Mosque Makeovers

Reimagining a sacred space
Noor’s approach is non-violent, non-confrontational, and apolitical; Kanji doesn’t want to tweak the sensibilities of outsiders, nor push for reforms she feels her congregation is not ready for. The word she thinks best describes her way is “humble.” Other approaches may have merit too, but in the end what happens at Noor is Kanji’s decision.

According to Zarqa Nawaz, creator of the CBC sitcom Little Mosque on the Prairie, reforms such as these are harder to enact at mosques where the congregants vote for board members, because often the conservative factions of a congregation speak the loudest. At the Winnipeg Grand Mosque, a relatively reformist board of directors has struggled to preserve its authority. The board recently decided to take down a partition in the prayer hall. Some of the male congregants took it upon themselves to build a replacement overnight. In January, a judge who was hired to moderate the dispute reinstated conservative members of the board. Since then, the wall has been replaced. The more reformist congregants are hoping to regain control in an election in November. “If I had a million dollars, I’d open a mosque,” Nawaz says. “And whoever doesn’t like how I run it can leave.”

Another version of this model is the el-Tawhid Juma Circle, a small mosque of straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender worshippers. They gather for afternoon prayers on Friday — the most important day of the week for Muslims — at a private address in downtown Toronto. El-Tawhid has been meeting for about two years now, in a small room covered by a carpet, with an old church pew at one end. People plunk themselves down on cushions wherever there is space; the question of whether to have greater interaction with the wider Muslim community is more important right now than where people sit at prayer time. On this winter afternoon, the room fills up with about twenty people, a mix of born Muslims and converts, academics, and refugees from Muslim countries.

Anyone can sing the call to prayer or lead prayers during the service, and several women have taken regular turns as imam. One is Laury Silvers, a convert from Los Angeles and a professor of religion at the University of Toronto. Other than during el-Tawhid’s services, women have led men in organized prayer only in a few unique circumstances. Silvers has red hair, a cheerful but commanding group leader voice, and a Facebook page full of statements and causes — exactly what you’d expect from a passionate activist.

She calls the group to attention at about 1:15, as a few stragglers are still shaking off their coats. Islamic prayers are to be said at specific times, and she opens by asking everyone to come on time: “If we’re going to be a real mosque, we have to do things by the book.”

After prayers, the group moves to the kitchen for tea and snacks before heading back to work or school. Discussion ranges from academic shop talk to the focused activism expected from a group like this. There is little tolerance here for a go-slow approach. Most aspire to a Muslim culture where chauvinism no longer has a place in the mosque, but Silvers is adamant that el-Tawhid’s approach is one of many and not to be forced on others.

For every feminist frustrated with the pace of change, another is sensitive to the dangers of moving too fast. Little Mosque’s Zarqa Nawaz captured this tension in her 2005 documentary, Me and the Mosque. In it, she sits at her mother’s feet in the women’s section of the Islamic Society of North America mosque in Mississauga, behind a translucent, waist-high divider. The mother says she had not been inside a mosque until she moved to Canada, and likes that she can see the imam behind the small divider. That’s enough for her. But her daughter is not satisfied; she wants vocal support for more.

Frustration and friction seem natural when diverse peoples confront shared taboos. Even though they represent a small group of reformers among Canada’s roughly 600,000 Muslims, many of those pushing for gender equity in mosques today see more differences than similarities among themselves. For instance, when Naseer Ahmad was pondering his approach, the implications of welcoming menstruating women meant more than just a large enough prayer section. He installed coin-operated tampon and pad dispensers in the washrooms. Reactions to this decision underscore the range of preferences and sensitivities: some were pleased, and some felt it a trivial move, or a reminder of how far there is to go. Others did not realize that in some Muslim cultures people think a tampon can deflower a virgin. And some were surprised: “I’ve never even thought to look for that!” said Globe and Mail columnist Sheema Khan.

Though many in Canada’s informal group of mosque reformers are asking pointed questions about one another, they do agree on one thing: it’s remarkable that these issues can be addressed at all. The reforms ongoing in Canada cannot happen in many Muslim countries, because decisions about questions like these are made by the state; even in Turkey, the only Muslim democracy in the Middle East, religion is regulated. Plenty of countries have significant Muslim minorities and a separation of religion and government, allowing Muslims to debate and settle these matters on their own, but most of those countries lack Canada’s diversity. France’s Muslims are overwhelmingly Algerian, so a gender-neutral mosque in France would almost certainly be informed largely by the North African experience. In Germany, Turks are the dominant group; in the United Kingdom, it is South Asians. Canada has sizable populations of Muslims of almost every kind, giving it a diverse set of thinkers who benefit from the intellectual freedom to experiment and compare. There are probably fewer than five countries in the same situation. One is the US, where millions of people aren’t sure whether or not the president is a Muslim, nor whether that matters.

In the US and elsewhere, the most radical and fundamentalist voices often set the national debate about Muslims: radical American clerics issuing fatwas from Yemen, or racist politicians in Europe stoking xenophobic fears in white voters. Those extremists surely exist in Canada, but they aren’t polluting our national debate. And at this point, any public discourse about Islam that does not involve the words “jihad” or “terrorism” feels like progress.

* Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Kanji has veto rights on board decisions, which is not the case. The Walrus regrets the error.
Matt Mossman is an analyst for Oxford Business Group and a former reporter for Bloomberg News.
Jaime Hogge is a contributor to the National Film Board's award-winning "Highrise" project, a documentary about vertical suburbs.
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9 comment(s)

WAQAR QADIR BAKHSHMarch 14, 2011 22:51 EST

Well-written...!

IslamMarch 15, 2011 07:02 EST

Although I am against the persecution of any group based on their faith, ethnicity, etc. but your article conveniently omits the fact that Ahmedis are considered non-muslims in Pakistan because they do not believe in the finality of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH)!

kedaMarch 16, 2011 14:10 EST

Good job, by all concerned :)

ShahMarch 17, 2011 09:01 EST

@Islam,
My dear brother, I just want to ask ONE question. WHY would the Ahmadis not believe that Prophet Muhammad was the final one as the Quran (I am sure Ahmadis believe in the Quran as being the final word) says so??
Thank you for your attention. The answer will be ONLY for my personal enlightenment.
Bless you

Daniel De MolMarch 17, 2011 15:11 EST

The Ahmadis could not afford to allow female imams for the following reasons;
1 It would raise questions and lead to polygeny (allowed in Ahmadiyya) being challenged as unfair.
2 It would bring about a more authentic equality of men and women
3 It would be too much catching up to the Baha'i faith after a few years of Masroor Ahmad saying with respect to Baha'is, "we should always avoid these people"1,2

Kind regards.
1 http://www.alislam.org/friday-sermon/2009-01-30.html#summary-tab
2 http://danieldemolsblog.blogspot.com/2010/09/allah-is-sufficient-unto-us.html

AJMarch 17, 2011 15:11 EST

a fine exposition on how architecture can bridge cultures as well as the gender gap. thank you for illuminating us on this fascinating subject.

OAMarch 22, 2011 10:11 EST

Well written article.. regarding the design and integrating of the larger Muslim community in Canada and where gender segregation between sexes stand within each group as shown. As mentioned in the article according each philosophy the leadership of the Mosque or larger area dictates the narrative on what standards may be followed. Well observed and Bravo to the author for their great observations.

The commenters however show lack of understanding in any forum as they stoop low with bigoted commentary towards particular groups. Rather then building bridges, why are we all so bent on igniting fires. (Mr. Islam?)

Let education extinguish all evil. Love for all, Hatred for none.

ZehraMarch 23, 2011 08:44 EST

I would just like to thank the author for presenting this topic without degrading the religion. I admit that I was preparing for another frustrating piece critisizing Islam as violent and muslims as terrorists but was pleasantly surprised. Thank you for taking the time to carefully research before writing about such a sensitive topic.

C Small-DiopApril 15, 2011 06:07 EST

I love your magazine and enjoy its thoughtful, sometimes provocative, and always beautifully written articles.

As a Canadian living in Senegal, a country which is 95% Muslim, I read this article with great interest. I am glad to learn of the diversity and freedom that seems to prevail in Canadian mosques. I was, however, disappointed to see that, as is pretty much always the case, the experience of Islam in Africa outside the Maghreb was totally ignored. It is a fact that women are not allowed in mosques in Morocco. It is also a fact that they are allowed in most mosques in Senegal.

For that reason, I truly take exception to the following statement in your article: "The reforms ongoing in Canada cannot happen in many Muslim countries, because decisions about questions like these are made by the state; even in Turkey, the only Muslim democracy in the Middle East, religion is regulated. Plenty of countries have significant Muslim minorities and a separation of religion and government, allowing Muslims to debate and settle these matters on their own, but most of those countries lack Canada’s diversity."

My issue with that quote is that it seems to establish a dichotomy between Western States with large Muslim minorities and Islamic States, ignoring the fact that there are many countries, notably here in West Africa, where an overwhelming Muslim majority lives in a secular, democratic State (in our case, inspired by the Republican laws of France). Two examples that readily spring to mind are Senegal, with 95% Muslims, and Mali, with 90%. We have beer and wine and vodka and pork in our supermarkets, bars and restaurants. We have religious freedom and girls in short skirts, and we have a very devout and tolerant Muslim community. There are beautiful traditional exchanges between religious communities here. Muslims send a leg of mutton to their Christian neighbours on Aid el kebir; Christians distribute a traditional desert to Muslim friends at Easter. The different religions co-exist in peace and harmony, the government is secular, and there are secular public schools and secular private schools,as well as Catholic, Protestant and Muslim private schools. Freedom and choices abound.

I really do wish that people would pay more attention to the examples of Muslims and Christians living in harmony in secular States that are not necessarily Western. I do wish that the media would focus less on the extremes and not give people the idea that, with the supposed "exception" of Turkey, a Muslim majority necessarily entails a religious government. I know your article does not say so, but by glossing over other realities, that is what it implies. And, while your article is indeed more hopeful than fear-mongering, I do feel that by ignoring our West African success stories, it does fall inadvertently into the clich├ęs about what Islam is and how it can be reconciled with modern societies.

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