Haniya has never been to a masjid, and parents aren’t practicing Muslims.
Lately she feels the need to explore her faith. Her new friend has offered to take her to the Islamic Center, near the halal grocery store.
Excited, she shops for a scarf to wear for the prayers. She wraps it the best she knows how, slipping off her sandals, she enters the divine space, her bright pink painted toes tiptoeing on the lush red carpet of the masjid. The adhan is called, she follows along with the congregation and feels at peace... until a woman comes up to her and yanks her scarf over her hair and yells, “your prayer isn’t accepted, look at the way you are dressed. Don’t you know that is it haram to pray with nail polish!”
Haniya isn’t real but her story is and Fatimah Popal has heard many of them. There are many Haniyas amongst us who never come back to the masjid or to Islam because of experiences like this, or because they feel like they just don’t belong.
Popal with her husband, Imam Zia Makhdoom and a group of committed individuals lead MakeSpace. Formed a year ago in Alexandria, Virginia, Make Space is a multi-generational, non-judgmental community hub for American Muslims, say leaders.
The name of the organization comes from the verse of Surah Mujadillah in the Quran. ‘O you who have believed, when you are told, "Space yourselves" in assemblies, then make space; Allah will make space for you.’
Imam Zia is the spark behind MakeSpace. In a video he sent out before the fundraiser, he says the young generation is the most in touch with social and cultural problems and have the solutions. Imam Zia is the former Imam of the Mustafa Center in Annandale, Virginia.
Imam Zia believes that the youth and young professionals are familiar with the undercurrents of this society. “The youth are not the future, they are the present. They need our attention, now. We need to stop thinking of them as future empowered leaders,” said Imam Zia. He points out that 6 out of 10 American Muslims are under the age of 40. Most American Muslims are second or third generation and they need to have a place where their issues are handled.
MakeSpace raised over $66,000 at their first fundraiser held on June 7th, 2013. The free fundraising dinner was held to raise funds for Ramadan events and to purchase or build a community center. Currently all events are held at donated office suites, on 10400 Eaton Pl. in Fairfax and the Dunya Banquet Hall.
After Quran and nasheed presentations and testimonies by the youth involved in MakeSpace, Aatif Sharieff, an architect and member, unveiled his vision of the first all American modern musalla, with business incubation rooms, a cafe, using natural light with eco-friendly wudu stations, and lounges. “We can’t keep importing foreign structures and dropping them on American soil,” says Sharieff. Architecturally, Makes Space wants the future space to reflect modern Islamic design that responds to an American vernacular.
Inclusive, within the boundaries of Islam, MakeSpace is about being comfortable with who you are and with what defines you say members. “Let [people] go at their pace, not everyone is at the same level of iman. Just as the Quran was not revealed overnight, it took years,” Popal said, explaining the Make Space philosophy as she conducted the fundraising event.
The ladies halaqah led by Popal is a regular MakSpace event, where a room packed with girls and women of different ages and ethnicities gather bi-weekly to discuss and learn. Yusra O. from Silver Springs, MD attended a halaqah led by Fatima Mirza, a PhD student in social work. “I found the halaqah to be extremely informative and relevant. She went through kind of a FAQ of counseling and discussed how we can get over the stigma that comes with seeking help. It was a 'non-judgment' zone. It was my first time there yet I felt welcomed and like I was a part of the community,” says Yusra.
B.C. is a brother who accepted Islam and is mentored by Imam Zia. “He teaches Islam and does not fear pointing out the difference between cultural Islam and true Islam,” says B.C. about Imam Zia.
Sumoyya Sharifi has been involved since the project started as her husband is a current board member. “It is a really important project; we need more organizations like this, where do those youth go that feel like they don’t belong?” Make Space offers leadership roles to youth, which the board feels are grossly overlooked contributors to the Ummah.
“MakeSpace is a much needed concept. It is where we go to practice Islam in its most purest sense. MakeSpace is where I belong,” shared Sarah, a Makespace board member in a video. She was unable to attend the fundraiser as she was volunteering at an orphanage in Mexico.
Many elders in the community wonder why organizations such as Make Space have broken away from the masjid. ”It is a cultural difference, especially with this generation. People want opportunities and you have to be able to give it by providing platforms like this,” says Sharifi.
MakeSpace does provide services to masajid, organizing volunteers to clean masajid and filling gaps in services that masajid may not offer.
Transparency and relevance are core concerns of the team, as they try to stay on the vanguard of excellence in serving the needs of the community. They aim to share where every penny that comes into the organization is spent.
All khutbahs and talks are about relevant topics to the attendees; fathers and sons can discuss issues on the drive home from Jumuah. Regular recreational activities include a ladies book club and a weekend biking club, yoga, basketball, jumuah and Eid Salah.
“Its really beneficial that Make Space is offering something like this,” says a volunteer. A high schooler tweeted, “skipping the prom to attend the MakeSpace fundraiser.”
On Saturday mornings, you will find Make Space volunteers at the Capitol Area Food Bank. They have also partnered with ALIVE! (ALexandrians InVolved Ecumenically)to help distribute grocery to the elderly and low income families. ALIVE is a nonprofit organization of volunteers from over 40 religious congregations and the community working together to help those in need in Alexandria, Virginia.
“If you believe that American Muslims should be divided based on ethnicity and sectarian lines then MakeSpace is not for you,” says Imam Zia.
“I needed a place and I just met them; they were nice, happy and accepting, but this should not become a club for people who think like us. Are we going to themed spaces, like we have themed masajid,” cautioned Br. Ousama, a speaker at the event, “We need to change the way Muslim interact with each other. We should direct to changing ourselves for better; Muslims are still your brothers and sisters even if they don’t think you are.” The plan isn’t to make yet another place or a fortress for an exclusive group of people.
As an organization committed to youth empowerment, MakeSpace deeply cares about youth and would like to play an important role in providing them with all the resources and connections they need to excel in their fields. To facilitate this Virginia High School MSA Council (VHMC) was created as a branch of MakeSpace, dedicated to high school students and MSAs.
MakeSpace’s Career Development Program hosts monthly career development seminars each focusing on specific skills (resume writing, interview tricks and tips, etc). The first one will be held on June 22, 2013. Seminars for specific fields and a mentoring program connecting college/high school students with professionals in specific fields.
Make Space offers live Quran Tafsir classes on the MakeSpace Youtube Channel.
MakeSpace respects all schools of thought but won’t advocate for or against one. (TML will publish an interview with Imam Zia on his leadership style in the July issue, in shaa Allah.)
”My children are confirming their future MakeSpace meetings and that is a big thing for me as a parent of teenagers. Alhamdulillah!” writes Nadia Marzia on the MakeSpace Facebook page.
American Muslim families in this Northern Virginia community have found their space.