Mosqued and UnMosqued: A Look at the Conversation on American Muslim Religious Spaces

Mosques, much like any other space, are complicated meeting points of identity, belief, mores and change. Despite the rigidity of concrete and wood, structures and spaces have an amazing ability to really inform, impact and change not only our individual lives but also our social relations and standing. For this reason the discussion of mosque space, not just as a physical space but the point of arrival of Muslims into their respective communities and the formation of their relationships with one another, remains a conversation that requires to not only be heard but amplified.

Recently, a trailer made rounds in the Muslim online circles for an upcoming documentary on the role of mosques in American Muslim communities entitled, UnMosqued. From the film’s website:

 UnMosqued is a documentary film which aims to highlight the growing need for reform in many of the mosques found in America. The purpose of the documentary is to engage a group of people who have been disconnected from their local mosque and explore the various reasons that have led to this sentiment. (…) Masajid may not be doing enough to attract and retain the youth, which further alienates the future members of the community from using the mosque space for their spiritual growth.

(…) UnMosqued aims to explore this growing unease with the masjid space and why it exists. One clear factor is the cultural divide that pervades the American Mosque landscape. According to The American-Mosque 2011 report, “3/4 of all mosques are dominated by one ethnic group. In most cases this one group is either South Asian, Arab, or African American,” (p.14). As Muslims become integrated within American society and grow up in a diverse multi-racial environment, it becomes increasingly uncomfortable to enter a mosque that is predominated by a certain culture.

The film consists of a series of interviews by Muslim leaders, of various backgrounds, who explore the question of the social and cultural marginalization of youth in masajid. Interviewees include ICNYU’s Imam Khalid Latif, Northeast Islamic Relief’s Yousef Abdallah, Jamaica Muslim Center’s Imam Shamsi Ali, ICCNY’s Imam Saad and Detroit artist (and convert)Mohammad Langston.

While the documentary remains in development, the material offered thus far raises the need for a critical response. First, there seems to be very little diversity offered in terms of geographic representation of the interviewees showcased in the trailer and on the website; almost all are from the East coast, primarily the New York-New Jersey area. In a film about the American mosque experience, it’s striking that the focus thus far has been so completely isolated to two states. Additionally, the interviews and the trailer make rather grandiose statements that, while certainly can be vouched for anecdotally, fail to hold up to the empirical bar. The same survey cited by the filmmakers, also mentions that in the past eleven years the number of mosques has increased by a rather loud 74%. If the filmmakers are correct in their assessments that “only 10% of all Muslims in America attend …mosques” (wherever this figure is coming from) and that “many youth… have felt judged or unwelcome at a mosque” – then how can we account for the increase of mosques (indicating a dire need) during the past decade? The filmmakers claim that there’s a problem of ethnic and cultural hegemony that alienates youth, without considering the following major finding from the 2011 American Mosque Survey:

Mosques remain an extremely diverse institution. Only 3% of mosques have only one ethnic group that attends that mosque. South Asians, Arabs, and African Americans remain the dominant groups but significant numbers of newer immigrants have arrived, including Somalis, West Africans and Iraqis. (pg 4)

On their website, they focus on the dominance of particular groups in mosques whilst ignoring the entirety of the finding. The dominance of particular groups in mosques seems logical considering that, as the survey notes, 33% of American Muslims are South Asian, 27% are Arab and 24% Black American (pg. 13).  It continues that ethnic dominance of mosques has, on the whole, decreased since 1994 (pg. 14).

The documentary also seems to claim that young second or third generation American Muslims or American Muslims without immigrant roots may be subject to a growing cultural confusion in mosques where ‘back home’ cultural teachings, norms and ideas allegedly dominant. Yet this assessment, too, comes into flux by simply referring back to the single largest survey done on American mosques:

Mosque leaders endorse Muslim involvement in American society. Over 98% of mosque leaders agree that Muslims should be involved in American institutions; and 91% agree that Muslims should be involved in politics. (pg. 4)

Muslim mosque attendance has also increased – the figure of the shockingly low 10% mosque attendance is nowhere to be found in the survey itself. Instead we find an incredibly bloated number. According to the report it is projected that as of 2011, the number of mosque participants was up to 2.6 million from 2 million in 2001 (pg. 9). This number is certainly questionable since the most cited population projection of Muslims in American comes from a 2010 Pew Forum survey, which stated that the population currently stood at 2.6 million and will rise to 6.2 million in twenty years. It seems a bit unlikely that every single Muslim in the United States is participating in their local mosque. Yet that being said, given the sheer growth of mosques in just over a decade, it seems more than likely that attendance and participation levels cannot be as low as as low as 260,000, even if we take the smallest population estimate of 2.6 million.

As with any survey, methodology needs consideration and numbers are not exact nor can they really, ultimately, speak on behalf of everyone. The 2011 American Mosque Survey does not reflect the experiences of every or maybe even many American Muslims – but it does offer insight into the growing role of the mosque in the United States. Numbers cannot define human experience, but they can indicate trends that cannot be so easily tossed aside. What these numbers indicate most strikingly, especially when paired with the 201 Pew report, is that with the growing number of Muslims in the United States, there is an exponential increase in need and number of mosques. This does not, of course, negate the countless negative, ‘unmosquing’ experiences of Muslim Americans but it does offer a challenge to generalizations being assumed about the nature of the American mosque. It’s a bit more complicated than maybe the images being offered to us and the images that we, ourselves, are creating.

Gendered Spaces in UnMosqued

(This is part is also an MMW post)

All that being said, what is strikingly missing from both the survey and the documentary (although the former does claim to be dedicating an entire other report to this subject) is the role, treatment and participation of American Muslim women in American mosques.

American Muslim women are amongst a handful of demographics within the Muslim community who have consistently faced varying degrees of marginalization and discrimination. The trailer only mentions women twice: once, a testimony by an actual woman who has not been profiled on the website as an interviewee and the second time by Mohammad Langston, who offers an observation of being asked “why women are treated like dogs in mosques” without any real expansion on that thought or clarification. In a couple of the interviews on the website, women’s issues and roles are discussed however briefly, in terms of just ‘women’s right’s’ and not by women themselves. It’s important to have men acknowledge the lack of physical and social space afforded to women in our mosques – but without including women leaders, what message is being sent to the audience?

While there is yet to be any survey on female participation in mosques from which we can gather some cold, hard survey numbers, we know that the physical space, alone, afforded to Muslim women in mosques speaks loudly about the perception of what their role in the mosque is seen to be. Women’s bodies, their purity, their ability to contribute to their community are all under the constant gaze of many mosques. Maryam Eskandari is a visionary American Muslim architect focusing on re-building and re-thinking Islamic architecture and places of worship. In a 2011 paper, “Women Places and Spaces in Contemporary American Mosque,” she writes, after surveying 32 mosques out of over 100 visited mosques in 2010:

“Through the numerous case studies and investigations of the American Mosques that I documented, it is clear that the community does not provide adequate spaces for their women members…A lack of attention to the needs of American Muslim women in the states has caused a gender conflict over the adequacy of spaces for Muslim women within American mosques.” (Abstract)

“Cultural convention is lost in translation particularly in allowing women the access to attend the mosque. Misinterpretation of legal practices become a nuisance when space and gender “clash with time” (Donald L. Millers) and becomes visible through religious practice. “Many Muslim [men] do not see any need for a woman to go to a mosque when she can stay at home with the children and pray, even though a mosque may be within a block of her house” (Kahera 2002, 122). In his book Deconstructing the America Mosque, Kahera explains that the medieval Muslim world “developed a legal discourse that was cognizant of the use of public space with regard to age, sex and gender but gave preference to men…many contemporary Muslim jurists share the same medieval views”( Kahera 2002, 124). Therefore, the distorted medieval view that women need to stay at home is still debated.” (pg. 100)

In a conversation I had with Eskandari, she vividly recalled not only finding very few mosques in the United States, out of the almost 400 she’s visited, that provide any sort of safe space for all Muslims, but also running into archaic attitudes from mosque boards of directors about her role as a mosque architect.

By marginalizing the obstacles faced by Muslim women in American mosques, the documentary misses a crucial opportunity to address the issue in the context of a (popularly perceived?) larger problem of community direction and growth and thereby indicating that the situations of many Muslim women across the US in their mosques is not just a “women’s issue” but a community issue. When any part of our community hurts, the entire community hurts. In addition to this, by offering very little commentary on the issue of women in mosques the documentary also fixates the mosque as the space of the Muslim male, trivializing of women’s space. If we’re going to have this conversation – and we must – then we must also acknowledge that the majority of our mosques are not, as Eskandar put it, safe spaces: they are not places where just –any Muslim- can go and pray.

And just as there are absolutely awful mosque experiences, there are also absolutely amazing experiences as well. And then there are those experiences that fall in between the nooks and crannies of good and bad. Additionally, despite the centrality of the mosque to Muslim communities across the world for centuries, there are other avenues for our communities to grow spiritually and socially. Muslim Students’ Associations have garnered a particular culture of religious community and social centrality, which parallels a community’s mosque, in the college and university settings. Despite the popularly acknowledged exclusivity that can come with many MSAs (or not!), they have become integral for many Muslims as areas of spiritual growth and signify that we have more avenues for addressing relevant, social issues than maybe some of our local mosques.

As Muslim American religious space, in all of its forms, increases and expands, so too does the need for a conversation that does not, in its character, prioritize the needs of some Muslims over other Muslims – be these immigrants, ethnic minorities, women, LGBTQ, youth or converts. We’re building the structures, but we’re lacking the foundation.  And this foundation cannot be complete without every part of the community. It comes down a very simple but incredibly powerful sentence by Amina Jabbar in a recent MMW post: Muslim men don’t know how to relate to Muslim women. Our mosques have created rigid barriers between men and women and in turn these barriers have led us to see women as almost ‘separate’ from the community as a whole. I hope that the filmmakers, who are still working on the documentary, take this great opportunity to bring in significant voices from the gendered underbelly of our community and our mosques. And I hope they do so in such a way that we know that when a woman (or anyone else!) has no place to pray, it is the responsibility of our entire community to find and give her that place.

One of the wives of Umar bin Al-Khattab used to offer the Fajr and the Isha prayers in congregation in the Mosque. She was asked why she had come out for the prayer as she knew that Umar disliked it, and he has great ghaira (self-respect). She replied, “What prevents him from stopping me from this act?” The other replied, “The statement of God’s Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) : ‘Do not stop the maid-servents of God from going to the Mosques of God’ prevents him.” (Bukhari)

Talking About Mosques

There’s no doubt that people are being UnMosqued–not just from mosques but from Muslim institutions, student associations, from their communities and even, at times, from their families because of the space they’re given (or not given) in these respective areas. This isn’t unique to the Muslim community yet that lack should not make this any less of a pertinent situation that needs to be addressed and redressed – in both an immediate and sustainable way. That being said, I think we need to also consider that, like with anything else, our religious spaces cannot be simply reduced the experience of disassociation, ostracization and marginalization. Mosques in American began to primarily pop up in the eighties and their greatest period of growth has been the past decade. It proves incredibly difficult for these institutions to mature so rapidly especially when they’ve become sites for government surveillance and national suspicion.

Additionally, from the 2010 Pew Forum Poll:

About two-thirds of the Muslims in the U.S. today (64.5%) are first-generation immigrants (foreign-born), while slightly more than a third (35.5%) were born in the U.S. By 2030, however, more than four-in-ten of the Muslims in the U.S. (44.9%) are expected to be native-born.

As much as Islam is a part of the American fabric and the country’s history, from its discovery till today, the American Muslim experience has largely been defined by the immigrant experience. When we ask why many of our mosques talk about “back home” issues or issues that, to those of us who feel so disconnected to distant, ancestral lands, seem so completely irrelevant and out of place – we need to look at who also is attending these mosques. Our mosques, despite not being the sort of safe-spaces where maybe just about anyone can go and pray without any hint of an issue or intrusion, are sorts of safe-spaces for the immigrant communities. Mosques become refuge centers, social centers, social welfare centers–centers for familiarity, comfort and a feeling of home in a daunting new land and life. This is why we often see ethnic domination at mosques (also to be noted is that ethnic domination at mosques isn’t a universalist experience for American Muslims — it largely depends on where the mosques are and the history of the particular Muslim communities in those areas).  Whereas our religion should be our meeting point, our shared experience and our base of familiarity – it isn’t always. At least, not always first in line. And yes, this isn’t good – but it is what it is. A newly landed immigrant from Tunisia cannot [always] relate to a 6th generation Black American Muslim on social issues and even engagement with Islam. But it’s not impossible nor always the case; we can find remarkable examples of brother and sisterhood in Muslim communities as often as, perhaps even more, not so remarkable examples of this unity.

The challenge is not how we can make mosques relate to youth and address the issues that matter”here” — this -is- being done in mosques across the country at an increasing and steady rate. The challenge now is how we can work to unite across communities, immigrants and non, and challenge exclusionary ideas/practices without excluding anyone or trivializing anyone’s experience. We don’t have to agree, ultimately, but we have be open and honest with one another while remaining respectful – even if we, ourselves, are not  at all times receiving the respect and acknowledgement that we deserve. That’s the real challenge.

It’s not easy but it is worth it.

4 thoughts on “Mosqued and UnMosqued: A Look at the Conversation on American Muslim Religious Spaces

  1. Thank you for this post Sr. Sana. Myself and others from a forum/board (with which I’ve shared this post), were very excited about this documentary and had a good discussion about these issues and it’s disheartening to hear that the documentary doesn’t (at this point) adequately address the issues, especially that of gender roles and the importance of women in the masjid.

    From my experience, I can see that the women/sisters in the community play such a big, active role in events in being the strength for many and so it would seem that they should be an integral and welcomed member of daily mosque life – and though I know in some communities, as you imply, it may be so, the fact that in so many others, they don’t feel welcomed, is truly sad.

    One thing that for sure frustrates me, as a male, is the general cultural views and ideologies that pervade our masajid and including this idea that women should stay home/be away from the masjid, is annoying to me. I’m not trying to score brownie points by any means – there are so many talented, skilled and great minds among the women in our communities and for them to not be in / not welcomed to the mosque, where we would have their input would just put us at a loss. plain and simple. I do hope that in these regions where this is a glaring issue, it is addressed appropriately – we already have youth that are disillusioned from the mosque, Islam itself; we can’t lose those are are passionate about their faith too. In some ways, I hope that these ideas expire when that generation is no longer around. The issues that youth face here, today, in the West, need to be addressed in khutbah’s as well as other activities that youth might want to be a part of or that there parents encourage them to participate in early on in their lives. There many challenges they face, whether it’s Islamophobia or relationship issues for example.

    As for the general issue of masajid, their growing number, yet clearly dwindling attendance/enthusiasm – even my mother commented recently (after I mentioned that I had recently gone to pray in the Southeast’s largest mosque, in Atlanta, during an extended stay there) that we build large mosques, but no one is really going to them (that could be an entirely separate blog post of course!) – this too is extremely concerning. In a time where we especially need to lead by example, the fact that youth are turning away from the masjid and in many cases, Islam itself, is not a good sign for future generations.

    From what I can see in my community, I think there is a mixture – but from what I can see from the students of our Islamic school / institution, the young ones do make me feel hopeful – they are passionate about their faith, about wanting to be a part of the mosque life and see it as a refuge, a place where they can continue to learn and read Qur’an and just catch up with their peers that they don’t otherwise see in their daily lives. This is certainly encouraging, though I know there is that other portion of the youth that are less or not involved at all, with the mosque and related activities. I think the problem also lies at the family level too here, at least in some cases. Despite these issues, it seems number of mosques are growing (we have the example of Murfreesboro and other new ones going up) and even in my community, one masjid is raising money for a large expansion/consolidation project and we are also hoping to build a community center at another location.

    To close, regardless of what the documentary may show or say, the issues you bring up here need to be at the forefront in our communities – so that they can be tackled sincerely, improved & fixed, so we can move forward, while strengthening ourselves from within – I hope to soon be able to make contributions in whatever small way I can – but in the meantime, those in leadership positions at the present time need face it head on.

  2. I think this is very enlightening. Thank you for the post. I agree that we need to start thinking long term and strategic and realistic vision of the road ahead.

  3. So apparently all muslims have come to a point, where to sound intellectual or be “reasonable”, they have to include LGBT rights as well. Is that the mosque of the future ? Where men and women hold hands and pray, where prayers are lead by a lesbian ? Where they have movie nights, date nights ?

    You know my dingy one room basement masjid where the sisters and the brothers struggle to fit in, is way better with the liberalization.

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