Article Op-Ed

Building a Masjid vs. Building a Community

Building a Masjid vs. Building a Community

Author Saud Inam by

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Raúl Hernández González

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We've all had discussions with our friends and family about the state of our community and, more specifically, the state of our masjids. I remember attending the screening of the film Unmosqued in Atlanta in which more than 100 community members and masjid leaders attended. I heard the pain and frustration in the question and answer session following the viewing.  Many expressed their ideas, concerns and reflections about how to address the challenges facing our community in Atlanta. It got me to thinking how can we practically fix the condition of our masjids?

Masjids are meant to be the heart and soul of a community. Sometimes it feels as though our masjids are in a cardiac arrest. We’ve done a great job of fundraising and building masjids, but have we built a community to thrive in them?

Community or Club?

We’ve become experts at fundraising and constructing beautiful masjids, but when it comes to community building, we’re at a loss. I like to describe our masjids as beautiful bodies (structure/architecture) with no soul (community). I realize the masjids are filled with Muslims during Ramadan, but I am saddened because masjid leaders are missing out on a great opportunity to tie people’s hearts to the masjid. Simply providing iftaar and taraweeh is not a community building exercise. It would have been great to have reminders in short lectures or khutbahs in Ramadan to come to the masjid or simply positively encouraging people to come to the masjid by talking to them one on one, highlighting your masjid’s programs and making new faces feel comfortable at your masjid are things that can be done during the holy month.

What concerns me is that if our masjids here in Atlanta (and elsewhere) fail to realize that masjids are actually suffocating the growth of their communities,  people will turn away from masjids, Islam and then Allah. Sometimes our masjids can feel like exclusive clubs and not a community. Cliques form in masjids based on ethnicity, race, and nationality and thus create divisions that contribute to the unwelcome feeling in our masjids. This trend is coupled with the fact that our masjid's inability to relate to the realities facing our communities hurts people's relationship with the masjid, Islam and Allah. Yes, change starts at home with good parenting, but the masjid is a place where people want to feel a part of something and feel they are a part of a community of people striving to getting closer to Allah.

The demographic I am scared for the most is our youth---specifically the high school and college student demographic. If they feel the masjid's messaging and programs are irrelevant what will their tie be to their Muslim identity? We risk raising a generation of Muslims who treat their Muslim identity as an ethnic identity rather than a religious identity. What concerns me even further is that when I go to pray at my own masjid I look to my left and right and I don't see the youth or young professional demographic making it out to the masjid. I ask myself in 10 years or 20 years when the older generation either moves on or passes away will the masjid be empty completely? What legacy are we leaving behind if we simply come, pray and leave?

As long as our masjids are not helping to develop their communities by providing key services and programs to its community it's not building its community members, but repelling them. It's easy to build a physical structure of a masjid, but it's a whole different challenge to actually build a community. Many masjid leaders fail to realize this and fail to strategically plan or build sustainable models for their community. We must stress the need for strategic planning and sustainability with our masjid leaders, but unfortunately at times it feels that our concerns fall on deaf ears.

Practical Ways to Change Your Masjid

The masjid leadership and the masjid itself is not to blame for the conditions of our community. We are.  Change begins with each and every one of us and unless we’re working toward solving the problem then we are part of the problem. We can do what is in our own capacity to change things in our community by reflecting on our own spiritual conditions and evaluate our lifestyles. The Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad SAW did this when he changed himself first, then his family, then his close friends, then his community and then the world. We must do the same if we want to see a change in the condition of our communities and our masjids. We can all complain about the state of our global Muslim community and talk about the countless injustices, war, and disasters occurring but change really starts at home with ourselves and in our masjids. We cannot complain about injustice, disunity, and a lack of leadership in the Muslim world if we don't have the same in our own communities here in the US. We need to look within ourselves and ask ourselves are we perpetuating the very things we're critical about in the world? Are we being unjust? Are we promoting disunity with our actions or words? Are we stepping up as leaders to make a change?

How can we expect change if we're not working towards it? We can't ask others to come to Fajr or Isha or to become more active in our masjids if we aren't doing those things ourselves. We must work to change within ourselves and then follow by encouraging others to also change for the better.

A. Change Yourself

At a practical level, even if we are not in positions of influence or power we shouldn't let our masjid leadership repel us from attending our local masjids. Begin by going to Fajr or Isha (choose one and stick to it), set up a routine and once you've done that encourage others to join. Once you've set up a routine and a connection to the masjid, you can begin to have deeper discussions about how to improve things in your community. Tie people's hearts to the masjid and show them that they have a responsibility to change things for the better. Empower people and inspire them to take on bigger roles in your community. Support one another towards doing good even if it's not through the masjid structure. Make your own programs outside of the masjid and seek other opportunities to learn if your masjid doesn't have sufficient educational or social programs. Go play basketball, go to the park with your brothers and sisters, and go hang out (in an Islamic manner), but go to the masjid to pray at the very least. Hopefully, once you do establish programs you can take your group and approach the masjid to make it a more formal program but in the meantime keep people united, tie their hearts to the masjid, tie their hearts to Islam, Allah, the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) the Quran and Sunnah. Encourage one another to improve at every level.

B. Establish Prayer

At the end of the day the masjid's main role is for prayer in congregation. We also can no longer point fingers at our masjid leadership, because we have it in our power to change things in our own way. There are several ways we can help develop our communities by simply giving a warm greeting of peace to your fellow brother or sister. Take time to actually get to know their names, ask them where they're from, what they do, etc. This simple act of giving the greetings of peace properly with full attention to your fellow brother or sister can do wonders. This can help create more warm and welcoming atmospheres in our masjids.

C. Be Nice

It really hit me this Ramadan at one khutbah at a masjid I visited that we honestly need to improve the way we spread the greetings of peace. For most of us, it's simply a formality if we make eye contact with someone and that's the extent of our greeting of peace. Sometimes it's a half-handshake and half-attention greeting of peace. Simple giving the greeting of peace with a smile and asking for your fellow brother or sister's name can do a lot in creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere in your masjid. If your masjid leadership is not fostering a warm and welcoming environment, do your part by making sure your own brothers and sisters feel welcome.

D. Islam is Perfect, Muslims are not

We also need to remember that masjids are not meant to be clubs for saints, but hospitals for sinners. Not everyone who will come to the masjid will be an amazing Muslim. We're going to have people from all levels of faith, different life circumstances and different levels of understanding of Islam. The key is to build an environment that encourages personal and spiritual growth in the masjid. We must learn to be tolerant and respectful of others who are on different points in their journey in life.

E. Rally the Youth, Young Professionals and Women

If we change the way we approach others in our masjid we will see our communities grow and flourish. Currently we see our masjids missing key community members---mainly the youth, young professionals and women. Without these groups within our communities we risk the danger of losing our future. The first structure to be built in Madinah by the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) was the masjid. The masjid functioned as a community center in which major decisions were made for the community, education occurred, counseling, prayer and other functions. We must replicate this model in our own communities and our masaajid. The way we need to create communities is to go back to the Sunnah of greeting each other with a smile, using good manners in correcting your fellow brother or sister, being understanding, sympathetic, and empathetic to the needs of others.

Rally your youth, women and young professionals to have social events either outside the masjid or in the masjid as well as educational events and community service events. Establish educational, social and community service events for women, youth, and young professionals at your masjid. There are great organizations in Atlanta we can tap into for help including UpLift and Atlanta Muslim Young Professionals to help with these endeavors.

F. Take Initiative and Empower Yourself

Just because you don't hold a position on your masjid board or may not be the most influential individual in your community you can always be a leader. The key is stepping up and becoming the leader your community needs. We can no longer afford to have these discussions of how awful our masjids are without actually working to improve the condition ourselves. Create opportunities outside your masjid or inside your masjid for others to get involved. There are several organizations in Atlanta you can volunteer your time to to help develop the community and work on issues you are passionate about. The key is to do something rather than do nothing.

The masjid is the heart of the community and currently we’re losing our youth and community members. We must do our part to bring people back to the masjid and to Islam. We must empower ourselves first and empower others around us in the process. We must think long term and understand the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) facilitated empowerment of others. He created leaders who in turn created other leaders. This is the model we need to adopt in our communities. We must do the same.

We also must understand that this is a responsibility of every community member in Atlanta. We cannot simply give up and say we lack authority because we're not a masjid board member or someone with a big title or position in the community. Our community needs you. Answer the call by being a changemaker in your community.

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