In 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.