The masjid is an integral part of Islam. It has been recorded that Imam Sadiq (a) said: “You are advised to visit masjids for these are God’s houses on earth.” During the advent of Islam the masjid was the centre of the society. Over time the concept of “masjid” has deviated. In the west, there are many problems which tarnish the image of the masjid. This article will cover the first seven that come to the author’s mind. It is necessary to note that no particular masjid is being attacked. Furthermore, some solutions are brainstormed at the end of each problem.
Problem 1: Adherence to the Status Quo
The status quo refers to the normal masjid programs, e.g. Dua Kumayl on Thursday nights and Friday prayers. The management at many masjids consider success as the status quo being met. Furthermore, they tend to reject implementing anything else. I remember when I was serving at a masjid in the United Kingdom, one group of attendees wanted to attract the non-existing youth to the centre. They came up with the idea of a table-tennis tournament. This would have been great, but the management came and harshly rejected this stating that the masjid is not a place for games. No wonder there are no youth there.
The problem with this outlook is that many social needs of the community get overlooked, such as programs targeting drug use, alcohol, and gambling. Those who are struggling with such issues would not attend a masjid who only provides the status quo ritualistic programming. Rather, they need to be attracted through innovative programs. The only way to solve this is select leaders who have a wider vision than reciting a dua on Thursday night.
Problem 2: The Mother Tongue
Many masjids insist on maintaining a foreign language and hiring a scholar who only speaks the foreign language. This turns the masjid into a cultural centre intended to be a place for elder migrants to recall the good-‘ol-days in their home country.
The problem with this mindset is that people who are not strong in the foreign language will miss out on learning about their religion. Teenagers and young adults will stop attending the masjid and will not have an understanding of their religion. This is dangerous because of the temptations that they face in the western societies on a daily basis. The solution to this problem would be holding English programs and hiring English-speaking scholars who can actually relate to the youth of the community. This should be a no-brainer, but unfortunately its not.
Problem 3: The Subtle Racist
Many of our masjids are dominated by a single race. There are Lebanese masjids, Iraqi masjids, Pakistani masjids, Khoja masjids, Iranian masjids, and so on. What normally happens is that these masjids become exclusive and “others” do not feel welcomed. If a person of another race enters this masjid he won’t be overtly attacked. Rather, he will be given smiles and usually people will treat him nicely. But, the facade of brotherhood will disappear once the brother seeks more from the community than a smile and Islamic programming, such as marriage. I remember, myself being a convert, participating in a question-and-answer session where a sister asked if it was permissible to marry a convert. The Pakistani scholar sitting right next to me said that one should not marry converts as they might leave Islam. Luckily I deceived a Muslim sister long before this event and was already married.
The problem with this mindset is that it leads to the formation of smaller splinter centres catering for small segments of the community in place of larger masjids catering for the entire community. Islam is clearly against racism and any form of cultural segregation. It has been reported that the Prophet (s) said: “O’ Mankind! Surely Allah has removed the pride and conceit that existed within you during the days of Ignorance in relation to your fore-fathers. Surely all of you are from (Prophet) Adam and Adam was (created) from mud. Surely the best servant is the one who has consciousness of Allah.” Lets not bring back and rejoice in something that Allah has removed.
Problem 4: Dentist Management
I am not singling out dentists here, rather this is a term that was coined by a dear scholar in the UK, Sayyid Taqi. What is meant by this term is that our centres are being run by people who are educated in a certain field, but not necessarily educated in Islam, such as a dentist. The problem with this is that there is a good chance many of our centres are being mismanaged due to ignorance about Islamic ideals.
This critique begs the questions: who should be running our masjids? Who is qualified to lead our masjids? There are two options a scholar or non-scholar. The positive aspect of the scholar leading the masjid is that he is aware of Islamic ideals, but the negative aspect might be that he does not have management skills. This is seen in many of our dear scholars who seem to ostracize themselves from the community due to a lack of, let’s say, people-skills. The ideal would be to find a scholar who has management skills. The positive aspect of a non-scholar, assuming he is financially successful, is he is most likely an educated person, but the negative aspects is he doesn’t have a comprehensive understanding of Islam and also might not have management skills. If an ideal scholar is not available the next-best-choice would be to find someone who has a relatively good understanding of Islam and management skills, such as what existed in the first centre that I became a part of as I grew in Islam (props to them).
Problem 5: Power Mongers
There are people in every community that cling to power which they are unwilling to relinquish. This is seen in some centres whose management clings to power despite calls from numerous groups within the community for them to step down. I have seen this lead to the complete abandonment of centres and even boycotting. What happens next is that the centre turns into a family centre catering to a specific group of community members.
This issue can be solved by holding elections for management committees every couple of years. This would enable accountability and would prevent power mongering.
Problem 6: The Lazy Scholar
There are some scholars who lack vision and perform the bare-minimum amount of activities for a centre. These scholars satisfy themselves with performing certain rituals, such as leading prayers and reciting duas. I have seen such scholars repeat speeches over and over again because they can’t be bothered preparing a new lecture.
The problem with this is that the community becomes stagnant and starts condemning all scholars. The community has a bad experience with one or two scholars and thinks that the hundreds of thousands of other scholars must be like these two. Masjids in the west have even more of a problem in that some of the scholars that come to the west are immigrating for financial reasons alone, not to serve the community. This experience then spirals downward until the community members feel there is no need for scholars at all.
The solution to this problem would be to find a scholar who has a vision, and the energy and motivation to actualise this vision. Before hiring a scholar, interview him and ask him what his vision is and how he plans on actualising it. If he says my vision is to recite Dua Kumayl every Thursday and thats it, then think about finding a different scholar.
Problem 7: The Invisible Women
In many of the masjids women are locked away without a voice. They don’t have a voice in the centre and in many cases they are shoved into a seperate hall and forced to watch a video of the speaker during the programs. Many times the video recording doesn’t work or is not loud enough. I have seen this in many centres and women are constantly, and rightfully so, complaining about this.
This problem leads to women missing out on Islamic education. I remember once I attended a masjid who asked me to hold a session with the women. The women said the last time they spoke with a scholar was over five years prior to me. They asked the most basic of questions and after an hour or so, I left. Who knows if they had the chance to ask another scholar after me.
This problem also leads to women feeling like they are second-class citizens at our masjids. This turns into them holding grudges with the religion, due to how the men are treating them. The solution to this would be having women sit in the same hall as men. For the men who want to scream at the screen right now, you can have dividers between the genders blocking their vision from one another. Be creative, but allow the women to be part of the programs. Furthermore, allow women to be represented on the management committee, and not have to rely on a women speaking to the wife of a member of the management with hopes that she will tell him and he will convey the issue to the committee.