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Struggling to find God in a shared space

Finding God in a place of worship doesn’t have to be a struggle. But it can become one when that sacred space is inhospitable and unwelcoming.

On a visit to a small town in South Africa, a few years back, my search for a mosque led me to such a space — the storeroom at the back of a café. Here, women and children were squashed together on a tattered carpet, surrounded by the smell of stale fried chips, boxes of sweets, large containers of oil, rice and cool drinks. The only clue that this was indeed a place for prayer, was the muffled sound of Arabic interspersed by repeated words “Allahu Akbar”.

For over 20 years, with Muslim women in Johannesburg and Durban prevented access to mosques or relegated these undignified back spaces, Muslim activists in South Africa have waged a gender jihad to gain inclusive access to mosques as well as the Eid Musallah (the Eid prayer space, usually out on an open field).

During this period, two pioneering mosques established an inclusive, tolerant and non-sectarian space. Claremont Main Road Masjid (CMRM) in Cape Town and Masjid al-Islam in Brixton Johannesburg have placed a strong emphasis on community building, and social justice for more than 17 years.

In both mosques, women participate in all initiatives, deliver the Friday lectures and are active members of the mosque committee. Men and women share the prayer space standing side by side: in Masjid al-Islam separated by a latticed wooden screen, and in CMRM, a simple rope.

The media hype about the “new” Open Mosque in Cape Town, described as South Africa’s first “Qur’an-centric, gender-equal, and non-sectarian” mosque has raised some eyebrows. For we gender activists and adherents to the previously mentioned mosques, this Open Mosque is not quite so new. 

What is interesting, though, is the response the open mosque story has elicited, particularly from a senior member of the Johannesburg-based Council of Muslim Theologians, Maulana Ebrahim Bham.

In an interview with Steven Grootes on radio this week, Bham was asked to comment on the statement by the founder of the Open Mosque, Taj Hargey, that the Qur’an does not say that men and women should worship separately. Referring to the two sources of Islamic teachings, the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him), Bham said: “The Qur’an tells us to do whatever the Prophet tells you to and whatever the Prophet prohibits you from, then stay away from it.”

Ironically, the argument that he uses is the same one those of us who hail from the trenches of the gender jihad have always used to insist on women’s inclusion and equal participation in mosques and Eid prayer spaces. In a sense, Bham made our case for us.

There are authentic prophetic traditions where the Prophet Mohammed urges men not to prevent women from attending the mosques. In fact, in one such tradition, the Prophet orders all women to attend the Eid prayers.

Other authentic traditions describe the Prophet’s mosque as a space which was shared by men and women, and in which there was no physical barrier between them — a veil or curtain. They prayed separately but together in the same space.  Women were active participants: they spoke out aloud in the mosque and even challenged the imam.

Bham questioned the idea of an Open Mosque, implying that all mosques fit the bill. “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,” he insisted.

But women’s experiences are that many mosques in Johannesburg don’t accommodate them, and of the few that do (the majority of which are overseen by members of Bham’s organisation) are yet to achieve the inclusiveness of the Prophet’s mosque.

Some of these mosques have luxurious spaces, decorated with arabesque, wooden screens, plush carpets, under floor heating and chandeliers, but women are forced to jostle for room because of minimal space. Women continue to be viewed as sexual beings, a source of “fitnah” (corruption) that threatens men’s spirituality. They are often discouraged from attending. They remain unseen and their voices are muted. Campaigns for their inclusion in the Eid congregational prayers are met with antipathy and often vitriol by the imams.

The true nature of the mosque as a community centre and place of worship where community relationships and ideas are forged and where Muslims weave the fabric of their society has been obfuscated.

There certainly appears to be a mismatch between, on the one hand, Bham’s implied contention that all mosques in South Africa are Qur’an-centric and “open” and, on the other hand, Muslim women’s lived realities within and at the gates of these sacred spaces.

If indeed theologians like Bham are advocating what those of us in the gender jihad have been — an adherence to the Prophetic example — then it stands to reason that all Muslim prayer spaces will have to be more inclusive, with more space allocated to women and no barriers. Women’s voices will cease to be muted and their full participation will be encouraged. Dingy back rooms of cafés will become a thing of the past and finding God in that space will cease to be a struggle.

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