So this Friday I was off work, and visiting my parents. It was the time for the Friday (Jummah) prayer, and my dad asked me where I wanted to go.
Now my parents are lucky to live in a place that is quite close to two of the greatest mosques in Toronto. Each one is quite active in the community (fundraising for the local hospitals, for example), has reputed scholars on their roster, and is quite well managed and transparent in accountability. There is, however, one crucial difference. The first mosque has a segregated Jummah, where the main prayer hall is for men only and women pray in the gym or on the second floor (a much smaller space).
The second mosque, or IIT (as it is more popularly known), has a main auditorium doubling as a Jummah prayer space, and there are no barriers or separate sections for the women - everyone prays in the same space. Everyone can equally see the imam and speakers.
So this Friday we went to the IIT - and I realized why I loved coming to this mosque for Jummah as opposed to the other mosque.
The khutbah (speech) was about finding the balance in life. It was a very important, pertinent and difficult topic to speak on, but the soft spoken speaker did full justice to it. He told about how important it is to have a proper work life balance, and spend quality time with our family. He expanded on each person's roles in this - the father, the husband, the mother, the wife, the mistakes we make, the Prophetic examples and so on.
Now it might be a coincidence, but whenever I have attended IIT, most of their main topics for the khutbahs have been about strengthening the bonds of family, relationships, responsibilities in our community and so on. Most of the time the speeches have been very focused, and addressed to the layman, and practical, rather than an esoteric speech about some abstract theoretical concept.
It is just my theory, and I have no facts to back it up, but I think the fact that this is a family prayer space, rather than a men only prayer space, has a lot to do with the culture of a mosque and its community and its imam. You cannot be a misogynist, and give a khutbah making fun of the character of women, when they are RIGHT THERE staring at you in the face. Similarly, you cannot be giving speeches continuously on pie-in-the-sky topics when families are right there, and you know of their problems and you see them as a whole (not just the man) in front of you.
There is another big difference between the two mosques, and it's in the community. The speaker of the other mosque once actually said in a Friday speech not to bring little kids to the mosque. Apparently there's some hadith or other about this. Now I asked him several times on Twitter about this but I have had no response. This actually runs contrary to most of seerah lectures we listen to - about how the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) prayed in the mosque while his grand children played there.
When kids are being brought to the mosque, they are relegated to the women's section where they run around and create a chaos (being confined in a small space where they can't even see the imam or the main congregation can make you like that). Whereas, at IIT, I saw people bring their little kids to the Friday prayers. Some sat with their fathers, others with their mothers. I hardly saw any kid misbehave, and people smiled at some little children who were running around oblivious to the prayer.
Now my wife has been to both mosques and she agrees with me as well that the other mosque's community is less accepting as a safe space. First of all, apparently the women's section has these 'aunties' who are self-appointed guardians of purity. They attack any woman they see as less Islamic than them:
"Sister! Your hair is showing!" or "Sister! You should wear some loose clothes!" or "Sister! Pray like this! Not like this!"
Everyone seemed more concerned at the appearance of how Islamic you are rather than leaving you alone.
Whereas the people of IIT in general were much more refined, relaxed, polite, sophisticated and accepting.
Now I am not mentioning the name of the other mosque (if you live here you can guess) as it does a LOT of good work, especially in the community - such as running a food bank, a soup kitchen, inter faith etc. So I don't want this one aspect to distract from their other good work, especially sticking firmly to some fiqh principles such as not using zakat money for the mosque, relying on proper moon sighting than calculations, etc. However, it's not what I would call a family mosque. It's a man's mosque with a woman's section.
Thoughts on the Women's Mosque in California
You may have heard or read about Women's only mosque that is now being run out of an interfaith centre in California. This is what I think about it.
I am happy to see that right now they have made all efforts to stick to orthodox Islamic positions on most fiqh aspects. It's not an inter-gender mixed prayer led by a female - it's a female only prayer service. Yes, there were some concerns on if a Jummah is valid if it's only women, but I leave that for the scholars. Right now there is a concentrated effort to work with the broader Muslim community, and that's nice to see. On another note, if mosques continuously undermine their women congregants, they shouldn't be surprised when women take matters into their own hands.
So for now, I don't have any issues so far, but this is something we can keep an eye on. There are some people who want to use these sort of issues as a wedge issue in the community, and perhaps push their own so-called "progressive agenda", but it would be unfair to comment on the Women's mosque right now because nothing like that has happened yet.
What I would hope, and pray for, is that most mosques take this initiative as a lesson, and rectify themselves, so that rather than fighting over a man's mosque or a woman's mosque, we can make the mosque a family (community) mosque.