Thursday, July 7, 2011

In Congregation

WoodTurtle is a Canadian Muslim feminist currently using her extended maternity leave to explore developments of Islamic feminism in the Western and Muslim world.  As a woman who wears the hijab (owns several abayas and a niqab monogrammed with her initials in pink, sparkly sequins), she writes frequently on genderized Islamophobia. She also works toward dispelling myths and stereotypes about women in Islam for both Muslims and non.

The last time I attended Jummah prayers was Easter long weekend. It was a lovely, warm Friday afternoon and an excellent opportunity for us to go to the mosque together as a family. The three of us dressed up and joined the hundreds of people also taking advantage of the holiday to attend the prescribed congregational prayer.

The Islamic bookstore was crowded, volunteers sold hijabs and samosas in the hallways, and the mosque had invited the Red Cross to hold a blood donor clinic before and after the service. The call to prayer rang out over loud speakers and everyone rushed to their spaces. It was our first real Friday sermon in North America.

Obviously because of the overflow of people, women (and men) were being asked to pray in adjoining classrooms. One of the advantages of attending the larger mosques, is that many have established Islamic schools on the premises-- which means extra space in large gymnasiums, classrooms and kitchens for unexpected crowds or large events. I sat on the floor with Eryn on my lap, in a bright and colourful grade school classroom and waited for the sermon to begin.

The imam introduced himself and addressed the youth. This khutbah is for you, he said. I want you all to put away your Facebooks, messengers and games and listen up. You are the future and this is an important message. At this point, he started yelling.

At first I thought the PA system was on too loud, and looked to around to see that I was sitting right beneath a speaker. But as the decibels increased, I realised that he was trying to sound excited and inspiring. Looking at all of the bored, blank faces around me, I wasn't sure the imam was getting through to his intended audience.

Don't be ashamed of yourselves!! Who is this Mo? Your name is Mohammed! Who is this Joe? Your name is Yusuf! Why are we Muslims ashamed of ourselves? You hold the legacy of the Prophets! BE PROUD! No doubt an important message -- but he was unfortunately yelling so loudly and so angrily, that I actually felt threatened and had to leave the classroom. It wasn't enjoyable or spiritually uplifting. Eryn and I ended up listening to the remainder of the sermon from the more peaceful hallway, and rejoined the group when it was time to pray.

While I really want to, I don't often go to Friday prayers. And it's not because my workplace isn't accommodating. In fact, on Fridays, people can take extra lunch time to attend religious services, there's a "quiet room" on the second floor for anyone what wants to engage in "silent prayer or meditation," and staff can take two days off a year for extra-religious holidays. I am really quite lucky that my workplace is so accommodating. Lucky and privileged. 

In some areas, the Muslim population is so large, that groups tend to have multiple Friday sermons in areas all over the city, to accommodate everyone skipping their lunch to pray in congregation. Often, imams are community volunteers who rotate and give sermons at schools, universities or office buildings -- wherever a musallah or prayer space is set up. Because of this, hearing a really good sermon can sometimes be a crap-shoot.

The last time I went to Friday prayers on a regular basis was in 2007 (*gasp* I'm seriously quite shocked at this). I've gone on and off since then, but stopped going regularly when I became fed up with the sermons at my regular prayer space -- a university community relatively close to my work. Almost 200 people attend every week and listen to sermons given by a roster of Muslim professors and community volunteers.

I think I had heard several disappointing sermons in a row -- topics where women were excluded and ignored, horribly boring speeches, and anti-west diatribes -- before the last straw. The imam on that day decided to impress upon us the importance of voting Conservative in the upcoming provincial elections. The entire sermon was dedicated to illustrating how Conservative values mirror Islamic values. Oh, and wouldn't you know -- the Conservatives were promising to extend taxpayer funding to privately owned and operated religious schools. C'mon everyone, vote Conservative so our taxes can go toward funding Islamic schools instead of the Catholic and Public school systems.

I'm a firm believer that politics should not come from the pulpit. In this case, unfortunately, the topic was completely misrepresented. The Conservative platform in 2007 wasn't promising public funds specifically for Islamic schools -- but that's precisely what the imam made it sound like. When I go to the mosque, I go for spiritual enlightenment and guidance. Not someone's political opinion.

So I stopped going regularly -- only catching glimpses of Muslim communities when chance brought me to a mosque. Praying alone in the "quiet room" became a better option for me. I didn't feel excluded or erased and I wasn't going to hear anything that made me dislike being involved in the community. But I wasn't communally involved in the prayer either.

It's rare to find an accessible community with a trusted, dedicated and charismatic imam with whom you can identify. Personally, the two imams in my area that I do enjoy listening to, are too far away from my work to get to on a Friday, let alone every day -- and I'm still pining after the brilliantly inspiring spiritual leader I left in Montreal. You see, the Friday prayer is such an important part of Islam. As a communal religion, Jummah becomes a special day where people specifically come together in congregation, celebrate, worship, and create a group identity. Plus, there's usually samosas.

This past week I had a really wonderful reminder of some good that I've been missing. A cousin got married and we've attended five different parties. Counting both of the extended families together, we're looking at least 200 people at each event. So I've been having lots of interesting conversations -- and when that many Muslims get together, boy to we party. 

Last Friday during the final reception, both families were praying together in congregation for the sunset prayer. There were so many people that we were spilling off the carpets and onto the wedding hall floor. I didn't mind praying on a bare walkway, but couldn't help hoping that the cold tiles were filth-free as I pressed my face to the ground. That's when a complete stranger put down a piece of clean linen right in front of me. 

Even though I often moan about barriers, misogyny and constructed authority, and now, really boring sermons --  it's still important to continue trying to foster a community, even if I don't like what I hear.

In that simple act of kindness, warm and fuzzy community, that stranger gave me a spark. A new desire to go back and reclaim my space in the mosque.