WANTED: Inclusive Muslim Spaces
By Muneeb Nasir
What can be done to make Muslim institutions more inclusive and relevant to the community?
A useful starting point for such a discussion would be to look at the example of Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) and the first institution he built in Madina to derive some general principles on establishing and running inclusive facilities.
Reading the reports of the Prophet’s (peace be on him) interaction with people in the Madina mosque is instructive, not only for the pearls of wisdom he uttered, but also for what it tells us about the nature of the institution.
Women and men of all ages, strata of society and faiths would visit the mosque. They came to pray, to listen to the Prophet and be educated; they met, discussed and debated matters of faith, practice, politics, the economy, war and peace; they would fraternize, celebrate and entertain themselves and they would mourn their losses - they would do all this within these simple walls.
But the Prophet’s mosque was more than a busy intersection. He created an inclusive institution. Everyone was welcomed – including women, children, youths, and elders - at anytime of the day and night and in whatever condition they came. Some of the Prophet’s detractors came to criticize and ridicule him.
The mosque’s members would be livid at their audacity and threaten to expel them but the blessed Prophet would counsel restraint. Some uncouth characters came and, out of ignorance, would desecrate the mosque.
Yet, still would the Prophet refuse to disbar them but looked at it as an opportunity to educate and instruct. His message to his followers and all believers was that Muslim institutions are to be open, inclusive and non-threatening.
‘Let them come’ was his approach.
Yes, they may be untidy, poorly clothed, ungrateful and abusive, but ‘these are the people in need and that is the role of this institution’ he conveyed by his example.
The Prophet’s mosque was an organic institution – responsive to the needs and times, leading the way, re-configuring itself to meet the ever-changing and growing community and, over and above all, a welcoming place – a sanctuary where those who entered its confines were protected.
In it a people of faith were molded and a new culture evolved. Fast-forward to today’s Muslim institutions.
Most are set up for prayers and teaching children religious tenets only.
There is little dynamic interplay with its surroundings and its attendees and most of these institutions are not in tune with the realities of North American life.
To get a glimpse on how out of sync some institutions are – look at where most of the informal interactions of attendees can take place – in the parking lot or on the sidewalk.
Young and old alike, especially women and young people, meet and have meaningful interactions only outside the building.
This says a lot about the relevance of these institutions in the life of that community.
The symptoms of inadequate community spaces are now being felt among Muslims.
Young men, women and their families have no safe space to meet and interact and this has led to a matrimonial crisis in the community.
Fast track meeting services have cropped up to try and address this need – a need that should have been met by inclusive institutions that provide the spaces, activities and opportunities for families to develop long term relationships.
The same goes for elders, women and young families – for these groups there are few welcoming spaces, activities or services.
What then needs to be done?
Organizations have to configure their spaces and services to meet the needs of Muslims in this community.
In terms of design, a prayer hall (balcony for women), classrooms, and gymnasium have become the template for institutional design but these element are not meeting the requirements of a diverse community which requires, for its development, more interactive spaces such as meeting halls, libraries, lounges or even food courts.
Then there are the restrictions that men in some institutions have constructed and which has a debilitating and stifling effect on attendees.
Until these men acknowledge that everyone must be given access to all spaces in an institution and not preferential spaces going to males, that institution will be irrelevant to the community’s life.
Of course, the greatest design and access would be of little value if the institution is not run by people who understand what it takes to create an environment that is welcoming and is a sanctuary for all.
Visit Muneeb Nasir’s site IQRA at http://iqra.typepad.com/