The Problem with American Mosques
By Tareen Alam & Mahfuz Rahman
Mosques across America need to establish a more inclusive environment for all types of Muslims. The American Muslim population is now largely represented by first generation, young Americans that have an opportunity to step into leadership roles to reorganize and standardize the mosque’s structure.
Growing up, I envied my church going friends for their excitement towards their religion. I shared their belief in the same God yet we attached two separate emotions going to our place of worship. I wondered what it would be like to meet at a coffee shop in the middle of the week and just discuss what God intended for us. I wondered how long it would be until we had robust youth programs and had visionaries leading every mosque.
Unless you grow up in a city with a substantial Muslim population, your understanding of Islam and its practice is limited to the perspective you inherit from your parents, online articles, and your local Imam. There is an emphasis that we all learn to read Arabic and finish the Quran in its purest form yet reading comprehension is voluntary. We are led to believe by our community that Islam is a series of rules and consequences for not following those rules. Watering down Islam with fear tactics is elementary and a sin against the beautiful religion.
Why are we perpetuating a system that isn’t working?
We’re raised to think there's only one category of Muslim and if you don't fall into that mold, you're not a real Muslim. Overtime, after getting yelled at by everyone you turn to with your questions, the worst fallacy takes a seat in your heart: that Islam is somehow more complicated and a less enjoyable to practice compared to other religions.
There is a great divide between how we perceive Islam versus its intention - this division matters for both Imams and their congregation.
Mosques, Imams, and Muslim program leaders do not have uniform practices to adjust to their congregations' varying needs. Imams have varying levels of education, degree requirements, and guidelines on continuing education. There is no formalized training on dealing with today's societal and cultural issues that tag along with the already overbearing task of being a Muslim in America.
I enjoyed going to Sunday school, Jummah on Fridays, and looked forward to Eid. I grew up in a town with a Muslim population large enough to sustain good Imams, provide resources to their attendants, and establish programs to inspire the youth. But this experience is not common across America. In small towns across the country, communities lack Imams that are effectively trained and dont have the necessary skills to cater to the American Muslim community. The role of the Imam throughout our history has been to not only be religious leader but also a community leader that caters to sociopolitical issues. Today, an Imam is expected to continue their role of regularly giving advice on marriage, health, and teen issues. However, Imams do not always have training on providing guidance on these topics or awareness of the real problems facing Muslim Americans. Despite the size or location of a mosque, many seem to come up short on answers to basic questions:
What are the youth’s concerns?
Does the Imam have all the resources they need to lead, continue their education, or serve their congregation?
Who should make up the board of directors and is there some representation of the congregation by age, gender, and race?
Are we devoting enough time and sensitivity to women’s issues?
Is there a transparent budget and how much of it is allocated towards social and children's programs?
Does the congregation know who to contact when they are having financial or emotional trouble at home?
Mosque leaders can pioneer this change. We have reached the age where the American Muslim’s voice can resonate. Before we can expect the rest of America to understand who we are, we need ourselves to be excited about our community and our mosque. We no longer have to rely on bringing in Imams that grew up in a culture different than ours and challenge ourselves with their contradictory messaging.
I am not going to pretend to understand the trials that new and existing Imams face when joining a mosque. They are still trying to figure out their worth and balancing the expectations of the mosque’s board of directors and congregation -- all while combating the expected challenges of theological leaders.
An Imam cannot be burdened with running all aspects of the mosques operations. The board of directors, the Imam, and staff’s roles should be defined and balanced. The mosques board needs to listen to their Imams needs, standardize continuing education to lead Muslims with consistent messaging that aligns with the Quran. An Imam’s role is to ensure the stability of the mosque and its spiritual mission.
To follow the example of our Christian brothers and sisters, there needs to be a paradigm shift from the teaching Islam the way it was taught hundreds of years ago. We cannot ignore the importance of reading comprehension and critical thinking of the Quran. We should simply do what it takes for everyone to question and embrace Islam. We should engage the youth to both maintain interest in the religion and a love for its teachings. The bible study model of conducting small group sessions at mosques, Islamic centers, homes, or coffee shops needs to become a more rampant practice across America. Many communities have welcomed this socializing model and have seen greater engagement.
Unless the Muslim community is considered a safe haven, those struggling with their faith will turn elsewhere. We should seek to engage curiosity, not dismiss it. We should prioritize logic over dogmatism. Mosque activities should focus on inclusivity and nurture the curiosity of young Muslims. There should be an active interest in helping young women and men effectively interpret the Quranic scripture for themselves. We should be able to rely on our Imam when they speak on tough issues like domestic violence, combatting extremism, effectively balancing Islamic and Western values, etc.
Simply put, mainstream mosques need to be restructured to empower the Imam, garner the interest of the youth by thoughtfully discussing issues that impact them, and establish programs that address the needs of their congregation.
Tareen Alam recently quit her career in consulting to pursue a more creative role. She is currently pulling the most millennial move ever to travel, write, and refocus her career. You can find her writing at tareenalam.com and follow her path @tareenatx .
Mahfuz Rahman graduated from the University of Washington School of Dentistry and is currently a Dentist Resident in the Veterans Affair Hospital in Temple, Texas. Although Seattle was incredible, Mahfuz knew that Dallas was far superior and just had to make his move (his wife said so and she is always right).