My Love-Hate Relationship with the Mosque Environment Part I


Lectures that Kill

This post comes after a recent lecture that I attended during Ramadan, where a fellow convert used his previous Christian experience to justify Islam and tell us that “we, and only we, are the real thing and we are God’s true believers.” I also attended this lecture right after a group of fundamentalist Christians put out a sandwich board in the street that read: “A present for our Muslim friends.” The group harassed my friend and I through our way to the mosque by telling us to listen to the “true” message that Jesus Christ had brought along… they called us “God’s haters.”

When I became a Muslim, I saw the mosque as a second home.  I did not have the opportunity to be there every day because I had to commute for over an hour, and I was working full-time while in school. Yet, I made every effort to attend every Friday at maghreb time. As a convert, I was thrilled by the warm reception I received from other women in the community. I also saw going to the mosque as a way to help out those who had welcomed me into the religion.

Unfortunately, I slowly became disenchanted with a number of situations that appeared during my visits to the mosque. One of them was the issue of Islāmic lectures. When I first joined the mosque, we had an outstanding lady that would lecture on topics relevant to women in the mosque. She was an orthodox Muslim, but she was not going to get caught in the simplicity of “being Islamic.” She was a strong leader and a woman who brought forward questions that were sometimes uncomfortable; however, most of us left the lectures feeling that we had learned something or that we had an opinion on a certain issue, at least.  Sadly, this lady had to move on (the good ones always do), and she ended up teaching in a very prestigious institution. However, things went downhill in my mosque after she left.

Something I have noticed in North America is that mosques will, often times, bring someone unqualified to deliver a lecture. As long as he (mostly) has a beard and dresses “Islamically” he is in… the same with the ladies; hijabs and abaayas work miracles. While I am not implying that people should not have access to the podium (because I believe everyone should have a chance), I do think that we should choose the right person for the right lecture. However, gender biases and mosque politics (and example here) often contribute to the selection of a new lecturer.

 The second lecturer we got in my mosque was a younger lady who had an obsession with saying that a “woman’s nature” was such and such… She would spend hours saying that a woman’s nature is (and should be) to be quiet, shy, modest, pious, good-tempered, sweet, etc… Yes, some agreed, but some others were confused about the message. The lecturer dedicated important lecture time to dismiss any questions by telling us “that is (or is not) ladylike.”

Eventually, when the women showed that they were displeased with the new lady (after such a great lecturer), the mosque’s solution was to bring up the mosque’s Imam/Sheikh. Being an older gentleman, I highly doubt that the sheikh was ready to deal with a group of more than 30 women on a weekly basis. He was nervous about answering questions on divorce, family and gender violence, women’s health, etc. I don’t blame him! These are topics that tend to be sensitive across gender lines or that are simply brushed off.

On the other hand, he was all up for telling women to wear their hijabs and participate in the mosque events by cooking and cleaning.  His idea of participation was not only quite gendered but also very antiquate. Whereas some women were not surprised, many converts and Western-born Muslims were not impressed. However, being a sheikh, no one dared to challenge his lack of sensitivity in this field. But again, it was difficult to blame the women… after all no one wanted to go through the awkward moment of telling the sheikh that he was doing a poor job in answering questions about breasts, periods and pregnancies, among others.

After few lectures, I was concerned with the content and skeptical about spending such an amount of time “learning” things I did not agree with, so I thought it was perhaps time to try Juma’a. But that was another challenge. The common mentality that just because a woman (in some people’s opinion) is not required to attend Friday prayer she should not go, was an issue because the men would be discontent with the surprising amount of women attending (sometimes over 200). Thus, the imam, several times, kindly suggested to the sisters to “stay and pray at home” and “spend the afternoon with the little ones.” This did not only discourage me (especially after an hour bus ride), but also seemed foolish to send home a bunch of very motivated Muslim women. Despite the fact that some Muslims agree that it is not mandatory for women to attend, I doubt that earlier Muslim leaders caring for women’s place in society would have shut down women’s initiative to participate in the community.

In addition, the khutba was rarely better than that. My mosque has a very active dawah committee. This committee is in charge of “promoting Islam”, and they often encourage others to bring friends and family for the sake of “understanding.” Converts (or reverts as they are often called), are usually called to the stand and deliver khutba regardless of their qualifications. The majority of these converts also happen to be men. The long beards and the white robes work every time!

The word “understanding” is often quite loaded in my community. “Understanding” does not mean that we, as Muslims, will see your (Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, etc.) point of view… it often means that you must see ours. Coming from a very varied religious background, I often felt ashamed when a convert was in the stand speaking of interfaith “understanding”. They did not only make emotional and visceral claims (such as “Christians are misled and we should bring them back”) but they will also be a source of hate rather than understanding. The words “sin” “Christian” “Jewish” “killer” and “betrayal” were often in the same sentence. I would just look around and see few Christians or believers from other religions, being confused by such an attack.

As a convert I felt hurt… not because I do not believe in Islam, but because I believe that Islam is a path to promote friendship and positive interactions. While religious groups often behave in the same way (i.e. fundamentalist Christian groups, Zionist Jewish, conservative Sikh groups…), I initially saw my mosque as a place where people made an effort to understand across religious lines. However, as many things, my community in a tiny-industrial-in-the-middle-of-nowhere Albertan city plays along political and cultural divides and calls it “religion.” 

13 thoughts on “My Love-Hate Relationship with the Mosque Environment Part I

  1. spinoza says:

    I enjoyed reading this post. It’s interesting to try to understand how a Western woman can find something positive in Islam.
    I have indeed tried my hardest to understand how my convert (male) friend can rationalise his (relatively) new belief, but have always stumbled when faced with the fact that Allah has prepared an eternity of excruciating agony for those who (like me) have heard the message, read the Qu’ran and still found it impossible to believe that a merciful God would torture a large proportion of His creation for all time.
    In addition the teachings regarding those who are gay, bi-sexual or trans are quite frankly insulting and upsetting.
    You are obviously an intelligent and educated woman- how do explain these questions to yourself?

    • Eren Arruna Cervantes says:

      Hello Spinoza. I became a Muslim because I saw in Islam something “transcendental”. While I understand that it can be difficult sometimes to look at religious sources and see some good in it, particularly in a heavily secularized and so-called scientific environment like the Wests, I think you need to go a bit beyond yourself to be able to realize that Islam is not monolithic. Just as you find the Islamists preaching particular ideas, you have a number of groups countering them. You can check my Islamic resources page. There are a number of sources that are an example of these non-main stream groups. You can find LGTBQ Muslim groups, women rights groups, progressive ones, etc. Islam itself does not torture people…. we, the community, do….

      • spinoza says:

        Hello Eren, Surely the environment in which we live should have no bearing upon whether something is morally wrong or not. The fact that Muhammad cursed effeminate men and masculine women and told his followers to banish them from their houses* is inexcusable, particularly as his actions and saying are emulated by millions around the world who regard him as the best human ever.
        I would be interested to learn how Muslim LGBT groups square the circle of having to regard Muhammad as a moral leader whilst accepting that he obviously regarded people like them as despicable.
        With regard to torture, you haven’t answered my question about Allah promising to burn the skin off the backs for an eternity of those of us who regard such threats as unworthy of a merciful, omniscient creator…( not to mention the torturing of babies and children of the unbelievers whom Allah in his wisdom has decreed will be judged on the lives they didn’t live if they die before adulthood**)
        Please don’t discount these references but do do your own research and then ask yourself if you are happy worshiping such a deity.

        *related in the sahih hadith of Bukhari.
        ** again related in the shahih hadith

      • Eren Arruna Cervantes says:

        The issue with taking information out of hadiths is that there where over 60,000 fake hadiths by the time Bukhari performed his research and we must have 20 times more fake hadiths nowadays. Although hadiths are very important for many Muslims, some Muslim scholars have warned against using them as the main source of information.

        When it comes to issues of homosexuality, yes, most orthodox Muslims will tell you it is a sin. However, Scott Kugle has an excellent book that analyzes issues of hadith and sunnah when it comes to the issue, just to conclude that effeminate men and masculine women had a place in Muslim society. I would recommend you look into it http://www.amazon.ca/Homosexuality-Islam-Islamic-Reflection-Transgender/dp/1851687017

        When it comes to torture, we have to differentiate between earthly torture and the divine message. There is no torturing of children in the divine message as we consider that all children and babies go to heaven directly. Now, the way I see it is that Islam was meant to be progressive. Take as an example slavery. Slavery was part of the Islamic world (and some would argue that it still is), just like it was in many other religions and cultures. Yet, it was not meant to last forever. Children of slaves were born free, slaves could be freed by masters, slaves could marry non-slaves, etc. Thus, slavery should have been ideally abolished. And today I don’t think any reputable Muslim scholar would defend it. It was the same for many other issues. Although many would disagree with me, issues of death penalty and physical punishment were meant to work in a particular time and setting when they were widely spread and accepted. Nonetheless, they were meant to evolve as society developed new concepts of humanism. Islam also brought those along. The recognition of women’s humanity and equality was a huge step. The recognition of children as a primordial part of society (not only males), and even the inclusion of Muslim slaves into the political sphere were meant to open up for a new progressive society. However, like in any other religion and culture, unfortunately we rely on human subjects to interpret revelation. Thus, many things have failed. From my position, I believe that the original message can be re-interpreted and is not static. It should be read contextually rather than traditionally.

  2. Spinoza says:

    Hi Eren,
    Thanks for taking the time to reply.
    With regard to the reliability of the hadith, I’m well aware of the difficulty of authenticity. That is why the science of hadith is so well developed and complex in Sunni Islam, isn’t it. (btw, I take it you are Sunni). As you are no doubt are aware, Sunnis MUST believe in the sahih hadith of Bukhari and Islam (they are the two whose authenticity is regarded beyond doubt). Hence whenever I refer to a hadith in discussions with my Muslim friend, I only ever refer to those two.
    The idea that Allah allows Muslim children who die before adulthood to go straight to Heaven is accepted (and at least is an advance on the despicable Christian doctrine of original sin and that appalling idea of limbo (which the Pope decided didn’t in fact exist only as recently as 1902 – thus begging the question: were all the previous Popes NOT infallible, then???) What Bukhari reports is Muhammad’s answer to the question about non-believers’ children who die. Here is how a Muslim Q&A site reports it:
    “But in the Hereafter his (the child of the non-believer) case is referred to Allaah. It was narrated in a saheeh report that when the Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) was asked about the children of the mushrikeen he said: “Allaah knows best what they would have done.” Narrated by al-Bukhaari, 1384.”
    Hence, all Sunni Muslims have to believe that Allah, in his wisdom, has decreed that while Muslim children go direct to Paradise, those of the unbelievers will be judged on a life they didn’t live!
    I find your point regarding taking the instructions contained in the Qur’an (and hadith) in their historico-societal context surprising. I thought the whole point about Islam was that the Qur’an was regarded as the uncreated word of God. If we can pick and choose and decide to ignore those rules we regard as cruel, inhumane or (dare I say it?) wrong, then you are surely putting human judgement above that of God (which of course, as an atheist, I think is great!) My Muslim friend would certainly be very disapproving of you ;-).
    Anyway, I shall read your links with interest and let you know what i think (if you’re still interested!)

    • Eren Arruna Cervantes says:

      Well… I am not a Sunni or a Shia or a Sufi…. I don’t think categorizations help the Muslim experience. For me the division is irrelevant. Now, there is a big difference between following sunnah and hadiths and not questioning them contextually.
      For me it is not a matter of picking and choosing… although I think many people would call it that way (so let it be). There are many ways in which one can connect to the divine and none of them are exactly the same. Any Muslim who tells you otherwise is probably not very aware of diversity within Islam.
      The hadith that you cite above is unfamiliar for me. I have never heard it and I would be interested to read about the isnad (chain of transmitters). The way I see things is that although Bukhari devoted his life to find the true meaning of Islam through hadiths, he was a product of his own time and was biased by his own research method (he considered prayer an inherent part of the search for truth). For me hadith is something we need to treat carefully, and in my academic work I try to avoid it. If we are Muslims and believe in the Qur’an, hadith won’t add or take away much. Nonetheless, this is not an orthodox opinion, and yes, probably your friend would be very disappointed. The unfortunate part of today’s Islam is that despite the fact that classical scholars were more open, perhaps even progressive, and less dogmatic, we have decided to part from them and become as close minded as the papacy in Catholicism (of course, this is not an orthodox opinion either).
      I understand where you come from as an atheist because I grew up as one and my family are atheists too. But just a piece of advice… open your mind to other spiritual experiences… I know it is hard, but atheists can be as dogmatic, incorrect and conservative as fundamentalist religious groups. Similarly, we kill, sentence, invade and make war in the name of atheism and secularism, and not because of that we call you “wrong and inhumane.”
      It is all about transcending our own boundaries to realize the other’s humanity and their particular ways to connect with the divine.

      P.S. Another thing to consider is that Islam is composed by many sources. Some are allegorical and some are meant to be literal. This can help you distinguish in matters of Qur’an and hadith.
      P.S.2. I would be careful with translations. Me myself have heavily relied on translations only to realize that meanings are not completely transferable to English.
      P.S.3. The issues with hadith a very broad. Fatima Mernissi in her book the Veil and the Male Elite makes reference to this. She also points at a very interesting source. When people, after the death of the prophet, were narrating hadith they made mistakes. Aisha, one of the prophet’s wives, made corrections to all the mis-reported hadiths. Only one Turkish scholar was able to collect Aisha’s interpretations. This is an example of how the community started breaking apart in theological and political matters.

      • Muslim says:

        Hi

        I will attempt a reply at the two issues Spinoza finds problematic.

        The first is that the deceased children of non-Muslims will be judged by Allah for a life they never led. The hadith from Sahih Bukhari indicates that th Prophet said ‘Allah knows best’. This is a common reply the prophet gave when he
        did not have a divinely inspired answer. As everything he claimed is believed by Muslims to be truthful, he would not give an answer from his own thoughts on any issue which required divine knowledge. Against this uncertainty
        one must weigh the fact that one of the most fundamental attributes of Allah is that he is ‘Aadil’ meaning he is infinitely just. This automatically implies that Allah is incapable of injustice. This is also the reason
        Muslims believe in a day of judgement, when every ounce of world injustice will be recompensed by Allah. Hence one understands that Allah will treat the deceased children of non-Muslims with adequate justice.

        Second issue of non-Muslims being tortured by hellfire: This is a question I face often from non-Muslims, and it baffles me why they ask it. If you do not believe in something, why do you take exception to a condition
        that is implied by not believing in that thing?

        Anyway, human intellect is wonderful in that sometimes if something cannot be explained by logic it can still be explained by example or allegory!

        Take a hypothetical situation where a human creates a ‘universe’ wherein he creates robotic beings with need and wants, and he also fulfills those needs and wants. In addition, he gives these beings the capacity
        to comprehend and understand him and assigns them the task of recognising him as a means of evaluating each being’s validity. The basic requirement he places on these robots is that in the very least they
        accept and acknowledge their creators existence. Now if some of these beings do not, does the human not have a right to punish these robots as he sees fit? Will the human not expect his creation to understand the
        feeling of betrayal (from not recognising their creater) if these robots are capable of this feeling?

        Absoultely everything (physical, emotional and intellectual) that every human ever has/feels, has had/felt or will have/feel is directly from Allah, so what right does a human have against recgnising Him?

      • Spinoza says:

        I’ve tried to read the book you recommended but it’s not available on-line (and I’m afraid I’m too mean to shell out on the real thing!)
        I’m intrigued that you don’t consider yourself a Sunni (or Shia etc) and that you are thus not constrained to believe the hadiths. It must be a relief not to have to believe that Heaven consists of 90ft magically rejuvenating virgins or that the devil lives in your nostrils (two more Bukhaari hadith). If you don’t follow the hadith, then are you not what is termed a Qur’anist? That’s to say someone who follows the Qur’an but ignores the sayings and actions of the Prophet?

      • Eren Arruna Cervantes says:

        Well, first of all it is not about “not believing in hadith.” As much as I can believe in them the reality is that Qur’an is the primary source and if Qur’an and hadith contradict each other then Qur’an remains primary. I do go back to hadiths once in a while because for the rest of my community they are an important source. However, I am very careful to look at them. Last time you mentioned “picking and choosing.” I think we all do, from the most orthodox scholars to the less practicing Muslims. In terms of being a Qur’anist, I think this is an interesting term but can also pose problems… perhaps even similar to those posed by “fundamentalist Christians and the infalible bible.” I believe in Qur’an and I believe it transcends time and the particular contexts where it is often interpreted. As much as other Muslims would want to keep interpretations the way they were at the time of the prophet, I think Qur’an was meant to be progressive and interpreted and reinterpreted in a variety of contexts. Finally, about the labels, do not forget that Shi’as and Sufis still follow the prophet’s commands, his example and the ahadith. Yet, there are a lot of differences. As anything, I strive for the powerful example that Muhammad represents for me. However, I do not think that everyone’s path closer to God is the same….

  3. Spinoza says:

    @Muslim (August 10)
    Hi Muslim,
    Why do you find it difficult to understand non-believers’ concerns over a large proportion of humanity (1.6 billion Muslims at last count, I think) firmly believing that the rest of humanity over 5 billion souls, will be roasted for an eternity? We don’t believe it for one minute. But we find it disturbing, to say the least, that so many apparently rational and intelligent people are happy to worship a deity who does such appallingly sadistic things. Can you not understand out concerns? For if you are happy to worship a deity of such mind-blowing cruelty, then that in turn says something about you, doesn’t it? About how you view non-believers for a start…
    Personally, I can’t conceive, nor would I want to, the agony of being burned for an hour, let alone for an eternity. And yet you are happy not just to accept that your God inflicts this torture on countless people whose only fault is not to believe in such a sadistic creation, but to worship Him as (and this really gets me) “the most merciful of all who are merciful”!
    Your analogy of robots is interesting since it takes away the horror of torturing people. But let’s stick with a similar analogy. I create a world of little creatures. I then ensure the world is full of clues to strongly suggest that I DIDN’T create it, such a fossils, evolution theory, etc etc and I make sure that my message to the little creatures is in a language only a small minority of them can understand. I then sadistically torture any of the little creatures who use the intelligence that i gave them to question my existence. What do you think that says about me?

    • Eren Arruna Cervantes says:

      First, I do not believe that 75% of humanity will be damned. If you do a bit of research on the concept of “hell” in Islam, you would realize that it is a very complex theological term that presents ideas of time and space. The second thing is that calling our beliefs “sadistic” leaves no room for discussion, for which I assume that you are just discussing with me to insult me. Anyhow, versions of a jealous god, or revengeful one can be found all over the place. Islam is not the only religion that presents such a side for a deity. Christianity does it, Judaism is particularly strong in this and it is also present in Hinduism and indigenous religions.
      Yet, God in Islam is not here to torture anyone. I do not even know where you come from with the word “torture.” Islam recognizes other religion and it has heroes that are very well-respected without being Muslims, such as one of Muhammad’s uncles who was his protector and helper nonetheless not a Muslim. At this point, I can see that you go by the looks of whatever is presented to you in the media or your particular circle. Yet, Islam, and religion in general is very diverse. Just as atheism you can find righteous people and non-righteous one, you can find liberal and conservatives, terrorists and non-terrorists… Thus, I think that before you come forward with further questions you should be open to get answers. You may disagree, but judging my beliefs based on yours does not take us anywhere. If your aim is to discredit our religion in our eyes, then I wish you good luck. I do not try to change your beliefs because that would be foolish from me. However, I though you where looking for deeper understanding.

      • Muslim says:

        @ Spinoza

        While I understand your concerns of God ‘torturing’ people with hellfire, I will ask to re-evaluate your understanding of the relationships between a creator and his creation.

        Note that never did I say that every non-believer will be roasted! The Qur’an says the ‘Kafirs’ and Munafiqs (hypocrites) will be sent to the hellfire. If you do your research, you will note that the definition of a Kafir/Munafiq is the one who knows and understands Islam, yet despite this, rejects it. It does not encompass people who

        a) Did not receive the message of Islam and are hence ignorant of it, due to them being born/living in a time/place where a prophet or messenger did not reach them.
        b) Mentally challenged individuals
        c) Minors
        d) People who did not receive the message of Islam in its true and correct form (this one is very relevant in this day and age)

        Noting the above, all 5 billion+ non-Muslims of today are certainly not Kafirs! As I said before, Allah is infinitely just and will judge these individuals according to his wisdom.

        As for the punishment itself, note again that Allah, being infinitely just, cannot inflict a punishment more severe than deserving of the crime. The Qur’an also serves as a warning to mankind, and one must understand that Allah’s choice of words in the Qur’an, e.g. ‘hell-fire’ or ‘burn’, are meant to have an emotional impact (which they are apparently having, on you!) so that one understand the implications of disbelief.

        You seem to imply that there is a lot of scientific or empirical evidence that a ‘God’ DID NOT create the universe. I disagree, I am a scientist and engineer and I have studied this matter in detail, finding that there IS a lot of evidence suggesting creation. The very fact that every single tenet of science is based on a so-called ‘law of conservation’ (of mass, energy, space, time, charge, etc.) the whole of modern technological society is designed on and runs on the principle that the matter of the universe cannot create or reproduce itself. This automatically implies that some higher power, Who is NOT governed by the laws of physics, is responsible for the creation of the material universe.

        Besides that, note that nowhere does the Qur’an explicitly refute evolution in the animal kingdom, and some have even interpreted verses of the Qur’an to actually support it. Similarly, some see the Qur’an as advocating for the Big Bang theory, space travel, etc.

        @ Eren

        The idea of a jealous Allah or a vengeful Allah, is my view, does not exist in Islam. Allah has on many occasions, in the Qur’an, made it expressly clear that Allah is not in need of us, our worship or even our belief. He also make it quite obvious that he is free to forgive any he pleases and punish any he pleases, yet his forgiveness exceeds his anger. The notion that Allah can be vengeful for us not worshiping Him is, again in my view, there to make it easier for us humans to rationalize why we need to worship Him (i.e. the fact that we owe Him everything i life)

        As for your views on Hadith, I must say that whilst I agree with many of your concerns over the source, nature and role of Hadith is Islam, I am a strong advocate of Hadith for the following reasons:

        a) Without Hadith, the finer details of Islam (How to pray), etc, will not be available

        b) Hadith gives us a fascinating/inspiring look into how the Prophet (pbuh) and his companions went about their daily lives. We see that they are just as human as us, and have fears, hopes, aspirations and imperfections like you and me. This I feel makes it easier to relate to the practical aspects of Islam.

        c) Most importantly, the Qur’an instructs us to obey the prophet and that can only be done with reference to Hadith

        Hope I conveyed something useful.

      • Spinoza says:

        My comment was not directed at you, Eren – hence my prefacing it with @Muslim. I appreciate that you have a liberal interpretation of the texts and interpret the verses referring to hell in a less literal way than the majority of Muslims. Nonetheless, those who DO believe that those verses refer to a real place, where Allah will spend eternity burning the skin off the backs of sinners only to replace them so he can start all over again etc etc. surely believe in something that can only be described as sadistic.You HAVE read the verses to which I am referring, have you? If we read them literally then there is NO doubt that Allah delights in threatening his creation with the most appallingly sadistic torture one can imagine. I therefore make no apology for using the word. How would you describe such actions? Hence my use of the word torture comes from the Qur’an. Allah will torture sinners most Muslims believe; there is no other word for it.
        I, in turn, am insulted that you suggest I get my information about Islam solely from “the media” or “my circle”, whatever that may be, rather than studying the texts. I have read the Qur’an in various translations and in various languages. I have also studied the ahadith – a huge number of which paint a very disturbing picture of Mohammad.
        With regard to the word jealous, you quote the Christian and Jewish God. I agree – both are jealous and vengeful. Hence the reason why I am am not a Christian.
        So am I trying to insult your religion? No. Am I trying to encourage people to re-think their adherence to religion? Absolutely! And as a Muslim you have a duty, despite saying the contrary, to persuade me become a Muslim. Hence a healthy debate. I have nothing to fear from debate. Neither should you – as long as we are polite and respectful (which I hope I have been!)

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