I just came across this trailer for a film called Unmosqued and I just had to post this here, because I’m so so happy we’re finally having this type of conversation in the mainstream, public eye FINALLY.
Our mosques have failed us in so many ways, but I never truly realized that as a child when everything seemed so simple and everyone seemed so perfect. I went to several mosques over the years for Sunday school religious education, for Friday prayers during school breaks and for Tarraweh prayer during Ramadan. I always remember thinking about how the mosques I went to didn’t seem as organized or as fun or as American as my friends’ churches and temples. At the same time, I didn’t expect a lot of my mosque because I saw it as a one-dimensional venue, a place to read Quran and pray. Debate, creativity, arts, social service, interfaith dialogue, investigation, activism, media engagement–all of these activities were things I assumed I’d do outside of the mosque, during the week, with “American” institutions and individuals.
I didn’t question the partition of the mosque between women and men either when I was young. I know that men and women prayed separately so I suppose I thought it was easier to have their own spaces. The various mosques I attended had fairly decent spaces for women and they always seemed like dignified delineations of where we should each preside in the prayer hall.
One issue I do remember recognizing early on was the ethnocentrism of certain mosques and the language barrier. Certain mosques would speak more Arabic, others more Urdu and no one was all that proficient at English yet they expected me-an American born child of African parents, to relate one culture or the other as my means of spiritual guidance. How was that fair or reasonable? Who could blame me when I began to feel less comfortable or confident in my own faith, when I could barely understand what I was learning or feel like the leadership of the mosque could understand me?
If we were all equally Muslims, then we should be able to go into any mosque and feel at home. That’s what I loved about being Muslim. I loved that while my Christian friends had a particular church they were a congregation of and they couldn’t go to service at a church of a different denomination, I, on the other hand, could walk into any mosque that I visited and join one of the five daily prayers without a problem. I also noticed that while my Christian friends hated waking up and going to church on Sundays, I really enjoyed going to Friday prayers and would never ever say it was boring. (I was soon proven wrong.)
What I envied about Christian friends particularly was the community they did build because of their attachment to a particular church. They had their youth groups and Bible studies and knew the names of their pastors, who they could just talk to whenever they wanted. I had no equivalent experience in the mosque. Any type of activities I did that in what remotely resembled a youth group were self-organized or depended on the time and effort given by a patient volunteer teacher–it was never institutionally recognized or validated.
The most hard working teachers we had at Sunday school were female. In fact, most of the teachers were female, so they became like second mothers or aunts to us.The dedication they displayed to us was phenomenal and made it that much more horrifying when at one mosque I went to in late elementary school, a new leadership began and decided that having women teach boys and girls all together was unacceptable. They wanted to put up a barrier to separate the boys and girls because at the time, we were all in an open space, learning at tables based on our age level. Soon after, my parents and several other families decided to leave the mosque and start another Sunday school program, which we ran out of a church. The fact that another religious group was willing to let us rent their space out for our education while members of our own tradition were pushing us out is unbelievable.
I remember at another mosque, when it was the night before Halloween and the school principal asked the young kids if we celebrated Halloween. The entire rows squealed with excitement as they nodded their heads and raised their hands to show they were in fact celebrating. The principal shook his head and chastised the children in his thick accent: “No we do not celebrate Halloween! It is haram! Why would you celebrate it?”
One kid’s response: “Because there’s candy! We want candy!”
The principal was quiet for a moment and then said: “If you want to have candy, go to your parents and ask for five dollars and then go to the candy store and buy yourself a bag of candy!”
There was some laughter and disappointed faces and then we prayed. And that was it. I could only reflect upon one of the mosques I had gone to that used to hold “Muslim Fun Nights” in place of Halloween and would actually discuss what parts of the holiday were antithetical to our religion. What a more productive and constructive way to empower our youth to be proud of their religion and actually understand the reasoning behind what we do. How many people bother to try that anymore? Or do they really think just telling kids “no” is enough to satisfy their questions about why they can’t drink or date or do drugs or gamble etc. etc. etc.
All in all, I would call myself a member of five different mosques. Some were good, some not so good, but I tried to not let it get to me. I accepted things as they were. As I grew older and my attendance at Sunday School waned, my spiritual education became unshackled from the strict curriculum my teachers assigned and roamed into peer to peer conversations, media, articles and my own investigation.
I became more headstrong, defiant and full of doubt, but I chose to not let those wandering thoughts take over me and question my legitimate beliefs because I thought at the end of the day, I was still a good person. I was a much better person than a lot of people out there, so there’s no way God could be disappointed in me that I didn’t always pray on time or wear the hijab or memorize the whole Quran like some child prodigy in Malaysia. The mosque became a place I went to because I had to. It was the old relative you had to say hi to in order to be polite and maintain good relations, perhaps even get a nice gift every now and then. I even went to remind myself that even though the other kids at school or people in the community might hate me because of my faith or what they think my faith is, in this building, I was with other people that knew how I felt. I was in a place that had an incomprehensible magnetic draw for repentance, mercy and peace. No Islamophobic person could take that away from me.
One of my favorite times of being in the mosque was when a person converted and the imam would announce his or her name. It was a jolting reminder that there were people out there who were willingly coming into the mosque, exploring, questioning and searching for answers just like me, but they had so much working against them. They didn’t come from a Muslim background or speak Arabic, but they still made the effort to come into a mosque, read the Quran, feel the Quran and decide they wanted to join our community. The sad thing is they don’t realize how much harder it is to want to stay in that community once you’re in. Those of us who have already been here don’t even know what we’re doing here half the time and the fact that we don’t share those thoughts is a problem.
Youth absence from the mosque. Marginalization of women. Segregation by ethnicity. Culturally irrelevant, unoriginal, intolerant khutbahs. Lack of civic engagement. Neglect of converts. Judgement of women’s dress or behavior or involvement or opinions.
These are all problems we are facing, but I believe we can get over them and we will, as long as we acknowledge our mistakes and open up a dialogue that includes everyone who wants to be able to come to the mosque. Top-down or grass-roots, we need a comprehensive evaluation and progressive analysis of our communities and what they are seeking. I want the mosque to be the center of my life, but instead, unfortunately, it has moved to the margins.
This is kinda off topic but I just want to give a shout out to Imam Suhaib Webb and the Ella Collins Institute in Boston, which is a fantastic mosque named after Malcolm X’s sister. “Tying the past with the present, ECI seeks to educate and prepare students of religious knowledge for a life of service to God and community.” Check out the Twitter and Facebook page to be inspired for the model of American Islamic leaders and literacy they are promoting.
This film is a great, easy way for all our mosques to improve for the betterment of the future generations of Muslims in America. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this endeavor and what your experiences have been like at mosques that you’d like to see change.