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Monday, December 06, 2004

Flight From the Masjid

By Imam Zaid Shakir

“In houses which Allah has permitted to be raised up, that His Name may
be remembered therein. In them He is glorified, morning and evening.”

One of the noblest and most beneficial institutions in the history of
humanity has been the Masjid (Mosque). It was in the Masjid that the
great scholars of Islam were first shaped: linguists, jurists,
theologians, saints, and countless devout worshippers. The Masjid has produced men
and women who have left an indelible mark on the world. It was around
the Masjid that the great universities, hospitals, observatories,
hostels, and the other institutions that became the hallmarks of the great
Islamic civilizational enterprise appeared. The Masjid has always been
the heart of the Islamic community, serving as a house of worship, an
educational center, a center for the dispensing of valuable social
services, a meeting place, and a place of solace and refuge.

Unfortunately, today in America, we find many Muslims who have either
left, or were never fully involved in the life of the Masjid. There are
many reasons for this regrettable situation. The purpose of this
article is to examine some of those reasons, and to suggest some measures
that may prove beneficial in overcoming them.

One of the greatest causes of the flight from the Masjid is ignorance.
This ignorance begins with a lack of knowledge concerning the very word
itself. If asked, how many Muslims would be able to define “Masjid,”
linguistically and legally? This may seem a trivial point, however, the
meaning of the word is intrinsically associated with its principal
function. If we were all more cognizant of the primary function of the
Masjid, we would possibly be more careful to avoid some of the questionable
practices, which commonly occur in them. Many of those practices, as we
will seek to explain in this article, are instrumental in the flight
from the Masjid.

The word “Masjid,” in Arabic, is a place noun that means the place of
prostration. This particular noun has also been related as “Masjad.”
Al-Razi mentions in Mukhtar al-Sihah:

…and Masjad, with an “a” after the “j”, is the forehead of the man, in
the sense that the trace of his prostration is visible on it.” [2]

Legally, “Masjid” means any place of Earth where a Muslim establishes
prayer. The proof of this definition is the prophetic tradition:

“…The Earth has been made a place of prayer (Masjid) for me, and pure.
Therefore, any man from my community who is overtaken by the time of
prayer, let him pray [wherever he may be]. [3]

This facilitation is among the distinctions given to our community.
Qadi ‘Iyadh notes, in this regard

The believers before us would only pray in demarcated areas whose
purity was ascertained. We have been distinguished by being able to pray
anywhere on Earth, except in those areas whose filthiness has been
ascertained. [4]

The word “Masjid” has then been conventionally applied to a specific
place that has been consecrated to accommodate the five daily prayers.
Other places where prayer may occur, such as a prayer room (Musalla), or
a monastery (Ribat), or a religious school, are not given the same
legal status of the Masjid. [5]

Knowing this, we should never lose sight of the fact that the primary
function of the Masjid is to accommodate prayer, and by extension other
acts of worship. We should strive in our communities to make the Masjid
appealing to the worshippers, regardless of their organizational
affiliations. This involves keeping out all unnecessary distractions,
beautifying the Masjid to make it a place conducive to spiritual devotion, and
keeping it clean to minimize the appearance of foul odors, insects
associated with filth, and vermin. All of these things, when present,
diminish the quality of spiritual reflection in ones devotional acts.

Many people fail to realize how important these points are for
converts. Many converts are turned away from the Masjids because of the
confusion and repulsive physical condition that characterizes many of them.
Converts from other religious traditions are leaving houses of worship,
which are the epitome of cleanliness, order, and serenity. One would be
hard pressed to find a church or synagogue with food smudged into the
carpets, overflowing trash cans inside the premises, devotional
literature piled willy-nilly on the bookshelves, filthy bathrooms, and worship
services disturbed by roving bands of unruly, undisciplined children.
After encountering such situations in many Masjids, some converts simply
choose to stay home.

Another reason behind the flight from the Masjid is the way they have
been politicized. Almighty God clearly declares in the Qur’an:

“And the Masjids are for Almighty God, therefore call on no one along
with God.” [6]

This politicizing leads to a sectarianism that tears at the unity of
our communities. One of the functions of the Masjid is the unification of
the believers. This unifying function can be gathered from reflecting
on the description Allah gives of Masjid al-Dirar, a Masjid the
believers have been commanded to never stand in:

“There are those who build a Masjid by way of mischief and unbelief, in
order to disunite the believers…” [7]

One of the liguistic implications of this verse is that an acceptable
Masjid is one that unifies the believers. That unity is based on a
communion fostered by the shared devotion of the believers in the Masjid.
Conflicting political agendas tear at the very heart of that unity. In
many instances, those conflicting agendas become associated with
particular Masjids. We frequently hear terms such as a Salafi Masjid, an
Ikhwani Masjid, a Sufi Masjid, and other such aberrations. Although the
orientations that form the basis of these appellations may have great
benefit for their individual adherents, when they become exclusionary
appendages affixed to the Masjid, they can be extremely alienating. This is
one of the factors pushing many people away from the House of Allah.

This politicizing of the Masjid sometimes leads to excessive arguing
and disputation. In many cases, heated disputes among the defenders of
varying interpretations of Islam, repulses many Muslims. This is
especially true in the case of converts from Christianity, who were attracted
to Islam because of its clarity, and the unity of its theology. Muslims
in this category are extremely idealistic. Nothing shatters that
idealism like sectarian bickering.

Many so-called “modernist” or “secularized” Muslims are similarly
repulsed by sectarianism. Such individuals, who sometimes see the Masjid as
a bastion of “narrow-minded” fundamentalists, who have acclimated to
the bureaucratic, administrative, and managerial processes which define
modern Western society, are easily frustrated in their efforts to become
involved in the activities and running of the Masjid. Excessive
arguing, administrative and managerial ineptitude, and uninspiring programs
try the patience of many individuals who fall into this category.

Multitudes of Muslims women, here in the West, are working in every
conceivable field of endeavor. We find among our Muslim sisters; doctors,
lawyers, managers, administrators, professors, teachers, and talented,
efficient homemakers. Many of them approach the Masjid seeking to use
their myriad talents to enhance the programs and running of the Masjid.
In too many instances they find the doors of involvement slammed in
their faces, many times by men who themselves have neither the time nor
the expertise to make a meaningful contribution to the efficient running
of the Masjid. As a result, many of our Masjids are “dead”
institutions. Confronted with this situation, many of our sisters choose not to
involve themselves in the life of the Masjid.

Many of our youth are also blocked from any effective involvement in
the affairs of the Masjid, even if they are highly motivated religiously.
They gain the impression that they have to wait for the “uncles” to die
before they can have any say in the running of the Masjid. Others, who
may not be as religiously committed, drift away from the Masjid because
there are no viable classes or programs to keep their interest.

Finally, in many areas, where the percentage of African American or
Hispanic converts is too small to support the creation of a Masjid in
their respective communities, there is a perception of a subtle racism
which keeps them away from any meaningful leadership role in the existing
“immigrant” Masjids. In many instances, the failure to even acknowledge
the existence of any friction between various racial and ethnic groups
only alienates indigenous Muslims all the more, leading to a slow
attrition process that results in their gradual migration from the Masjid.

Overcoming the flight from the Masjid will require a concerted effort
on the part of us all, leaders and laity. Below, we list some practical
measures that will allow us to enhance the viability of our Masjids,
and hopefully arrest the flight from them

Education. Community leaders will have to endeavor to create and
maintain viable education programs that will help to overcome the general
lack of knowledge concerning the role of the Masjid and its associated
rulings. This process of education is also the responsibility of the
laity. Each individual Muslim has to work to enhance his or her
understanding of the centrality of the Masjid in the life of the Muslim community,
and then make a commitment to become involved in the life of this
indispensable institution.
Avoiding Sectarian Politics. No one disputes the role of politics in
Islam. Similarly, Islamic movements and groups have their part to play in
the revival of the Ummah. However, the Masjid is neither the place for
political organizing and recruiting, nor sectarian pontification. The
Masjid is the House of Allah, consecrated for His worship. Every other
function is secondary. Our homes, schools, campuses, offices,
institutes, and meeting halls provide ample platforms for us to present our
particular views concerning politics and society. The political neutrality
of the Masjid must be maintained. By so doing, perhaps our enhanced
communion will put more love between our hearts, and this will go a long
ways towards ultimately strengthening the Ummah. It should be noted that
what is being condemned here is not the discussion of political issues
which are of import to all Muslims, rather using the Masjid as a
platform to advance sectarian political agendas.
Openness. The Masjids are for Allah. We should consciously work to
foster an open atmosphere in the Masjid, an atmosphere that is inviting to
all; men, women, youth, conservatives, modernists, converts, everyone.
If we all commit ourselves to the creation of such an atmosphere, will
bring it about. It is essential to remind ourselves that the collective
“we” is weightier than the individual “me” in Islam. On the Day of
Judgment when all of the people are concerned with themselves, our Noble
Prophet, Peace and Blessings of Almighty God be upon Him, will be
concerned with the entire community, he will be crying out, “Ummati, Ummati,”
(my community, my community).
Cleanliness. As the old adage goes, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.”
Our Masjids should be a living embodiment of this saying. If we
describe them as the “Houses of Allah,” we should make every effort to keep
them clean and to beautify them. It is a shame that many Muslims maintain
immaculate residences, but pay scant attention to the cleanliness of
the Masjid. If our edifices are aesthetically appealing, their innate
attractiveness alone will encourage their visitation.
A final point we wish to mention is the need to understand the
religious stature of the Masjid and the virtue of worship in it. We are all
familiar with the fact that the congregational prayer in the Masjid is
twenty-seven times more virtuous when performed in the Masjid. [8] A great
reward is also promised to those who sit in the Masjid between the
congregational prayers. [9] Similarly, both the Tarawih prayers, and the
prophetic tradition of ‘Itikaf encourage all Muslims, male and female, to
involve themselves in the life of the Masjid during the blessed month
of Ramadan. The Noble Prophet, Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon him,
has reminded us that among the people shaded by Allah in the shade of
His Throne on the Day of Judgment will be a believer whose heart is
attached to the Masjid. [10] All of these reminders should be sufficient to
endear the Masjid to us, and to encourage us to frequent it regardless
of problems that may be plaguing it.

If we can reflect on these reminders, and take the steps we have
outlined in this article, perhaps we will be able to arrest the flight from
the Masjid. If we succeed, we can ensure that the Masjid assumes its
rightful place as the center of our communal life.

Imam Zaid Shakir
New Haven, CT
[1] Al-Qur’an 24:36.

[2] Muhammad Abu Bakr al-Razi, Mukhtar al-Sihah (Beirut, Lebanon:
Maktabatu Lubnan, 1985), p. 121.

[3] Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqilani, Fath al-Bari: Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari
(Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Salaam, 1997), vol. 1, p. 565, #335.

[4] Quoted in Muhammad ibn ‘Abdullah al-Zarkashi, ‘Ilam al-Sajid bi
Ahkam al-Masajid (Cairo, Egypt: Wizara al-Awqaf, 1996), p. 27.

[5] Ibid. p. 28.

[6] Al-Qur’an 72:18.

[7] Al-Qur’an 9:107.

[8] Al-Bukhari #618, Muslim #650.

[9] Quoted in Imam Abu Zakariyya al-Nawawi, Riyadh al-Salihin,
(Damascus, Syria: Dar al-Ma’mun li al-Turath, 1994), p. 342, #1065.

[10] Al-Nawawi, p. 155, #376.


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