One of the benefits of being multilingual is the ability to intermingle with diverse Muslim communities. It allows a person to observe common struggles and triumphs of different Muslim congregations. While this empirical observation is certainly limited, there is a growing trend observable directly as well as through social media: that of marginal social relevance of masjids.
Over the past 17 years participating in various activities at masjids in different countries, this writer has observed minimal practically relevant programs at masjids. When Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) established the first masjid in Madinah, it was meant not only for performing prayers, but it was a community development center for many other social, political, administrative, and cultural functions.
The community development aspect is the key ingredient missing from masjids today. Most programs at masjids consist of lectures and lessons. While these are important, in the year 1439ah (2018ce), it is not enough. Programs at masjids must aim to have a practical angle. For example, this author recently attended an excellent lecture on parenting that was advertized as a “parenting workshop.” Even though the presentations were good, the event lacked the workshop aspect. The lecture should have included a practical case-study type exercise for the audience to learn from. This would have made it a real workshop. Speeches followed by minimal Q&A are good, but not enough.
Most Muslims today are not only interested in the philosophical and theological aspects of Islam but want to see practical relevance of the din in their daily lives. In an age when the Islamophobia industry is growing alarmingly, this is a challenging endeavour but one that must be addressed.
Muslims managing the affairs of masjids need to realize that programs organized in their centres today are mostly lectures; they consist primarily of passing information in the “age of information.” It is like pouring hot water on someone drowning in a cold swimming pool. Nevertheless, even this is done poorly. Lessons on Hajj and politeness are important, but in today’s environment, Muslims should know how to respond to the dogmatic challenges raised by feminism, secularism, and scientism.
Readers that have gotten this far into the column might ask, so what exactly are you suggesting? The response to this question is multifaceted. First, it depends on the needs of a particular community. In some communities drugs are a major problem. If that is the case, such a community would need to organize professional seminars with a strong Islamic ethos that provide practical counselling to people using drugs.
Sometimes solutions to certain issues can be simple. In one European-Turkish community a competent imam observed that on weekends, many young people were hanging out in places that are not appropriate for cultivating an Islamic personality. That imam would regularly call up young people on Friday and Saturday nights to go out for coffee or ice cream to discuss various issues from an Islamic perspective, thus creating an Islamic bond among youth in an Islamic but casual social environment.
Second, programs must have a practical aspect that gives the congregation an opportunity to actively participate. This can be done at different levels. The masjid’s management could tap into the local community’s skills by organizing workshops on blogging, writing a will, preparing for a job interview, etc. Even when delivering socially relevant lectures, the audience should be engaged by asking questions during the lecture to see if they understand what is being communicated. This facilitates interaction and makes people feel they are valued. This is something done very well at a Mississauga masjid, Jami‘ah Riyad al-Jannah, by Imam Mohamed Mahmoud al-Hussaini al-Shadhili.
Another key issue that undermines masjids, mainly in non-Muslim majority societies, from dedicating needed re-sources to proper development programs, is the obsession with having bigger buildings and more buildings. This problem was eloquently pointed out by Shaykh Azhar Nasser when he stated, “Almost every community I’ve visited has a plan to build a bigger masjid. Why do we need bigger masjids when the masjid is empty most of the year? Invest in building hospitals, colleges, homeless shelters, drug rehabilitation centers, etc. That would be more pleasing to Allah.” Projects identified by Shaykh Nasser would not only show the positive impact of Muslims on the society they live in, but would enhance the economic well-being of Muslim communities as well.
This writer recently attended an anniversary fundraising dinner event for a prominent Islamic school that has several campuses. Yet the director of the school publicly admitted that they often tell their teachers to wait on cashing their paycheques because the funds are not in the school’s bank account. In this type of situation, would it not be prudent to have just one campus but pay a fair wage to teachers and run it professionally?
Most Muslims living in non-Muslim countries lack basic information on the political system of their country of residence. There is only rudimentary knowledge about how the political process works and what forces guide/ manipulate it. Unless Muslims are aware of the power factions that manipulate the system to their advantage, they will continue to remain on the margins no matter how many voter registration drives they organize.
At election time, Muslims become active and vote for one or the other political party only to discover that the party they voted for turns out to be even worse than the one they helped vote out of office. Muslims are delivered simplified lectures on elections and democracy without any methodical and practical training on socio-political issues.
Unless there is clear understanding of the issues involved and of the forces operating behind the scenes to secure unfair advantage, Muslims will continue to lead a marginalized existence. This is primarily because Muslims in most non-Muslim societies have not focused on practical means of how to become socially and politically relevant without being manipulated by the powers that be.
The list of what needs to be done in a practical manner can go on and on. Every community needs to have an organized and structured methodology of feedback from its congregation to understand the basic needs of its immediate community. We live in a world that is hostile to Islam in a very sophisticated way. Muslim responses to the challenges of post-modernism must also be sophisticated, but most importantly practical.