Written by Shabana Mir
Not long ago, Hasna Maznavi started the first women’s mosque in Los Angeles, the first all-women, and women-led Friday prayer. I was delighted to share the news with my eight-year-old daughter. The prayer was held in Los Angeles, so we were unable to attend, but at least my daughter knows that there is a space where women give the call to prayer, women deliver the khutbah, and women lead the prayer.
Many Muslims have come out shaking their heads and muttering solemnly about the legality of this prayer. At this time of my life, I really could not care less. I have heard people express themselves with anguish and anger on this subject on both sides, and I am mostly silent.
Because this debate is so, so ‘90s.
I’ve heard Muslims say they are profoundly upset about various sects and groups in the community. “Why do we have Shia and Sunni mosques?” they say. “Why do we have Pakistani, Arab, Persian, Somali, Albanian mosques? Why must we separate? Why can’t we all pray together?”
Why the hell can’t we all take a chill pill and pray separately in peace?
I remember the same Battle of the Salafi-Gulfies vs. the Sorta-Feminists at the Islamic Center of Bloomington, Indiana in the mid to late 1990s. Women’s participation in the “MSA” (which was a community organization, and not an MSA really) was abysmal. Somewhere down the line, the community had changed in its demographics, and second-generation Muslim Americans, male and female international students, as well as the undergrad Muslim population, had started attending the mosque.
When we, as a newly elected executive committee, raised the issue of splitting into an MSA and a community organization, so that the needs of each population could be addressed properly, I heard similar cries of grief and anger. “Why are you calling for disunity? Why must be split into two? We have worked this way for so long (“we” was the Salafis and the Gulfies, the male students and the wives, and everyone else just made themselves scarce). Why can’t we continue? Why are you bringing disunity to our ranks?”
Guess what? We are not ranks. And praying in different spaces is not a big deal. Ironically, it was the Soldiers of Unity who also called for a complete division of the community down gender lines. The ummah had to be divided into two – the men’s ummah and the women’s ummah. It only intersected when the men needed to eat and to leave a big mess in the mosque library.
When my Shia friend goes for Muharram majalis and my Salafi friend goes to attend al-Maghreb Institute classes, I am happy to go to a mawlid. We can get together for coffee afterward. I don’t have to go to Al-Maghreb in order to re-establish unity in the community. It’s really not a big deal.
Plus, folks, have you noticed? – we are a bigger community now. The numbers are so large that in many communities, such as the historic Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center, CIMIC, there are now two Friday prayer congregations. Is that division and disunity? Guess what – when I attend the Friday prayer, I make choices as to which one I attend. Which Imam is sane and inspiring? Which khateeb makes me furious when he starts expounding on gender.
Denominationalism is right here, folks. Let’s embrace it.
There is a women’s prayer. You don’t like it? Don’t attend it. You have many choices. The Barelvis in Chicago make you mad? Don’t go to their madrassahs. Go to the Salafi mosque, or the Deobandi mosque, or the Pakistani mosque, or wherever the spirit moves you. It’s no big deal.
This is not disunity. And we are not ranks arrayed for battle. We are diverse people. Unity is not uniformity. Wa la tafarraqu (and be not disunited) does not ask you to occupy the same spaces but to be united in your hearts. If we hate each other, we are disunited and divided from each other, even if we occupy the same spaces.
And in our racially divided, classist community, there is plenty to divide us already. Geography, workspaces, social class and gender all divide us already. It’s not a big deal to pray in different spaces.
I’ll go further and say I like you better if I don’t have to pray next to you every Friday if you keep arguing with me about how I’m dressed. I can get along better with you if you find inspiration and comfort in your Friday sermon, and I find inspiration and comfort in my favorite sermon.
Look at it this way: we can be like a couple in a Sleep Number bed. Why do we have to kick and snore and make each other miserable? Why not have optimal spaces for each denomination?
And why not accept that we have denominations? This anxiety, this terror surrounding the words sect and sectarianism is so boring. It prevents us from self-understanding and from deeper theological understanding. When I hear someone say “I’m neither Shia nor Sunni nor Wahhabi nor Sufi – I’m just a Muslim,” I roll my eyes with a great rolling. What I hear is not purity, but denial, not knowledge, but ignorance. Naming is clarity. Pretending we are all a mass of undifferentiated humanity is a privilege for those who are privileged.
Remember, we are nations and tribes (and religion and denominations are akin to tribes in many ways, and they do function like tribes), and God made this happen.
Division and diversity are an attribute of life. In death, we are all the same.
At the mosques I attend, I often see aunties who don’t really get what the English sermon is all about. High school kids roll their eyes at the sermons that bewail how everything is terrible. Is it such a bad thing if the Pakistanis have a Friday prayer so they can listen to a sermon in Urdu? Is it so terrible if they sell biryani plates afterward? And why not have sermons that address the kids on Eid, which is one of the few days kids can attend Friday prayers?
Denominationalism allows for a plurality of free associations. It is already here.
I like praying in mosques where I am not hidden away like a dirty secret. You don’t? Don’t attend them. I don’t like your small, segregated women’s prayer rooms. I won’t be attending your mosque. You don’t have to attend mine. But I’ll say salam to you on the street and I’ll eat your pakoras when you invite me to your place for Eid.