Published at Islamonline.net (now OnIslam.net)
Once upon a time, in a land far far away, begin a large number of stories of mystical lands, past times, of fairytales. These accounts give the impression of something to be sought, to be pursued, to be appreciated. Dream like values, hopes, aspirations. It sums up in my mind the current climate of many mosques around the world: buildings which today reflect neither the intended purpose nor glory of the past. And by glory I am not referring to the marble clad structures that populate many communities today, rather those that met the objectives fulfilling the obligations of the mosque.
Today the Muslim world has over a billion adherents, we constitute at the very least 1/6 of the world’s population with mosques found in almost every land. Yet of these mosques, how many actually meet the standards for a mosque as practiced by Prophet Muhammad.
According to the scholar Zarkashi, the Arab grammarians classify the word masjid as ‘ism makan’ i.e. ‘the name of a location’ as it indicates a place where an action takes place. The word masjid is derived from the root sa-ja-da (to prostrate), meaning, “place of prostration”. While this may be the technical definition, there is a fuller meaning which has been taught to us by the Prophet Muhammad, where he said, “the earth has been made a masjid and a means of purification”. Commenting on this, the scholar Ibn al-Tin observed that previously, for other Prophets, only parts of the earth was made a place of worship (e.g. Churches, Synagogues, etc.), but now the whole earth had become a place of worship as well as a place of purification.
Mosque Before and Now
And this, in my understanding is one of the key purposes of a mosque, the place of prayer: a location that has the respect and integrity to educate, to teach, to even provide a social environment, as well as a facility for the physical prayer. In days gone by the mosque was much, much more. Umm Subayya Khawla bint Qays said that during the time of the Prophet, the Caliphate of Abu Bakr and the beginning of the Caliphate of Umar, the women used to socialize in the mosque. Sometimes they would spin wool, at other times they would work with palm leaves.
We know that the mosque at the time of Prophet Muhammad also included a medical clinic run by one of the female companions, Rufaida, from the tribe of Aslam. In fact, when Saad ibn Muadh was injured at the Battle of the Trenches, he was taken care of in that very clinic. The mosque was not just a place of prayer; it was a place of community cohesion.
Of course today we live in a very different era. With more developed societies, larger populations, the logistics of turning the mosque into a full blown community center may seem less practical. We could perhaps have a smaller medical facility in a mosque but if you want proper medical care you would visit a hospital. Similarly, there may be accommodation for sports or entertainment in parts of a mosque complex, but if you wish to engage in either, economies of scale mean that you attend a facility designed for that purpose. The wider function of the mosque then is not necessarily something that can be applied today, or can it
How can the administrative and financial status of a religious institution affect the independency and the efficiency of this institution?
When in the Mosque, I Hate Being…
Still within this framework is existing the need to adhere at least to the basics of the mosque definition?
Similarly, granting access to women. We as Muslims speak so much about the important role of women, of mothers in raising children and yet we do not even provide access for them in our mosques, contrary to the Prophet Muhammad’s statement where he repeatedly said, “do not forbid your womenfolk from attending the mosques”.
Putting aside the many examples of women praying in the mosques at the time of the Prophet, scholars such as Ibn Qudaymah observed that “the mosque of the Prophet was full of rows of women lining up for prayer”.. With scholars such as Ibn Hajr observing that some women would stay in the mosques for long periods of time, even sleeping in the mosque.
Ibn Qayyim observing that many Muslim women would attend itikaaf with the Prophet in the mosque. With so many clear evidences why is it that so many of our mosques simply do not accommodate the other half of humanity?
At least in the spirit of education many mosques have opened their doors to non-Muslims. London central mosque for example has tours, particularly for school children, to visit the facility. But I do have to wonder how many would go one step further and allow a non-Muslim space in the mosque to pray.
Old Role Missed
I have had, by the Grace of Allah, the good fortune to visit many mosques in many parts of the world. Some have left me with spiritual renewal while others have sucked the life out of me like a leach to a body.
Far too many sermons are pronounced by those whose public speaking abilities are questionable, and far too many imams speak down to the congregation instead of encouraging, motivating and uplifting them. Reading the sermons of Prophet Muhammad I do not see a derogatory, holier than thou tone, I see one of support.
There IS a growing trend to inform the congregation by way of sincere advice, this must be encouraged such that we as a community can leave, for example, the Friday prayer, feeling revitalized and refreshed, not bored, depressed and repulsed, often not understanding the sermon, as is the case at many a mosque.
The mosque began from humble beginnings providing services and a community spirit that echoed the teachings of Islam. From the initial structure of the first mosque built by Prophet Muhammad to the first mosques of early Islam, such as that in Basrah, which was an open space with a fence around it made with reeds, the mosque served and fulfilled many honorable purposes.
Today, while we do have many mosques which provide good facilities we also have many that are beautiful only on the outside with a harsh and at times absurd interpretation of Islam preached therein.
We as a global Muslim community must put aside our generations of cultural interpretation of faith, consider the fuller objective of the mosque and provide facilities that not only accommodate all Muslims irrespective of gender – as they did at the time of the Prophet, without separation or division – but further reflect the true beauty that is preached by Islam. While we as individuals may be ambassadors of Islam, our mosques should be our ambassadorial residences, which are open and welcoming to all.
May we as Muslims pull ourselves out of this darkness when interpreting faith, and seek the glory that is the beauty of Islam. How better to start than by making our mosques the best place to engage, participate and, a space of comfort in which we can all give devotions to our Creator while leaving the fairy tales for the books.