The Women’s Mosque & the Obsession with Unity

rt_womens_mosque_1_kb_150204_16x9_992I am delighted to share the news of the first women’s mosque, the first all-women and women-led Friday prayer. I was delighted to share the news with my 8-year old daughter as well. The prayer was held in Los Angeles, so we were unable to attend. At least my daughter knows that there is a space where women give the call to prayer, women deliver the khutbah, and women lead the prayer. I have been waiting, truth be told, to tell my daughter this.

Many Muslims have come out shaking their heads and muttering solemnly about the legality of this prayer. At this time of my life, I really could not care less. I have heard people express themselves with anguish and anger on this subject on both sides, and I am mostly silent.

At the same time, I’ve heard Muslims say they are profoundly upset about Shia and Sunni mosques, about Pakistani, Arab, Persian, Somali, Albanian mosques. Why must we separate? Why, they say, can’t we all pray together?

Why the hell can’t we all take a chill pill and pray separately?

I remember the same Battle of the Salafi-Gulfies vs. the Sorta-Feminists at Bloomington Islamic Center in the mid to late 1990s. Women’s participation in the “MSA” (which was a community organization, really) was abysmal. Somewhere down the line, the community had changed in its demographics, and second generation Muslim Americans as well as the undergrad Muslim population had started attending the mosque. When we, as a newly elected executive committee, raised the issue of splitting into an MSA and a community organization, I heard similar cries of grief and anger. Why are you calling for disunity? Why must be split into two? We have worked this way for so long (“we” was the Salafis and the Gulfies, the male students and the wives, and everyone else just made themselves scarce). Why can’t we continue? Why are you bringing disunity to our ranks?

Guess what. We are not ranks. And praying in different spaces is not a big deal. Ironically, it was the Soldiers of Unity who also called for a complete division of the community down gender lines. The ummah had to be divided into two – the men’s ummah and the women’s ummah. It only intersected when the men needed to eat and to leave a big mess in the mosque.

islamic-sects1When my Shia friend goes for Muharram majalis and my Salafi friend goes to attend al-Maghreb Institute classes, I am very happy to go to a mawlid. We can get together for coffee afterwards. I don’t have to go to Al-Maghreb in order to re-establish unity in the community. It’s really not a big deal.

Plus, folks, have you noticed? – we are a bigger community now. The numbers are so large that in our Champaign-Urbana community, at the historic CIMIC, we have two Friday prayer congregations now. Is that division and disunity? Guess what – when I attend the Friday prayer, I make choices as to which one I attend. Which khateeb is sane and inspiring? Which khateeb makes me furious about his gender-related views?

Denominationalism is right here, folks. Let’s embrace it explicitly.

There is a women’s prayer. You don’t like it? Don’t attend it. You have many choices. The Brelvis in Chicago make you mad? Don’t go to their madrassahs. Go to the Salafi mosque, or the Deobandi mosque, or the Pakistani mosque, or wherever the spirit moves you. It’s no big deal.

This is not tafarraqah or disunity. And we are not ranks arrayed for battle. We are diverse people. Unity is not uniformity. Wa la tafarraqu (and be not disunited) does not ask you to occupy the same spaces but to be united in your hearts. If we hate each other, we are disunited and divided from each other. Geography, workspaces, social class, gender, all divide us already. It’s not a big deal to pray in a different space.

Actually, I’ll go further and say I like you better if I don’t have to pray next to you every Friday and argue about how I’m dressed and how far apart our feet are. I can get along better with you if you find inspiration and comfort in your Friday khutbah and I find inspiration and comfort in mine. Look at it this way: we can be like a couple in a Sleep Number bed. Why do we have to kick and snore and make each other miserable? Why not have optimal spaces for each denomination?

And why not accept that we have denominations? This anxiety, this terror surrounding the words sect and sectarianism is so old. It prevents us from self-understanding and from deeper theological understanding. When I hear someone say “I’m neither Shia nor Sunni nor Wahhabi nor Sufi – I’m just a Muslim,” I roll my eyes with a great rolling. What I hear is not purity, but denial, not knowledge, but ignorance. Remember, we are nations and tribes (and religion and denominations are akin to tribes in many ways, or at least function like tribes), and God made this happen. Division and diversity are an attribute of life. In death, we are all the same.

At the mosque, I often see aunties who don’t really get what the English khutbah is all about. I also see high school kids rolling their eyes at the immigrant khateebs. Is it such a bad thing if the Pakistanis have a Friday prayer so they can listen to a khutbah in Urdu? Is it so terrible if they sell biryani plates afterwards?

Denominationalism allows for a plurality of free associations. It is already here.

I like the women’s prayer. You don’t? Don’t attend it. I don’t like your small, segregated women’s prayer rooms. I won’t be attending your mosque.

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