Currently, masjids’ current functions specialize in providing services for taraweeh and jumuaa prayers, Ramadan iftars, and halaqas revolving around tajweed & Quranic studies for people of all ages. From my point of view, the overwhelming majority of mosques in North America excel in providing worship-services; this is praiseworthy mashaAllah and an immense accomplishment.
But sadly, in Montreal (the only place I can speak of, though I am sure in much of Canada and the States it is the same thing), mosques have truly failed at being community centres.
One can argue and debate if a mosque really should play the role of a community center… I mean…
Isn’t serving as a prayer space for the few very elderly 10 men who show up daily enough?
… I don’t think so.
Isn’t gathering Muslims together a couple of times a year for Ramadan and Eids enough?
… It’s nice, but…
Isn’t it providing already essential services like halaqas to allow for young teenage Muslims to get in good company and learn the deen… enough?
… Well– it would be… IF PEOPLE ACTUALLY CAME AND BENEFITED FROM SUCH SERVICES, and if the kids who attended these things weren’t doing so solely because their parents forced them to!
I am writing this article because it upsets me– so often am I disappointed– at the way Islam is treated all too often by many Muslims. It is perceived as a Sunday-school-at-church thing— “we don’t have to teach our kids about how Islam is a beautiful way of life, we don’t have to even teach them how to speak Arabic though we, the parents, are native Arabs and can speak it perfectly well— khalas! Why trouble ourselves! Send them to the much dreaded Arabic Saturday school along with a million other kids where they can learn Quran in a classroom setting of 30 kids by 1 exhausted teacher, and hope they come out as shuyookh someday.”
Interestingly, it’s ironic to note– my mother taught the three eldest of us the Arabic alphabet and language. I remember when we wanted to slack off, she would use this threat: “Should I register you in Arabic classes on Saturdays?!” That was all it took to get us back on our feet! 😀 Luckily such threats were not needed when I taught the rest of my siblings Arabic because I always made sure there was a stash of candy and stickers nearby as external motivation. (They knew I didn’t have the authority to register them in Saturday classes…) All that is to say: is it any wonder why so many of these kids who spent their childhoods in mosques and classes run by them, never again attend halaqas at CEGEP or university?
There is something wrong with the way Islam is viewed– as a cultural practice, as a second language to learn, as a hobby– and I strongly believe that when mosques only provide strictly worship services that may often not seem relevant to the younger generations, it emphasizes that Islam = strict worship. Now since there’s the misconception that worship excludes all activities save praying and fasting, etc., all too often, mosques are never visited or gone to on a normal basis, nor is any effort put into making them places worthy of spending time in beyond the Eids and Ramadan taraweeh nights.
I admit it: I, too, only go to mosques during Ramadan. I tried, once, praying ‘asr at a mosque that was on my way to somewhere, an hour or so after it had come in. And guess what? It was locked. So much for my plans of spiritual isolation in the middle of the day in a House of God…
I am speaking all this of personal experience, and of knowing many people who have gone through this. These are not trauamatic experiences of course, but rather, there are wonderful experiences being missed, opportunities being unseized, because of the unquestioned way of how things are. Only a couple of months ago, a friend told me she was surprised MSAs in Montreal were not holding academic competitions for Muslim teenagers– and I thought, wow, how much can an MSA do? Apparently many MSAs in Toronto serve the wider community well outside the university campus, and it made me realize just how much pressure is often put on MSAs. But this makes sense, for they are the closest thing to a “real” community of Muslims coming together for social, religious, and educational services, with no cultural barriers accommodating only certain groups. Is there no other alternative, though? Or rather– can mosques help fulfill these needs as well?
I think they can, and they should.
I personally never attended masjid halaqas on a consistent level– however I attended one session once last year… and it was compiled of around 15 women well above 50 years old. Even though I was 22 years old, a young woman myself, I felt very much under the microscope and alienated; I was being spoken to ever so kindly (a little too kindly, like I was a child), questioned on my current educational background, age, and country of origin and– I mean, it was OK, I guess. It just felt odd because to them, I was very young and it was fascinating that I would take the time to sit with them (the fascination died down a little when it became apparent I came with my mother… but still.) Now there is nothing wrong with young ladies hanging out with women their mother’s ages, and with young men hanging out with men their grandfather’s ages– tons of wisdom can be acquired, no doubt!- but let’s be fully honest. Young girls and guys, particularly around the ages of 12-18 years old, prefer to learn with people they can relate to. (I know I keep emphasizing the youth here, but I really believe they are the most important segment of society to focus on. Sadly, they are given the least services and the least consideration in decision making.) For the past decade, I have (and still do) attend a girls’ halaqa in Arabic, and subhanAllah, there are bonds formed in such settings where you meet to remember your Lord, and you learn to love one another solely for that, that is precious and impossible to find in a one-time event, no matter how big-scale. This makes me ponder: for girls (and especially boys!) who are unable to find such convenient knowledge settings in the comfort of someone’s home– what are they to do, and how dare the older generations make snide remarks about how corrupt the youth is becoming? It was by sheer luck that my friend’s husband told me about an all-boys’ halaqa at the mosque near my house, of which my 17-year old brother enjoys going to now alhamdulileh; they not only do a relevant lecture/discussion, but then they all either go out for halal fast food or they play a sport. But seriously, what would he be doing Friday nights if there wasn’t that option? For such young people without proper resources and an understanding of religion, what is a mosque to them except as an ‘older people’ thing? What is a mosque to them except a prayer space (which, mind you, is not very inviting if they don’t even do all their prayers on time)?
Why can’t it be a community place for the entire community?
There are so many ways, and some very easy ones, to perk up a masjid’s liveliness and get a wider Muslim community involved. Starting off small and casually with various activities with the simple purpose of having people around the mosque be something normal, and not a one-year phenomenon, even if it is not religion-based- and then hopefully, when halaqas and worthy lectures come up, it won’t be the same older men and women who keep showing up (though they are more than welcome to keep attending, of course!) I am going to list random ideas that I’ve been discussing lately with my sister and, hopefully when I start getting more involved in my mosque in whatever way I can, I will have more fruitful discussions with other people as well.
Some examples in no particular order of importance or urgency, are listed:
SPORTS: if it’s too demanding to organize tournaments, having something as simple as a basketball net in the back of a mosque’s courtyard is a welcoming first start.
GOING DIGITAL: In the modern world, technology is a huge deal. And it is especially convenient to keep people informed of one’s activities, halaqas and any other endeavors. Facebook, Twitter, listserves, and for God’s sake– if you have a website, please keep it UPDATED! And further, if you have an email to be contacted upon, DO CHECK THE EMAIL! I subscribed to a mosque’s newsletter once and checked out their website from its link. I was stunned to see that for this “big” masjid (in comparison with other ones in the area) its website was so outdated and unprofessional, it gave off a very bad first impression of the masjid (if indeed it had been my first impression). Instead, I emailed the mosque, recommending them to update the website and actually send out news on the listserv (I got an automated one every 2 weeks reminding me I am subscribed, but never once has it ever sent me any news. Completely useless). I eventually got tired of the spam and unsubscribed.
COUNSELLING SERVICE: There is so much emphasis by parents on their kids to turn out to be either doctors or engineers, yet other fields that equally matter in creating a healthy flourishing society such as psychologists, artists, electricians, etc, are often ignored. Yet the hard truth is, Muslim families have also problems, and something I’ve heard again and again is- “you shouldn’t speak out; it gives Muslims a bad name”. Well. For all the paranoid people out there, wouldn’t having practicing, knowledgeable, accessible Muslim psychologists be a good thing? Or is it bad in general to admit that some Muslim people also have issues that need to be dealt with? Associating oneself with a perfect religion does not make one perfect. There is nothing wrong with seeking help or advice on a particular issue; and how convenient would it be to have your local mosque provide such a counselling service? You don’t need to be crazy to speak to someone, it can even be seeking advice for careers or what not.
SOCIAL EVENTS: My friend once tried asking my masjid if she could start a mini cooking class. It was nearing Ramadan and she thought it would be neat to try and teach new recipes and desserts– cooking is one of her favorite hobbies. But for whatever reason, be it he did not think such a class fit the “role” of a mosque, or if it was financial reasons– the imam turned down her suggestion. And it made me think, that if something as simple and useful as a cooking class that the young lady herself was willing to organize was deemed not worthy of a mosque’s services– is it no wonder there are never any social events just for Muslims in the community to come and bond with one another?
SPACE FOR KIDS: There are some people who angrily grumble that those who have kids should stay home with them. But do we want to alienate kids from the houses of God and then dump them there first thing at 10 years old to pray an entire set of 10 taraweeh prayers, then expect them to enjoy going to the mosque on their own? I think a space for kids is needed, instead of hushing at them all the time and making them feel unwelcome and annoying. Men perhaps have less of a problem with this, but on the women’s side, it can sometimes be a zoo. I know there is one mosque in the States that actually made a glass-walled, soundproof room for kids; imagine that! You can see your child having fun with the other kids, all the while not disrupting dedicated worshipers. (Double thumbs up!) However, in the more common case in which building a glass room is not feasible, there should be a dedicated day care service for them that is not shaky, such as based only on volunteers that aren’t running on a pre-determined schedule. Basically, they should have a set amount of people to look after the kids, keep them entertained as a top priority– because what I have seen happen is that the “organizer” of the daycare will call up all the single young ladies she knows a day before, and ask her to skip taraweeh the next day to look after the other women’s kids. (Um, no. Ramadan is once a year and I’m not missing taraweeh more than twice a week to look after other peoples’ kids! I already spend my free time looking after my own siblings. Sorry, it’s a no, even if you are offering to pay me.) I hate this tactic because it makes you feel guilty to say no, yet you kick yourself after when you say yes. Solution? Structure the system in advance so that you have a schedule of when willing and dedicated volunteer (OR PAID) babysitters will be looking after the kids. From experience of what I have seen, much of the time people who say yes, do so because they’re asked directly and they feel bad no one else is accepting the task. There needs to be consistency, organization, and pay people if necessary.
MATCHMAKING: I’m personally not a big fan of this, but I know lots of people are in need (and want) this. After all, such a service would at least give men and women who are seeking marriage and know absolutely no one (i.e. perhaps are new to the area or simply never interact) a means to be proactive and find someone. (Gentlemen, we are in Canada. Phone call proposals through your mothers to complete female strangers’ mothers is really… not cool to a lot of people.) You might be thinking, wait– this marriage service already exists, doesn’t it? Sure it does; and there is nothing wrong with having a halal matchmaking service similar to what is already going on in mosques. The trouble with the current ones are, not enough people know about them; and since people don’t go to the mosques on a common basis, it’s really hard being able to gather information on a total stranger that you’re getting to know through it. If a random, well-meaning, overly hopeful woman hadn’t tried getting me to sign up for it in a waiting room once (I politely declined), I honestly would never have known such a service existed in my very own mosque.
LANGUAGE ISSUES: I get it that Arabs speak Arabic, Pakistanis speak Urdu, Persians speak Farsi, etc. I understand (though don’t necessarily appreciate) why masjids are separated based on language. But whatever the languages are, the speakers of those languages are one community, part of one Ummah. Why not have combined events (i.e. iftars by two mosques together, intermosque Quran competitions, pen pal system to gain ideas, sports tournaments, even the matchmaking services, etc)? It seems Muslims have isolated themselves into their own groups, but the newer generations of Muslims here are very often not like their parents. They interact with all and everyone.
I, for example, went to an English school system in which the very few sprinkles of Muslims I knew were Pakistani (because Arabs tended to go to the French system)… so when I went to the Arabic-speaking masjid, did I know anyone? Did I make any lasting friendships there? Besides the Arabs I already knew from my halaqa, no, I did not. If it weren’t for amazing interactions found from the efforts of the MSAs in CEGEP and university, I am not sure who I’d be right now. I think segregating Muslims based on language is very, very destructive. I’ve been to SO MANY Pakistani weddings and parties in which the Salah sisters are almost the only Arabs. The reason? Apparently “you Salah sisters aren’t like other Arabs, you’re not stuck up.” … Excuse me? Yet I’ve heard the same thing coming from some Arabs, that brown people are stuck up! And it always shocks me because I can’t think of any stuck-up Pakistani and Indian friends. PUH-LEASE. Segregating yourselves and trying to find an excuse such as looking down on another group of people, is the definition of stuck-up.
FUS7A ARABIC: Regarding the classical and authentic Arabic dialect… Keep in mind the new generation: Arab youth don’t necessarily understand fus7a. Particularly the ones who grew up in the West and were not exposed to Arabic cartoons and historical Syrian drama TV series. Getting a hang on fus7a Arabic admittedly takes time. I can say by experience, it wasn’t cartoons or Arabic grammar books that taught me fus7a—it was serious studying of the Quran tafsir at my Friday halaqa. I remember in my first few weeks, I felt like I was in a different country and a different culture– the woman is Palestinian, but when she did tafseer, it was in fus7a alright. I eventually got the hang of it, but not so well that I can read absolutely anything in fus7a and immediately understand it. At the same time I am not discouraging fus7a Arabic in mosques—I just think it needs to be flexible, there needs to be a balance. What is the purpose? is the question to keep in mind always. In khutbas, for example, where the purpose is to get a noble message across: going for the more recognized dialect would likely attract the best of both worlds. I remember a few years back, I was almost as clueless as my non-Arab friends when the sheikh talked in fus7a Arabic in the brief break between the taraweeh prayers– yet I had no trouble understanding him when he spoke in Egyptian Arabic dialect (and we’re not even Egyptian! But there are enough Egyptian movies, songs and shows out there to get the hang of it.) So my suggestion is not to neglect fus7a– definitely not!– just keep in mind who the audience is and where the most benefit will be gained.
ACTIVE PARTICIPATION: Is there space for that? How can one get in touch with the people who seem to be “on board”, and how can one join? Who does one contact to get his/her voice heard? These things are not made public, I suppose they must be sought out. At my mosque, there is a physical barrier separating the men and women, so forget access to the sheikh for questions. There are usually 2 much elder women who sort of “are in charge”– but if you can’t find them, because they blend with everyone else, then who hears you? Solution: Have a feedback slot box. Better yet, get a functional listserv, activate that website, check those emails, and when these basic things are done, get that Twitter account and Facebook page rolling!
I can go on and on.
My purpose in this extremely long article is not to point out flaws, but to also suggest solutions. And my proposal of solutions is not so that I may criticize the outcome of their implementation, but I want to somehow be involved in implementing them. I have no idea where to start, though– but inshaAllah I will start soon.
Ok, so I got tired of the show Little Mosque On The Prairie by the 3rd season, but I have to admit- I loved LMOTP’s vision of a mosque. An entire community with all their differences and humorous judgements came together under one masjid roof and learn to love one another for the sake of God. I wish something like this existed in Montreal. And I know this blog post and my futile efforts aren’t going to create it; but it’s a nice ideal to strive for and keep in mind as the bigger picture.
And Allah knows best.