Sacred Space: Transformations from Within

September 12, 2013


By Ailya Vajid, Director of Research



Sacred Space: Transformations from Within

 “I have a three-year-old daughter, and when she gets in trouble, I give her a time out. I make her face the wall. So why when I go to the masjid am I being punished when I face a wall?” asked Marwa Aly on ISNA’s “Sacred Space” Panel

Both the major discussions on the mosque at ISNA addressed this issue of the masjid being a space of chastisement or discomfort as opposed to a welcoming space for spiritual growth. Whether it is women who are reprimanded for entering the main hall to pray or youth who ar e admonished for their dress, rather than opening its arms to the diversity of the community, many mosques often continue to marginalize women and youth, leaving the community to create new spaces of gathering and worship or to perhaps abandon their faith and spiritual practice.

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“The Third Report of the National US Mosque Study: Women and the American Mosque” Panel, featuring Dr. Sarah Sayeed and Sister Aisha Al-Adawiya (of Women in Islam, Inc.) and Dr. Ihsan Bagby, discussed the subject of women’s spaces in the mosque not as a women’s issue, but as a community issue. “Without the women present,” Sayeed explained, “the children are not present, and without the children building a home at the mosque, the next generation will be lost from faith.” Sayeed expressed that we have an amāna, or trust, to ensure spiritual continuity in the United States, and without the women present, the youth will be lost.

How do we bring about this change? According to Sayeed, these efforts to transform women’s spaces and engender feelings of being a welcomed, respected and integral part of the community are not unprecedented; they are “not proposing a revolution.” Rather, “we are just trying to follow the Sunna” and Qur’an:

The believing men and believing women are allies (protecting friends) of one another. They enjoin what is right and forbid what is evil, and they establish prayer and pay the poor-due, and they obey Allah and His messenger. These Allah will have mercy upon them. Lo, Allah is Mighty, Wise (9:71).

Sayeed explained that changing behavior requires changing people’s mindsets. Deep-seated and lasting change will only come through a transformation of people’s hearts. Thus, we must change the “women’s presence is a source of fitna” mentality and begin to understand that women’s space in the mosque is a God-given right for women and that “the dignity of the mosque is diminished without women.” In fact, “there is more fitna without women” because a vast majority of the community is not represented, she explained. According to Sayeed, each mosque needs a new dialogue, and this is an important starting place for change.

After Dr. Sayeed, Sister Aisha passionately discussed how people are fed up of being disenfranchised in their own spiritual settings. She explained that we now have “secular Muslims”, as well as this phenomenon of being “unmosqued” or creating “third spaces.” This is all in response to the mosque not serving the community and its needs, she explained. Moreover, “this is not a women’s issue; it is a community issue. Daughters will leave if they don’t feel at home in a spiritual setting.”  She closed with words of guidance, reminding the community that “women need to take the initiative to be at the forefront of change.”

While perhaps outwardly appearing as two separate issues, both this panel and “Sacred Space, Where’s My Place?” featuring Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, Marwa Aly, Usama Canon, and Suhaib Webb (hosted by Mustafa Davis), focused on the issue of creating an inclusive space that welcomes the community, meets its needs, and provides even a caretaking role, particularly for the youth.

The “Sacred Space” Panel opened with the question of the functions of masājid. Dr. Siddiqi answered first, expounding that the masjid is a place of jama‘, or gathering, and a place that thus should bring people—both young and old—. It should be the foundation of taqwa, he continued. And it is not the place, but the people, who make the masjid respectable.

This then opened the discussion of whether or not today’s masājid live up to these ideals, as well as the challenges in the functions of masājid. Marwa Aly described how masājid continue to offer the same programming without taking into consideration the needs of their constituents, and Imam Suhaib Webb explained how we must take a census of the community and then build masjid programming. At the ISBCC, Imam Suhaib leaves it to the community to decide on the khutba topic once a month.

Third spaces are thus a natural outcome of masājid not meeting the spiritual and social needs of the community. What is this third space? Usama Canon, Founding Director of the Ta’leef Collective, explained that it is one that facilitates (1) accessibility, (2) healthy participation from women, (3) healthy inter-generational exchange. Canon elucidated that constituents of these groups are deliberate about engaging certain subsets, and that they are care-centric of their attendees. The goal is truly to meet and support the needs of attendees and to empower them through education and even through learning emotional intelligence. Marwa Aly explained that third space models can look different in each community, depending on its needs. However, these spaces are not supposed to replace the mosque. According to Imam Suhaib, third spaces are not a threat, but a farḍ, because people are losing imān in the masjid. Moreover, many youth are becoming isolated and lonely, and they often do not have the social circles and foundation that will ensure their spiritual continuity. Without these third spaces, youth would have nowhere to turn for spiritual nourishment.

The panel closed with each speaker encouraging attendees to get involved and be part of meaningful change. MIIM Designs LLC, too, urges all those reading to take even the smallest step towards change. Simply opening this discussion in your local mosque or community can begin to transform the hearts and understanding of community members and produce genuine and sustainable change. As you are contemplating together about what a healthy community and space look like, reflect back on the model of the Ka‘ba[1], on the messages of the Prophets, on examples of communities to emulate, both here and abroad.  Think also about the underlying and true meanings of this space; is the mosque not but a “‘recreation’ and ‘recapitulation’ of the harmony, order, and peace of nature” to which we return each time we pray? According to Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, the mosque—and all other forms of Islamic art—should be a “manifestation in the world of forms of the spiritual realities (al-ḥaqā’iq) of the Islamic revelation itself as coloured by its earthly embodiments.”[2] Thus, how can we create a space from within that will bring forth the spiritual realities of the revelation and inspire peaceful and sincere prayer[3] and remembrance of God?

There are countless ways to get involved and contribute to this movement: (1) Take pictures of your community mosques that serve as models to be emulated, and submit them to MIIM’s studio , email us, and/or to Side Entry so that other communities can learn from these examples; (2) Take a poll of the women in your local mosque and commence a dialogue from their responses; (3) Try having prayers in spaces outside of the mosque such as an open park and see how many people attend and where the women and men naturally stand;  (4) Hold a Friday prayer just for women; (5) Join together with different mosques in your area and collaborate on ways to reach your communities and to bring about wider change. MIIM Designs LLC would love to hear and support your stories and your journeys.

[1] See: Burckhardt, Titus. “The Spirituality of Islamic Art.” In Islamic Spirituality Manifestations, Vol. 20 of World Spirituality: An Encyclopedic History of the Religious Quest, edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, 506-527. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1991.     

[2] Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Islamic Art and Spirituality. New York: State University of New York Press, 1987, ix.

[3] Katz, Marion Holmes. Prayer in Islamic Thought and Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Ailya Vajid is the Director of Research at MIIM Designs, LLC. Previously she worked as the Senior Research Associate at KARAMAH:  Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights. Her research at Harvard University addresses issues of gender and Islam, focusing on early jurisprudential texts and the formation of Islamic law. She also works on issues of historiography and identity in Shi‘i thought and practice.