Over the weekend, musafeer, partytilfajr, and others engaged in a discussion about the ummah. It started as an inquiry into stopping “negativity” and “judgmental attitudes”, and broadened into advice about leading by example, having faith in Islam, being humble, etc.
At one point, Osama mentioned how the ummah was to have a ‘unity of purpose.’ This struck me. It’s something you wouldn’t hear broadly in Egypt, or other Muslim majority countries. There, the ‘ummah’ is everywhere. It just is. But here, in America, existence is an affirmative act. Here, to exist, America’s ummah is to have purpose.
Which raises the question: what is the ‘purpose’ of the ummah in America? Osama suggests one in quoting 2:177 “spends his substance - however much he himself may cherish it - upon his near of kin, and the orphans, and the needy, and the wayfarer, and the beggars, and for the freeing of human beings from bondage”. If the ummah’s purpose is to increase piety, then it’s institutions should be geared help those in need, it’s nearest of kin (including, I’m assuming brothers and sisters in Islam).
I’ll be honest, I don’t share their optimism. The problems facing the ummah are greater than individual behavior. They are the result of broad institutional failure to address the needs of the community.
The numbers bear this out. Out of America’s 7 million Muslims, only 2 million have any affiliation with any mosque whatsoever. You don’t lose two thirds of a community through individual attitudes. All our retreats, our MSAs, our ISNAs, our mosques and conferences, everything, only serve a fraction of the community. The majority of Muslims remain outside the fold.
And, to put it bluntly, those Muslims are suffering. They’re addicts, indigent, survivors, poor, in prison, struggling refugees, struggling immigrants, struggling reverts, struggling with sexuality and gender identity. And that’s not even counting the Islamophobia that all Muslims face (the only difference is that unmosqued Muslims don’t have the same support systems for dealing with it). And, what’s more, mosque leaders, for all progressive, reformist attitudes, have nothing to offer in the way of actual help.
It’s one thing to say that marijuana is haraam, or that you still support its legalization. What’s being done to address the rampant drug abuse and addiction in America’s ummah? Where are the books dealing with recovery for Muslims? They’re not in Islamic bookstores. And why don’t mosques have addiction groups? Why don’t all mosques have addiction groups?
And it’s not just addiction. Where are the pen pal programs for Muslim prisoners, the housing and work programs for the Muslims who need them? Where are the domestic violence initiatives? The survivor groups? The books for stopping domestic abuse? Where are any programs or resources for local Muslims, outside of New York and Chicago? Do Muslims not have problems in Texas?
Apparently not, because instead millions – millions! – are spent building larger and more elaborate mosques. Giant mega-masjids with multi-level parking that attract a host of ordinance violations and cause friction with the surrounding neighborhood. Or get placed so far on the outskirts they’re inaccessible to anyone too poor to have a car. And they’re empty after a decade or two. That isn’t unity; it’s consolidation. And all it does is alienate more Muslims.
Why not build a larger number of small mosques instead? Avoid ordinance issues, while making mosques accessible to a broader geographical area. Not only that, but you allow for greater diversity by having more imams, give more opportunities for mosque participation, and make imams more accessible. Also, any Muslims who have a falling out with an imam or mosque would have more opportunities to stay within the broader ummah. And, if something were to happen to any mosque, there would be several mosques to absorb worshipers.
Come to think of it, why aren’t there alternate jummahs in the evenings, for Muslims who don’t have the luxury of jobs where they can schedule hour long lunch breaks. If it’s permissible to hold jummah at any time on Fridays, why put the burden on worshippers instead of the people whose job is leading the prayer?
And then there’s the silence. Leaders, afraid of “excluding the excluders”, remain silent on any issue deemed “controversial”. The problem is excluders and the excluded aren’t on equal standing. It’s the excluders who deem a topic “controversial” by expressing their offense. They’re the ones controlling the conversation; hence theirs is the default position. Any silence merely reinforces it.
What’s needed is a policy that explicitly includes excluders and excluded, and bans harassment towards the latter. It’s not “excluding excluders” to emphasize that a mosque is a place for all Muslims. That’s exercising leadership. Either have the courage to explicitly back exclusionary attitudes, or publicly rebuke them. Because silence is exclusion.
Consider my case: a transgender woman who has to cross-dress, convincingly, to pray jummah or attend eid celebrations. Never mind that Sunni and Shia leaders have deemed gender transition halal. No, silence on “LGBT issues” means I don’t know my mosque’s policy on transgender Muslims. I don’t even know if I can ask my imam about it. I don’t even know what I’d ask.
What should I ask? What’s supposed to happen? I know what has happened: I’ve stopped going to the mosque. I can’t convincingly cross-dress anymore and I’m unwilling to add the “intolerant Muslim” trope by openly advocating for change. My faith, my good deeds, actual rulings on the issue; none of that matters. I’m out, because of the unwillingness of mosque leaders to confront the world around them.
Or consider the Boston Bombings. No, really. The whole story surrounding those horrible crimes is a microcosm of everything that’s wrong with America’s ummah today. The Tsarnaevs didn’t exist in a vacuum. There was a whole network of Muslims around them; friends, family, roommates, drug buyers. These networks are all too common: Muslims, excluded from the mosque, desperately seeking community and Islam in each other. Another ummah, outside of police-mosque partnerships, in this case made up of Muslims too drugged up or too economically troubled or simply unable to communicate the danger before it was too late. The Tsarnaevs operated in near secrecy, cloaked by the alienation and exclusion of the Muslims around them.
And that underscores the danger of alienating and excluding so many Muslims. You won’t just lose them to sex, drinking, music, and nail polish. The truth is that, when Muslims are lost, anything can happen to them. Because it’s not just the threat of terrorism. Consider the Muslims in prison for ordinary crimes. Almost all young black men who face grim prospects on their release, and are getting no help from immigrant focused mosques.
And consider Dias Kadyrbayev, Azamat Tazhayakov and Robel Phillipos, charged with concealing evidence related to the Boston Bombing, and lying to the police.
You know why? They panicked. They panicked and screwed up, and then lied about it when the police asked. And who can blame them? Where were they supposed to go when they recognized Dzhokhar on the news? The police that deported someone just for being in the vicinity? And who else was there, to give legal advice, to intercede with the police on their behalf?
Maybe, if they’d been involved in the community, they would’ve had someone to call. Or maybe they would’ve been able to warn someone before people died. As it stands, they were alone that night, and they panicked. And now they’re facing decades in prison because of it.
And what does the local mosque do in the wake of all this? It posthumously proclaims Tamerlan Tsarnaev non-Muslim, and refuses to bury him.
The janazah is a requirement! Al-hamdu lillah his family stepped in, otherwise it would’ve been on the entire community. I don’t care who he was. A Muslim is a Muslim is a Muslim. Where is the belief in our system? How can we demand that others respect our practices when we don’t respect them ourselves?
This is about more than a mosque in Cambridge or a Muslim in Texas. What happened in Boston could happen anywhere. In fact, it is happening everywhere, with or without the grisly murder. And I doubt there’s a single community equipped to handle it. Ask yourself, honestly, is your community acting any differently? Would they act differently, under the same circumstances?
America’s ummah is in crisis, and we need to radically rethink our networks and institutions in order to deal with it. We need to address the very real issues affecting the entire community, not just the part of it that’s already engaged. If mosques can’t do that, then we need to create institutions that can.
And, what’s more, those institutions need to be given political leadership in our community. We need leadership that’s geared towards addressing our community’s needs. I’m fine with mosques acting solely as religious leaders, a moral counterbalance. I’m fine with mosques assuming both duties, and all the responsibilities that come with it. But right now mosques are given de facto political leadership without engaging with two thirds of the community they’re representing, much less addressing their needs. That’s a recipe for disaster.
It’s a shame that so much of the conversation focused on nasihah. How to properly conduct it, how to be humble, how not to alienate. The problem isn’t improper advice, what the ummah needs much more.
What’s the Muslim word for ‘help’?