At first glance el-Tawhid Juma Circle doesn’t look like a mosque. After all, it is only a conference room at a local business somewhere in Toronto. The location is kept private to protect community members from possible harm since the mosque is the frequent target of online taunts and threats.
Chairs are pushed up against the walls under windows where glaring sunlight marks geometric shapes along the floor. Every inch of the formal leaf-patterned carpet is covered with bed sheets in all shades of purple and orange and an occasional ruby red and highlighter green.
People stand together in straight lines, their toes along the edges of the bed sheets used as prayer rugs: man, man, woman, man then woman all in a single line. “Mecca-style” is how Laury Silvers, co-founder of eTJC, as the mosque is known, describes this standing arrangement. This style breaks from the usual mosque tradition of separating men to the front of the room, women to the back. Some women wear hijab, or the headscarf. Others do not.
ETJC is a progressive mosque—one of a handful gaining popularity across North America promoting egalitarian values that have emerged publicly in the last 20 years such as women-led prayers contrary to standard mosque practices and accepting members from the LGBTQ community, despite their controversial status among Muslims.
When taking a second glance at this mosque, a woman stands in front of the room where normally a man stands giving the Jummah khutbah or Friday sermon. After her 30-minute lesson she stands raising her hands to her ears ready to begin prayer, again taking the place of the role traditionally held by men. Next Friday it could be a man or again a woman—all members take turns being the Imam or prayer leader after they are given a how-to lesson.
And then there are the aspects invisible to the eye: the labels. Among the crowd of about 25 worshippers who attend a recent Friday prayer regularly are converts to Islam searching for a welcoming atmosphere, gay men and women with their partners who have been harassed and stigmatized at the most liberal of mosques, refugees who had recently fled their homelands and need a safe haven to begin their lives again, and then there are also the merging of Sunnis, Shiites and other sects praying side by side.
It is hard to distinguish one from the other. Here they all are just people, no labels, equal in the eyes of God. Coming from different backgrounds, no one promises to agree on each other’s values but they promise to disagree respectfully.
“The people we are getting are usually sick of their local mosque and are already leaving,” Silvers said. “People who would quit Islam if it weren’t for progressive mosques. I cannot tell you how many people we get who say ‘I hate Islam, I was leaving Islam, I have already said I’m no longer a Muslim when I found out about this mosque and now I find a place where I can be myself.’”
In some cases Muslims turn to progressive mosques because they feel their social and political ideals are better reflected. This was the case for Silvers, also a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Toronto, who was frustrated sitting in the back of the room with her PhD listening to men less educated than her give lectures.
“Men have positions that they do because they have a penis,” she said. “You have to either believe in your own deficiency or believe everything you know to be true wrong.”
Women’s roles in the mosque really began to change in 2005 after Amina Wadud, a feminist American scholar of Islam, led Friday prayer in New York City in a gathering of 100 men and women. Her prayer broke from Islamic law that held only male imams could lead prayer in mixed-gender gatherings.
“The voices of women have been silenced by centuries of man-made traditions, and we’re saying, ‘No more!’ ” Asra Q. Nomani said at a news conference before the service began according to the New York Times. “We’re going to move from the back of the mosque to the front of the mosque.”
Since this infamous prayer many mosques have allowed women to give the pre-prayer lecture and even lead prayer.
However, it’s helpful to think of mosques, and Muslim prayer spaces, and Muslim community spaces not as either progressive or conservative but rather on a spectrum, said Kecia Ali, a professor of religion at Boston University specializing in Islam.
“Some mosques are potentially very liberal and free-thinking in some respects and conservative in others,” she said. “Some as a matter of practice are very tolerant, which has to do with social norms within a community, but when you push someone on doctrine they may clamp down.”
Ali said progressive mosques have emerged in response to the recent widespread piety movement in America, in which Muslims have become more religious. Gay Muslims praying alongside non-gay Muslims is not a new idea, Ali said, but publicly accepting their sexuality and searching for acceptance within these “religiously saturated environments” is.
“People no longer feel they can keep their sexuality on the one hand and religion on the other,” she said. “They’re looking for a complete identity that allows them to be not just gay or Muslim, but gay Muslim.”
Amir Hussain, a professor of theologian studies at Loyola Marymount University with a focus on contemporary Islamic societies in North America, said 9/11 forced many people especially academics to become more public about their liberal understandings of Islam and create communities and organizations around those viewpoints.
“What you potentially see post-9/11 with the rise of Islamophobia [are] Muslims who are [questioning]…‘how can [we] say on the one hand yes we want support for mosques to be built and freedom for Muslims and on the other hand we don’t want freedom for gays and lesbians,’” he said.
Hussain added North American Muslims have to deal with different realities than Muslims in other parts of the world where women’s rights and homosexuality is not a publicly issue.
“It is very different in the North American case [because] we are actively addressing issues of what does it mean to have same-sex marriage, what does it mean to have homosexuality taught as an acceptable sexual lifestyle in schools,” he said.
The emergence of progressive egalitarian religious communities is not unique to Islam. Churches and synagogues have also joined this trend.
Emmanuel Church in Boston is one example of a church that welcomes people from all religious denominations as well as LGBTQ members.
Minyan Tehillah synagogue in Cambridge, Mass. aims to maximize participation opportunities for women by allowing them to lead certain parts of the service prayers and read from the Torah.
These have been strictly male activities in standard Orthodox synagogues, wrote Rachel Goldberg communications chair of Minyan Tehillah in an email. “We try to expand the limits of egalitarianism within a framework that is still committed to halacha (Jewish law).”
Among the line of people standing for Friday prayer at eTJC was Ahmed Ahmed, 31, a student at the University of Toronto.
He felt lucky to have avoided becoming a controversy in a traditional mosque. The longer he lived as an openly gay man, the harder it had become to pretend he was like everybody else. He hated having to hide his lifestyle standing shoulder-to-shoulder and foot-to-foot next to Muslim men who would never approve of homosexuality. That meant lying a lot.
But when he discovered eTJC he didn’t have to lie or hide anymore. Ahmed could even bring his partner—although he didn’t have one right now (Muslim men are just too much drama, he says off-handedly). Here he could finally belong to a faith-based community without judgment.
He described this place as a Godsend. “I really appreciate I can be Muslim. I can be everything else that I am, worshiping with people that can see that and respect that.”
Slider image courtesy of Just Us 3/Flickr.