Response to The Mosque in Morgantown

by Salam Al-Marayati

Thank you for sharing the documentary, THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN. The show was not about that mosque but about Asra Nomani, a journalist. It was about Asra Nomani’s quest for peace and justice among Muslims. After viewing it, I am left with the sense that Asra Nomani’s quest is more within herself and not with her community. She needs to conclude what an American Muslim identity means for her.

MPAC’s Edina Lekovic on social change

Her platform for moderate thinking is deficient since it is only comprised of marching in front of and protesting in mosques. Her mission for reform is better served by working with the men and women in the mosques who share the aspiration for reform in the Muslim community. The desire to pray in a mixed gathering, similar to mixed prayers in Mecca, is understandable from a visceral standpoint but not acceptable from the standpoint of one who wants to lead a reform movement. As Edina Lekovic stated in the documentary, the issue of access to mosques, leadership within the Muslim community, and other social issues facing Muslim women are keys to effective reform.

For me, an American Muslim identity means that I am free to practice Islam the way I understand it and what makes sense to me based on the Quran and the authenticated non-controversial tradition of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). “Let there be no coercion in matters of faith” as the Quran mandates in Surah 2, verse 256. If I see or sense compulsion, I have the right to challenge the authority, even and especially the authority of the mosque if they claim that they are speaking the voice of God. Challenging authority is a great American and Islamic tradition. The schools of thought and jurisprudence we find in classical Islamic law today was the product of those who challenged authority of their time and place. There is one mistake Ms. Nomani makes, however. That is, she confuses authority with the mainstream. If one works for reform, then alienating the people who want reform results in bad feelings and chaos. By imposing her approach on others who share her views, Ms. Nomani is undercutting her own objective and isolating herself to become a lonely voice. I empathize with her pain and suffering from her personal trials and tribulations in dealing with challenges facing Muslim women today.

Asra on Literalism

Ms. Nomani points to certain translations of the Quran but fails to see that those translations are either inaccurate or incomplete in understanding the full context of what the verses are based on or what they are trying to promote. One needs to understand that translations of the Quran are just that, translations and are not always taken as the absolute Quranic reference. The translation that calls for disassociating Jews and Christians as “friends,” for example, is not accepted in mainstream Muslim thinking. That translation is misleading since the Quran also allows marriage to Christians and Jews. It is inconceivable for Muslims to marry people but not act friendly to them. Hence, the translation of “awli’aa” is not friends but actually protectors, which alludes to a particular historical point of Muslims who were under siege and the Quran is admonishing them to maintain solidarity in their defense. The verse is dealing with a specific incident, and unless the incident repeats itself, our takeaway from it is to not allow division among Muslims. Otherwise, the following verse is our orientation toward Christians and Jews:

Verily, those who have attained to faith [in this divine write], as well as those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Christians, and the Sabians — all who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds — shall have their reward with their Sustainer; and no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve. (2:62)

The verse that deals with “beating” has always been placed under the difficult verses to understand. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) never struck any person. Some have proposed that the verb “dharaba” has other meanings. I’ll let scholars determine the roots and meanings of the word, but my faith in Islam and my commitment to follow the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) tells me to not tolerate domestic violence nor its justification by extremists in their exploitation of this verse (you may refer to our book, In Pursuit of Justice: The Jurisprudence of Human Rights in Islam).

I also believe that Asra Nomani is quick to call people extremists, similar to those extremists who are quick to label people “infidels” as a practice of what is called “takfir,” i.e. declaring someone a non-believer. Judgmentalism is bad from both the moderate and the militant perspective. However, judgmentalism is worse when it comes from moderates than when it comes from militants because we expect this behavior from militants. Speaking out against injustice is a must, as long as we are clear on what that injustice is. Conservatism and extremism are two different issues. Synagogues that don’t allow women to even enter the main area of the temple or touch the Torah are not extremist synagogues. And Asra does not know whether the people who killed Daniel Pearl pray or not. Based on FBI sting cases of bomb plots, for example, some are drug dealers if not drug addicts, and some are thugs if not petty criminals.

I agree with Asra Nomani that many, including Muslims, do not understand what actually happened at the time of the Prophet in terms of mixed gatherings. I would only ask her to continue searching for the answers and not allow people to use the name of the Prophet or Islam as a license for excluding women in the public affairs of society.

But alas, her work with the community is at an impasse, and she has decided to take a position in Washington, DC, at a non-profit journalism organization. If she produces better journalism, then good for all of us. The work for reform at the community level, however, continues with or without Asra Nomani.


Salam Al-Marayati is Executive Director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a public service agency working for the civil rights of American Muslims, for the integration of Islam into American pluralism, and for a positive, constructive relationship between American Muslims and their representatives. He is a well-known speaker and has written extensively on Islam, human rights, democracy, Middle East politics, the Balkan Crisis and the Transcaucus conflict. He has also been deeply involved in interfaith activities. He served as co-chair of the Interfaith Coalition to Heal Los Angeles, which formed as a result of the Los Angeles uprising in the Summer of 1992. Salam works as an advisor to political, civic and academic institutions seeking to understand the role of Islam and Muslims in America and throughout the world.

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  1. Brittany Huckabee says:

    I am the director of THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN. In evaluating Asra Nomani’s argument regarding literalism and the Quran, I just want to make sure we’re not setting up a straw man. As you’ll see if you watch the video clip included in the essay above, Ms. Nomani is not criticizing the Quran itself or arguing for the accuracy of a literal reading of a certain translation. Rather, she is criticizing those who read these verses literally, and out of context of the Quran’s larger message, in order to justify intolerance and violence. I think she would certainly agree with Mr. Marayati in citing 2:62 as expressive of Islam’s true orientation toward People of the Book.

    Boston, MA

  2. QP says:

    There is a very fine line between conservatism and extremism. Asra Nomani makes a justifiable point because these conservative mosques do teach hate. I am a Muslim and have heard these teachings from the minbar and like Asra, I see those trying to cover their hypocrisy. Those who greet strangers with open arms but privately teach Muslims to not associate with Christians and Jews.

    Asra Nomani has the courage to expose that an intolant form of Islam is being forwarded in these Mosques under the influence of the ISNA Wahhabi network.

  3. Louisa Calyone says:

    If Islam, being the direct word of god, has not been clearly defined after 1400 years, then it’s not about to happen in this century.

    Indeed, Muhammad prophesized that Islam would evolve into 72 sects, but only one would go to Paradise. In trying to define what Islam is, I have concluded that there are probably as many sects as there are Muslims! It would be virtually impossible to come up with a single description..

    Since Islam itself makes the claim that the Qur’an is the direct word of god, that the Sira is Muhammad’s biography and the Hadith is a collection of Muhammad’s traditions, then what more could there be? We have the entire concept of Islam in these three books and if you can’t find your answer there, then there is none.

    I have read several translations of the trilogy and while they do differ, the difference is in semantics that are immaterial. So the only possible way to define Islam is to take it in its literal sense since it is the direct word of god! Who among us would have the audacity of changing even a single word that was god’s word!

    Muhammad himself declared that he was the “perfect” man and that he was to be emulated down to the minutest detail, who would dare to do otherwise?

    As a non-believer I have no choice but to accept that what is in the Qur’an and Hadiths is not negotiable. Since it is the “DIRECT OF GOD”, who am I to assume otherwise. I could, of course, accept Ahmad’s version of Islam. Or Omar’s, or Mohammed’s. But I think I will stay with the original records that have survived 1400 years. That’s good enough for me. It says in the Qur’an that Jews and Christians are apes and pigs and the filthiest of all creatures. That you may kill me if you ask me to convert to Islam and I refuse. And Muhammad did direct you to convert the world to Islam by any means necessary.

    But wait! Are you telling me that these things are not in the Qur’an? That they were misinterpreted? Sorry, that one won’t work. I’m sticking with the Qur’an. Maybe you should read it. It’s quite interesting and has everything from incest to murder!

    Oh and one other thing. I accepted Islam as a religion and I believed it to be a religion until I read that Muhammad told his followers that if they died in jihad, they would enter Paradise where they would lie on silk couches, have flowing water and wine at their disposal, luscious fruits and 72 eternal virgins; unless they required the services of a young boy. They have them in Paradise too.

    Well, you get the point. When I read that, I actually laughed out loud. That is the most infantile tale that even my 7 year old would laugh. So I’m not buying it as a religion. I like to think that I am smarter than that!

    • Abdul-Malik says:

      Salam, I urge you to read or re-read the response of Salam Al-Marayati. What you have read were translations of the Quran and it says that on the front cover. if you were sincerely interested in knowing the meaning of the Quran you must read the ORIGINAL Arabic text and know the true meanings of the words( seeking knowledge can be a trial and a test). When translating from arabic to english the word can sometimes have several meanings. The scholars of these translations understand this and acknowledge the possibility of errors in intrepreting of there translations. Again this is at the front of the book. Another suggestion! reading Hadith of the Prophet(PBUH) before understanding anything about Quran is like writing a novel without understanding the alphabet( you know the novel’s foundation). There are people in this world that study the Hadith of Muhammad(PBUH) for most of there lives and they still have humble DISCUSSIONS on them not to confuse you but you shouldn’t make statements with no evidence. I pray that you continue reading and talk to a person of knowledge if you are sincere with a little more humility and less sarcasm. I have read the Noble Quran numerous times please what chapter and verse in the Quran does it mention Jews and Christians being pigs and whatever else is you said. In Islam we do not say something without presenting clear cut evidence. However I do recall in chapter 2(Al-Baqarah) verse 256 that there will be no complusion in religion that the right path has been distinct from the wrong path. See how easy that was check it out.!

  4. Cathy Walter says:

    Thank you for sharing your honest thoughts on this work and the additional clips from the documentary. I was especially interested in what Edina Lekovic had to say about working with the women community to bring about changes. I feel that education and cooperating with people, with attempts at understanding and not judging are the best ways to work between all sides of issues.
    Thanks! ^_^

  5. Dalia Mahmoud says:

    This is an excellent description of the movie – its motives and its shortcomings. Thanks for the analysis and honest assessment of what we shoudl be focusing on as Muslims.

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