Ramadan 2014 – A Mosque Story (by Wajahat Ali)

This article comes on Day 15 of our special Altmuslim/Patheos Muslim Ramadan #30Days30Writers blog project, in which we are showcasing the voices of 30 Muslim leaders, activists, scholars, writers, youth and more (one on each day of Ramadan) as part of our commitment to own our own narratives and show how we are one Ummah, many voices. To demonstrate how our Ramadan experiences are shared yet unique to each of us.

Editor’s note. This post was first published three years ago in Patheos Muslim’s Ramadan blog, “Spiritual Appetite with Wajahat Ali.” Although Wajahat, Aman Ali and Bassam Tariq (who are featured in this post) have moved on to other projects and jobs, their discussions and stories in this “Mosque Story” post are as relevant today as they were three years back. 

By Wajahat Ali

If Mosques are indeed Allah’s house on Earth, then many times it feels like the landowner has abandoned the premises and rambunctious squatters have claimed title through adverse possession.

Fortified Cultural Cocoons Controlled by Ibn Tony Montana

Visiting most mosques in America was always like entering a fortified, cultural cocoon controlled by middle-aged or elderly men who hung to power with an iron-clad desperation similar to dictators of countries they had left.

The closest I’ll ever come to seeing ethnic uncles become thug life and resemble Al Pacino’s Scarface is at Mosque Board Election Nights.

Ibn Tony Montana was right: “In Amereeka, first chu get the money, the chu get the power, then chu get the mosques!”

Mind you, this problem of “mosque power lust” afflicts all races and ethnicities and furthermore is prevalent in all “religious houses of worship.” Every religious community in America has to suffer the infamous “Board Election Nights.”

Several years ago the local newspaper reported an all out brawl between professional, upper class, educated Sikh men throwing fisticuffs over a simple bureaucratic dispute at the Gurdwara temple.

Like I said – thug life.

The Multi-Hyphenated Cultural Havens

Each “tribe” creates these nice havens which comport with their specific, multi hyphenated identities. Many times, sadly, the tent does not open wide enough to encompass other specific, multi hyphenated identities.

In Fremont, we have what I call the “Hyderabadi-Pakistani” mosque which was primarily started by South Asian immigrant families about 15 years ago converting a former beauty salon into a mosque for the Fremont Irvington community.

Only in America, right?

About 9 years ago, this “Hyderabadi” mosque evolved into the “Quasi-Tablighi Jamaat” mosque [“TJ” for short – they are a non-political, extremely popular, international grassroots movement dedicated to spiritual awakening and eating goodhalwa puri: a tasty, fattening South Asian dessert.]

I’m particularly gifted when it comes to sensing a “TJ-mosque takeover.”

It’s my Muslim-y Spidey Sense.

I saw it happen around 2002 when a few folks of the TJ variety started spending a lot of time at the mosque, which subsequently led to them sleeping over at the mosque. Which, of course, paved the way for the great “TJ migration” and soon thereafter the uncles’ pajamas went above their ankles and they grew out their bad-ass Rasputin beards overnight like advanced Muslim Chia Pets.

Again, I’ve got nothing against my TJ brothers – seriously. Well, one minor gripe is when they unexpectedly come to my house, usually during dinner or lunch time, to ask me if I’ve prayed. I welcome their visits and their talks, but they do deplete my kheer(a tasty, fattening, sweet, South Asian rice pudding dessert).

But, again, I’ve got nothing against my TJ brothers – seriously.

There’s also Muslim Community Association [MCA], which is a popular, expansive, well resourced mosque-center in Santa Clara. Aside from offering religious services, it also has a school, a library, a cafeteria, a basketball court, and large space for weddings and community events.

The Muslim American B.C.: “Backward –Ass Crazy” era

To me, it’s the equivalent of a Muslim Costco. It’s huge and I occasionally get lost but there’s lots of cool things to see and do. It houses many diverse communities and has progressed quite a bit from the 90’s B.C. era, which I refer to as the “Backward-Ass Crazy” era of Islam in America.

This was when most of our Muslim American organizations and many of our mosques adopted a brand of Islam that was rambunctiously reactive, culturally isolationist, and arrogantly dismissive.

The MCA board’s original constitution apparently said no women could serve on its Board and it also made a person ineligible for Board membership if they bought a home with interest.

I’ve been told by many of its current members and leaders that this was a mistake and continues to be a source of embarrassment.

Women: Back of the Bus

It’s sad but in several mosques women are relegated to the “Back of the Bus” status.

They get less space, less visibility, less air conditioning, less technological equipment, and many times less respect.

The trays of kheer (rice pudding) and halwa puri (sweet dessert with fried bread) are treated with more honor and respect. And people don’t mind mixing both, unlike the genders.

People tend to manifest their deepest insecurities and fears within the confines of the mosque that they otherwise ignore or tolerate in greater society. People deal with women at work, at school, in civil society, yet when we immediately enter the mosque it feels like an invisible, inorganic social-retarder is erected that perverts our sensibilities when dealing with the opposite gender.

Again, not all mosques are like this, but…this is a significant problem.

The Mosque does nothing to elevate my Soul

Personally, I’ve had no traumatic experiences with mosques. In fact, I often frequent the mosques I’ve mentioned and am proud of their accomplishments, growth and the various successes of its constituents.

However, I’ve never felt a strong affinity to any of my local mosques, or any mosque for that matter.

These houses of worship have never elevated me or inspired me spiritually, emotionally, culturally or intellectually.

A mosque is simply a place I have to go to offer my obligatory Friday prayers and occasionally check out a speech. That’s it.

It does nothing to elevate my soul.

For the past few months, however, I’ve felt some guilt over my relationship, or lack thereof, with local mosques.

Is something wrong with me? Have other people figured out the magic Mosque Playhouse secret word that gives them instant gratification and fulfilling experiences? Do I just expect or demand too much because I’m a petulant curmudgeon?

Photo courtesy of “30 Days, 30 Mosques”

30 Mosques in 30 Days

I thought of these questions when I met up with Aman Ali and Bassam Tariq of the wildly popular “30 Mosques in 30 Days project”. They visited the Ta’leef Collective in Fremont on Day 4 of their month long journey. Ta’leef is not comfortable calling itself a mosque, instead it promotes itself a safe space for Muslins to create a “healthy understanding, embrace and realization of Islam.”  Here, I saw dudes with thug tats up to their neck and running down their arms. In an ordinary mosque, these guys would get verbally accosted and eyeball-grilled.

But here they were sitting side by side with tat-less, bearded men sitting holding their infant daughters. The majority of the 200 or so ethnically diverse people that assembled for the Iftar [the nightly breaking of the fast at sunset] were college-aged youth and professionals in their 20’s. I even sat next to HBO Def Jam poet Amir Sulaiman, who was visiting. He decided to share his electrifying poem on Somalia, which I’ve republished on this blog with his permission.

The diversity was refreshing.

Aman, a reporter for Reuters by day, and Bassam, a filmmaker, came up with an inspired and deranged idea 3 years ago to tour 30 mosques in 30 states during 30 days of Ramadan.

I told Aman this confounds me. I would only visit 30 mosques if the MMA fighter Chuck Lidell threatened to repeatedly punch me in the face with brass knuckles. The mere thought of doing something like this seemed like a masochistic enterprise.

Thankfully, Aman and Bassam are braver men.

“Yo, wouldn’t be crazy if we did this? That’s how it started. With that idea – yo, wouldn’t it be crazy if…,” Aman recalls as we sipped some tasty, sweet North African chai at Ta’leef late at night post-Iftar festivities.

“But, as we got into, we started going deeper and deeper – and we realized we had only scratched the surface. There were mosques in communities that were as old as America. I’m talking about mosques that have been around for decades. And each mosque had a story. We wanted to explore that,” said Aman as he explained why he continued the “30 Mosques in 30 MDays” tradition last year for their second expedition.

This year, for year 3, Aman and company want to go even deeper.

Along for the ride this time around are talented, award winning artists: documentary filmmaker Musa Syeed and National Geographic photographer Omar Mullick who are filming the escapades for a “30 Mosques in 30 Days” related movie project.

Re-orienting our Perspective with Truth Goggles

After talking to Aman, I began to revisit my initial impressions of my local mosques.  Again, I felt a tinge of guilt due to my hesitation and resistance in actively engaging and participating with the communities.

We know that Ramadan is a month of profound reflection – or at least it should be.

It’s a month where we peel back the layers of our own “self” through intense, honest introspection. We are supposed to reframe and reorient our perspectives by putting on our “truth” goggles – even it does cause temporary discomfort and unease.

Upon reflection, I realized that a mosque is simply brick and mortar.

That’s it. Nothing more.

A mosque is worth only as much as the people inside it. It’s the communities that give the mosque meaning and weight. How we serve our Creator and our fellow neighbors is ultimately reflected in the spirit of each and every mosque.

Jack in the Box, a Church Parking lot, a Filipino American Guard, and a Mosque

So, I thought about the Hyderabadi -turned -quasi-TJ mosque and looked at it with a fresh perspective during a recent Tarawih prayer (Voluntary night prayers during Ramadan in which the entire Quran is read and completed over a month.)

The mosque had expanded significantly in the past ten years with tent accommodations setup in the parking lot to house the extra crowds during Ramadan.

Many uncles from my youth now have a sage calm and wisdom about them that was surely gained from the mileage of significant life experience. A Filipino American security guard now directs the traffic and makes sure to call everyone “Dear.” The neighborhood Church graciously shares its large parking lot to accommodate our cars.

A Church allowing Muslim American to park cars in their parking lot so they can walk over and pray in their neighboring mosque — only in America.

And, of course, there’s the Jack in the Box across the street which conveniently serves as my last-second, Hail Mary parking spot when I’m running late to my obligatory Friday prayers.

MCA is also impressive, having undergone a brand new renovation. Communities from all ethnic backgrounds pack the Friday prayers, and the community space is used to help raise funds for the homeless, charities, schools and national/international relief organizations.

Just like the Muslim American community, the mosques aren’t perfect, and they never will be. And, yes, there is massive room for introspection, improvement and progress. But, as the communities evolve, so too will the mosques.

For the first time in ages, I feel like things are moving forward  in this ever-evolving “Mosque story,” and perhaps in my lifetime we might see a story that is more spiritually uplifting, inclusive, and inspiring.

A Voice That Soared to the Heavens

It’s this last point that brings me back to the Tal’eef Collective where I shall end this tale.

Before I had my chat with Aman and the “30 Mosques” crew, the Ta’leef crowd of about 200 did their nightly Isha communal prayers.  Beforehand, a gentleman rose up to give the adhaan, the call to prayer.

I had briefly met him and his friend right before walking into the prayer space. His friend, an elderly African American gentleman, was selling “Ramadan Greeting Cards” for $3.

“Buy one if you can.”

“I don’t have cash on me right now, but thank you. They look great.”

“Thank you. It’s my first time making them. But, inshallah, I’ll keep trying.  They’ll get better.”

Usama Canon, a founding director of Ta’leef, pointed this man out in the crowd that night and informed us he had served 37 years of his life behind bars. In prison, he converted to Islam, turned his life around and became the leader of his Muslim prison community.

His friend, who was about to rise to give the adhaan, had also served significant time behind bars.

Ramadan – a moment of reflection, introspection, and seeing our reality with a new perspective, right?

This man, a former convict who was selling $3 Ramadan Cards with his friend who had served 37 years, stood up and gave one of the most beautiful adhaans I had the pleasure of hearing in years.

His voice soared – beyond the bricks and mortars of a building that would not dare confine such a gift. We were all blessed and grateful to hitch-hike this voice that probably flirted with the Heavens, if even for the briefest of moments.

As I sat and listened, I shocked myself by spontaneously uttering something aloud that I never imagined I would say inside an American mosque.

Listening to the adhaan and seeing the diverse, energetic, passionate Muslim American faces around me, I simply reflected:

“This is beautiful.”

 Wajahat Ali is the co-host and digital producer, The Stream, Al Jazeera America at Al Jazeera Media Network and a consultant at the U.S. Department of State. He is a co-editor at “All American: 45 Men on Being Muslim” and the playwright of “The Domestic Crusaders.” He was a former associate editor (way back in the day) at Altmuslim.

About Dilshad Ali

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