By Salman Khan
As a child, whenever you asked a Muslim what they wanted to do when they grew up, building a masjid (mosque) was always one of the responses. Interestingly, this trend continues even at the college level. The answer “I want to build a masjid” seems ubiquitous and a goal of almost every generation. Although I believe building a masjid is a noble goal, there are some unsettling views that underlie this mentality – the most troubling is the assumption that we need more masajid (mosques) at all.
Why is this troubling? A masjid should be built only if there is a need for it, i.e. there is no existing masjid within the surrounding area. Therefore, if our goal in building a masjid is not to fulfill a need but to reap the rewards that building it entails, then we have a misinformed intention. A masjid should serve as a community center where everyone can come together; it should function as a hub that is relevant to the community it serves. In most areas we do not need more structures; we need communities to fill those structures. We need to build masajid by building and strengthening the communities that already exist!
Many of our masajid are only filled during weekly Friday prayers. Aside from this they are abandoned. Interestingly, our communities often expand the masjid to accommodate more people during the Friday prayers, as if the Friday prayer were the only function of a masjid. Although this may be the main function today, we have to understand that the masjid should be so much more than this. The growing discussion regarding the need for a ‘third space’ where we can all come together and feel welcome outside of the home or masjid only occurs because of our dysfunctional masajid. Our masajid are not serving the interests or needs of our communities. They are not serving our youth, our elders, our sisters, our converts, our young professionals or our children. Instead, they are serving the parochial and outdated idea of what a masjid should be: a strictly religious center. We need masajid with more functionality – not more masajid without functionality beyond the basic obligatory prayers.
The main demographic served in most instances is the middle-aged adult male. However, even within this demographic we find only a small minority actually affiliated with the masjid. The masjid is not, and should not be, a ground for politics or contests of religiosity. Rather, it should be a haven for everyone, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, social class, madhab (Islamic school of thought), sect or religiosity. If it is to serve this wide array of individuals it needs to be dynamic in its approach. Our masajid need dynamism, effective programming and involved community members. We must understand that the masjid boards are not the main culprit in our dysfunctional communities. In many cases they may be doing the best job they can—they may not know how to diversify the functions beyond the strictly religious paradigm. Unfortunately, the community itself often turns its back on its own responsibility; quick to judge and yet unwilling to take action. Most masajid have less than 10% of their local community vote during elections, so how can we possibly complain when we watch from the sidelines as the masjid goes through continuous periods of stagnation and ineffectiveness? If we are serious advocates for change and improvement then we should not only attend our masajid more regularly, but we should vote during the elections. With such a small margin of the community voting, each vote has so much power. Get a few of your friends and family to help out and you can create some serious change.
What we need, then, is to develop the masajid we already have. We need to work towards molding each and every one of our masajid into perfect centers where individuals feel comfortable and spiritually welcome. We need to involve ourselves, invest our time and energy, and serve the community through effective programing and providing relevant services. When we say “I want to build a masjid”, let us change our intention to mean building upon the foundations that already exist, not starting from scratch.