This essay is divided into two parts; the first is a sociology of the institution of the mosque, while the second is a theorisation of the role mosques can play in social change. My analysis will bear a triadic focus looking in turn at the dynamism of the mosque as space, the sociality associated with mosques in the past, and the patterned functionality that is at the centre of the mosque as a Muslim and Islamic institution. The approach that the essay takes draws loosely upon hermeneutics and semiotic theory and owes something to a phenomenological attitude that seeks to look into the experience mosques offer both as religious and architectural spaces. It is hoped that by the end of the essay a richer more nuanced picture may emerge of the importance of mosques for Muslim communities as not only institutions that support the performance of certain religious obligations, but as institutions that can play an important part in making positive changes to the Muslim reality in Britain.
Note: I am aware that there are subtle differences in the Muslim vocabulary between sanctuaries, mosques, and mussalas. My discussion of mosques refers to this middle category. For a distinction of the three types see, Mohamad Rasdi’s The mosque as a community development centre and the entry for “mosques” in Islam: art and architecture edited by Markus Hattstein and Peter Delius. Although Rasdi also makes distinctions in types of mosques – from madrasa mosques to memorial mosques – l have chosen to speak about these as one group while the specificity that Rasdi attaches to each is subsumed within my assertion that mosques have always served a variety of functions according to the social realities of which they were a part.
Part one: A sociology of mosques.
The mosque was amongst the first institutions to emerge in the Muslim world after the advent of Islam and is the building type that is most closely associated to it (Mofette, Fazio and Woodhouse 2004, 169). In popular imagination, therefore, the mosque is symbolic of Islam as religion and stands first and foremost as a place of worship. The mosque in this regard concretises religiosity and comes to represent a space of transcendence and metaphysicality that adjoins it to the spiritual and by degrees distances it from the temporal, the physical, and the everyday. Yet its early history provides a more complex conception of the mosque that simultaneously encapsulates the transcendent worship of the divine and the elements of a more secular/worldly reality facing the members of the Muslim community around it. Indeed this curious mixture of the temporal and the transcendent can be evinced from the very fact that the Prophet (s) ordered the first mosque in Medina to be built in the courtyard of the new home he had bought on arrival to the city (Lings 1983, 125). His personal accommodation therefore adjoined the mosque and instead of erecting some grand monument of governance he built a place of worship from where he also conducted certain public affairs. The secular and the sacred, the worldly and the transcendent seems all to blend together during this early stage of the emergence of the mosque, in a way that is quite difficult to imagine in the context of the way mosques are thought of and function today. In one episode a delegation of Christians from Najran arrived to question the Prophet (s) and were hosted in the mosque (Engineer 2007, 167) where they were later permitted to pray (Ramadan, 2007, p116) and so the space that was utilised earlier for their discussions and debates was then transformed into a space for prayer, exemplifying thereby the degree of malleability that seems to have attended the conception of the mosque in the early years of Islam.
This malleability of the mosque, of course, owes much to the fact that it consecrates emptiness which means it is infinitely transformable. This stands in contrast to churches for instance where pews and – in the case of Catholicism at least – statues and other ornamentations not only take up space but mark it indelibly as ecclesiastical with all the attendant ritualism. The emptiness of the mosque, however, should not to be read as one of vaccuousness, in fact it is one that is pregnant with potential and invites action (as its history testifies). It is a space that accentuates the physical, whether in the form of someone performing prayer or people socialising, because the emptiness for one thing is disturbed and more so because the space seems to mould around the action being undertaken so that a presencing occurs whereby all that “is” is the action occurring. In fact, read in this way the emptiness that is so emblematic of mosques may be seen as a clearing that makes way for the different actions that can be performed in its space, which in this respect suggests the emptiness is structurally underpinning the dynamism of the mosque as place. This is somewhat like the absence/presence of God in orthodox Islam, where, though His absolute transcendence is maintained, His lack of presence in the world of men does not mean His absence; rather, His being underpins the very possibility of the world and our existence in it. Indeed the emptiness of the mosque paradoxically generates an awe of being that impresses on the theist an overwhelming sense of the presence of al-Khaliq (the Creator) and al-Bari (the Maker of Order), and thus through the very presencing that the emptiness generates of our own existence (as the agent perceiving this emptiness) we come to an awareness of Az-Zahir (the Manifest One).
The spaciousness which is an essential feature of mosques (and which the various architectural manifestations of mosques all accommodate in different ways) should be read as something that makes the mosque a dynamic place. Indeed the mosque is more than space alone; it is a place that functions as a building and as an institution. Today, the emptiness and spaciousness of the mosque has become restricted to prayer so that the emptiness is imagined as something that has meaning only in relation to salah and not as an element integral to the vitality of the mosque as an institution. The context I am interested in in particular is of the West where Muslims are by and large immigrants or descendents of recent immigrants. One reason for this restriction in the Muslim imagination therefore, is because as immigrants the dominant desire was to safeguard one’s religion and given that salah is the second pillar of Islam, mosques offered a protection to this pillar and supported its continuation (in congregation at least). But this is still where we are – generally speaking – as a population here in Britain at least. The change that is required, then, is one that is part of a broader change in the social imaginary of the Muslims in the West whereby we start to function as a community and in this regard mosques are an essential fulcrum.
As buildings, mosques have always been public spaces with a strong sense of not only religious but civic duty. In Muslim lands mosques would often act as focal points in towns and cities, attracting trade and culture and provide a general air of urbanity (Lapidus 1984, 70). The dynamism of the emptiness as I have read it can be seen transferred into the social reality of the mosque as a building and institution. Indeed, mosques of the past were part of a symbolic system and a system of sociality that provided greater vitality to the communities that sprang up around them. In symbolic terms the mosque functioned much like any other religious building, marking the physical space with an ideological signification. But it was also linked into a more complex symbolic system where it manifested the abstraction of Islam as religion and Islam as a system of ethics and governmentality. While the former seems self evident in so far as mosques have always been places of worship, the latter was just as clear in the past. The Great Mosque in Damascus for instance contained an octagonal pavilion where the public treasury was stored (Mofette, Fazio and Woodhouse 2004, 170), while linked to the Sehzade Mosque in Istanbul was a hospice serving the infirm, illustrating thus the importance given to civic care as concomitant to the purpose of mosques in Muslim history (ibid, 181).
Mosques, then, were connected intimately to a network of meanings that bridged the purely sacred and were not therefore places of asceticism but rather the heart of communal living. They provided the community of believers a sense of cohesion and may be seen as producing and sustaining communities as much as simply serving them. This of course was possible because mosques were also part of a bigger political and economic fabric, such that there was employment to be had at the mosque and a central budget provided by the Caliph or an official of the Caliph, not to mention the more informal network of patronage that the relatives of the Caliph and other wealthy families offered some mosques (Bacharach 1996, 27). While this broader fabric is absent for many of the mosques in the West today, there is a need to think about how to construct a similar type of sociality around the mosque that existed before. It should also be stated at this point that some mosques in Britain, most notably, The Islamic Cultural Centre in London, the East London Masjid and the Central Mosque in Birmingham offer services that genuinely establish a community vibe. Nonetheless, this is still somewhat limited and seems to attract an older generation of Muslims (mostly men) for whom the attraction remains of an immigrant stock (by and large) whereby the mosque offers a sanctuary against the alien culture outside.
The reality for younger Muslims around Britain today though is that they are not immigrants but a generation of Britons born and brought up in the UK. They of course face a formidable challenge of negotiating the society in which they live and the religious cultural forces that they inherit partly from their parents and partly from the technological globalisation that has made religious discourses of other Muslim lands and of the past much more available than ever before (on the fascinating role of technology and the media on the global religious landscape – and in the context of Islam in particular – see essays by Charles Hirsckind and Walter Armbrust in, Religion, Media and the Public Sphere edited by Brigit Meyer and Annelies Moors). In this state of affairs, where there is an array of conflicting directions and a need for the construction of a culture that shares traits of the local context (British) as well as a global-historical one (Islam), mosques may prove particularly salient institutions. One of the main reasons for this is in the patterned functionality at the heart of all mosques.
In his short treatise on contemporary da’wah, Sheikh Muhammad al-Abdah writes about the importance of fraternal networks amongst Muslims in order to increase their cohesion as a community and as an Ummah more broadly (1998, 27-28). But networks, such as the Sheikh has in mind, grow in physical spaces that offer (1) a degree of sociability and (2) are frequented regularly and repetitively. They also grow through participation in common endeavours or practices that offer the individuals concerned a common experiential matrix. Mosques are able to offer all three to young Muslims and in many cases already do so. The frequency of regular and repetitive attendance is part of the patterned functionality that mosques practice, which is to say the establishment of congregational prayers five times a day and the midday prayer on Fridays in particular. What they are less good at doing is creating an ambience of sociability or on offering a wide range of activities that young Muslims may wish to get involved in.
Part of the effort therefore is to encourage Muslims more generally – and those who run mosques more specifically – to broaden their understanding of a mosque by appreciating its vibrant history and the dynamism of the emptiness that is so much a part of its ipseity. This can be done in two important ways. Firstly, the involvement of younger people in mosques is an essential element in changing the way in which mosques are experienced since young people who are involved in mosques may (by their sheer presence) attract a network of friends and acquaintances. This way they may be able to build other networks or broaden existing ones on the back of those that have already been formed elsewhere, but with the added bonus of these new networks emerging in a more ‘Islamic’ locale. The second way is for mosques to reconnect with the residents living close to it. This will mostly happen through the provision of relevant and targeted services as well as through projects that draw people together.
It is worth pondering over this latter proposition – projects that bring people together – since certain projects have this capacity more than others although all projects have the ability to do so if they elicit common emotions amongst their participants. Projects that are based around art, exercise, sports, music, or charity (this is not an exhaustive list) in particular seem to create real emotional ties between people and toward institutions where such projects may take place. Without theorising this too much, it may be safe to assume that projects that individuals can invest in emotionally are more successful in building ties and strengthening networks. Of course for a mosque one would have to tailor the options so as to not go against Islam and Islamic precepts.
The future of mosques in Britain, then, can only be a move toward greater creativity and dynamism. This future will come about (insha’Allah) as soon as we take seriously the triad I have focussed on so far and realise that at the helm of this triad is the notion of emptiness that I have framed as so integral to the nature of mosques and which will act as the blank canvas whence the future of mosques in this country emerges.
Part two: Mimbar-Rising
In his book Deconstructing the American mosque, Akel Ismail Kahera writes about the transformative effect the presence of Branford Place mosque has had on its local area. ‘For a few decades,’ he writes, ‘Branford Place was one of the forgotten streets in Newark.’
It was infested with drug and alcohol addicts; vagrant behaviour was rampant. Today it is difficult to think of Newark without remembering the contrast of its urban past, which includes the spontaneous transformation of Branford Place. The presence of the mosque/office complex has reinforced the growth of commercial activities along the full extent of the street (2002, 93-94)
He goes on to mention that even officials in Newark’s city hall, which is not far from the mosque, have recognised the mosque as part of a trend in the urban revitalisation of the city (ibid, 94). Branford Place mosque is a good example of the power mosques have to make positive contributions to their surroundings and to society more broadly. In this respect, mosques are a potentially strong means of social change, and while examples like the one given by Kahera are inspirational and their impact multifaceted, I want to forward a narrower but equally efficacious theory of the role of mosques in social change and use the pulpit – or what in Arabic is called the mimbar – as my central metaphor and mechanism.
My focus here on the mimbar extends to the Friday prayer that attracts a large number of Muslims and, even more specifically then that, to the sermon which is an essential part of the prayer offered. The reason for this is simple: my conviction is that social change begins in the mind and through processes of intellection. This idea has been laid out in some detail in other papers and essays including Making change happen and Islamic societies and social change to mention but two. The mimbar and the sermon that is proclaimed from it is a crucial medium therefore for social change since its capacity to edify congregations makes it a means of affecting the way people think.
The manner in which the Friday sermon is presently delivered in many mosques, however, leaves much to be desired for and is an ill use of a potentially remarkable method of affecting change. Unlike the dwindling number of worshippers at Sunday mass in this country, the attendance of Muslims at Friday prayers here in Britain is impressively large and for this we should be grateful to Allah (swt) since a door to the revival of the Muslim population in the UK is still open. What is shameful though is the degree of complacency that exists amongst Muslims, a fact that is well evinced from the poor quality of our Friday sermons and the lack of recourse to turn this situation around.
Not only is the quality of the sermons poor but most khateebs have a poor understanding of how to convey messages to their audience. Sermons are often fragmentary and lack a sense of structure giving the effect of disparate bullet points loosely assembled around a given theme. Amidst all this the impact is lost as no clear message or idea emerges. Congregations can also feel deflated and bored if the khateeb lacks an engaging manner which is something that can be learnt through training in public speaking.
Part of the problem is the degree of ritualism that has pervaded many Muslims’ attitude toward Islam. Like the restricted vision in which mosques are imagined as purely religious buildings fit for worship alone, the khutba is seen as part of a ritual which needs to be fulfilled only. Thus in some mosques the sermon is delivered entirely in Arabic regardless of the fact that the majority of the congregation do not speak Arabic. Yet those who run these mosques cite the opinion of early classical scholars and remain indifferent to the logic that such a position renders the Friday prayer formulaic, lifeless, and utterly unmoving. But while this is one extreme, the inability of those who run mosques to see the need to improve the efficacy of the Friday sermon more generally is also a species of such ritualism. So while the metaphor of the mimbar and its place in social change is rather simple and appreciable the real hurdle lies in raising the consciousness of those that presently run mosques (although the hope here is also to inspire a newer generation of Muslims who may come to occupy positions of influence within already established mosques or who may themselves establish mosques in the future).
It would be short sighted however to posture the extent of the role of mosques in social change to only the Friday sermon which is part of their patterned functionality. Indeed the next level of mechanisation toward social change (which I want to look at before concluding this essay) rests precisely on the reliance Muslims can have on the fact that Friday sermons are a fixed function amongst all mosques. Before I explore this though I want to extend some thoughts about the possible resolutions to some of the problems identified above and in this regard I have found the suggestions of Ismael Mukhtar from the “Islamic Information Institute of Manitoba” particularly insightful. What follows is an extension of some of his thoughts.
An example of a proactive mosque is one that prides itself in the quality of sermons that are delivered from its mimbars and in the framework it has in place to ensure that a good standard is maintained. Such a framework should have two parts to it, the first of which involves the adequate training of khateebs. This involves a comprehensive overview of public speaking and thinking hard about techniques and procedures for ensuring that ideas and messages are conveyed in a clear and precise manner. What this means in practical terms is for khateebs to have a deeper appreciation of language, communication theory and some understanding of pedagogy. The second part concerns the need to collect information about the sermon from the congregation so as to assess its impact and success in reaching individuals. This part also means having a strong feedback mechanism so that the khateeb can modify his style or approach. For this Ismail Mukhtar suggests setting up an evaluating committee which is good advice and aids the transformation of our mosques into well run and organised institutions. Like so much else though this requires a fundamental shift in the way in which those who currently run mosques see the function of the mimbar, for I too believe, and like Mukhtar stress, ‘the pivotal role the pulpit plays in shaping and bringing the community together’.
Assuming now that mosques begin to see their own potential and dynamism, I think there is a way to mechanise the function of the mimbar that may integrate it into the patterned functionality of mosques and help generate ripples of change. Maintaining that social change begins in people’s minds and in processes of intellection, a sermon carries the potential to affect the mind of those who happen to listen to it. If, however, certain key messages were consistently echoed across Britain’s mosques it would help build a sense of common meaning and sentiment that could go a long way in generating a strong sense of community amongst an otherwise fractured Muslim population in this country. This practice could also help mobilise Muslims into pursuing (as a mass) lawful and efficacious channels of protest and affirmative action. Above all though, a coordinated effort to network mosques and systematise their sermons would help generate through the repetition of certain ideas a shared mental landscape that can then help Muslims behave more like a cohesive collectivity and bring them closer to building a shared cultural space that is at once distinctly local (British) and global-historical (Islam).
This mechanisation of the role of mimbars in aid of making positive social changes in our reality as Muslim Britons carries with it the added benefits of ensuring greater communication occurs between Muslims in charge of mosques and builds in their minds – the hurdles notwithstanding – a sense of joint purpose. While this may seem naively optimistic, if not hopelessly utopian, the truth of the proverb – that the longest journey begins with a single step – is as true as it is shrewd.
What I have tried to do in this essay is cut corners. A true sociology of mosques and a detailed outline (with all the ins and outs) of the mechanisation of mimbars ought to take several more reams of paper than this humble effort had the audacity to broach. Instead, I have sought to provide a peculiar (as much as a particular) reading of the mosque so as to stimulate the enquiring mind into defamiliarising the very familiar space of mosques and suggest that perhaps the vitality we desire to see in our mosques can be read out of its already existing nature. To lend support to this quirky reading I turned briefly to the history of mosques and the role they played in communities of the past. Here my reading found some backing since the dynamism and malleability of mosques in our history was precisely what my reading of emptiness implied. The energy pregnant within emptiness therefore is the dominant idea behind this essay and touches the notion of building greater networks of sociality around mosques by radically altering and diversifying the kind of activities mosques host. The other aspect it touches, and which I treated as the third prong of my triadic focus, involved looking at encouraging greater evolution within the patterned functionality of mosques. It was in relation to this as well as the capacity of mosques to be part of the processes of social change that the essay shifted its focus to one of the specific patterned functions amongst mosques: the Friday sermon. All of this of course rests on a will to change as much as a changed mindset amongst Muslims, but what this essay has sought to do above all is challenge our placid conceptions of the mosque in order to beg the question: could these institutions not be sites for social change?