Creating Space: Mosques Affirming All Bodies, Minds, and Hearts by Laury Silvers


Silvers, Bio Pic FRBlogIn my first blog for Feminism and Religion, I discussed the cognitive and embodied dissonance that some Muslims experience as a result of historically (not eternally) gendered ritual forms. I ended with a promise to share with readers the ways in which el-Tawhid Juma Circle mosques try to create space to break free of those forms. Our mosques affirm all human beings as spiritually, socially, and ritually equal and try to break down the social hierarchy of ritual and theological leadership by opening up a space for all bodies, minds, and hearts to lead and follow as equals among each other.

Breaking out of cognitive and embodied dissonance requires cognitive and embodied habituation to what Amina Wadud names, “The Tawhidic Principle.”  Meaning, the space must be one in which human beings can embody divine oneness by recognizing that their relationships with each other are on the horizontal plane and refrain from mediating between any other individual and God on the vertical plane.  Wadud has described it as a triangle in which God is at the top with self and other at the two points beneath. Each has an individual relationship with God and a relationship of reciprocitous community with each other. Wadud argues that to mediate between another and God is nothing other than idolatry because the mediator forces another to accept that satisfying his expectations is the same as satisfying God.

Sufis make an analogy to tasting an apple to explain that God cannot be known fully in oneself except through direct experience. One cannot know an apple by hearing someone describe it or by understanding all of its elements intellectually. One must eat the apple and taste it for oneself. Our mosques seek to act as resources for the message that all human beings are ritually, spiritually, and socially equal to one another. Likewise, we try provide intellectual resources for analyses and critiques of historically patriarchal forms in Islam. But the key to the work we do is our effort to create a space in which people may carve out their own relationship with God directly in whichever way is healthiest for them.

Several related ground rules guide the establishment and maintenance of our spaces. They are rooted in the assumption that all human beings, all families, all bodies, and all loves are equal.  It’s not a point of discussion for us. First, everyone is an imam.  Second, people must be free to stand and sit where they feel comfortable.  Third, people must be free to physically express themselves and dress in a way that befits their own relationship with God. Fourth, people must be free to express their experience without correction or silencing.

Everyone has equal access to all possible roles in ritual leadership. Imagine a mosque in which all children are encouraged to learn to lead the prayer or give a sermon (with an adult partner to do the Arabic parts, a sweet one might tell us about a story with a message she loves). Imagine a mosque in which those of all abilities, all gender and sexual expressions, all bodies, all expressions of Islam, and all language abilities are welcome to call out to God by leading the prayer, giving a sermon, making the call to prayer, offering the group supplications, making tea, doing outreach, and sharing in each other’s sorrows and joys. Imagine a mosque in which there is no side entrance for anyone literally or metaphorically.  This is our vision.

We say that we pray “Mecca Style,” but it is more than that. Those who have experienced sitting behind and without access to the imam may want to sit and stand in front. Those who have felt they had to hide at the sides or the back because their sexual identity opened them to humiliation or worse at other mosques may want to stand in the center or in the front. Families may want to sit together so children are not separated from their parents, so parents can take turns caring for the children together, and so they make experience community life in prayer together. Men who come to us, because they reject the social hierarchy of mosque organization, may want to stand in back to reject the “right” to stand in front.

Our dress code asks that we clothe ourselves in accordance with the nobility of the soul. There can be no policing of bodies. No declarations that nail polish, the lack of head scarf, or a t-shirt with a musician’s image on it are threatening a person’s relationship with God. This is easy to accept when a person wears unrevealing clothing. But if someone comes in wearing very low cut jeans and a thong that shows when they bend over, then it’s a bit harder.  Even for us. But everyone must accept that the individual determines their body’s relationship with God. And the effect of their dress on others? Anyone who does not feel comfortable praying behind them, should not pray behind them. We try to help people understand that their gaze is their responsibility.

People must not be silenced. In such mosques, one’s words cannot be censored by others.  From AA, we have borrowed the no crosstalk rule. We often have a discussion period on Fridays and people share where they are with God, individually. Admittedly, it is hard not to affirm or deny a view when it resonates with you for good or ill. It’s hard not to clarify for others. It’s hard not to try to bridge differences. But being committed to the struggle to speak only for oneself only is to learn to acknowledge the true humanity in others and to enter into relationships of reciprocity with them. It is to acknowledge the diversity of souls and paths to God and learn from them.

Each week at the mosque is a work in progress.  The struggle for those of us who do the day to day work of running these mosques is to find that delicate balance between opening a safe space for others and crowding them out with our efforts to do the right thing. While we see ourselves as part of global Muslim movements, diverse in their visions, who imagine human dignity beyond the bounds of the traditional social hierarchy, our mosques must be for the people who come to us and not the broader movements. The people are the purpose of our work. Thus the mosque should not highlight those who took the risks to establish it and do the hard work of running it each week. Paradoxically, creating a space for others means that one has to remove oneself from the center so that people may create their own dwelling in God’s presence. That is not always easy, but tawhid is not a thing, it is a process. May we keep on keeping on.

Laury Silvers is a Muslim academic and accidental activist. She is a sessional professor at the University of Toronto for the Department for the Study of Religion. She writes on Sufism in Early Islam, as well as women’s religious authority and theological concerns in North American Islam. See her website for her publications.

With El-Farouk Khaki and Troy Jackson, she founded Toronto Unity Mosque (ETJC) to serve all who desire to worship in full equality with others.  Find us on Facebook.  ETJC prayer communities are located in Toronto, Montreal, Boston, London (Ontario), and Vancouver.  Other prayer spaces committed to human equality are run by Muslims for Progressive Values, USA, the Inclusive Mosque Initiative in London, UK, and individuals.  Maybe you too?  We help people start their own communities.

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Categories: Activism, Body, Embodiment, Gender, Gender and Power, Gender and Sexuality, General, Healing, Islam, LGBTQ, Ritual, Spiritual Journey, Women Religious, Women's Agency

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40 replies

  1. Thank you for the article Professor Silvers and the work you’re doing.

    I have a question. Is it true that in the Ibadi sect of Islam women can lead prayer? I’d heard about this, but I was surprised because the Ibadis are mainly in the Arabian Peninsula which is the most conservative place in the muslim world.

    Thanks for any feedback

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  2. Thank you for the article Professor Silvers and the work you’re doing.

    I have a question. Is it true that in the Ibadi sect of Islam women can lead prayer? I’d heard about this, but I was surprised because the Ibadis are mainly in the Arabian Peninsula which is the most conservative place in the muslim world.

    Thanks for any feedback

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    • I don’t know about the Ibadis, but there is support from two 12er Shia marja` taqlids (names forgotten, but I can get them) and a few Sunni scholars past and present. Shaykh Ali Gomaa (who certainly has his problems) has a fatwa on his website which says that woman-led prayer is permissible if the community accepts it. He says Egypt does not, but he cannot give fatwas for other regions. They must decide for themselves. Even Hamza Yusuf said that there is no consensus on the prohibition of it and that it could be argued. To be honest, I think the legal brouhaha of woman led prayer is over given that it can be argued to be possible even if considered not a good idea to implement. Of course it is not at all over for people who are still working it through personally and especially for those who are dead-set against it, but over in the sense that the legal scandal of it is now falling away very slowly but also surely.

      Marion Katz has an excellent chapter on the history of the rulings concerning woman-led prayer in her book Prayer, Islamic, Thought, and Practice (if you are on a university website that subscribes to Cambridge U Press, you can read the chapter online). It has the added benefit of summarizing a few points made by Behnam Sadeghi in his detailed (and dense!) book, The Logic of Law-Making: Women and Prayer in the Legal Tradition (likewise can be read online through a Cambridge UP subscription). I co-wrote an article with Ahmed Elewa on the legalities of it, including our argument in favor (Elewa’s thesis at Azhar…which passed), and some analysis of the contemporary situation (Sadeghi’s work shows we were wrong about the Hanafi classical positions, btw). You can download from my website (the link is in my bio).

      And thank you for your supportive words!

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  3. Coming from you, Carol, all I can do is blush and grin. If I can finally offer up my fan letter, you’ve been a beacon of light for so many. Thank you.

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  4. Woo hoo! I’ve been waiting for this. Thank you. I love this piece and I love the way this space works. I was raised to believe that as a Muslim my relationship to God is my own and only my own. That not only do I not need anyone to intercede but I’m not supposed to have anyone intercede. But then all other messages I really received from Muslim communities was about how I was supposed to obey rules made by people (men) if I wanted to please God. If my hair is showing during prayer God won’t accept it; if my hands are in the wrong position God won’t listen to me; if I’m wearing nail polish God won’t accept my prayers ; if I’m wearing too much perfume God won’t like me; if I say a prayer in English instead of Arabic it’s not as pleasing to God, etc., etc., etc. In my mind that seemed like men were trying to stand in between me and God. And prayer spaces are usually the worst. I’m more concerned about what people are thinking of me than my connection to God. All this seemed a way for people to intercede. I could only connect to God once people approved of me. So it’s so nice see the focus of the Juma circles be just that personal connection with God.

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  5. A few friends and I have been trying “Mecca Style” since September. It has been extremely empowering and…fun. It is fun to get together with friends, fun to hear their thoughts and interpretations of scripture, fun to see them challenge themselves, fun to feel I can enter a prayer space ‘uncensored’ and free from criticism. I can breathe easier.

    However, my future vision is not a mosque of our own, it is rather an interfaith chapel (like you see at an airport or hospital). A building which would have Muslims on Friday, Jews on Saturday, Christians on Sunday, recovery programs on Monday, Goddess congregation on Tuesday, Buddhists on Wednesday and secular humanists on Thursday. You buy a membership into the community, and you can sample from as many programs as you want. It would be a built-in interfaith center and we could learn from each other. I also feel that a secular humanist might be more willing to defend my freedom to worship as I choose compared to some of my more conservative orthodox co-religionists.

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    • You have a beautiful vision! May you make it happen! I’m so glad what you are doing so far is working out so well. Just a bit of a shift makes a big difference. Alhamdulilah.

      We want to do something similar to this. Down the line, we would like to share a building with other small congregations with the same outlook. Not specifically an interfaith space, but rather a shared space where each is fully their own and need not concede theological or ritual ground in order to understand each other. We’d come together as distinct communities that share space under a common vision of full equality.

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    • NMR —

      I love your vision, probably because I’m a Unitarian Universalist, where all of those religious traditions are welcome and gather together. We don’t organize it on a day-to-day basis, but all of those faiths show up during the year, in sermons, in music, in ritual, etc.

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  6. This is totally awesome Laury! May I share it?

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  7. Buddhism teaches this same truth, being universal in all forms of meditation, where you say: “Sufis make an analogy to tasting an apple to explain that God cannot be known fully in oneself except through direct experience.” I have a Buddhist friend who obtained enlightenment while she was scrubbing windows in her home, losing herself in the quietude, and the repetition, in the suds and the brushing (like the whirling of the Sufi Dervishes she said) and suddenly a huge awakening!

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  8. I saw a film recently on the whirling dervishes and was thrilled by it. You have a fascinating tradition!!! Thanks for your post here, Laury, much to think about.

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    • Ah! So glad to hear that! Sufism is a lovely inroad to learning about Muslims since even Muslims who do not consider themselves on that path understand the principle of “doing things beautifully” to be at the heart of perfecting oneself as a human being. The Real may be One, but the paths are most definitely many! Thank you for this very generous comment.

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  9. Laury —

    I’m so happy to hear about the Tawhidic principle and the mosques that are organized around it. How exciting! What a wonderful feminist space you’re creating! All of the values you manifest in your mosques remind me of feminist Wicca, of which I am a part. Having grown up Protestant, the way I describe our organizational principle is that we believe in an actualized “priest(ess)hood of all believers,” with a rotating leadership. Of course, we are body-positive. And we’re open to all sexual orientations, races, genders, ages, ethnicities, etc. I certainly learned much from the children with whom I’ve done ritual (and even more so from my daughter when she was young). And we believe that each one of us is a manifestation of the divine. I think I would feel quite comfortable in your mosque (especially since I’m good at translating “God” into “Goddess,” if need be).

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    • I’m so pleased! I thought and hoped our vision would resonate with others here! I love the description of your worship space. It feels so natural, natural to worship. That is what we want, something natural to divine Love and Wholeness. You are welcome to join us if you come to Toronto. It would be a real honor. Truly.

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  10. Laury, this is a wonderful description of the important work you’ve been doing. I was thrilled to hear that there is a community sprouting in Boston, too. I look forward to having a chance to worship with community members.

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  11. May this year and every year bring more inclusive sacred spaces and people together. Thanks for what you do..everyday!

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  12. Sorry for the late comment

    Mecca style Mosque—I hope this idea spreads and becomes mainstream—to what degree and style a mosque will implement this may differ (and that is great) but the central principle of equality and empowerment for all members brings a strong foundation to build on……

    Going forward, this will require a balancing between individual rights and community rights—but such tensions will perhaps create space for reciprocity in tolerance and respect.

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    • Thank you for these comments. I hoped when writing this blog that someone might consider adopting an element or two into their own community. I have to say, I never imagined anyone thinking that “Mecca style” would work in standard mosques! That would be lovely. I do wonder why standard mosques–if the architecture of the place allowed it–would not have a family section at least. I remember hearing recently of a mosque that does that, I’ve lost the reference though.

      For us, community “rights” means preserving the dignity of the individuals. But that doesn’t mean a free for all. People there realize that when children are present, they must not share experiences, or articulate those experiences, in a way that is inappropriate for the kids. They cannot offer unsolicited opinions. That sort of thing. So there is a working balance between community and individual rights.

      I think it all has to do with the values of the community. If the values are based in dignity through full equality, then certain things follow. If the values are based in dignity through “equity,” then community rights will result in different expectations of individual rights. In the latter case, the community’s rights entail limiting women’s equality.

      Given my conversations with women from such communities there seems to be little interest in women’s full equality, including among the women (and that includes strong young women). They want their patriarchal worship space to be the best patriarchy it can be. So from what I can see, there is a healthy tension in some these communities in which women are more and more impatient with issues such as better mosque entrances and prayer spaces, women placed in non-ritual leadership positions, women’s issues represented in mosque work, proper handling of issues like DV. But full equality? I don’t see much interest in it. So tension is good, I agree, but it will end in a different way of understanding of reciprocity and respect than I’ve outlined here.

      All that said, I don’t see why some of the issues here cannot be adopted….maybe, maybe theological tolerance even?

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  13. Love it Laury! Your words are inspiring but also worrying because I dont see to much will to make mosques equal spaces, so I am very pro of the idea of women and people who feel isolated create their own spaces

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    • It’s a very good point. Frankly, I thought there could be no effect on mainstream mosques from this kind of thinking too. But one thing we saw as a result of Amina Wadud’s work and the ongoing critique (like you produce) is that those committed to mainstream mosques–not all, but at least a significant number–want to make them more “welcoming” to women and even lgbtq people. This means providing better space, better services, and running anti-bullying programs. This doesn’t mean it works out perfectly at all (or at all in the case of the anti-bullying campaigns which seem more like gestures to me), but there does seem to be movement. I heard it said once that people as far off to the left as we are push the center somewhat left as well. That may be true. So no, I don’t believe I’ll ever find a mainstream mosque that would accept me fully as who I am, but most Muslims are not like me.

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      • I heard it said once that people as far off to the left as we are push the centre somewhat left as well.

        I believe that was Andy Warhol. Incidently, Professor Silvers, do you personally find it useful to use political terms like “left” and “right” in regards to religious discourse?

        Thanks

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      • It’s useful in the sense of shorthand, but it could be mistaken if centuries later someone tried to turn my shorthand comments into a systematic analysis of political conservativism and liberalism with respect to contemporary NA Muslim attitudes. So sloppy shorthand. I am sure someone will give me some serious critique about it at some point. Maybe you can suggest something else so I don’t get in trouble! But think about this, if we are pushing the center one way or another, what am I also saying about what the center is? Who decides “center”? To be perfectly honest, I do not believe there is a center. There are multiple narratives about claims to be the center, but there is no center. All these terms are a problem. I only call myself progressive now as shorthand for “I’m about gender/lgbtq-equality.” It tells people straightaway not to confide in me about something that is going to piss me off, lol. But I don’t identify with the values of a good number of people who call themselves progressive because they have turned “progressive” into a kind of American triumphalism and Good Muslim dog and pony show that makes me more than a little sick. All to say, I am at a loss.

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      • I was thinking more in terms of epistemology and hermeneutics rather than social values. There seem’s to be a confusion when discussing religion, between attitudes to social values and approach to a tradition. I know for example that some of the Hanbali imams historically were not as socially conservative towards certain pratices as the modern Wahhabi neo-Hanbalis, but they’re still using the same epistemology.

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      • Fascinating! But I’m not clear on the distinction you are making between social values and “tradition” (if that is what you are doing, you’ll have to forgive me it’s not yet the end of a long day and I’m already a bit burnt out). Are they distinct? Meaning do social values have no relationship to the way tradition is both shaped by human beings and shaping in turn? I don’t think they are…for me, all of religious life (all of it) is a human construction. The Qur’an is revelation, but that revelation for us is constructed through human engagement and understanding over time and place, differing not just in socio-historical contexts but also in personal inclination (did someone’s mother beat them…how does this affect their reading of particular commands of God?). So it should not be surprising that if they have the same skeletal epistemology (if there really is no change there, and I doubt that), the flesh and clothing would be quite different.

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      • Fascinating! But I’m not clear on the distinction you are making between social values and “tradition”

        Well for example, the early Hanafis and proto-Hanafis are known for not being too reliant on text (hadeeth) for their rulings. Some would call this methodology “liberal”, as opposed to the conservative position of only relying on texts/historic communal practice. However, the Hanafis are as far as I know the only school that says women can’t go to mosques. This is justified on the basis of existing social conditions, not on text. Basically, liberal methodology, doesn’t necessarily always lead to liberal rulings. Ibn Hazm’s thought would be another example of this.

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      • Okay, now I see what you are getting at. You mean “social conditions” as principle of legal interpretation. Your point about “liberal” is excellent. It only is “liberal” if someone tends towards a Qur’an only perspective and sees hadith as too problematic to work with. These labels are not typically helpful because they are always taken up from a necessarily limited perspective (position). My favorite example of why Qur’an only is a problem is the Prophet’s resistance to the end point in 4:34. Without the Prophet’s example, it is much harder to argue that beating is not encouraged by the Qur’an. It can be done and it has been done, but the Prophet’s own response to that verse is crucial from where I stand.

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      • I’m not sure if I necessarily explained it the best way. It’s like people throw around terms like “maslaha” and “ijtihad”, as concepts that if adopted will automatically resolve all the problems in muslim communities. Why? Because they’re seen as possible tools that can be used to inject humanist/rationalist impulses into Islamic jurisprudence. That doesn’t necessarily lead to liberal social/political values though. It could be argued that the Iranian government system is founded on a belief in the necessity of “ijtihad”. Likewise “maslaha” could be, and has been used to restrict rights of people.

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      • I don’t disagree with you there. That’s pretty much my first point, these interpretive principles are only what they as they used (some limits, obviously).

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