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Re-Imagining Muslim Spaces

The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) just hosted its 53rd Annual Convention in Chicago. 

The theme this year was Turning Points: Navigating Challenges, Seizing Opportunities. ISNA is considered the most official convener of Muslims in North America and is widely regarded as one of the few well established and institutionalized representatives of the American Muslim community.  This year, in keeping with their progressive agenda, they hosted a multiplicity of relevant and timely sessions, including a session co- sponsored by the institute of Social Policy and Understanding to present the results of an ongoing study titled; Reimagining Muslim spaces.

“There are two kinds of people proclaiming that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world. The first are Christian evangelicals who are doing it in the spirit of paranoia. And the second are Muslims who are doing it in the spirit of triumphalism.”

These were some of the opening remarks by Ustad Ubaydullah Evans, the first Scholar-in-Residence for the American Learning Institute for Muslims (ALIM) at the 53rd Annual ISNA convention session on creating welcoming mosques and caring for converts.

The impression left by Ustad Evans’ initial remark was that we live in an age of subjective interpretations. Our perception of reality is largely based on either fear or fictions but never the facts it seems.

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The truth, he continued, “Is that Islam may very well be the fastest disappearing religion in the world.” At least thirty percent of converts into Islam leave the faith just within the first year. And as Ustad Evans rightfully pointed out to his audience, “It is not because they grew dissatisfied with Islamic theology but because of the unwelcoming environment they encountered in our community and spaces. It was due to the anti-sociability of Muslims.” He said.

What Ustad Ubaydallah is talking about in describing the convert experience was reinforced by another growing demographic of mainly young Muslims who are also feeling increasingly left out of their local mosques. A phenomenon that was documented in a popular film titled- ‘Unmosqued’.

In response to these alarming trends a research based organization called the Institute of social policy and understanding or ISPU was created to inject some much needed objectivity into the process of community development that has, up until recently, been driven by the subjective and sheltered perceptions of a largely immigrant community.

ISPU’s mission, as highlighted on their website, is to “conduct objective, solution-seeking research that empowers American Muslims to further community development and fully contribute to democracy and pluralism in the United States.”

Some of the more common concerns that the data has shown include lack of worship space for women, gender segregation, and the growing disenchantment with khutbas (sermons) that don’t address current issues.

To face these mounting concerns a new study spearheaded by the ISPU titled Reimagining Muslim Spaces intends “to stimulate and support mosques and community centers to meet the diverse social, civic, and economic needs of their congregants with special attention to often marginalized groups, including women, youth, and converts.”

Paving the path towards this and other research initiatives are pioneering voices like panel members Imam khalid Latif and Anse Tamara Gray.

The executive Director and Chaplain for the Islamic Center at New York University (NYU) Imam Khalid Latif adopted a strategy of data assessment. He spoke to fifty or sixty converts and from those narratives, was able to develop recommendations and establish a program for converts. Some of the recommendations that grew out of their research included Monthly brunches, mentoring programs and regular classes. But according to Imam Latif, the first thing to do when building a program is to “yield to the idea that the primary source of information on how to take care of somebody is the person themselves.”

Imam Latif takes his job very seriously and cautioned against a mindset that is eager to celebrate once a person converts but never follows up on what happens to them after they have done so.

“If you find yourself in a communal leadership position,” he warns, “then you need to do it well, and if you are not doing it well, then get out of the way or don’t do it at all. Because it’s not a joke, these are real lives and there are real implications.”

Founder of Rabata, an organization dedicated to individual empowerment, spiritual upbringing of women by women, and the revival of the female voice in scholarship, Tamara Gray is also leading the way in better practices for convert care. She not only reinforced some of the recommendations made by the ISPU, that will later be officially highlighted in the ISPU policy guide, but she also recommended a program to help converts maintain their relationships with non-Muslim family members, as well as with old friends and new ones. A program she calls ’tending the ties.’

She cautioned against advising converts to get married. “There is this sort of idea that marriage is going to solve all of one’s problem. But many converts come with all sorts of baggage that they need to work through before they can enter into marriage, so we want to be careful of thinking that marriage is some kind of cure” she said.

“Never offer convert women the option of being a second wife. Remember, “she says,” this is not their culture. They are not going to be happy period. This is not about shariah. This is about culture. The prophet never married from the Ansar. And when asked why, he said this is a distasteful practice for them.”

Islamic studies professor Ihsan Bagby and chair of ISNA’S masjid development Committee concluded with a brief recap of the ISPU’s study that included fifteen focus groups across America. The main recommendations that grew out of those groups were two. First, Masjids should provide mentors, not just for knowledge but for socialization. Knowledge is necessary but much easier to deliver than the building of relationships with other Muslims. And two, provide a support group for converts.

The ISPU has joined hands with ISNA to sponsor a Masjid Forum and discuss these many issues facing our mosques. And while the research is on-going, Sister Tamara Gray, who is often invited to speak at mosques across the nation, has developed her own policy for grading mosques. “If I can’t bring my (non-Muslim) mother to a speaking engagement at the mosque, I will decline to speak there.” Tamara like many converts in our communities do not feel that there is a space within their mosques where their non-Muslim family members can feel welcome rather than awkward. “And my response to that,” says Tamara “is to build a third space” a term now being used to describe spaces functioning as alternatives to today’s mosques.

Unmosqued, third spaces, and the reimagining of Muslim spaces are the newly coined terms of a newly evolving American Muslim community that is both growing and shrinking all at once.