July 5, 2005 > The mosques behind the myth
The mosques behind the myth
by S. Reshma Yunus
Whoever does right, whether male or female, and is a believer shall most certainly be rewarded for the noblest of their deeds and shall be blessed with a good life (Al-Qur'an:16:97)
This is the season of red, white and blue. Razia Inamdar, a resident of Fremont and a Muslim American of Indian origin, has proudly flown the American flag for years. "We came to this country, like many others, in search of religious freedom and a better life for our family." "We could have moved to a country where Muslims are the majority, but we felt this was where we could practice Islam and live according to our beliefs."
Samina Faheem Sundas, Executive Director of American Muslim Voice, based in Newark, California, believes that being a "true American and true Muslim means seeking and speaking the truth, and when one sees injustice, does not matter to whom, one does not just walk away." To Ms. Sundas, being American is to hold steadfast to the constitution as the core of American values.
Tri-City Voice interviewed members of the local Muslim community such as Ms. Sundas and Mrs. Inamdar, as well as national organizations, to uncover what is beneath the mystique about Islam and Muslims for our readers.
We asked Rabiah Ahmed, spokeswoman for Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), directly about some of the concerns expressed by some readers of Tri-City Voice. One of the main questions by non-Muslims is why more Muslims have not spoken out against foreign terrorist activities. Ms. Ahmed, stated that many Muslim organizations have condemned terrorism, both through external press releases as well as internal messages to the Muslim community. She finds that acts of terrorism garner more media coverage as these are deemed more newsworthy than statements that condemn terrorism.
Ms. Ahmed states that the media has a responsibility to cover both the positive as well as the negative. She comments that the Muslim community also has the responsibility to reach out and engage the community at large rather than remaining insular.
Irfan Rydhan, Public Relations Director for the South Bay Islamic Association (SBIA), agrees with the need for both fair and balanced coverage from media about all issues. Mr. Rydhan also advocates for Muslims to be "more open and involved with their neighbors and larger non-Muslim society". Since 9/11, he has observed an increasing positive trend of Islamic organizations, mosques and other faith based and secular organizations holding joint events. SBIA has participated in several inter-faith and other civic activities such as feeding the homeless and providing funds for the destitute.
The sensationalized arrests in Lodi of a few local Muslim men, on charges of lying to government officials and immigration violations, demonstrates to many Muslims that they have a lot to learn about protection of their civil rights and liberties as well as dealing with media. It was troubling to many people, that these men were condemned in public opinion prior to a fair trial. Seham El -Ansary, Founder and Executive Director of World Alliance for Humanity, an organization that focuses on rights, education and advocacy, commented that historically speaking, "when one group's rights are abused, then all of our rights are abused".
Many Muslims that we spoke with feel that 9/11 was a wake-up call. They acknowledge an awareness of extremists within Muslims; however, many had previously brushed them aside as "psychos and criminals." Muslims are outraged that their religion is being used by extremists' as a personal agenda. They are further confounded by public opinion that equates a "crazy few" with the majority of peace-loving people.
Zacary Karabell, a writer, reviewing Reza Aslan's book No god but God The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, for the LA Times (June 12, 2005), comments on the following:
'In a religion shared by more than 1 billion people, it should come as no surprise that there are competing visions and that the ideology trumpeted by Al Qaeda and its allies is more fringe than mainstream. '
Mr. Karabell further writes:
'Then there is the issue of interpreting the message of the Koran and applying it to changing circumstances. This has become one of the most contentious issues in Islam today, and the most radical of fundamentalists reject attempts to adapt the mores of the Koran and the early traditions to modern life. As Aslan shows, and as others before him have demonstrated, interpretation and adaptation were integral to the success of Islam in its first centuries. Reason and the willingness to interpret the Koran metaphorically allowed for a level of philosophical and scientific inquiry that surpassed anything Christian Europe had to offer until the Renaissance. At some point after the 12th or 13th century, something shifted in the Muslim world, which culminated in the rigid refusal of austere traditionalists to allow for critical analysis of the Koran. More than anything else, that refusal, writes Aslan, "continues to have devastating consequences for the development and progress of law and society in the modern Middle East."
Many of the Muslims we spoke with believe that education and knowledge will help eradicate prejudice. Mr. Karabell disagrees, stating that, "Education sometimes erodes belief, but just as often, ideology trumps education".
Still, many of the Muslims and non-Muslims we contacted state that getting to know people and learning first-hand rather than relying on images and stereotypes has changed their viewpoints to be more accepting. There are often stark similarities along with expected differences. For example, Muslims who have previously lived insulated lives are pleasantly surprised to learn that many non-Muslims such as Mormons hold similar strong family values and don't drink alcohol. Many non-Muslims are happy to find out that most Muslims, even "practicing" Muslims, really appreciate their sense of values and work ethic.
Many mosques welcome visitors - a brief guide of what to expect.
Mosques - Internal Structures - Etiquette of attendance.
There are several mosques in the local area. The largest one is the Islamic Society of the East Bay (ISEB). As one enters, there are shelves for shoes as shoes are not allowed in the prayer area. The first floor is a school and upstairs, the main prayer hall. Most established mosques such as ISEB include a mimbar which is essentially the pulpit in the main prayer hall. Some have a place in the front of the prayer hall called the mehrab where the Imam leads the prayers. The upstairs prayer hall is large enough to hold at least three hundred people, standing shoulder to shoulder. There is a small curtained area in the back for the women.
Etiquette of the mosque includes wearing appropriate and clean apparel and as previously stated, not wearing shoes/sandals in the prayer hall. Although men also have a dress code, more stringent dress requirements are applied to women. These requirements mandate that only the face and hands can be seen of woman; some allow the feet to be uncovered (see section below on hijab). Mosques keep extra scarves for use by visitors but it is a good idea to take a large scarf and wear loose and long clothing. Some mosques are open-minded and understand that non-Muslim visitors attempt to follow etiquette guidelines as much as possible.
Most mosques have segregated areas for women to pray, often behind the men and partitioned by a structure of some sort. More often than not, in strictly segregated mosques, women are not allowed to pray in the main hall with the men and have to use separate entrances. This practice of strict segregation is coming under heavy criticism even by old established organizations such as the Islamic Society of North America that, at one time, segregated women.
The movement to allow women more participation in mosques first came to the general public's attention due to the efforts of a controversial figure, Asra Nomani (www.asranomani.com). Ms. Nomani, a former Wall Street Journalist, was recently in the Bay Area to promote her book Standing Alone in Mecca, an American Women's struggle for the soul of Islam, and protest women's inequality of access to the mosque. Her efforts have generated greater awareness among Muslims about the wide-spread discrimination within mosques against women.
Just a few days ago, CAIR, considered a mainstream Muslim organization, put out a brochure entitled "Women Friendly Mosques and Community Centers: Working Together to Reclaim Our Heritage" emphasizing the Islamic basis for allowing women better access to the main part of the mosque and inclusion on mosque Boards (www.CAIR-net.org). This publication is designed to educate Muslim community leaders about the rights of Muslim women to have equal access and participation in community activities. It was published through a collaborative effort of the Islamic Social Services Associations (ISSA) and Women in Islam (WII)."
Many mosques across the country, including ISEB in Fremont, are struggling with issues regarding the roles of women and men in the twenty-first century. Centuries of institutionalized segregation has led to women opting out of public roles. (Ironically, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Turkey, all Muslim countries have had women as heads of their nation). Dr. Rajabally, President of the Islamic Society of the East Bay, comments that ISEB is open and welcomes both men and women encouraging peaceful and respectful discussion of diverse points of view. Islam respects diversity of thought, he said. Dr. Rajabally further states that whenever he convenes community meetings, an effort is made to allow full participation by women.
Prayers and Practices
Muslims are required to pray five times a day. A call to prayer is announced loudly over the intercom system. Muslim prayers involve facing the Kaaba (Sacred Mosque of Mecca), the intention to pray, standing, bending and finally prostrating to the ground as the ultimate act of submission to Allah. Most visitors sit quietly in designated spaces in the back to observe. Delores Lundi, a retired nurse, a member of the South Bay Islamic Association, was so moved by the sound of the call to prayer and the connection she felt during the prostration, that she converted instantly.
Board Participation by Women.
ISEB was one of the first mosques to have a woman on the Board in the 1980's. Ms. Aziza Sleigthholm provided much needed organization and expertise to raise funds to purchase the property in the first place. Ms. Sleigtholm was appointed rather than elected to the Board. Some Board members resigned in protest and the organization to split, the more conservative group building a mosque in Milpitas and the others began the San Ramon Islamic Center (co-founder Ms. Nasira Sharif) that has two women on the Board.
Head coverings - Veiling or Displaying one's identity
Almost no discussion of Islam and Muslims seems complete without comment about the "hijab" or the mode of dress worn by some Muslim women. The hijab has come to refer primarily to the head-scarf. However, Imam Tahir Anwar states that hijab, which means curtain, is not simply limited to a head scarf. Hijab, according to Imam Tahir refers to a broader definition of appropriate and modest dress and behavior. Thus wearing tight jeans, tight shirt and head scarf does not fulfill the strict requirements of "covering" as defined by religious scholars. In the same vein, wearing very modest clothing, covered head to toe, but acting in flirtatious and immoral manner with members of the opposite sex would be considered a violation of hijab.
Many Muslim women wear a head scarf as a visible demonstration of their belief of Islam. This is their way of stating that they are servants of God and not slaves to the fashion dictates of marketing moguls. Others wear it due to peer pressure or custom. Sarah Baig, a young college graduate, is especially happy to live in the diverse Bay Area where she can publicly practice her faith by wearing a head scarf and still be accepted.
However, not all Muslim women wear the head covering, although they may be otherwise modestly dressed and modestly behaved. Lisa Samina Ahmed, who recently opened Mirchi Cafˇ in Fremont, a hallal (Muslim kosher) fusion restaurant, is often surprised when some Muslims ask whether or not she is a Muslim. Ms. Ahmed does not wear a head covering and believes it should be a personal choice. She feels that emphasis should be on one's personal behavior, attention to prayer and to charity rather than outward appearances.
The Muslim Women's League, in their position paper entitled An Islamic Perspective on Women's Dress, points out that the Qur'an does not specifically outline a particular mode of dress and there is no mention of the word "hijab" in the versus specifically related to modesty (www.mlusa.org). The particular Hadith (Sunan Abi Dawud - no. 4095-Abu Dawood -report of the practice of the Prophet, peace be upon him) which further explains the Quranic versus on this topic states that the Prophet pointed to his face and hands when asked which part of a women can be seen by men who are not closely related. However, this article asserts that this is a "weak hadith" (wwwmwlusa.org). Despite ambiguity in these primary religious texts, scholars arrived at a consensus that the only aspect of a woman that can be seen is her face and hands. Some "schools of thought" permit women to show their feet while others insist that nothing but one eye can be seen.
Organizations like CAIR as well as individuals have called for tolerance and acceptance of those who choose to publicly wear their faith. When France banned the wearing of religious symbols in public institutions, CAIR and other organizations led mass protests in the United States. Women, Muslim and non-Muslim, with or without a head cover, protested the ban as statement of solidarity for freedom of religion.
However, no such protests or calls for tolerance have been heard, at least by this writer, when there is discrimination and harassment against women who choose not to wear a headscarf. The Muslim Women's League further points out that there is no specific punishment mandated in the Quran against such women. Instead the Quran specifically states the dress code is for the protection of the women and should be taken in this spirit. And more importantly, the forgiveness and mercy of God is mentioned, regardless of what women choose to wear.
'O Prophet! Tell your wives and daughters and the believing women that they should draw over themselves their jilbab (outer garments) (when in public); this will be more conducive to their being recognized (as decent women) and not harassed. But God is indeed oft-forgiving, most merciful. (33:59)'
Muslims - Challenges for today
In summary, many Muslims we spoke with believe that they are challenged to embrace a more expansive and inspirational vision of Islam as truly prescribed by the Quran and the practice of the Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) in all areas of life. This means that Muslims face a difficult challenge of learning, understanding and applying the Quran and the example of the Prophet to this day and age. By the same token, they hope that their fellow Americans will also embrace the plurality and the rights embodied in the constitution of the United States and accept Muslims as their fellow citizens with a rich heritage. Sentiments expressed by those we contacted were summed up by one individual when she said, "we all want to work for the same thing, a harmonious society for the betterment of America and the world."
Sources: www.iseb.org; www.icf-sfba.org/Contact.htm; www.zaytuna.org; www.sbia.info; www.mca-sfba.org; Armstrong, Karen, Islam New York, NY, Random House, 2000; Haykal, Muhammad Hussayn, The Life of Muhammad, Delhi, India, Crescent Publishing Co.; Heath, Jennifer, The Scimitar and the Veil Extraordinary Women of Islam, Mahwah, New Jersey, Hidden Springs 2004; Hallaq, Wael, The Origins and Evolution of Islamic Law, Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press 2005; Reza Aslan , No god but God The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, New York, Random House 2005; Rogerson, Barnaby, The Prophet Muhammad, A Biography, Mahwah, New Jersey, Hidden Springs 2003; Stowasser, Barbara Freyer, Women in the Qur'an, Traditions, and Interpretation, New York, NY, Oxford University Press 1994; Abdul Rauf, Imam Feisal, What's Rigth with Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West, New York, NY, HarperCollins 2004; www.masnet.org - Author; www.anwary-islam.com; www.cair-net.org; www.islamic-awareness.org; www.usc.edu/dept/MSA/fundamentals/hadithsunnah/bukhari/sbtintro.html; www.mwlusa.org/publications/positionpapers/hijab.html; Recommended Qur'an Translation; Yusuf Ali; Mohammad Assad.