Open Mosque: “The real problem is not closed mosques, it is closed minds”

OpenMosque_5Muslim gender activists have for years pushed for women to be included in the main section of the mosque, without barriers and without stigma. And yet the Open Mosque, which opened last week in Cape Town, has drawn criticism from feminists and hard-liners alike.

Muslim feminists have taken issue with the abrasive personality of its founder, Taj Hargey. The conservative ulema meanwhile argue that our mosques are already “open”.

“I do not know of any mosque in South Africa where people stand at the gates of the mosque and say ‘you have committed such and such sin, you are not allowed to enter’. I have never seen it happen; it has never happened,” says Maulana Ebrahim Bham, of the Council of Muslim Theologians.

Let’s ignore for a moment the fact that women are consistently denied entrance to many South African mosques, or relegated to back rooms, side entrances and cramped galleries. I think Maulana Bham and perhaps the rest of South Africa may be missing the point.

As a fair-skinned convert, I’ve resigned myself to the cold or curious stares of others on the occasions when I have attended mosque.

I once went with a colleague of mine to the Houghton mosque in Johannesburg for Friday prayers not long after it  opened. I tried in vain to find the ladies’ entrance. Eventually I realised that the ladies were praying in a classroom on the other side of the mosque. Tables had to be moved over to the side of the room before there was enough space to pray, and even then the two other women who had ventured out of their homes to pray in the awful space looked at me with what I could only describe as fear and loathing.

My colleague’s experience of the mosque, meanwhile, had been an uplifting one. Not to put too fine a point on it but, while we are both converts, he had a penis and more or less the right colour skin. So he heard the khutbah (Friday sermon), saw the beauty of the mosque’s architecture and décor, and felt the togetherness of the congregation. I had none of those privileges.

OpenMosque_6When I got married to my husband in 2008, I wanted to know if my parents would be able to come for the nikkah (marriage ceremony) at the Sultan Bahu mosque in Mayfair, Johannesburg. The imam informed me that the women’s gallery, where the nikkah was to take place, was “not consecrated as part of the mosque” so non-Muslims could come to witness the ceremony.

The revelation rankled. Why then should women even bother to come to these non-consecrated spaces?

The mosque is not supposed to be an empty shell devoid of any purpose other than for people to pray and leave. No, it’s supposed to be a community centre that holds its people together and invites others in, to experience the religion.

Gay Muslims, women who do not wear hijab, people who have relationships outside marriage and other space oddities are indeed “allowed” to come to mosque, but what they really need is someone to welcome them and talk to them. What they need is acceptance as human beings and not to be told, as some gay Muslims are, that they might be possessed by demons. That’s where we are not “open”.

I have on several occasions had the pleasure of worshipping at a Shia mosque in London. It was one of the most welcoming, family-oriented and spiritual places I have ever been to, despite the fact that the mosque was a run-down pre-fabricated building that used to be a temporary school. The atmosphere was open and friendly, debate was robust and women were completely and equally included.

In South Africa, when I mention what I have learned about the way that Shias worship and conduct their affairs I am subjected to angry tirades about how “they are not real Muslims”.

Another welcoming place of worship that I’ve been to was a church in Great Missenden, England, where the church organist had no reservations about having a Muslim visit. She asked me questions about Islam and told me about the volunteer work she does annually at refugee schools in Palestine. I felt humbled to meet such an open-minded and pure-hearted person.

All of this leads me to wonder if there could be any religious group in South Africa less welcoming or tolerant of diversity than the Muslims.

The majority of Muslims in South Africa are those of Indian heritage. Many are still restricted to marriage along old lines of caste and gham (village of origin), and anything that goes against their definition of normal is aggressively rejected.

One of the very basic tenements of Islam teaches adherents never to discriminate along racial lines. But racial discrimination against “outsiders” occurs on a daily basis in mosques and in homes. Non-Muslim Indians, coloureds, Malays, blacks and whites who venture into the fold of Islam are all viewed with suspicion.

“They’re just not like us,” they whisper to their children. “Better to marry into families we know.”

It’s not everyone who behaves this way. I have a wonderful and respectful relationship with my in-laws, but the same may not be said for many other converts and those who marry outside the gham of their forefathers. Marriages break and converts leave Islam because of the way they are treated and I believe that the fanatics who rejected them will have some questions to answer when the day comes.

The real problem is not closed mosques, it is closed minds. Imagine if these closed minds could become inquiring, compassionate minds, ones that celebrate differences of opinion and welcome debate. We cannot open our mosques unless we first open our minds.

Hajira Amla bio picHajira is half-British and half-Seychellois, and a complete keyboard warrior. An old hack since her days of sub-editing newspapers in Polokwane, she moved into radio broadcasting and then into public relations because it paid better. After moving to the Seychelles in 2013, she rediscovered her love for being a newswoman and currently writes for the Seychelles News Agency. She has published a collection of short stories and is currently working on a bizarre novel. Follow her on Twitter.

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7 Comments

  1. Goolam Dawood says

    I agree whole-heartedly with your concerns. These have been ongoing and evolving issues within the framework of the Subcontinent-type Islam that has established itself here. However, the Open-Mosque affair alienated Muslims as a community from their own issues. By being a blanket label of judgement of apathy, and saying that the Muslim need for sacred spaces was not in keeping with the modern context.

    Mosques need to change. But the conflict has always been one driven by dialogue. Further, this particular incident has probably pushed back the progressive movement within the community, by feeding into traditionalists fears of having the entire basis of the religion overturned. Muslims are all sorts. But within South Africa, being conservative has not translated into being cruel or aggressive.

  2. Muslimah says

    I don’t have a problem with the ‘Open Mosque’ inviting all sorts (excuse the pun) into the mosque.
    I welcome it and encourage it! However we mustn’t lose sight of what is at stake with the ‘Open Mosque’:

    The founder has a belligerent attitude to Muslims in SA and instead of inviting people to a respectful dialogue, he openly insulted everyone and anyone that disagreed with him. What shocked me was that he openly said that the hadeeth can be relied on.
    I have a few issues with that:
    1) means that you cannot trust the sahabah.
    2) Saying that could also mean that you cannot trust the Quraan, because the sahabah were the ones who memorised the Quraan and then wrote it down.

    It’s worrying.

    1. Tariq says

      I don’t think he means that hadith can’t be relied upon because of lack of trustworthiness of the sahaba. Remember that the hadith were first written down more than 100 years after Muhammad’s death. This means that none of the sahabah would’ve been around at the time of compiling the hadith. I think he means that we should consider that hadith is not as reliable as we believe it to be, for various reasons.

      1. Rehana says

        Firstly, although writing materials were scarce during the Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) time, some Ahadith were written down by literate scribes.

        Secondly, just because several Ahadith appeared in written compilations at a later stage, it doesn’t mean that they had not been PRESERVED before. As William Muir testifies in his book, The Life of Mahomet, the Arabs had long been able to memorise a wealth of detailed information before the advent of Islam. Many of those who accepted Islam went on to memorise the Qur’an without writing it down. Those who became the Prophet’s (pbuh) loyal companions could also be relied upon to convey Ahadith accurately from memory.

        Those who are familiar with compilations of Ahadith, will know that Bukhari is the most trusted source because of the intensive verification process to which each hadith was subjected by Imam al-Bukhari before he would consider it fit for inclusion.

        In fact, the biographies of the various narrators have also been preserved as well as the criteria for acceptance or rejection of Ahadith.

        In no other religion have such rigorous steps been taken to preserve the teachings of a Prophet.

        Those who claim to have a Qur’an-centric approach, should ask why the Qur’an commands us to ‘Follow Allah and follow the Messenger’ if there is no preserved Prophetic tradition to follow!

        Muslim males should also be aware that circumcision is not mentioned anywhere in the Qur’an yet it is an established practice of the Prophets which we still emulate.

        The same can be said of other practices such as the details pertaining to prayers, etc.

        To come back to the point that Hajira makes in her article: Yes, it’s true that some Muslims are narrow-minded but that doesn’t mean that we should become so ‘broad-minded’ as to let our brains fall through!

        Prior to the advent of Islam, Arab thinking was also infused with tribalism and narrow-mindedness. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) used wisdom, discretion and patience to turn a backward nation into the rulers of empires within approximately 20 years. At that time, the Romans and Persians were regarded as being far more advanced than the Muslims. However, their advancement was material rather than spiritual.

        Similarly, if we hope to bring about positive change today, we should use the Sunnah method which has been proven to be successful before.

        1. Tariq says

          I respect your opinion, Rehana. It seems you’re trying to convince me of it, though, which means a lack of respect for mine.

          See, I refuse to believe that Muhammed married a child (hadiths of Bukhari claim she was 9 and others claims she was 6 when he married her – these are sahih; strictly authenticated by Bukhari in terms of chain of narration and character authentication of the people relaying the hadith). Sorry, I don’t buy it. I refuse to believe a prophet would allow child marriage, let alone participate in it. And sure, you’re going to claim that they didn’t live together until she was an adult but how does one obtain consent to marry from a child in the first place? Children do not have the capacity to make that choice.

          Having said that, it is clear that neither of us is doubting Muhammad’s great character, despite our differences of opinion, and that’s a commonality to celebrate and, ideally, facilitate harmony.

          As for Quran-centric Muslims who follow the Quran purely, this doesn’t go against the injunction to follow the the quran and the messenger, for the messenger followed the Quran, so following the Quran is following the messenger. Sure, you disagree, but that’s perfectly ok, we can still be friends :). As long as you don’t preach to me as though I haven’t taken the time to make up my mind about my faith, cos that’s arrogant and condescending. Just like you’ve made informed decisions, so have Quran-centric individuals, without having our brains fall out.

          (Also, did you know there’s actually a hadith in which Muhammad instructs people not to record hadith?)

  3. Yusuf says

    Dear Hajira – thank you for an eloquent piece. I pray that people can open their hearts and minds to each other. Yusuf (Jhb)

  4. Willy Nova says

    The focal point is great and what she says, if these are her quoted words, is beautiful. With reference to Ms. Akram’s addition.

    Never have I come across a dialogue of this demeanour.

    “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”

    The inquisitive tale. How everything has been illuminated, over and over and over. The oxymoron – emotional reasoning – essentially useless decoction of religion?

    How about the racist, sexist, phobia soup we’ve all been drowning in because of him? And I’m not just talking about your or any version of the creator. I’m talking about all organized religion. Exclusive groups created to manage control. A dealer getting people hooked on the drug of hope. His followers, nothing but addicts who want their hit of bullshit to keep their dopamine of ignorance. Addicts. Afraid to believe the truth. That there’s no order. There’s no power. Entropy. That all religions are just metastasizing mind worms, meant to divide us so it’s easier to rule us by the charlatans that wanna run us.

    All we are to them are paying fanboys of their poorly-written sci-fi franchise. If I don’t listen to my imaginary friend, why the fuck should I listen to yours? People think their worship’s some key to happiness. That’s just how he owns you.

    Even I’m not crazy enough to believe that distortion of reality.

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