Halfway – Reaching Out and Reaching In

Halfway – Reaching Out and Reaching In July 3, 2015
The author, at Nizamiye Cami in Johannesburg, South Africa
The author, at the Nizamiye Masjid

This is Day 16 of Hindtrospectives’ #MyMosqueMyStory series for Ramadan 2015

By Safiyyah Surtee

The brilliant full moon lovingly reminds me that we are midway through this month of mercy … her radiance inspires me to seek Light in the remaining two weeks and Hind’s #mymosquemystory project permits me to momentarily pause, to reflect on the past two weeks.

Men and women pray side-by-side separated by a partition at Masjid ul Islam/Safiyyah Surtee
Men and women pray separated by a vertical partition at Masjid ul Islam/Safiyyah Surtee

I feel more organized and put together this Ramadan – having made a dhikr, Quran reading and reflection writing schedule in the weeks leading up to the month, but I’ve also left ample room for spontaneity, like unpredictable kids, late nights with extended family and mosque hopping. I live in Johannesburg, South Africa – a mere ten years ago, being able to say I am “mosque hopping” would have been simply impossible – now however, there are numerous options available to women who want to attend prayers at the masjid. I am very finicky about my mosque experiences though – I generally steer very clear of spaces where women are invisible and silenced, which are unfortunately the vast majority of those options. This year however, I have made a concerted effort to to break out of my “inclusivity barometer” rigidity and go to some of these mosques, to be and connect with other communities – as stifling and stunting as the side entrances and small spaces can be, in addition to the frustration of my daughters who cannot access both of their parents in the mosque because of walls, curtains and disconnected sections.

I am most comfortable in the masjid I consider home – Masjid ul-Islam in Brixton, Johannesburg. Alhamdulillah since the beginning of this year, I have been nominated to serve on the mosque committee – which means the added responsibility of co-ordinating our Jumuah programs, Taraweeh tafseer and children’s play area for Ramadan – a weighty but worthy mandate, in the service of a higher goal – the pleasure of Allah. I am trying hard to follow in the footsteps of my predecessor by keeping our content and speakers relevant and dynamic. I am also working to schedule women speakers for the English Jumuah talk more frequently and regularly, seeking out diverse female voices from our community – this has been both immensely humbling and rewarding.

Twins in the masjid play-room/Safiyyah Surtee
Twins in the masjid play-room/Safiyyah Surtee

The challenge however with a masjid such as ours, is that our congregation is ideological and not geographical – which makes it difficult to always be there. With four year old twin girls, we try to make it at least every other night, braving the cold temperatures, to be with community. The girls love going to the masjid and particularly enjoy the nights where I deliver the tafseer before Taraweeh, as they get to sit up front by the microphone! Them being able to experience women in positions of authority and leadership in our masjid is so important for me, for their impressionable minds – I’m happy they are already able to question why all mosques aren’t like this.

We also celebrated their fourth birthday last night with post Taraweeh birthday cake, so it has been a month of many blessings. The girls are at a age when they can understand the concepts of not eating during the day, breaking the fast and increased mosque attendance – their questions and curiosity keep me on my toes. Another of those blessings has been the opportunity to share the month with our housekeeper, who embraced Islam last year, guiding her through this month and its idiosyncrasies.

My favourite experience thus far has been a visit to the Nizamiye Masjid situated halfway between Johannesburg and Pretoria, with a diverse group of people from different faiths and paths. The mosque is a replica of the Sulaymaniye Cami in Turkey, and has a warm, welcoming ambiance. Women are welcome to sit, pray or relax anywhere in the mosque, except during the actual congregational prayers when we must retreat to spacious and ample women’s sections. Families gather there for iftar and prayers, which are being led by the internationally renowned Mufti Ismail Menk this year – whilst his worldview does not resonate with my spiritual path – I immensely enjoyed his melodious Quran recitation in Taraweeh in such an exquisite setting – a feast for the spiritual senses. It has become pressing for me, in my personal capacity, to at least try to transcend divisions and divisiveness in my community, at a time when sectarianism is at a high – and so as we usually do, in the last ten nights, we hope to visit centres and mosques across the Sunni-Shi’a divide this year, too.

I made an intention the night before the first fast to focus deeply on shukr (gratitude) this Ramadan – and thus far, alhamdulillah, Allah has given me so much to be grateful for –  family, inclusive mosque spaces and time for the Quran. This Ramadan I have dedicated myself to a thematic meditation on our sacred book; I quote here from my last reflection:

“One of the immense blessings of a thematic reflection of Quran is being able to once again truly witness and fully appreciate the ways in which all of its beautiful teachings and deep wisdoms are intricately and inextricably interwoven into the radiant tapestry of our Islamic spirituality”.

I am also fasting from debates and arguments this Ramadan, even on gender related issues, which are so close to my heart. There will be time for activism again after Ramadan. I am using this month to cultivate within myself those seeds of Taqwa (God consciousness) and Ihsan (Excellence) which motivate my activism for justice.

Eid prayer at Masjid-ul-Islam/Safiyyah Surtee
Eid prayer at Masjid-ul-Islam/Safiyyah Surtee

Safiyyah Surtee is a postgraduate candidate working on Fiqh and women’s embodiment at the University of Johannesburg where she has taught courses on Islam and Gender Justice. Safiyyah serves on the committee of Masjid al-Islam, a gender inclusive, non-sectarian mosque in Johannesburg where she also occasionally delivers the pre-khutbah talks on Friday. She is a community activist, public speaker, writer, wife and mother to twin girls. Follow her on Twitter at @SafiyyahSurtee


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