Learning from the Nation by Jameelah X. Medina


Jameelah MedinaOne thing about the Nation of Islam (NOI) mosques that I have always enjoyed in comparison to mainstream Islamic mosques is that the gender separation is side-by-side rather than front-to-back with the women always in the back on the same level or in the back on a balcony or in a completely separate room in the back.

A few Sundays ago I went to the local NOI Mosque #97 and enjoyed the khutba (sermon) all in English and culturally relevant. I enjoyed it from the same room as the men, with complete access and in reach of the imam. Men were not given the prime seating in the front with women relegated to the back of the room. The front rows and all rows consisted of men and women equally. This is a complete departure from what I am used to in mainstream Islamic mosques I used to frequent.

I am an “unmosqued” Muslim, but an NOI friend recently asked me to take her to one of the mosques I used to frequent. So, last Friday I took her to the Islamic Center of the Inland Empire. At this mosque, the gender separation began at the door where women place our shoes to the left of the main door and men place theirs to the right. We all entered the same main door, but women with children proceed to a separate room on the left, while other women head upstairs to the balcony, and men walk straight ahead to the main hall where the imam is.

As we listened to the imam over a speaker and watched him on the television screen, I kept thinking how invisible and disconnected I felt as compared to the NOI mosque where I frequently made eye contact with the imam as he spoke. When the imam began speaking in Arabic toward the end of his khutba, I totally tuned out. I wondered how many could actually understand him since there were many Pakistani women in the balcony with us. Another difference I noticed was the hospitality.

At the NOI mosque, the women greeted each other and me with holding of hands and kisses to the cheeks while giving each other “salaams.” At the other mosque, there was not so much as eye contact or a smile between us and the women. Those who knew each other convened to talk, but there was no random hugging or “salaaming” going on. Taking her to this mosque reminded me of just how cold and lifeless the mosque was for me. Even so, we are planning on going to another area mosque, Dar al-‘Uloom, to start Ramadan. It will be interesting to see her perspective on that mosque (where I was married) and to see how I will feel returning to it after so long. Oh, how I long for a mosque without mandatory gender division.

 

Jameelah X. Medina, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and orator. Her latest book, ABCs of Living a Good Life: 26 Things I’ve Learned along the Way, is available for free on her website:www.jameelahmedina.com. She is also the owner and operator of Dr. J’s Apothecary where she makes all-natural products for health and wellness.

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Categories: Islam, Ramadan, Sisterhood

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19 replies

  1. I think this proves my point that the culprit, rather than being Islam, is the patriarchal arabic culture. Ultimately, religion is culture, no more and no less. Nation of Islam islam is not Saudi Islam, which isn’t Indonesian Islam, which isn’t West African Islam or Kurdish Islam. Nor is African American Christianity the same as non-AA Christianity.
    For each locale, there is a predominant culture, sometimes preceding Islam itself, which determines what cloth Islam wears. Is it niqabi, hijabi, discriminatory, inclusive, political or welcoming?
    The same patriarchy that the Prophet AS fought against, which translated in his times in women having equal access to the mosque is that which has taken hold once more of our houses of worship, financed majorly by funds from immigrants from islamic countries where women have less rights, and Saudi funds, which come with the extremism of Wahhabism attached.

    Interesting enough, when I lived in Harlem 20 years ago, I started attending the local NOI mosque where I was shocked by the political tone and content of the khutba, which led me to trek across town for the sunni mosque where the khutbah was never political.
    In hindsight, I realize how essential that is and miss it sometimes.

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  2. I’m glad that women get their own side, but why separate men and women in the first place? What does it mean to be unmosqued?

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    • Unmosqued means that as a Muslim, I do not feel completely accepted nor represented in any mosque I have frequented. So, I have no regular mosque I attend.

      There is no valid reason for me why men and women need to be separated as mandatory. However, I could give you the mainstream answers.

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      • Ahhh, many thanks for explaining. I’m what is called a solitary Pagan, which means I belong to no tradition and go to public rituals where I please and to private rituals when I’m invited. I do, however, nearly always feel comfortable and accepted with other Pagans, even the strictest Gardnerians (who are, so to speak, “orthodox” Wiccans).

        And having edited a long (half a million words) book about Islam, it’s possible that I know some of the mainstream answers. Years ago, I attended two or three rituals at the home of a Pagan high priest, a man who always made sure his high priestess was younger and less knowledgeable than he was. Yes, there is patriarchy in Paganism. Sigh.

        You’re very brave and wise and I wish you well.

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  3. Can you worship in an NOI mosque if you are not black? I have heard stories of white people being turned away at the door, unless they were accompanied by an NOI member who could ‘vouch’ for them.

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    • Yes. Anyone can attend as a guest of someone or even on their own to learn about the NOI. There are white people, latin@s and native americans who attend the mosque, but nowhere near the number of black and mixed black/white people.

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  4. The orthodox Jewish faith has much the same issues as your mosques. Sometimes women are totally out of sight, and sometimes they sit in the same rows, split right and left. For a while I attended an orthodox synagogue that had women and men sitting side by side, but with a mehitza (a curtain between them) tall enough so they couldn’t see each other. At first I was offended by this separation. Then I came to like it. In most churches, and in most non-orthodox synagogues, families sit together, forming small concentric circles of energy around themselves. As a single person, I often felt excluded from those little circles. With a mehitza, it felt like ribbons of energy lept around the congregation, creating a great mesh that held everyone. Oddly, I really felt included in that organization. (I still have trouble with only men being allowed to read Torah in orthodox communities, but that is a whole other issue — lol)

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    • Thank you for sharing this! Your comments are one reason why I don’t think mixing men and women together should be mandatory. I feel like there are probably plenty of women who love the separation; I’m just not one of them.

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    • I would love to worship with my husband in a mosque!

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  5. Greek Orthodox Christian churches today have separate sides–women on the left, men on the right, usually most people standing. But a generation ago, women and children were in the upper floor balcony, where they could only look down.

    Now and then women cannot go behind the iconostasis to the altar of the holy of holies. Male children are brought “to God” but females–adult and babies–must stay on the other side of the barrier.

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    • Carol, are you referring to Greek Orthodox churches in Greece? Because I’ve been in a lot of Greek Orthodox churches in the US and have never been in one that segregated women and men in the aisles. That’s not to say that the Greek Orthodox church in the US isn’t woefully patriarchal. It is. They are still adamant about women not entering the clergy and as you said they do not even allow women to go behind the iconostasis. It drove me away from the church early on despite my families dedication to it.

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    • See, this is so interesting that this issue is in this community too.

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  6. Forgive me for not addressing your gender comments. I want to share some thoughts related to the points you were making about feeling welcomed. In my experience, being a black or white Muslim (except in certain elite circumstances: such as being an white female convert who acts as the idealized perfect worshipper held up by others as a shaming example to other female Muslims, a white male convert of nearly any type, or a black male scholar) means being treated as an “inauthentic” Muslim in many cases. The micro-marginalizing is apparent, always. The only time I have felt fully accepted in a regular American Muslim community was at a black majority mosque I was part of for about 5 years around the turn of the century in which most of the members had been in the Nation or Warith Deen mosques before transitioning to a more globally-standard Sunni practice. When South Asian Muslims would show up back then, they definitely felt like we were strange with our “American” food set out for iftar rather than proper “Muslim” food. Now mind you this was in the ’90’s.Things are supposed to have changed in a lot of mosques, but maybe not enough that you are posting this!

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