For a long time, I thought mosques were really just buildings. Imams do not usually bless mosques, and they are not filled with religious iconography. In fact, the opposite is true – no iconography should exist in a mosque. That a building has built into it the culture of the time, the traditions of a people, was for many years beyond me. I viewed my religion as separate from the places in which religion happened, and it took me years of travel to discover that place, structure, and spirit are interwoven so tightly that they are inseparable.
It is especially this way with mosques, which look like anything and everything. Some are houses tucked away in subdivisions; others have domed roofs and minarets and stand as the beacons of a city. There are a few with swimming pools and workout gyms attached. They are made of brick, stone, concrete: a picture of the surrounding community.
Every time I travel to a new country, I visit a mosque for Friday prayers. This may not sound strange to other Muslims, but it is strange for me. I did not grow up in a family that often went to the mosque to pray. Actually, I did not grow up in a family that prays at all. As a child, my father took us out of Islamic schooling, afraid we would become too conservative. Instead, he read to us from the Qur’an at home, and told us to view everything with an inquisitive eye, to see the whole world as a metaphor. I quickly learned that mosques, and the people in them, would disagree with us.
It made it easier for me, then, to see a mosque as a building – with an architect, and a floor plan, and a group of women who picked out the carpet colors. Eventually, it became the only thing I could see in a mosque. I would analyze the chandelier placement, the rows of bookshelves filled with neatly stacked copies of the Qur’an, the scuffed corners of white pillars that stood between rows of praying people. And most of all, I analyzed what I could not see and where I could not go.
As a woman, it is important to keep yourself unseen and unheard in a mosque, and the architecture enforces that. During my short time in Tanzania last year, I never saw where the men prayed. I heard the disembodied voice of the imam giving his sermon in Kiswahili, and I sat behind a dark grey bed sheet hanging from the ceiling. The men were possibly a foot in front of us, and I imagined their clear view of their surroundings. Perhaps they had cleaner carpets and louder speakers. Unable to see them, I envied them all the more.
In other countries, it had been similar. In London, I prayed in a basement because the women’s section had already been filled to the brim. The basement was decrepit, giving the air of being unlooked after, and the linoleum was covered with thin sheets. My fellow Muslim sisters were scrambling towards the front, attempting to hear the sermon through the one measly loudspeaker. In Amman, Jordan, I prayed in my winter coat, gloves, and a scarf in what turned out to be an unnaturally cold winter. We were in a balcony, overlooking the men. As we heard the imam complete his prayer, we rushed to the dingy space heater to warm up our freezing feet.
In Pakistan, my country of birth, I have never entered a mosque. In almost all of them, women are not even allowed to go. I imagine they might look similar to the mosques I have seen – the same copy of the Qur’an on the bookshelves, the carpet arranged in rows to easily align the men to face Mecca.
It made me realize why my parents did not want me to go into mosques in the first place. A mosque is a building that has too many questions built into it, too much to break apart and examine. But instead of turning me away, the questions brought me closer to mosques and the people they represent. I want to know how to undo the divisions we have built when we have built them out of something so permanent as stone.
One day, I will build my own mosque. I decided this sometime after my trip to Africa, and before visiting my old Chicago mosque again, where they recently added more shoe racks to accommodate the growing female population. In my own mosque, welcoming women will not just come through a cubby for your shoes. It will be a mosque created for joint learning, where both men and women provide sermons – a mosque where there is not just one edition of the Qur’an on the bookshelves.
All I need now is the right architect.
Photo: Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey by Nick WB Dawson on Flickr.