Reading mosque Charity fundraiser: the importance of the mosque
This is a talk I gave in Reading at a ladies’charity function, to raise money for the local community’s mosque renovation:
It an absolute pleasure to be here, I’d like to thank the mosque for giving me this opportunity to join you on such a “fine” British summer’s day…
My first experience of a mosque, as someone new to the faith, was hardly a pleasant one – after walking through the main entrance, I was shooed out of the building confused and a little intimidated, by a shadowy figure who scolded me and told me to use “the back door”, over there, by the garbage bins – NICE. As I walked past the rubbish, holding my nose, I stepped into a window-less room, with a massive, outmoded speaker out of which the imam’s voice was trailing in and out… “and Muslims ….recognise the importance……shirk……haraam….”
I don’t think any of us actually knew what he was talking about – we sat there in the baking hot, sweaty room, probably wishing that he would end this pretty soon so we could escape the baking hot dungeon. As I got up to walk out, I was reprimanded by a young women for wearing trousers – the angels, she informed me, were cursing me…. I can’t say that made me want to return to the mosque, (though I did), it certainly left me with a fairly negative impression of the community. It also meant I assumed, as an outsider, the mosque was “just a place to pray”, hence the lack of importance afforded to basic standards – and that women weren’t terribly welcome in the mosque… a message which would be hammered in, in years to come as I was turned away from other places entirely….
I realise your community here in Reading has been in the process, for several years now, of trying to renovate this mosque and it only takes not having access to one’s own place of worship to realise the real importance of the mosque in our lives, as Muslims. Indeed, ideally, the mosque should be a hub for our community’s activities, for all its members, young and old, women and men. The mosque in its idealised form is a place where the community comes to worship of course, but it is also a place of learning, of socialising, of support, it’s the heart of our community and should reflect the importance of those activities to our lives. One of the first things the early Muslim community did upon migrating to Medina was establish a mosque. Mosques in Islam are not only centers for worship but are also a reflection of the characteristics of Muslim society and its civilization. That’s why when we travel to different countries, we admire the culturally specific manifestations of islamic architecture, the grandiose Blue Mosque, Al Aqsa, the Great Mosque of Córdoba, which all reflect their locality while retaining a central core.
The mosque in theory, ought to be the base and the foundation stone of Muslim society, the point from which the light of knowledge and wisdom should emanate and enlighten the surroundings. When one hears the mosque described in this fashion, it is hard to place a price on the true value of its contribution in our lives. And yet, our mosques have a long way to go. While some may ornate their mosques with expensive chandeliers and thick carpets, these superficial embellishments often masque the far deeper issues confronting them. Autocratic structures, discrimination, racism, lack of access for women, or when there is access, sub-standard conditions, women’s isolation from mosque management, their absence from mosque communities – all of these are unacceptable and un-islamic practises which it is your responsibility to confront and change. In the Medina mosque, men would line up in front and women at the back – they were together, in the same place and women would express their views on all sorts of issues, including political matters. During festivities, women are often kicked out to make more room for the men, leaving the women at home or with no possibility of joining the congregation. You might not think it a big deal that mosque management is almost exclusively a male affair, but this has a serious impact on the mosque’s output – so that the activities, are run in accordance with a specific vision of the role of women – it is in these councils that the real change can and will happen, but it can’t happen without your involvement, nor can it happen without educating yourselves about your role as a human soul on this earth.
We often hear repeated the cliché that a Muslim woman is little more than a glorified womb – but when we see the limitations on female involvement in the real centres of power, mosques, educational establishments, amongst scholars, it starts to ring eerily true. Many women themselves seem to think they should remain within the home, unless there is a “real” reason to be out, forgetting their duty and responsibility to broader society. And yet, history shows us this is not the islamic view of a woman’s participation in either the mosque or society. The Qarawiyin university, the first university in the world, which is linked to a mosque, was established by a woman, Fatima al Firhi. Some of the great scholars in Islam were women and I have to recommend on this topic Shaykh Akram Nadwi’s several tomes on precisely this topic. This is our forgotten legacy and our lacking contribution – it is up to you ladies!
The importance of the mosque is partly premised on the centrality of knowledge in Islam “ilm”, is the Arabic word. In fact, gaining knowledge is an obligation upon all Muslims, male and female and hampering someone from acquiring knowledge about their Deen is a very serious matter indeed. Acquiring knowledge is our right, a basic and vital right, denied to so many. Everyone is required to strive to acquire as much knowledge as they can about their religion and will be accountable before God for their efforts on the path of knowledge.
The Quran could not be more explicit on this point, to know is to gain access to the reading of the signs, both the literary signs in the Quran but also the signs in the world at large. “The pursuit of knowledge is an obligation upon every Muslim man and woman” the Prophet stated in a hadith. To be able to read and write, to find through education, the way to one’s identity and human dignity is essential, primordial. To be Muslim is clearly to “know”, but then one must move to greater knowledge, constantly, never resting on our laurels. So the importance we place on education within our community must reflect the importance God places on it from within our tradition – yet we are very, very far removed from this idea.
We are often willing to spend inordinate amounts of money on clothes, weddings (I hear some need a second mortgage for some weddings), designer handbags, even on several trips to hajj (the obligation is one) – but we resist putting any money in the heart and soul of our community, its mosque.
Too often do I hear women asking the most basic questions – am I allowed to work, can I leave the house – questions which frankly are dehumanising- and then have to rely on the very men, who often have a strong vested interest in the response, to inform them. Educate yourselves ladies- men, like women can and should be teachers, scholars, educators – You can learn half your Deen from Aicha (ra), and this is not exclusive to women – this means, that despite all the cultural taboos, there is absolutely no reason why any one of you couldn’t lead an educational circle, teaching men about religion – of course you can – the best of women in Islam did just that – Imam Shafi was taught by a female teacher – to previous generations, this was as normal as it may seem odd to some now.
Anywhere Islam took hold, mosques were established, and basic instruction began. Once established, such mosques could develop into well-known places of learning, often with hundreds, or thousands of students, and frequently equipped with extensive libraries. The first school connected with a mosque, was set up at Medina in 653, whilst the first one in Damascus dates from 744, and by 900 most mosques had an elementary school for the education of both boys and girls. This follows a tradition long established by prophet Muhammad whose mosque was connected to a building which served as a school and as a hostel for poor students and out-of-towners. Assistance for students in the various mosques was substantial. At the Qarawiyyin, for instance, students were not only exempt from paying fees but were also given monetary allowances periodically. How does this compare when we look at some of our mosques today where some struggle to provide educational classes for kids and often pay the instructors measly sums so that we are left to rely on the good will of individuals – a resource sometimes more scarce than money…
Islam is not about being insular – it is not about staying amongst ourselves – it is about drawing on the values of Islam to try and make the world a better place for everyone. There is no reason why that can’t start in the home – but it certainly can’t end in the home. It starts by nurturing and developing values in yourself, which you then spread to your family, community and then the world more broadly. But you can’t nurture anything without knowledge and I don’t mean learning the Quran by rote in a language which you can’t understand. It is obtaining a deep and profound knowledge of the religion, sharing that to help educate others and helping to use the transformative potential of those values so that they don’t remain under our beautifully decorated domes, but are used to improve our community and society. One day, and hopefully starting with your mosque here, we can move towards the mosque becoming a centre for the whole community, Muslim and non-Muslims. We will have shelter for the homeless, or cook-ups for the elderly, activities for the disabled – Muslim or not – our mosques, need to be places from which the light of islam radiates – this does concretely require an investment of your energy, time and yes, money… so please give generously to help your mosque…