Mosque Makeovers

Reimagining a sacred space

Near the twisty amusement park landscape of Canada’s Wonderland, in Toronto’s northern suburbs, is a neighbourhood designed for a single sect of Muslims. The nine streets of Peace Village, all named for scholars and leaders of their group, the Ahmadis, are lined with 315 two-storey brick homes, which occupy small lots that are more driveway than grass—the type of homes, at least on the outside, one can find anywhere in surburban Toronto. Inside, they are designed along the lines of traditional Muslim houses, with separate quarters for men and women, and extra ventilation to account for the heavy spices of Ahmadiyya cooking. On the south side of this neighbourhood is a green strip of grass (or snow, in winter) and a mosque, a blocky white building with square windows and arched doors, and topped with a tiered minaret and two stainless steel domes.

At prayer time one afternoon in November, some two dozen people strolled into the building. Some of the men were in suits, but others wore long tunics, prayer caps, and beards. Some slowed for unhurried chit-chat. “Salaam aleikum” came the greeting, and “Aleikum salaam” the response: “Peace be upon you,” followed by “And to you, too.”

In its starkness, the mosque, called Baitul Islam, or “House of Islam,” appears designed to stand apart from its suburban setting. Not so, says Naseer Ahmad, the man who built it—it’s actually an attempt to fit in.

Most Ahmadis come to Canada as refugees from Pakistan, where they are persecuted for their sect’s comparatively liberal approach to Islam, as well as their belief that the Messiah has already come and gone. When a sufficiently large community developed in Toronto to finance and support a mosque, the job of building one fell to Ahmad, a stocky fifty-eight-year-old with wispy hair and a formal suit, wire-framed glasses, and black dress shoes. He came to Canada from Pakistan over thirty years ago, before the Ahmadis started arriving en masse. Currently a real estate agent, he has also sold advertising, overseen the construction of a sawmill in Nova Scotia, and developed the shopping plaza where he now maintains a small office, about five minutes from Peace Village. Since completing the mosque, his first venture in community development, in 1992, he has planned and built Peace Village; helped seven other Ahmadiyya groups build mosques across Canada; and designed a second one himself, for the sect’s Calgary community. It was Baitul Islam, however, that put him on a thinker’s quest: How does one adapt fifteen centuries of tradition to a new and distinct culture and landscape? And what should a Canadian mosque look like?

Ahmad wanted his mosque to reflect Canada’s environment, values, and culture, while still adhering to the rules of Islam. Adjusting to Canada’s climate was simple. There is no need for a grand courtyard with a fountain as its centrepiece, as one sees in many mosques in Muslim countries. Muslims kick off their shoes and peel off their socks to wash at these fountains before entering the main sanctuary, but Ahmad couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to do that outside in a Canadian winter, so he put the washing stations inside. And Baitul Islam’s minaret is all form, no function. In most parts of the world, there is no longer a need to climb a minaret to belt out the call to prayer, because a loudspeaker can be mounted on it instead. At the Peace Village mosque, they’re mounted on poles in the parking lot.

The question of culture was more complex and, for the most part, an issue of gender. In some Islamic cultures, women are not even welcome inside mosques, and in others they must pray in segregated areas. In places with the freedom to allow for debate on such issues, Muslims disagree on whether this practice is theology or sexism. Naseer Ahmad started thinking specifically about women and mosques after plans for Baitul Islam, created by a Shia Muslim architect from Ottawa, included only a small section for women. Ahmad wanted a larger one, and that difference of opinion got the two men started on a long discussion. Canadian culture—and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms—considers the exclusion of women from mosques discriminatory. For Ahmad and others who want to address sexism in their mosques, this is now a matter of defining the problem and determining how quickly congregations can adapt to new ways.

Although in each case these reformers are working to grant women new status, influence, and rights, most cannot even agree on a name for what they are doing. Gender neutrality, shared authority, gender equality, gender blindness—none of these terms fits all the approaches that tackle sexism in Canadian mosques. That should be no surprise: the country has a greater variety of Muslims than most, and allows them the freedom to practise their religion in their own way.

Not all Muslims are willing to consider changing on every front, and many recognize that what is right for their congregations isn’t appropriate for others. For some, building a mosque without sexism is simply the right thing to do. Other would-be reform scenarios have an added layer of complexity, such as the common immigrant conundrum Naseer Ahmad faces. He wants to preserve an ethnic and religious identity in his children, especially his daughters, but he is raising them in a wider culture with values that sometimes clash with his own. Keeping young Muslim women in the faith requires a gender-neutral mosque, he says. But going too far could upset the traditionalists in his community.

Despite their differences, reformers in Canadian mosques are pondering the same questions: Should the sexes be segregated during prayer? Should mosques have separate entrances? How much influence can women have over mosque administration? Can they lead a congregation in prayer if there are men present? Deliver a sermon? Sing the call to prayer?

Like Orthodox Jews, Muslims believe that men at prayer must not be distracted by the beauty of the feminine form. Mosques that welcome women typically have separate areas for each gender to pray in. Ahmad’s architect felt a women’s section should be smaller because menstruating women are not required to pray, so if a mosque will never host all of its female members at once, they have no need for an equally big prayer hall. Ahmadis believe women are welcome in a mosque at any time, even if menstruating or not there to pray. The final design for Baitul Islam featured a prayer hall for women in the basement that was as big as the men’s section on the main floor. Ahmad decided to compensate for the symbolism of the location by giving the women’s section more decorative flourishes. In his most recent mosque, opened in Calgary in 2008 and now Canada’s largest, Ahmad merged the two spaces into one large hall with a retractable divider bisecting the room. Men sit in front of the partition and women behind it. Ahmad’s are just two solutions among many. Others include a mezzanine for women, so they can see the imam during prayer, or a divider that rises just a few feet off the floor, also to preserve a view.

Most canadian mosques were established to serve a specific ethnic group or Muslim sect, and are typically run by an elected board of directors. But Canada is also fertile ground for a newer model that is both more and less inclusive: mosques that welcome all comers but don’t give them a vote on how things are done. The mosque at Toronto’s Noor Cultural Centre is open to non-Muslims, and one of the imams is an American convert. It was founded and funded by a Kenyan-born immigrant to Canada of South Asian descent named Hassanali Lakhani, who wanted to promote his own notion of Islam—an approach that allows men and women to share in authority over a mosque. But Noor is not a democracy. Lakhani’s daughter, Samira Kanji, is the president of the mosque and the cultural centre, which hosts language lessons, guest speakers, and seminars, and sponsors a chair in Islamic Studies at York University. Kanji makes decisions about who can lead services or give a speech; she sees herself as the guardian of the centre’s values. (The centre does have a board, but it is unelected and made up of members of Kanji’s family; Kanji also has veto rights on board decisions.)

Kanji is petite, eloquent, and seemingly fond of her thesaurus. She welcomes me to Noor with tea and cookies, and then we get to the question of women in mosques. Noor’s method assumes that men and women experience Islam and the Quran differently, and the organization gives both genders a voice. Noor’s mosque is in the basement: wider than it is long, the floor a collage of Persian carpets, sunlight streaming in from a horizontal band of windows passing above the minbar, or pulpit. It is a shared space: all enter through the same door, and at prayer time men sit on the left and women on the right, so all can see the imam as he preaches; women do not have to symbolically subjugate themselves by sitting behind the men. Women can sing the call to prayer or give a pre-prayer sermon, but the line not yet crossed is to have a woman as imam.

Noor’s approach is non-violent, non-confrontational, and apolitical; Kanji doesn’t want to tweak the sensibilities of outsiders, nor push for reforms she feels her congregation is not ready for. The word she thinks best describes her way is “humble.” Other approaches may have merit too, but in the end what happens at Noor is Kanji’s decision.

According to Zarqa Nawaz, creator of the CBC sitcom Little Mosque on the Prairie, reforms such as these are harder to enact at mosques where the congregants vote for board members, because often the conservative factions of a congregation speak the loudest. At the Winnipeg Grand Mosque, a relatively reformist board of directors has struggled to preserve its authority. The board recently decided to take down a partition in the prayer hall. Some of the male congregants took it upon themselves to build a replacement overnight. In January, a judge who was hired to moderate the dispute reinstated conservative members of the board. Since then, the wall has been replaced. The more reformist congregants are hoping to regain control in an election in November. “If I had a million dollars, I’d open a mosque,” Nawaz says. “And whoever doesn’t like how I run it can leave.”

Another version of this model is the el-Tawhid Juma Circle, a small mosque of straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender worshippers. They gather for afternoon prayers on Friday—the most important day of the week for Muslims—at a private address in downtown Toronto. El-Tawhid has been meeting for about two years now, in a small room covered by a carpet, with an old church pew at one end. People plunk themselves down on cushions wherever there is space; the question of whether to have greater interaction with the wider Muslim community is more important right now than where people sit at prayer time. On this winter afternoon, the room fills up with about twenty people, a mix of born Muslims and converts, academics, and refugees from Muslim countries.

Anyone can sing the call to prayer or lead prayers during the service, and several women have taken regular turns as imam. One is Laury Silvers, a convert from Los Angeles and a professor of religion at the University of Toronto. Other than during el-Tawhid’s services, women have led men in organized prayer only in a few unique circumstances. Silvers has red hair, a cheerful but commanding group leader voice, and a Facebook page full of statements and causes—exactly what you’d expect from a passionate activist.

She calls the group to attention at about 1:15, as a few stragglers are still shaking off their coats. Islamic prayers are to be said at specific times, and she opens by asking everyone to come on time: “If we’re going to be a real mosque, we have to do things by the book.”

After prayers, the group moves to the kitchen for tea and snacks before heading back to work or school. Discussion ranges from academic shop talk to the focused activism expected from a group like this. There is little tolerance here for a go-slow approach. Most aspire to a Muslim culture where chauvinism no longer has a place in the mosque, but Silvers is adamant that el-Tawhid’s approach is one of many and not to be forced on others.

For every feminist frustrated with the pace of change, another is sensitive to the dangers of moving too fast. Little Mosque’s Zarqa Nawaz captured this tension in her 2005 documentary, Me and the Mosque. In it, she sits at her mother’s feet in the women’s section of the Islamic Society of North America mosque in Mississauga, behind a translucent, waist-high divider. The mother says she had not been inside a mosque until she moved to Canada, and likes that she can see the imam behind the small divider. That’s enough for her. But her daughter is not satisfied; she wants vocal support for more.

Frustration and friction seem natural when diverse peoples confront shared taboos. Even though they represent a small group of reformers among Canada’s roughly 600,000 Muslims, many of those pushing for gender equity in mosques today see more differences than similarities among themselves. For instance, when Naseer Ahmad was pondering his approach, the implications of welcoming menstruating women meant more than just a large enough prayer section. He installed coin-operated tampon and pad dispensers in the washrooms. Reactions to this decision underscore the range of preferences and sensitivities: some were pleased, and some felt it a trivial move, or a reminder of how far there is to go. Others did not realize that in some Muslim cultures people think a tampon can deflower a virgin. And some were surprised: “I’ve never even thought to look for that!” said Globe and Mail columnist Sheema Khan.

Though many in Canada’s informal group of mosque reformers are asking pointed questions about one another, they do agree on one thing: it’s remarkable that these issues can be addressed at all. The reforms ongoing in Canada cannot happen in many Muslim countries, because decisions about questions like these are made by the state; even in Turkey, the only Muslim democracy in the Middle East, religion is regulated. Plenty of countries have significant Muslim minorities and a separation of religion and government, allowing Muslims to debate and settle these matters on their own, but most of those countries lack Canada’s diversity. France’s Muslims are overwhelmingly Algerian, so a gender-neutral mosque in France would almost certainly be informed largely by the North African experience. In Germany, Turks are the dominant group; in the United Kingdom, it is South Asians. Canada has sizable populations of Muslims of almost every kind, giving it a diverse set of thinkers who benefit from the intellectual freedom to experiment and compare. There are probably fewer than five countries in the same situation. One is the US, where millions of people aren’t sure whether or not the president is a Muslim, nor whether that matters.

In the US and elsewhere, the most radical and fundamentalist voices often set the national debate about Muslims: radical American clerics issuing fatwas from Yemen, or racist politicians in Europe stoking xenophobic fears in white voters. Those extremists surely exist in Canada, but they aren’t polluting our national debate. And at this point, any public discourse about Islam that does not involve the words “jihad” or “terrorism” feels like progress.

This appeared in the April 2011 issue.

Matt Mossman
Matt Mossman is an analyst for Oxford Business Group and a former reporter for Bloomberg News.
Jaime Hogge
Jaime Hogge has won an Applied Arts Award and an International Digital Emmy and regularly contributes photography to the Grid, Maclean’s, and The Walrus.