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Don’t Call It a Mosque

How young American Muslims are forging new intentional communities. by Tasbeeh Herwees

April 16, 2015

If you had told me, five or 10 years ago, that in the near future I’d find myself standing among an all-female Muslim congregation in a former synagogue-turned-multifaith space in East Los Angeles, I would have had trouble believing you. Five years ago, the idea of a women-only mosque seemed like an impossibility—the kind of project that would suffer far harsher criticism than it was worth.

But just last month, I prayed my Friday prayers as the California sunlight streamed in through stained-glass windows bearing the Star of David, standing side by side with other Muslim women from all over Los Angeles County. Edina Lekovic, a representative from the Muslim Public Affairs Council and a prominent public figure in the local Muslim community, offered the Women’s Mosque of America its inaugural sermon, or “khutbah,” standing at a podium between two banners bearing the name of God and his Prophet, Mohammad.

“Today is not a departure from our tradition as Muslim women,” said Lekovic in her address. “It’s a continuation of the proud legacy of Muslim women, throughout 14-plus centuries, who have participated in the spiritual life of their communities at all stages and in all places—inside of their mosques, inside of their homes, and in their broader societies—as scholars, as teachers, as leaders, and, fundamentally, as partners.”

Conspicuously, no men were present for the sermon. No men were present for the prayer. And after we concluded our supplications to God, we formed a circle and discussed the Friday khutbah. No men were present for that either.

Five years ago, an effort of this nature might have produced more outrage from the less open-minded ranks of the Muslim community. But on this day, the Women’s Mosque of America opened its L.A. doors to great fanfare from a celebratory press and only a few murmurs of demurral from objectors. Even critics were forced to acknowledge, in asterisks and parentheticals, that although they perhaps may disagree with the intrinsic idea of the Women’s Mosque, the surfacing desire for change evidently emerges out of a desperate need in the Muslim community for improved women’s spaces, which has been highlighted in recent years by blogs like Side Entrance, Muslimah Media Watch, and in the documentary, UnMosqued. Throughout these outlets, Muslim-American women repeatedly testify to insufficient resources for women’s programming; small, cramped women’s spaces; lack of needed childcare for mosque-attending mothers; and a predominantly male-dominated mosque leadership. American mosques are by no means monolithic, but many are guilty of these deficiencies.

When speaking about the undertaking, the founders of the Women’s Mosque of America—two young Muslim women, Hasna Maznavi, 29, and Sana Muttalib, 31, plus nine men and women board members—are deliberate with their choice of words. The Women’s Mosque isn’t here to replace any of the more than 2,000 traditional mosques that already exist across the United States. Instead, it is an alternative space. It is a complementary Muslim space. But although it’s called a “mosque,” it has no physical structure, and its members only congregate for Friday prayers once a month, rather than once a week. You can call it a “third place,” but it’s really part of something more—an intentional community.

UnMosqued and the Call For “Third Places”

In 2013, an online trailer for UnMosqued began circulating around within American Muslim communities. The trailer for the documentary described, through interview clips, the phenomena of young Muslims “unmosquing”—leaving their mosques because they began to feel marginalized or alienated by their Muslim community. Muslims borrowed the term from their Christian-American predecessors, who have coined the word “unchurching” to describe how, due to the emerging trends toward secularization, young Christians in the United States are gradually moving away from organized religion.

The documentary, upon its release in 2014, spurred a nationwide debate among Muslims about the existing social conditions and their relevance to the waning of American mosques. Interviewing Muslim leaders and mosque-goers in New York, New Jersey, Tennessee, as well as other parts of the country, the documentarians point to the marginalization of women, ethnocentrism, and inadequate youth programming as primary weaknesses of American mosques and, consequently, see these as crucial catalysts for unmosquing.

Yet, the overarching problem is that leadership in many mosques is having difficulty communicating with an extremely diverse American community—one that encompasses immigrants from majority-Muslim countries and elsewhere in the world, the black American Muslims who preceded them, and an ever-increasing population of converts. But even beyond these issues, American mosques have had trouble addressing the concerns and interests of young Muslims. As issues of social justice become increasingly popular topics of debate within mainstream American society, American Muslims, in their post-9/11 predicament, find themselves, more than ever, personally invested in these conversations. Despite these pressing issues, however, Mosque leaders, are still trying to figure out how to talk about both God and racism during the Friday sermon.

“[There is] strong recognition that the establishment of the mosque at this point is not changing fast enough to address the realities that young Muslim Americans are facing,” says Maryam Amirebrahimi, a Bay Area-based Islamic scholar-in-training and activist. In particular, points out Amirebrahimi, mosques find themselves ill-equipped to handle questions about sexuality and gender, especially from a generation that is well-versed in the language of progressive politics. “”Who are you going to talk to?” she says. “There are some [mosques] that provide an imam or maybe a mentor, but, on a weekly basis, what are the sermons about? The types of programs that are provided, they’re catered to a very specific person, a very specific kind of family.”

Using statistics from a 2011 report by University of Kentucky Islamic Studies professor Ihsan Bagby, UnMosqued posited that although the number of mosques in the United States had increased over the years, the congregational numbers per mosque were in decline. The UnMosqued documentarians interpreted these numbers as signifying that Muslims were leaving the mosque, but even the study notes that this decline in per-mosque attendance had more to do with the rising number of mosques than it did with Muslims leaving them.

A 2012 Pew research poll, however, shed clearer light on the state of Muslim religious commitment in the United States. The report found that although 69 percent of U.S. Muslims found religion to be “very important,” only 47 percent attended a mosque on a regular basis. American Muslims, it appears, cling to a Muslim identity, even when they may no longer pray with regularity nor attend a mosque each Friday.

In the wake of UnMosqued’s release, the phrase “third place” became part of the common vocabulary of Muslims in U.S. mosques as well as those at Muslim institutions and Islamic conferences across the United States. The concept is borrowed from an American sociologist named Ray Oldenburg, who wrote in his book, The Great Good Place, that America was losing its traditional third places—coffee shops, bookstores, diners, and other “informal gathering” spaces.

There is strong recognition that the establishment of the mosque at this point is not changing fast enough to address the realities that young Muslim Americans are facing

“Though a radically different kind of setting for a home, the third place is remarkably similar to a good home in the psychological comfort and support that it extends,” wrote Oldenburg. “They are the heart of a community’s social vitality, the grassroots of democracy, but sadly, they constitute a diminishing aspect of the American social landscape.”

For a while, when Muslim Americans referred to a “third place,” they were often speaking about the mosque. But in recent years, as the institutional and systemic weaknesses of American mosques became increasingly apparent, they began searching for alternative gathering spaces. Today, any discussion of American Muslim third places inevitably makes mention of the Ta’leef Collective, an Islamic “semi-sacred” space in Fremont, Calif., founded in 2005 by Imam Usama Canon and Mustafa Davis. It was originally conceived as a transitional space for recent converts to Islam, particularly those who did not yet feel at home in their local mosques—maybe the sermons were delivered in a language they themselves didn’t speak, or the mosque did not have the resources to accommodate these newcomers. In a video produced by the Ta’leef Collective in 2012, Canon used the “third place” idiom to describe the work they were doing in Northern California.

“When you take a third place and you attach to that third place a semi-sacred place, that’s something very very beautiful,” he said in the video. “That’s a big part of what we’re doing here at Ta’leef, is creating alternative social spaces where people can go and totally be themselves and not have the expectations that they may typically think they’re supposed to live up to when it came to, for example, the mosque.”

An Intentional Community in Fremont, Calif.

The Ta’leef Collective is surrounded by a set of nondescript office buildings in Silicon Valley—in fact, you can barely even see the building’s blink-and-you-might-miss-it entrance off Osgood Road. When I walked in for the first time on a Sunday evening, I was greeted by an iconic photograph of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., both men smiling brightly and shaking each other’s hands. To my left lay the entrance to Oudimentary, Canon’s coffee and incense business whose operation shares a space with Ta’leef.

Although the center hosts a number of programs, including religious and meditation classes, barbecues, and social events, its weekly sermon is not held on the traditional Friday, but rather on Sunday night, just after Muslims conclude their ritualistic sunset prayers. In a hall in the back of the building, Canon sits at the front of the room, directly above this invisible line denoting the separation of women’s and men’s respective spaces. The room, which smells strongly of Oudimentary incense, starts to vibrate with a quiet buzz of anticipation as the cameraman positioned at the back, who is live-streaming the sermon for an online audience, counts down to zero.

Ta’leef has two locations: one in the Bay Area, and another in Chicago. Canon travels between the two centers, delivering sermons and facilitating programming. Although in the beginning its mission was to be a comprehensive support center for converts to Islam, Ta’leef has since acquired a broader community, one that not only includes those who have come to feel marginalized at the mosque, but also those who are looking for complementary services that the mosque cannot provide, often for a lack of resources.

“It’s really important to understand that Ta’leef is not the anti-anything,” says Canon, the next day in his office. “It wasn’t so much established as a response to something that existed or didn’t exist in the Muslim community. Nor was it set up as the anti-anything. It’s really important to note that.”

Usama Canon delivers a sermon at the Ta’leef Collective. Photo courtesy of the Ta’leef Collective.

If Canon sounds a little uneasy, that’s because he has become wary of how people perceive Ta’leef, especially when its function is juxtaposed against that served by the local mosque. In particular, Canon is concerned that people might mistake Ta’leef as a full-fledged replacement for the traditional house of worship—an alternative mosque for all those who increasingly felt like outcasts and misfits within the Muslim community. And because the term “third place” indicates a single unit, the phrasing inadvertently implies this kind of logic. But there is enough room in most communities for more than one third place. As such, Canon has started using a new expression to describe this multifaceted approach to religious community building, a phrase that makes room for both the mosque and the Ta’leef collective: “intentional community.”

“Where does community really begin? In the home,” says Canon. “If you want to talk about intentional community, there’s also got to be conversations about familial wellness and spousal wellness and intergenerational exchange and mental health and spiritual health and socioeconomic wellness.”

The concept of “intentional community” entered the common parlance of American civic life back in the 60s and 70s. The revolutionary spirit of those eras ushered in a demand for new holistic practices brought about by the then emerging alternative lifestyles. Communes, collectives, and co-ops offered Americans opportunities to forge new communities outside of the rigid, conservative structures deeply embedded within American society. They were organized not around geographical proximities but rather around shared beliefs. They were not always spiritual in nature, but certainly many of these new communities were inspired and informed by Eastern religions and New Age spirituality, which were in vogue at the time.

If the American mosques have failed in providing the kinds of structural supports typically found in a religious commune or even a secular co-op, it’s not for lack of trying. Many mosques have attempted to launch new amenities from within their existing institutions. They’ve built out schools and have attempted to offer different social services. The Muslim Community Association in Santa Clara for example, offers exercise classes and runs a legal clinic. But MCA is exceptional in this regard. Most mosques don’t have the money—even if, as MCA does, they asked people for donations—or manpower to run these kinds of programs. These sorts of efforts, also, may fall short of a particular community’s needs. Sometimes the problem is a lack of resources, while other times it’s that the mosque leadership doesn’t actually understand the community’s needs. If a young kid struggling with depression walks into an imam’s office looking for advice, he or she may not receive the kind of guidance needed. That’s not the imam’s fault, necessarily—they’re just not equipped with the knowledge to deal with these kinds of specific problems.

“I think we need to be remosqued and not unmosqued,” says Canon. “There needs to be a very, very real conversation around reform as it pertains to the governance, the fiduciary responsibility, the leadership ... and the type of space and programming that is made for our sisters and for children.”

There are conversations happening, and sometimes they’re happening inside the mosques themselves, or within panels during annual Islamic conferences, or even at organizational boardroom meetings. UnMosqued certainly compelled a more critical debate concerning the evident need for reform. But it is largely online that Muslim Americans have found ways to connect with each other that were previously denied to them and, as a result, some of the most prolific conversations are happening on the web.

Virtual Mosques and Tumblr Imams

I was at a Muslim student’s conference at the University of California, Davis, a few years ago when my sister, 16 years old at the time, told me she was going to see someone named Osama Eisa speak. He would be talking about Islam and politics and how the two aligned in a lecture titled “Islamitics.” “Who is he?” I asked my sister—I’d never heard of him.

“He’s the Tumblr imam,” she said.

I knew who she was talking about. Eisa runs Party ‘til Fajr, a popular Islamic Tumblr, where he takes questions from young Muslims and inquisitive others (“Fajr” refers to the morning prayers, which happen at sunrise each day). Eisa, who is studying Islamic law at Georgetown University and regularly delivers sermons at his own local mosque, travels around the country visiting Muslim Students’ Associations and speaking at Islamic conferences. He gained notoriety for his Tumblr, a place where he regularly fields questions on a variety of topics, ranging from eyebrow threading, to vegetarianism, to doubts of faith, and mental health, answering queries with both a pages-long proof of Islamic scripture and a dose of wry humor. Tumblr users tend to be younger , and particularly because questions can be posted anonymously, the platform is especially useful for an age group who is often reticent when it comes to personal topics.

In his answers and in his lectures, Eisa makes current cultural references with ease while frequently deploying GIFs. He represents a growing online presence of Muslim American leadership trying to reach out to those Muslims who have either left the mosque or don’t live near enough one to be able to regularly attend it.

“I think the problem is there are very few Islamic speakers who are able to speak in an authentic vernacular,” says Eisa. But he’s not willing to place the blame entirely on Islamic institutions. Islam in America, he says, has become a consumable product and young Muslims are only willing to buy what they want to hear. Sure, young Muslims are leaving the mosque. But they should instead stick around and try to change things, he says. “The reality is that the mosque is for everyone. The [Muslim community] has to be a collective environment. It has to be. You have to be in a room with people who disagree with you,” says Eisa.

The need for online spaces, however, grows. Amirebrahimi works for VirtualMosque.com, an online forum established by Imam Suhaib Webb, a popular American Muslim leader who is currently a resident scholar at Make Space, “an inclusive, relevant and transparently-managed hub for the Washington Metropolitan area Muslim community.” Amirebrahimi says that people who do stick around often find it difficult to work within the institutional barriers of the mosque. A lot of the weaknesses of the American mosques are entrenched in their very DNA—some mosques, for example, still have standing by-laws that forbid women from joining the board of directors. These kinds of problems are difficult to combat when you’re one person standing alone against a decades-old establishment that’s unwilling to change.

The reality is that the mosque is for everyone. The [Muslim community] has to be a collective environment. It has to be. You have to be in a room with people who disagree with you

“There are people... who have tried to work within the system of the mosque and have consistently found there is so much push back to be able to create those needed changes,” Amirebrahimi says. “At the same time, they’re finding their friends leaving the mosque completely.”

Amirebrahimi, who on her Twitter profile describes herself as a “ninja” and a “social justice educator,” is a popular and dynamic speaker on the Islamic conference circuit—but it’s online where she thrives. Her Facebook statuses, which feature parables from her own life, often include lessons about economic justice and calls for anti-sexism, and garner thousands of likes and shares. People also often reach out to her with personal questions about mental health and spiritual well-being.

“People who are messaging me are individuals who live places where there is a [mosque], but their imam doesn’t speak English, or their imam does speak English but doesn’t really understand the reality of what it’s like to go to high school or go to college or grow up in the United States,” says Amirebrahimi.

All the while, even more intentional spaces are opening up online to accommodate the intensifying concerns of young American Muslims—among them is the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative, co-founded by Margari Aziza Hill and Namira Islam, and Mipsterz, a social community and forum targeting young “Muslim hipsters,” whose interests skew toward contemporary arts and progressive politics. Social media has also offered Muslim leaders new channels for communicating to their younger congregations as well as opened platforms allowing two-way discourses. Omar Suleiman, for example, a scholar and imam at Texas’ Valley Ranch Islamic Center, boasts a Facebook audience of 663,965 people. His Facebook posts are explicitly political, and he doesn’t hesitate to speak on issues pertaining to sexism or racism when the occasion permits it—even when doing so points to injustices within the Muslim community itself. One of his sermons posted on YouTube, titled “The End of Racism,” has an ever-rising view count currently peaking at 24,780.

All of these examples represent different interests and needs in the Muslim community, but they all emerged out of a failure of traditional Islamic institutions to address them. In the process, these progressive trends are attempting to change the ways in which American Muslims conceptualize religious practice and faith worship.

“Islam … is not just something that is excluded to prayer and these acts of worship. Critical race theory, that’s a worship of god,” says Amirebrahimi. “Being able to understand the plights in different communities and then allying ourselves with them, those are all manifestations of worshipping God.”

Congregants of the Women's Mosque of America reflect on and discuss the Friday sermon. Photo by Mahin Ibrahim.

A Mosque for Women, by Women

The first Women’s Mosque prayer exemplified some of the negotiations happening within third places. Your typical afternoon prayer consists of four parts each of which is called a “rak’ah,” (plural: “rak’at”) but a Friday congregational prayer (“Jum’ah”) consists of a sermon plus two rak’at. The sermon basically accounts for half the prayer. If you don’t listen to the sermon, you’ve got to pray the full set of four rak’at. After Lekovic’s first sermon, she told the crowd they had two options: they could pray the Jum’ah prayer of two rak’at, or they could wait, and pray the full four. The latter option, she said, was open to those who didn’t believe that it was permissible for a woman to deliver the Friday sermon. This compromise is part of Muttalib and Maznavi’s effort to make the Women’s Mosque an all-inclusive place, even in the face of those who may fundamentally disagree with the notion of a women-led Jum’ah.

“Really, this has turned into a beautiful opportunity for us to stand by our pluralistic ground rules,” says Maznavi. “We really are trying to change the culture of the American mosque while also providing a safe space for women to come and try our new roles, different roles that they normally wouldn’t be comfortable trying in a different mosque.”

And so, a woman sounded the call to prayer. Another woman led the prayer. And then after, all the women sat in a circle and discussed the sermon—a practice I’d never seen before in any mosque or Islamic space. These kinds of approaches can sometimes imbue the Women’s Mosque with an air of experimentation, but the truth is that these actions draw their inspiration from pre-existing women-led Islamic institutions around the world. Maznavi cites the mosques she’s seen in her travels to Iran and Turkey, not to mention that China has also been home to women’s mosques for more than a decade, and notably there is a women-led mosque in Amsterdam as well. Reaching further back in Islamic history, there are myriad examples of female Muslim leadership.

“This was created as a celebration, a very positive celebration, of the history of Muslim women’s involvement in Islam from a very early era,” says Maznavi.

They’re not here to replace the mosque, says Maznavi. Like Canon, she rejects the idea that it’s a choice between one or the other. The Women’s Mosque of America, for now, provides a space for Muslim women that they may not have elsewhere—in both their Muslim and local communities. It’s a service that functions not in lieu of but in conjunction with the pre-existing spaces. The hope is that change will happen laterally—as Muslim women navigate between the Women’s Mosque and their local mosque, they will be vehicles for the necessary changes needing to take place within American mosques. Maznavi imagines, in the near future, forthcoming chapters of Women’s Mosque registering all over the United States, whereby women will be empowered to take leadership roles in their local mosques as well. Maznavi doesn’t use the term “intentional community,” but her vision certainly has the spirit of one. Already, Maznavi and Muttalib have been invited to lead a gender equality committee under the Islamic Society of North America, one of the major Muslim-American bodies in the United States.

“It’s not just about empowering women, it’s about empowering women for the sake of the Muslim community,” says Maznavi. “My vision is for a worldwide Islamic renaissance that is shaped by Muslim women’s voices, perspective, participation, scholarship, and leadership. That really is the overarching goal for me.”

Hero photo by Alexa Pilato.

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Don’t Call It a Mosque How young American Muslims are forging new intentional communities.