The story of the Mosque in Morgantown is not a new one. Nor is the issue raised by Asra Nomani regarding women’s space in the Morgantown mosque unique. In fact, it reminded me very much of the mosque in my own community, the American Islamic Association (AIA). Comprised of mostly South Asian immigrant families, attendees of AIA stretch across the religious spectrum, including those labeled as “conservative” and as “progressive”. My parents and I have attended the AIA since our migration to the south suburbs of Chicago, when the mosque was still housed in an old airplane hanger. For years we waited & worked to collect enough money to construct a new building for our beloved mosque.
Finally, at the start of Ramadan in 2005, the new building for the AIA had been constructed — and of us all, my mother was most ecstatic. But upon returning from the mosque’s open house, I sensed my mother was disappointed. The women didn’t have a separate prayer space, she told me. Instead, the prayer sanctuary was one big hall, where men and women would both pray, men in the front rows and women taking up the back ones. But on Muslim holidays, when the number of congregants overflowed the space of main hall, the men would pray in the main hall upstairs and the women would pray in the community room, downstairs in the basement, like so many other mosques across the country. Feelings of disappointment and betrayal rang high amongst the “conservative” women who preferred a segregated space — while the more “progressive” women were excited about having an incorporated space for women in the main prayer hall.
The issue of women’s space in mosques is one that our Muslim American community is still grappling with. The real issue is not about where Muslim women pray, but rather what roles do they play in the space between the prayer hall and the parking lot? The women in the AIA have taken key leadership roles in our community since its inception. They played a lead in making many decisions — whether it was deciding on the Sunday school curricula, the architectural design of our current building, or organizing the annual food drive collected for the Chicago Food Depository. And women in mosques across America are playing similar roles. It is this story of the roles that Muslim American women play in their communities that defines our emerging Muslim American identity.
Dr. Umar F. Abd-Allah, one of America’s leading Muslim scholars and the Nawawi Foundation’s Scholar-in-Residence, addresses the topic of an indigenous Muslim American culture in his essay, Islam and the Cultural Imperative. He begins with a simple metaphor: Islam is a river, a river with crystal clear waters that takes on the color of the bedrock over which it flows. So, in India Islam looks and feels Indian. And in China Islam looks and feels Chinese. In America, this river flows over a mosaic made of many colors — indicative of the ethnic and cultural make up of the Muslims who live here. A recent Gallup report, Muslim Americans: A National Portrait, shows that the Muslim American community is the most racially and ethnically diverse religious community in the United States. With no dominant ethnic majority, the varieties of ritual and cultural practices of the Muslim American community are representative of its diversity.
So what happens when we engage this inherent diversity? Despite the many ethnic and cultural differences that exist within the Muslim American community, any intra-faith conversation will reveal the values shared by most Muslim Americans, indigenous and immigrant alike. Values like service, hospitality, compassion and mercy — all of which connect to our religious and ethnic inheritance, but also connect to our American ideals.
Over the last few decades, as Muslims in the United States have flourished, our mosques have transformed from places of worship into spaces of community. While our mosques have expanded to include Islamic schools, community centers, youth groups, health clinics and more, Muslim American culture has grown alongside those expansions. Despite our differences of where women pray, Muslim women have shouldered equal parts of creativity and responsibility in constructing our community. As we have engaged in our building our community, we have also engaged in building our Muslim American identity. We must continue to act on the values that we share within our mosques and beyond its walls, in our lives as citizens, as Americans, and as Muslims.
Jenan Mohajir is the program associate for the Outreach Education & Training program at the Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that brings together young people from different religious traditions through an emphasis on shared values. Jenan is a frequent speaker at college campuses nationally and trains youth leaders in organizing local interfaith youth service-learning events. Prior to joining IFYC, Jenan was a full-time teacher at the Universal Muslim Day School and worked with the Inner-city Muslim Action Network. She has also volunteered with the Nawawi Foundation since 2001. She is originally from India and grew up in Qatar and the United States.