Is Your Masjid Muslim-Friendly?
By Altaf Husain
You have heard of user-friendly. This is usually the phrase used to describe technology that makes the user feel at home, helping him or her to navigate and make efficient and effective use of technology. So what is a Muslim-friendly masjid? Well, I hope and pray that you are ready for a frank discussion about our masjids (mosques) in the U.S. If you are not, then you are in for a surprise. If you are…then you will at least accept what I am saying as a depiction of our sad reality - whether you agree with me or not.

I rarely feel welcome at a masjid. People don't treat me poorly. No, that's not what I mean. People don't stand at the door telling me I am not welcome. No, that's not what I mean either. So why don't I feel welcome at the masjid? Because, for the most part, the masjid in the U.S. is not a vibrant, lively place where I would love to spend my time. Rather, it is this physical structure, too often held hostage by board members who mistakenly treat it as a personal project (in the case of policies or renovations), as a propaganda machine (in the case of a movement), or worse yet, as their personal property (in case they have donated large amounts of money or
resources).

So, who suffers when this happens? The masjid-goers of course. When a masjid board or executive committee is too involved in administrative and bureaucratic processes, the main mission of the masjid gets neglected, if not completely ignored. Take for example various segments of our masjid-going population. How welcome do they feel at the masjid?

New Muslim-friendly Masjid

Perhaps the people who feel the least welcome at our masjids are those who are new entrants into Islam. After undertaking a difficult spiritual journey, unfortunately, most new Muslims cannot seek solace in our masjids. For most new Muslims, their only family is really those members of the masjid. They go there seeking Allah's company, knowledge, and new brothers and sisters in Islam. They have usually been attracted by the system of Islam that makes the religion a way of life. What they find is anything but systematic. Rather than being encouraged to learn and improve, they are often met with harsh, intolerant, dogmatic and cultural interpretations of Islam that they could do without.

So, who is to attend to the needs of the new Muslims? Which masjid has a comprehensive support program for them? Who worries about them on 'Eid day? Too often, we have time to criticize and point out the mistakes of a new Muslim. Very rarely does a masjid's congregation take time to appreciate, nurture, and bond with our new Muslim brothers and sisters!

Senior Muslim-friendly Masjid

Imagine growing old as a Muslim in the U.S.! The seniors in our community have either been in the U.S. for decades or are recent arrivals. Those who have just arrived as voluntary immigrants or refugees will need special attention if they cannot speak English. Those who have been here for some time can at least speak some English and make their way around the masjid. They can read the newsletter, if there is one; they can read flyers announcing future events; they can even listen to the lectures or presentations in English and get some benefit. But, do they really feel welcome? I doubt it. I know of very few who do. In fact, I am struggling to think of even two masjids in the U.S. that have programs and activities devoted to the seniors in our community. After all that they have contributed towards the development of our communities here in the U.S., you would think that a masjid would create a forum for the seniors to meet and pass their time, learn, or to teach the younger adults!

I worked with non-Muslim senior citizens for two years. One of my duties was to develop and implement programs and activities for the seniors. They could not have been happier that someone cared for their enrichment and welfare! The masjids should start devoting some of the same energy to the senior Muslims in our community.

Young Muslim-friendly Masjid

A story often repeated within the community concerns a teenage boy who barely used to go to the Masjid. One day, he went… wearing a gold chain. He was told by an uncle in the masjid that he cannot pray while wearing the gold chain. So…the boy obediently took off the chain. He prayed. And as he got up to leave, he put the chain back on. The uncle got upset and yanked the chain saying, "I told you not to put that chain on." He scratched the boy's neck in the process. The boy was obviously confused. He had only been told that he could not pray while wearing the gold chain. He had complied. And now this uncle was upset and had hurt his neck. This sort of misguidance and subsequent confusion is all too familiar a phenomenon.

Most masjids claim to have a youth program. A young single brother or a newly married young man is recruited and told to manage the youth program. This youth coordinator most likely has never taken classes or even learned about adolescence in a formal manner. And yet, he will shoulder the burden of managing the youth. What does he get in return? Little or no money is set aside to pay the coordinator. In most cases, it is a volunteer position, with board-mandated promises of great rewards in the hereafter. To date, no national organization has a full-time, paid, youth coordinator. A few local organizations have such a paid-position but the person in that position is most likely untrained to deal with youth. Even when this person plans future events, it is rarely in consultation with the youth. And when the youth express their dissatisfaction, they are often made to feel guilty, and told that they are ungrateful and do not appreciate the blessings Allah (swt) has given them.

The result? Youth scarcely feel welcome. They are basically told that they should be seen and not heard. Their talent, enthusiasm, and raw energies are not appreciated in the masjid; nor does the masjid recruit them to make meaningful contributions. It amuses me, sometimes, when young men with the most beautiful voices for adhan (call to prayer) are kept muffled, hidden, and hushed up while a board member or a close friend or relative of a board member struggles, with neither a good voice nor a good style, to give the adhan. If the adhan is supposed to invite or call people, it might make more sense to train our youth to use their beautiful voices for a meaningful purpose!

These days so many youth are excelling in public schools; giving speeches; making daw'ah (invitations to Islam); being recognized for their talents; and being appreciated for who they are. Unfortunately, when they enter our masjids, they become sullen, morose creatures, who would rather be anywhere else but the masjid. They are not to blame. It is not their fault that we have built and continue to perpetuate the existence of non-Muslim friendly masjids.

Newlywed couples and Families

We also need to make the masjid much more inviting for young, newlywed couples as well as couples with very young children. Often, newlywed couples are sought out when there is work to be done. It is a good idea to recruit them and help them make good use of their free time. However, we tend to overload them to the extent that they end up feeling burnt-out. Some even stay away from the masjid for fear of being nominated for endless tasks with very little appreciation. Some end up having marital difficulties because either the husband or the wife is being tasked with more demands than they can bear! We need to change this culture so that newlywed couples feel more at home in the masjid. We should have programs that address the needs of some of these young couples. Premarital counseling, and counseling in general, are very much needed but scarcely available in most masjids.

Contrary to popular belief, counselors do need to be trained; being knowledgeable in Qur'an and Hadith (teachings and sayings of the Prophet) does not in itself qualify an Imam to be a counselor. Perhaps masjids could arrange for retreats for these young couples so that the young men and women can improve in their roles as husbands, wives, and daughters and sons-in-law, and become contributing members of the community.

It is very difficult to imagine that despite the great emphasis in Islam on family relations, how little time and energy is spent on creating and sustaining programs that address family issues of daily living. If the families cannot learn how to address issues they are facing in the masjid, where else should they go? Why not introduce family camps? What about having more programs and activities that can facilitate better relations between the husband and wife and between parents and children?

It is quite commonplace nowadays to find single parent Muslim households. Whether we accept the reality that divorce is on the rise or not, we have to help these types of families in their daily struggles. A single Muslim mother trying to raise 2 or 3 children by herself should not have to bear the burden of providing for and educating her children alone. Some sort of mentoring program must be available so the boys and girls can be assigned young male and female mentors! Or consider a single Muslim man who has custody of his children; a similar mentoring program could truly benefit his children.

A Final Thought

Islam is the fastest growing religion in the U.S. It is, or very soon will be, the second largest religion in the U.S. More Muslims should mean more masjids. But, more masjids that are not Muslim-friendly will only exacerbate the situation and not help us at all. Each of us has a responsibility to take an active role in the affairs of our masjid. We should become involved and commit our time, energy and finances to ensure that the communal masjid is not held hostage by a chosen few. The ideas in this article need to be examined and developed further. We should demand that whoever is elected to head the masjid works tirelessly to ensure that it becomes more Muslim-friendly for our new Muslims, seniors, teenagers, college students, newlyweds and families. This should be our collective goal. And we should settle for nothing less!
 

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