Friday, March 3, 2017

BE HERE NOW: The Case for a Gender Equal Mosque

Surah Al Fatihah

At Tahiyyaatu lilaahi was Salawaatu wat tayibaatu
As Salaamu ‘alaika ayyuhan nabiyyu wa rahmatul laahi wa barakaatuh
As Salaamu ‘alainaa wa ‘alaa ‘ebaadillaahis saaliheen

Let me say this up front.  I have been planning for weeks to use the opportunity of giving this khutbah to present a case for building a gender equal mosque.  I started reading about the reform movement in Judaism, to use the Jews experience as an example of where I see the Muslim community moving in America.  In fact, there are many parallels between the Jewish reform movement and reformists’ vision of Islam.  This is from the website “”

Reform Judaism has asserted that a Judaism frozen in time cannot coexist effectively with those who live in modern times. The great contribution of Reform Judaism is that it has enabled the Jewish people to introduce innovation while preserving tradition, to embrace diversity while asserting commonality, to affirm beliefs without rejecting those who doubt, and to bring faith to sacred texts without sacrificing critical scholarship.”

“We believe that all human beings are created in the image of God, and that we are God’s partners in improving the world. Tikkun olam — repairing the world — is a hallmark of Reform Judaism as we strive to bring peace, freedom, and justice to all people.”

“Reform Jews are committed to the principle of inclusion, not exclusion.  Reform Jews are committed to the absolute equality of women in all areas of Jewish life. We were the first movement to ordain women rabbis, invest women cantors, and elect women presidents of our synagogues.  Reform Jews are also committed to the full participation of gays and lesbians in synagogue life as well as society at large.”

The story of how Reform Judaism evolved from its 19th century origins in Europe is worth our attention, but I decided not to focus on that today, because several things happened while I was in Maryland last week that seemed more relevant to this theme, and more important to share. 

Surah 2:  Al-Baqarah
Wa qala-ladhina la ya ‘lamuna
And those who are devoid of knowledge say:
lawla yukallimunal-lahu ‘aw ta ‘tinaa Ayah. 
‘Why does God not speak to us, or show us a miraculous sign?’ 
Kadhalika qalal-ladhina min-qablihim-mithla qawlihim. 
Even thus, like unto what they say, spoke those who lived before their time: 
Tashabahat qulubuhum. 
Their hearts were all alike.
Qad bayyannal-‘Ayati liqawminy-yuqinun.  [118]
Indeed, We have made all the signs manifest unto people who recognize an inner truth.  [118]

God is omnipresent – with us, around us, sustaining us all the time.  And when we are open to listening, we can see and hear God’s signs.  Last week in Maryland, there were several times when I felt there were lessons I was meant to learn.

The first thing that happened was that I was invited to give a presentation on Islam to a group of congregants at my niece Jenny’s church - Mt. Carmel United Methodist Church in Frederick Maryland.  It was a Monday night, and she did not advertise the event until less than a week before.  She expected that about eight people would show up – members of a loyal bible study group.  In fact, there were more than 40 people in the room.  The first thing I did was pass around my grandmother’s wedding photo.  She was born, lived her entire life, and died in Frederick, which is where I was also born.  Then I told them about my journey to Islam, and opened the floor for questions.  This was the first time I have ever talked about being a Muslim to non-Muslims outside of the family in my native community.  It was a defining experience for me – confronting the ambiguities I have always felt about the way the course of my life has taken me away from my roots.  It went very well, Alhamdulillah.  I left feeling more balanced, and I believe they all left feeling affirmed in their hope that Islam is not the threat it is portrayed to be.  There is tremendous empowerment in sharing a true story – for both the teller and the audience. 

After that experience, and based on my mother’s story of attending a very cathartic interfaith meeting at the Western Maryland Islamic Center in Hagerstown, I decided that I would like to go to their Friday prayer service.  Their website said that Jumaa was at 12:15, so I went.  There were only a few cars and no one in sight at the entrance.  But I decided that since I was there anyway, I might as well pray Friday prayer and leave.  I put my boots on the rack at the entrance and went into the prayer hall.  There were a few men in the front of the large prayer space.  There was a space at the back of the hall separated by moveable screens.  But there was a substantial space in the middle of the screens that was open to the mihrab.  I decided I would not be compromising my integrity, and also not making anyone uncomfortable if I sat and prayed at the opening.  I did my prayer, and then sat meditating.  A few more men came in, and a few more, and then a woman came directly into the women’s space from a separate door on the opposite side of the mosque.  Whoops.  I realized I had come in the “wrong” door.  I asked the woman if there would be a Jumaa prayer and she said it was at 1:30.  I decided to stay.  By the time of Jumaa, both the men’s and the women’s prayer spaces were full.  The khutbah was given by a guest Imam who spoke about the need to reach out to the broader community, and the need for Muslims to be more tolerant and open to difference.  Well this is ironic, I thought – because unless I stay here until everyone else leaves - I am going to have to test their ability to be tolerant because I now have to leave through the men’s side and retrieve my boots from the men’s shoe rack.  What to do?  After the prayer, men immediately began to leave and congregate, filling the entry hall where my boots were waiting for me.  And the women filed out through the side entrance.  I finally summoned up my courage, apologies ready, walked out through the men’s entrance and went to get my boots.  No one said anything.  In fact, they were all so wrapped up in their conversations, they did not seem to even notice me.  Alhamdulillah.  What I was reminded of is that truly, the only thing we have to fear is distancing ourselves from God. 

Surah 24:  The Light
            Wa ‘adal-lahul-ladhina ‘amanu minkum wa amilus-salihati…
God has promised those of you who have attained to faith and do righteous deeds…
Layubaddilannahum-mim-ba’di khawfihim ‘amna.
God will cause their erstwhile state of fear to be replaced by a sense of security
Ya budunani la yushrikuna bi shay’a. 
Seeing that they worship me alone, not ascribing powers to aught beside Me.  [55 excerpts]


The last thing that happened in Maryland was at a family dinner the night before I left.  My nephew, the farmer, brought his wife, nine-year-old twin boys, and pizza to my Mom’s house, and we were joined by my brother (his father) and my sister-in-law.  While talking after dinner, with the kids in the next room, we found ourselves on the slippery slope of talking about the Trump administration.  Two things are important to know – first, that I love this nephew very much.  He is passionate about farming.  He has been successfully navigating the very difficult and complicated business of running a growing farming enterprise since graduating from agricultural college.  He married his high school sweetheart, and is raising two wonderful, challenging twin boys.  He has inherited the family gene for determination, which can also manifest as  stubbornness – which we were both displaying that night.  I suspected he may have voted for Trump, but when he started defending him using all the rhetoric of the Alt-Right media, I lost control of my normal “Aunt Judy” persona, and ended up sounding angry and aggressive before I could stop myself from going there.  My sister-in-law, much to my chagrin, went into the other room to distract the kids in case they might get scared by my tone.  The next morning Jeremiah sent me a looong text message about how he had felt defensive, and he was tired of having to defend himself as a white man against perceived accusations of racism while his white sons “will not have any chance of getting scholarships as white men.”  That was, above all else, why he supported Trump.  I have work to do to re-establish the closeness I have always felt with Jeremiah. 

I need to constantly remind myself that the most important thing in any journey is not the road I am taking, but how I conduct myself along the way, and that I cannot let my deeply felt convictions and loyalty to my own integrity blind me to the needs and sensitivities of others.  Everything will happen in its time for those who love God.

There is a lesson in that for me, as I stand for equal access for everyone to expression and leadership in our mosques.  Empowered women must not lead to the impression of disempowering men.  In fact, I think the fear of disempowering men is one of the major hurdles we face in our effort to get to a place of balance.  It is not in the interest of men or women for men to feel disempowered.  (And this isn’t only true in the Muslim community of course – look at all the women who voted for Donald Trump.)  The fact is, we need to respect and value our differences to be balanced within ourselves and with each other.  The powerful feminine and the powerful masculine are both essential for balance to be achieved – for healthy individual personalities and for healthy relationships. 

The ultimate punishment that we can experience is the feeling of separation from God – the sense of loneliness and despair that come from a life without any kind of faith.  We separate ourselves from God when we separate ourselves from each other.

Surah 3:  The House of Imran
Fastajaba lahum Rabbuhum
And thus does their Sustainer answer their prayer:
‘anni laa udi’u amalu ‘amilim-minkum min-dhakarin aw untha b dukum mim-ba’d….
‘I shall not lose sight of the labour of any of you who labours [in My way], be it man or woman:  each of you is an issue of the other….’ [195]

Finally, I want to share another realization I came to – this time as I was compiling an annotated bibliography on Islam and Muslims.  Several of Jenny’s congregants had asked for sources after my presentation last Monday.  I spent a lot of time on it, because I wanted to give them a variety, and also give them a sense of the diversity and struggles of the Muslim community in America today.  As I went through my sources – many of them read by many of you – Mohammed Asad, Jonathan Brown, Khalid Abou El Fadl, Reza Aslan, Fazlur Rehman, Laila Ahmed, Aminah Wadud, Ingrid Mattson, Ziauddin Sardar, Meraj Mohiuddin, etc., I realized something.  We are already in the middle of Islamic Reform.  It is being articulated all around us.  We may not have an iconic leader yet as Reform Muslims – someone like Charles Darwin was for evolutionary theory, or Adam Smith was for capitalist theory, or Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise for Reform Judaism in America.  But the raw material is all there for us.  We’ve read it.  We feel it.  We know it.  All we need to do is dispel our fears, follow our hearts, and never forget our sense of compassion.

Surah 13:  Thunder
            Qul innal-laha yudillu many-yashaa’u wa yahdil ilayhi man anab.
Say: ‘Behold, God lets go astray whoever wills to go astray, just as God guides all who turn to God [27]
            Alladhina amanu wa tatma’innu qulubuhum-bidhikril-lah.
            Ala bidhikril-lahi tatma innul-qulub.
Those who believe, and whose hearts find their rest in the remembrance of God – for truly, in the remembrance of God do hearts find their rest: [28]

Alladhina amanu wa amilus-salihati tuba lahum wa husna ma’ab. They who attain to faith and do righteous deeds are destined for happiness in this world, and the most beauteous of all goals in the life to come!’ [29]

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