Islamic Mosques: Can Muslim Women Find Spiritual Solitude in Sexually Segregated Mosques?
Wetina M. Grice-Ford


May 10, 2003


  On Jan 31, 2003, while inside Mas-jid Al Faatir*, in Newark, NJ, I discovered that during Islamic worship, Muslim women are separated from the men during Islamic prayers. Not only are these women separated, they are surrounded by elements that can promote gloom, depression and mental imbalance. How do women achieve a positive spiritual experience when they are surrounded by social and religious conformities that are not conducive to the religious sanctity that Islam embodies? What does sexual segregation have to do with offering salat? Why do women in this particular congregation have to pray in an environment that is more socially inept than spiritually enriching? How can these women change their current situation within Mas-jid Al Faatir*?


Inside Al- Faatir

  Established in 1985, Mas-jid Al-Fatir* was created to accommodate the budding, African-American, orthodox Islamic community in Newark, NJ. The Mas-jid itself is small; located on a busy street that is infested with drugs and crime. Once disguised as a storefront, the exterior is sand blasted white, with decorative green trimming stylized to look like the curvy Moroccan archways found on the famous Taj -Mahal. There are huge gold letters that hover over the archway inscribed, “Al-Faatir***” followed by Arabic writing. When I asked the attending Imam what the Arabic sinage translated into, he replied sternly, “Peace be upon you.”Inside the Mosque, there was a small area where attendees placed their shoes. In some mosques and Mas-jids, it is custom to remove your shoes for religious purposes. The interior looked similar to a gymnasium, with highly polished wooden floors that peeked from under a huge red and green Indian print rug. There weren't many windows, but there was overhead light that illuminated the glossy, wet-looking floors. Proceeding further inside, little tables were set up for anyone those who wanted to sell merchandise. You could find Islamic books, dolls, rugs, incense, bean pies, hats, socks and homemade jewelry. It was reminiscent of the New York street fairs on a sunny afternoon, where street vendors overcrowd the sidewalks, sitting eagerly, waiting for you to ask, how much? Looking for a place to sit, a young man immediatelyushered the ladies to proceed to the basement, where the women meet to pray.

As I began to question the young lady in front, she explained that men and women were not allowed to pray in the same areas, for fear that they will be sexually enticed by the postulating, which could lead them to lose the focus of their prayer. This comment suggested to me that Muslim men are sexual crazed beasts that only see women as objects of desire. But overall, I was insulted by the fact that these men were indirectly telling the women that their place within Islam was beneath them, that they can share the same bed, carry their children for nine months and maintain their households but they were not allowed to collectively participate in the one thing that is supposed to hold their families together, prayer. Finding the excuse asinine, I continued down the stairs, hoping to find a place similar to the one that I was leaving, unfortunately this was not the case.

   As I entered the basement, there was a putrid odor that encapsulated the room and made most of the sisters cover their mouths. Overall the room appeared gloomy. The walls were covered by pink paint that desperately needed refreshing. Sans windows, there was no natural light entering the room, which made it dark and gloomy. There was only a small overhead light that suspended from the water stained, particle board ceilings. In the corner of the room, there was a drab couch that was covered with deep green corduroy fabric, where a sister was changing her child’s diaper, revealing the putrid odor that met us at the door. In the center of the room there was an eight by ten green oriental rug that was occupied by approximately ten sisters who were preparing themselves to offer salat. I looked around to see if I could find a place to sit, but there was no place that could be occupied without huddling next to someone else.When I looked at these women they seemed to be just starting their prayers without any awareness of what they were being exposed to. They began to bow, kneel and chant in unison. Focusing on prayer was very complicated, while I was on my knees, I desperately yearned to understand what the man -vs- woman segregation had to do with true Islam. And if separation was mandatory, then why weren't the women in this Mas-jid exposed to the same clean and luminous environments as the men.

Transcendence

 Does a person really have the ability to spiritually transcend his or her environment no matter what the conditions? Does having a transcendental experience mean going beyond the superficial and intangible? Scientists, Psychiatrists and Psychologists have been researching and debating for years how one experiences transcendence. In layman’s terms the definition of transcendence is as follows: Transcend –beyond; to surpass (American Heritage). To define transcendence and how one achieves it on a personal level is difficult. There are hundreds of theories that suggest spiritual transcendence has to do with the paranormal world. Karen Sturdivant a former psychologist at Rutgers University suggests that, “transcendence goes beyond all physical activities. It is a part of the spiritual psyche that allows you to escape the body in sort of a mystical realm of the unknown ...transcendence is a large part of the human imagination which can be achieved through any circumstance if one is willing to mentally concentrate on his or her spiritual objective" (Sturdivant 2003).

Trying to find spiritual peace amongst the religious politics in Islam is a very complicated thing to do. On one hand Islam is a very beautiful and spiritually conscious religion, it offers peace, balance and discipline within a world that can be mentally and physically overwhelming. However some Muslims use Islam as a tool to enforce antiquated idealisms and Islamic laws. Such as in the Middle East, where Muslim men use islam as a way of deciphering right from wrong that curbs women’s liberation and self -sufficiency. Although, western culture is less militant, there are still lingering signs of the same sexual prejudices and restrictions against American Muslim women as there are in Middle Eastern cultures but debating whether or not some American Muslims practice sexism or other forms of discrimination would be exhausting. Attacking Islam and its culture would not be very beneficial. To revert back to the thesis, how do women experience peace and solace in an atmosphere that is unappealing?

Islam’s Beauty
  Islam itself is a rich culture of art and beauty. From the melodious Arabic chanting during the call of the Adhan, to the astounding, and ornately crafted Mosques, Muslims have contributed their craftsmanship, as well as their intellectual creativity to society. In a passage from, Islamic Spirituality: Foundations, Timothy Burckhardt describes the spirituality of Islamic art. “The art of Islam without a doubt is a contemplative art…it expresses above all a state of the soul that is open toward the interior, toward an encounter with the divine presence”, the author goes on to say, “the essence of art is beauty…It attaches itself to the appearances of things and at the same time rejoins in its qualitive limitlessness the divine being itself…It is like a bridge that goes from the tangible world toward God” (Burkhardt) . The art of Islam itself transports you into a spiritual world that goes beyond explanation. To understand that the essence of art is beauty and my belief in agreement with Burckhardt, that beauty is a part of the exterior as well as the interior. Your surroundings can contribute highly to your mental state. Most houses of worship are a place where you can escape, a place that can transport your mind to the other world. The main reasoning for these beautifully crafted places lies within the text that something beautiful must be heavenly or godly, because the higher power, if in material form, would be something indescribable and mesmerizing. So being placed in a damp dark basement seems to go against the grain of what true beauty is. It  was a overall contrast to the images that attracted me to the religion.

Finding Peace
  Imagine trying to concentrate on an exam or important assignment while fire trucks are passing by your apartment annoyingly blasting their sirens or imagine yourself sitting in a park while enjoying the sound of the birds and the faint sound of children’s laughter, when all of a sudden a group of young teenagers come along blasting a loud radio, screaming obscenities at one another. Even more in depth, imagine meditating inside a room that has no fresh air, light or sounds to stimulate your senses. It is as if you were standing on a crowed rush hour train, in the middle of the summer with no fresh air to cool you off. I don’t think most people could find peace amongst these elements.

I took a survey of fifteen members of Mas-jid Al-Faatir**, five men and ten women and asked them to describe, their ideal praying environment. Fourteen of the participants stated that their surroundings had to quiet, aesthetically pleasing, tranquil and serene. While one respondent , Sister Khadijah,  stated, "It doesn't’t make a difference what my environment looks like, it’s like that saying mind over matter. If you are being distracted by your environment then you need to remove yourself from it. Al-Faatir* does not have the money to build some elaborate Mas-jid in the middle of an impoverished area. If your sole reason is to serve Allah, you will achieve the same result here as you would in your living room, bedroom or the Turkish Blue Mosque.” Another respondent, Sister Zakiyaah Bashir interrupted our conversation with a difference of opinion, “ I feel that a person’s surroundings do affect the way he or she sees the world. Mental health is the first thing that needs to be preserved in order to focus on Allah’s will. If you are trying to pray and you hear a child screaming and crying, you may respect the mother who is nurturing her child, but you also feel cheated out of your prayer session because you have to listen to a baby scream the entire time and you couldn't fully concentrate. This Mas-jid needs an overhaul…no not gold trimming, but it would be nice to see the woman’s area receive a little TLC.

  When I had a one on one discussion with one of the men from Al-Faatir*, he explained that the women’s quarters were in need of revamping, but with limited funds, the room had to remain as it was for the time being. “ Sister I understand your worry, you feel as if the other sisters cannot concentrate on their prayers because of room itself, but I assure you that the majority of the women that attend services here achieve their spiritual goals”. When I debated the fact that women had to come down in the basement because of the visual distraction that they posed on the men and how it was unfair that women were exposed to visual distractions he commented, “A room is just a room that can be tuned out, flesh of a woman in a man’s viewpoint, cannot be tuned out, it’s not that easy to stay focused if you are having impure thoughts, men are more easily distracted” (Rasheed). I feel that this is a slipshod excuse that doesn’t support the actions of the men in Mas-jid Al Faatir. Women should be treated just as equally as the men are treated. The areas of prayer should be the same.

Solution
 

If I were given the opportunity to revamp the women’s prayer area at Mas-jid Al Faatir, I envision the following: When walking into the area I would like to smell an inviting aroma that would stimulate my senses, such as fresh flowers or fragrant incense burning. I would also like to see the glow of an inexpensive ornate light fixture that would be suspended over the current prayer rug. I would try to improve, on the utilization of the floor area by offering adequate spacing that will allow the women to pray in a less huddled manner. To achieve this I would remove the green couch so that every square inch of the floor is used effectively. From there I would repaint the walls into a soothing color that would be appealing to the eye. Also I would add overhead lighting that would bounce off and compliment the soft colors on the walls. I would then add Islamic friendly art on the walls, such as stenciled Arabic writing in a contrasting color or a make shift mosaic plaque. For texture I would add green plants that would safely hang from the ceiling.

There would also be a separate area where mothers can nuture their children.
A religious environment should offer a worshipper peace and serenity. Women within Mas-jid Al Faatir experience their spiritual solitude in many ways. It does not solely depend on environment, but an aesthetically pleasing environment does contribute to the overall attitude a person may or may not have within this environment. Yes while it is true certain psychological phenomena contribute to transcendental experiences, there has been no evidence that a person's surroundings can prevent this experience. In my own opinion, I feel that it is very important to surround yourself in an environment that evokes positive enlightenment as well as spiritual solace. As for women finding transcendence in unappealing places, as sister Khadijah commented in her interview, “It’s simply mind over matter.”


Bibliography
Afkhami, Mahnaz (1991): Faith And Freedom: Women’s Human Rights In The Muslim World (Gender, Culture And Politics In The Middle East). New York, pgs807-810.


Almon, Philip C. (1982): Mystical Experience And Religious Doctrine: An Investigation Of The Study Of Mysticism In World Religion. Berlin: Mouton.


Anway, Carol l., (1996): Daughters Of Another Path: Experiences Of American Women Choosing Islam. Lee’s Summit, MO: Yawana Publications.


Asma Barlas (1987): Believing Women In Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations Of The Qu’ran. No other information given.


Bhaskar, Roy (1979): Reflections On Meta Reality: Transcendence, Enlightenment For Everyday Life. New York


Byrne, James M. (1997): Religion and the Enlightenment: From Descartes to Kant. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY. Page Number: iii.


Carr, David (1999): The Paradox of Subjectivity: The Self in the Transcendental Tradition. Oxford University Press, New York. Page number: iii.


Collins, Patricia (2000): Black Feminist Thought. Routledge, New York.


Cutler, Howard C. His Holiness The Dali Lama, M.D. (1998): The Art Of Happiness, A Handbook For Living. Penguin Putnam, Inc. New York, NY, pgs 37-49


Dash, Knox, Israel (1958): The Aesthetic Theories of Kant, Hegel, and Schopenhauer. Humanities Press, New York. Pages 54.-55.


Dufrenne, Mikel (1989): The Phenomenology Of Aesthetic Experience. Translated by Edward S. Casey, Evanston: Northwestern University Press.


Gelderloos, Paul; Hermans, Hubert J. M.; AhlscrÖm, Henry H.; Jacoby, Rita (1990): Transcendence and Psychological Health: Studies with Long-Term Participants of The Transcendental Meditation and Tm-Sidhi Program; Journal of Psychology. Volume: 124. Issue: 2.


Goldthwait, John T. (1991): Observations On The Feeling Of The Beautiful And Sublime. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.


Ihde, Don (1976): Listening and Voice: A Phenomenology of Sound. Ohio University Press, Athens. Page 258


Jackson, Michael N., Rasor, Stephen (1997): Hidden Wholeness: An African American Spirituality For Individuals And Communities. Cleveland, Ohio: United Church Press.


Kant, Immanuel (1925): Fundamental Principles of Metaphysics of Ethics. London/New York, Longemans, Green.


King, Diane (1997): Houses of God: Region, Religion and Architecture in the United States. New York, New York


Kraemer, Hendrick, Kristensen, Breden (1960): The Meaning of Religion: Lectures in the Phenomenology of Religion. M. Nijhoff, The Hague. Page 50.


Lee, Robert D. (1997): Overcoming Tradition And Modernity: The Search For Islamic Authenticity. West View Press.


Madison, Gary Brent (1981): Phenomenology of Merleau-ponty: A Search for the Limits of Consciousness.Ohio University Press, Athens. Page 107.


Marty, Martin E. (1985): The Varities of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New York: Longmans, Green.


Mernissi, Fatima (1989): Beyond The Veil: Male-Female Dynamics In A Modern Muslim Society. London Press, 1989.


Meyer, Theodore (1957): Moral, Aesthetic, and Religious Insight. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ. Page Number: viii.


Mure, G. R. G. (1940): An Introduction to Hegel. Clarendon Press, Oxford. Page 3.


Ng, Jenny (2001): New York Masjid: The Mosques of New York City. Retrieved April 3, 2003 from the World Wide Web: http://www.bobcat.nyu.edu/WebZ/html/Parsons.html


Rosemary Radford, Ruether (1995): Religion And Sexism; Images Of Women In The Jewish And Christian Traditions. No other information available


Roy, Louis (1942): Transcendent Experiences: Phenomenology and Critique. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.


Saliba, Allen & Howard: Gender And God’s Word: Another Look At Religious Fundamentalism, At Sexism. (No other information)


Seherr-Thoss, Sonia P. (1968): Design and Color in Islamic Architecture: Afghanistan, Iran And Turkey. Washington, D.C: Smithsonian Institution Press.


Seyyed- Hussein, Nassi: Islamic Spirituality: Foundations. Crossroad, www.questia.com (online library), pgs, 506-507.


Stewart, Carlyle Fielding (1999): Black Spirituality And Black Consciousness: Soul Force, Culture And Freedom In The African-American Experience. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.


Yazbeck- Haddad, Yvonne (1982): Contemporary Islam And The Challenge Of History. SUNY Press, pgs 156-157.


Yazbeck, Yvonne (1991): Islamic Values And The United States: A Comparative Study.University Of North Carolina Press, and pgs 201-219.

 

Interviews
Sister Khadijah Ali-Mas Jid Al-Faatir**


Sister Kalita Bashir- Mas-jid Al –Faatir*


Imam Abu Bakr Rasheed- Mas-jid Al-Faatir**


Sister Zakiyaah Bashir- Formerly Mas-jid Al Faatir*

 

*Name changed to protect identity

 

\