Area Muslims Discuss Reasons For Increased Masjid In-Fighting
The number of mosques in the United States increased from just over 1200 to approximately 2100 between 2000 and 2011, according to a recent study by a coalition of Muslim organizations and research institutions. The first part of the larger study was presented at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. on February 29th.
In the Washington Metropolitan area many mosques, both old and new are facing increasing issues of in-fighting, scandal and conflict and in some cases ending up in local court.
“Pretty much every masjid has faced this problem of some sort of conflict or tension,” said Islamic Center of Maryland Board of Trustee Member, Nadeem Ahmad. “My experience is that most of these problems emerge when you really have not done a good job on putting the focus or a direction for that center or that community.”
Ahmad said that though the community members must play their part in the development and success of the masjid, it is primarily the responsibility of the leadership to create opportunity for community involvement and encourage trust through transparency.
“It is a responsibility and in a way a double responsibility on the administration. You have got to make sure that you keep people involved. Unless they see that the process is transparent, that they are being listened to, they won’t engage and they will feel like they are being disenfranchised and they will move away,” said Ahmad.
While Ahmad places much of the responsibility on the shoulders of the masjid management, former president of a Maryland mosque, Maher Kharma said masjid leadership is sometimes overly scrutinized by the community.
As a former member of leadership himself, Kharma faced personal scrutiny. Though he doesn’t believe leadership is perfect, he views masjid conflicts as multifaceted, involving not only the performance of the management of the masjid, but the expectations that the community members have of the management.
“When you don’t have people who understand what leadership is about you end up having these conflicts,” said Kharma.
Both Ahmad and Kharma pointed to issues of clarity in a masjid’s direction as the primary source of conflict. For Kharma, the lack of focus he experienced was a result of an altruistic approach to masjid development.
“Most of our organizations are founded on good intentions and rarely people think there will be conflict so there will often be no structure, no constitution, no bylaws,” he said.
As the number of masjids in suburban areas has increased sixteen percent since 2000 they have begun to evolve beyond the functions of daily prayers, religious holidays and occasional classes and into full fledged community centers with full time schools and daily activities, Kharma believes more focus needs to be paid on the importance of developed structures and a general understanding of the role of the contemporary American masjid.
“[We need to] apply the Quranic model in establishing solid structure in our operations at the masjids and create practical contemporary constitutions that would serve the time and age and generations that we are serving. That would be the most important thing so that we can really respond to peoples needs,” said Kharma.
While Ahmad agrees that a masjid should be run under guiding Islamic principle, he is weary of using certain terminology in the arbitration of masjid conflicts.
“Unfortunately the perspective of handling things ‘Islamically’ has become a tool for intimidation. Any little thing you say or do can be ‘unIslamic.’ What I have learned is that I have always stayed away from telling someone its ‘unislamic.’ It just rubs people in the wrong way no matter way, whether you are right or wrong,” said Ahmad.
The challenges associated with the use of such general terminology may be associated with the growing diversification of the American Muslim mosque, with only three percent of mosques catering to a single ethnic group.
Differing cultural backgrounds, religious viewpoints of a variety of practiced madhabs and varying opinions on the traditional role of the masjid and its purpose for the community compound the already complex concerns of the rapidly growing American Muslim community.
“I don’t see how we can completely avoid conflicts. We must understand that conflicts and disagreements are part of our history. I think that they can be beneficial depending on how they are handled,” said Ahmad.
Salim Khatib of Catonsville, Maryland, experienced conflict that he said greatly impacted his attendance at the masjid he attended since 1985 and even purchased a home nearby.
“Jumuah khutba and all other activities are all geared toward raising money. People that I knew for many years have left in droves. There is no real feeling of brotherhood and camaraderie. The same group of people take turns in being leaders and keep the rest of us at bay as silent spectators. During meetings people are allowed to speak openly but those in charge pay no heed to any suggestions. So there is a strong sense of frustration, helplessness and defeatism,” said Khatib.
Ahmad also warned against the divide between those in leadership positions and the community they lead.
“To the leadership I would say, definitely hold a high standard but do not sit on pedestal, do not elevate yourself and become unapproachable. Please, for heaven sake, avoid going into needless arguments and schemes. Exercise patience and judgement. Use all the same qualities you bring to your workplace as a professional. What is different about here?” said Ahmad.
With an array of issues varying from conflicts based on cultural misunderstandings to accusation of financial fraud ending up in courtrooms local Muslim communities are struggling to keep up with the demands of the growing community and the expectations of the modern American masjid.
Rules of arbitration in Islamic tradition are often points of contention themselves where heavily diversified communities find themselves at odds of understanding thus redefining the role of American based religious authorities such as the Fiqh Council of North America. While the Council is unable to arbitrate individual issues it provides calculations for moonsightings and generalized fatwas on issues that often sources of disagreement in local communities. While the majority, fifty-six percent, of mosque leaders “adopt a flexible approach” when interpreting the Qu’ran and Sunnah, a large minority does not beg the question of how one might define such an approach across the many variables that exist in the increasingly ethnically and generationally diverse American Muslim community.
Khatib hopes that the future of the American Muslim mosque will be able to move past conflict by learning to better use available resources rather than fighting over who will use them.
“Instead of wasting energy and resources in being at loggerheads with one another, it makes much more sense to learn the fundamentals of Islam and listen to youth and scholars who do not give themselves airs and have valuable knowledge of Islam and the contemporary world,” he said.
Ahmad understands the plight of the community faced with looming conflict but urges members to hold on through the storm.
“For the community, even with all the heartburn and disenfranchisement that they feel, do not give up on being engaged. We have all types of heartburns and complaints at our workplace but we try to manage because there is some benefit to us. We need to bring something of a similar mindset,” said Ahmad.