-only Qur’an classes and other lessons and activities throughout the year, including field trips, plays, and other fun activities. Some mosques are less active than others, and this is because the women themselves do not organize any activities. My sister-in-law works for the awqaf and has taken me to many events. Another sister I know has organized a summer reading program for children in the mosque. It was purely her own initiative, and she received a grant for her project, which included training women throughout Jordan to duplicate the program in their own communities. As others have stated, the needs in Muslim countries are different, and there are different venues available for socializing and holding events. When I was in the U.S. we used to hold halaqas in the home of a different woman each week even though we could have used the mosque. The reason was so that we could take our kids, share food, and socialize after the lesson in a more comfortable atmosphere. Communities are different everywhere, and we should not generalize.

  8. Indian_Muslim

    May 28, 2013 at 3:53 PM

    With due respect & brotherly affection towards the writer of this article, I do not agree to what the writer is trying to convey & convince us upon – that Islam in west is purer and Muslims of west are superior to the lost-sheep of East.

    Various aspects need to be evaluated & appreciated. For instance, isn’t it easy to get to know “all the attendees of the Masjid” when there are only a bunch of them…most-likely less than 100? And isn’t it difficult to acquaint with hundreds who flow down for prayers in the Middle-east?

    And then, why do you feel the pain of not being allowed to volunteer (especially in decision making) at Masjid? Shouldn’t you be happy that this aspect is already being managed peacefully by the authorities? If you have any concerns with anything, you have the right to walk up to the Imam (make your wali walk up to him, in your case) and ask him – like I used to talk to the Imam if I had any issue with anything at Masjid.

    If you understand the psychology & behavioral difference of people when they are in minority vs. in majority – then you will get the difference. In a place where you are in minority, the bonding between Muslims is much more stronger, differences are less to nil, there are no fights…and the overall result is the much spiritual & healthy relationship (remember, you will have to wait for the next F1/H1 plane to arrive, if you happen to fight with that good-friend-of-mine brother next door). And compare that to a majority nation where there is more confidence or carelessness prevailing.

    Feel free to disagree. And hey, I’m an Indian who lived in Middle East – I did use to exchange salaams with unknown people as well in Masjids. However, India is a bad place when it comes to exchanging salaams with unknown Muslim brothers.

    Wassalaam Alaikum.

    • MbintuM

      May 30, 2013 at 9:02 AM

      That’s not the feeling I got from this article.

      “In a place where you are in minority, the bonding between Muslims is much more stronger, differences are less to nil, there are no fights…and the overall result is the much spiritual & healthy relationship (remember, you will have to wait for the next F1/H1 plane to arrive, if you happen to fight with that good-friend-of-mine brother next door). And compare that to a majority nation where there is more confidence or carelessness prevailing”

      This is what I think she meant to say.

      I’m a Muslimah from two “muslim” African countries (mum & dad) and I noticed there the behavior described here.

  9. Muhammad Jassim

    May 30, 2013 at 1:46 PM

    I can close my eyes and tell this is written by a person from qatar.

    I feel empty in mosque, I have no friend or anything like of my age. Basically, Salah, Salam! Ta Ta bye bye!

    • somelonelymuslim

      May 30, 2013 at 2:44 PM

      I was gonna venture out by saying she is talking about sharjah or Dubai :)

      • Hyde

        June 1, 2013 at 4:48 PM

        Yep between Magrib and disco beats, one say it is rather hard to be pious in that the Gulf.

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