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.

God, the bearded old man and other thoughts

Moses_Burning-bushYesterday there was a horrific attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices. With the ensuing public discourse on freedom, religion, violence, and of course, pictorial representations, it was an ecumenical sort of day. So during a trip to the public library, I picked up a kids’ picture book about St Francis and St. Clare. My daughter enjoyed it very much, especially the artwork.

Suddenly, she ran up to me, and, wide-eyed, showed me a picture where God was represented. Guess how. Yep. BEARDED MAN.

Personally, I’m not intensely opposed to pictorial representations of e.g., the prophets, angels (though I used to be, when I was younger, and more frightened). But this encounter reminds me of how our mental maps can be shaped by such images and how culturally specific and gendered notions become deeply entangled in theological understandings. Yes, I know, they are ALREADY deeply entangled, but for such minds as children’s, there are levels and layers of entanglement.

People have to decide on their own how to proceed vis-a-vis imaginings of the Infinite (and, for instance, pictorial representations of the Prophet) but people will also keep trying to
convert others to their thoughts of the Infinite, as in Rumi’s story of Moses and the Shepherd (link to The Islamic Monthly). Moses overhears the shepherd singing in the intensity of his love:

“‘O God! O Lord!’ he heard this shepherd say,
‘Where do you live that I might serve you there?
I’d mend your battered shoes and comb your hair,
And wash your clothes , and kill the lice and fleas,
And serve you milk to sip from when you please;
I’d kiss your little hand, and rub your feet,
And sweep your bedroom clean and keep it neat …'”

godMoses, of course, corrects the shepherd for his theologically inaccurate talk about the Divine. When he next speaks to God, Moses is reprimanded for turning his loving shepherd away. God tells Moses that each person has her own manner of prayer and devotion even though one person’s prayer may seem blasphemous to the other. God is untouched by any person’s blasphemy, and God is not made any more great by a person’s devotions.

“‘I know when men’s hearts have humility,
Even if they should speak too haughtily. ‘
The heart’s the essence, words are mere effects:
The heart’s what matters, hot air He rejects.
I’m tired of fancy terms and metaphors;
I want a soul which burns so much it roars!”

(Excerpt from Rumi, The Masnavi: Book Two, translated by Juwid Mojaddedi, Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford University Press (for July 2007), vv. 1724-1800), via The Islamic Monthly.)

‘Koonj’ in the scholarly literature

I am tickled pink to find recognition of ‘Koonj’ in The Encyclopedia of Diversity in Education. And from the amazing Sunaina Maira, no less!Maira

I don’t know why scholarly recognition of my blog Koonj is especially heartening to me. I feel like my heart and soul got acknowledged by academe, – when typically, we academics work overtime to pretend we have only brains and our hearts are irrelevant to our professional lives.

The etiquette of public spaces (e.g. movie theaters)

movie-theater-audienceTo the middle-aged woman in a MOM sweatshirt sitting next to me during my long-awaited viewing of ‘The Battle of the Five Armies:’

Ma’am, I’m guessing you were there for your second viewing. Only this can explain the way you started reacting to dramatic moments just before they took place. Come to think of it, I’m not sure why you were there in the first place. When Galadriel grew dark with mighty magical power, you burst into uncontrollable giggles. When Oakenshield battled for his life toward the end, you broke into snorts of laughter. And why? Were you amused by how unrealistic the movie was? It’s a bloody fantasy. There’s CGI. There’s dwarves and orcs. For next time, allow me to recommend an independent movie, or maybe a rom-com where you can guffaw to your heart’s content.
Because the thing with movie theaters is, they are public places. You share them with people. You share them with hard-working fantasy fans, parents of young children who have been waiting for weeks and maybe months for this opportunity to watch – yes, a movie about a hobbit and elves. So if you are entertained by the death of a beloved character in a movie, how about keeping it to yourself? Or here’s a suggestion: wait for the DVD. Watch it in your living room and scream for hilarity if you wish. But in a movie theater, you are sharing space with me. I am paying for the dramatic pause, the suspense, the wonderment of theater. In movie theaters, there is a certain etiquette: generally, people watch silently. They gasp at times, and at times they jump and spill popcorn, but this applies mostly to horror movies. Sometimes people laugh, and this is usually in comedies.

If you are inspired by a source of amusement different from the majority of viewers, perhaps keep it down, as you would control the volume of belches and farts in public. To do otherwise is the equivalent of chewing loudly and getting into an argument over religious polemics in a restaurant. It is inconsiderate. It is narcissistic. As I tell my elementary-aged child, there are other people in the world. In a collective entertainment setting, we are individuals who balance our personal enjoyment with our consideration and awareness of the other individuals. This entails a degree of social awareness. If my 8-year old can keep her comments to an inaudible whisper, surely you, a middle-aged woman with teenaged kids in tow, can do likewise. This means being considerate and respectful of people who want to cry at the death of an imaginary character, and experience the solemn awe of imaginary magic. That’s why we’re there – to escape into imaginary experiences. And your blasted loud snorts of laughter destroyed my escape. You owe me $7.

Public school ‘holiday’ celebrations

1-Riverview High choirs holiday concert 2011 WEBMy 8 year old asks me if I will attend the Holiday Celebration at her public school. “Of course I will.”

She asks me nervously, “You’re not mad that I’ll be singing about Christmas?”
This is the struggle of working toward becoming part of the discourse, of indigenizing minority faiths into Pluribus. The holiday celebration at her school which is, of course, in December, features a good deal of Christmasy elements, some Hanukkah, and some Kwanzaa as well. They have been rehearsing songs about Hanukkah, Santa, and Kwanzaa this year. She has begun to notice the curricular and extracurricular silence on Eid, Ramadan, and Hajj. What about Diwali and Holi? Nope, not them either. The school is living in demographics of the past, when the city, located in a college town, has large numbers of East Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern, and other populations. The school library, she tells me, is displaying books about the holidays, and nothing about Muslim holidays.
inclusionUncertainly, she says such things as “I want to be reflected in the school,” and “It makes it hard for kids to believe in their own things.” She is too young, at times, to distinguish between various layers of identity, and mixes up “faith” and “country.” But she knows something is missing. Sometimes she’s just excited about singing about Santa in front of the whole school.

She also knows she doesn’t want to complain about the absence too loudly. She doesn’t want to be a misfit. I ask her if she’d like to perform a song about Eid. She seems embarrassed at the idea. My East coast American husband is uncomfortable with the idea of being too strident vis-a-vis the issue. He doesn’t like talking about his religion or his feelings in public. He doesn’t like the idea of coming across as demanding and entitled – because we are a minority, of course. And I am an immigrant from a Muslim-majority nation and sometimes, it is hard for me to wait for crumbs. Also, I immigrated to a country where the legal framework does include me, so why should I self-silence? My husband says we need to come up with a perfectly secular suggestion – a secular song about Eid or giving or Ramadan? Ideas, anyone? – that would be acceptable to the school, and in the absence of such a suggestion, perhaps we should just wait.

Waiting is hard. My 8-year old is growing up and I don’t want her to think of herself as always on the sidelines of the collective, 1387540681001-DFP-Santa-Claus-DearJPGnever ‘reflected’ as she puts it. I want her to think of herself as a part of the collectivenot apart from it. I want her to sing songs about Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Chinese New Year, Diwali, and Eid with her friends. I want this to be something that grows out of the school, not something that we raise as an Issue, a Problem. If/when Eid is incorporated into the Holiday Celebration – well, I cringe also at the prospect of the Islamophobia.

We Muslim Americans are a youngish minority demographic. We are still working on American cultural products that grow out of our communities. Even our mosques and Sunday Schools are struggling with the issue of indigenization. This will shift enormously, of course, over the next ten to twenty years, as US-raised Muslims will take on the tasks of Muslim community programming.

Christmas has had long enough – apart from being a majority celebration – to become cultural. I hear some of my White non-religious friends say they celebrate Christmas as a cultural holiday. What is lost in that rationalization is that many of these non-Christians were raised within Christian families and heritage, and over time, the religious associations with Christmas faded into culture. Muslims are still seen as a purely religious group, people who have religiosity in their DNA. Due to Huntingtonian notions of civilizational clash, both Muslims and non-Muslims fall prey to this essentializing of Muslims as a religious-and-not-cultural group. Christians and Jews are seen as having the capacity of secularity. As an immigrant from a Muslim-majority nation, I know we have secularity enow in our heritage, but we are always too busy playing Representatives of Islam.

47487296_first_amendment_1_26_12_xlargeNot to mention, we need secular-Muslim cultural products that will, like Santa’s on his way, Burn Little CandlesOh Kwanzaa, easily slide through the church-state separation grille without clogging things up.

Also, I ask our district representatives the question, must the holidays in the Holiday Celebration be limited to December holidays? How about making it a truly inclusive Holiday Celebration?

The civil rights discourse I am using makes my kid a little nervous. She wonders if it’s about hostility, competitiveness, enmity. The discourse of inclusion can have that effect sometimes. So what do you do – overlook it all, swallow itvonnegut meekly because you should be a loving and humble person of faith? What about the invisibility of your children in public discourse? It’s not healthy. Silence breeds the germs of hostility. I want to practice advocacy and inclusive discourse that is gracious, warm, and pluralistic to all.

“Of course I’m not angry,” I explain gently. “I do want them to reflect Eid too. I don’t want you to feel like you’re not reflected at school. But that doesn’t mean I’ll be mad about Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa. They’re all our friends and we will sing songs about Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa. Some day, at school, they’ll sing songs that include all of us, and you.”

She seems relieved. I’m glad we got that out in the open. I’m waiting to hear from the school district. I’m really hoping I hear back from them. We need to get moving with this business.

Update: Here and here are a couple of songs in English. The district got back to me with the invitation to contact the school and discuss how to make it more inclusive.