“Rozana, we are not in Zaytuna anymore.” I told myself this as I sat silently amongst a group of women discussing the lamentable conditions of the masjid cafeteria after Sunday school lunch. The conversation meandered through the various problems of the Muslim community, and then lingered on the lack of cleanliness of Muslim American sacred spaces and, more importantly, the general communal lethargy towards enhancing Muslim establishments. As the eager ladies chimed in possible solutions to rectify the issue, a Zaytuna-inspired light bulb popped over my head, and I realized that the lack of cleanliness, professionalism, and other problems besetting many Muslim American communities were only symptoms for a more virulent infection beneath the deep wound, that is, the infection of tenuous communal bonds. I decided to speak up, and share a few points on the meaning of community and community-building, essentially parroting one of my teachers who is extraordinarily passionate on the topic. After I finished speaking, one dear sister told me that she was so impressed with these ideas that she wanted to video-tape me and post the recording on YouTube and blazon Zaytuna’s conception of community-building throughout the world. At first I was reluctant to her proposal, but then I responded by telling her that I would love to write her an article instead, which would perhaps be more-effective than a YouTube video, and the kind Yemeni-American mother heartily conceded. Below is my article-response.
“Community does not happen organically,” a teacher of mine once emphatically said. “What does he mean?” I thought. Imagine a room filled with a thousand people from all over the world.
A community is not a place; rather it is a relation – a relation that reflects the watertight bonds of light, love, compassion, and all the other prophetic virtues between its members.
As you walk through the capacious space, you see an eclectic bunch: an elderly uncle from Singapore resting in his chair, a group of young Syrian girls giggling on the side, Indonesian mothers chattering about that delicious dish, and the list continues, spanning all age groups and most ethnicities. For some this room is new ground for exploration, while others have been visiting it for decades. Now, let me ask you the golden question: is this a community?
The case presented above is a typical, albeit oversimplified, slice of the masjid experience for many American Muslims. Muslims from all and sundry backgrounds, or in many cases from similar racial, ethnic, or economic backgrounds, congregate in a space designated as the House of God, the mosque. Yet, not all these loci of worship can be honored with the label of “community,” precisely because a community is not a place; rather it is a relation – a relation that reflects the watertight bonds of light, love, compassion, and all the other prophetic virtues between its members.
However, how may individuals discern and cultivate such a relation? It all begins with a painfully simple, yet difficult to incarnate, awareness: “Every brother and sister in this room, masjid, or other institution is my brother and sister in Islam. This building (if there is one) is my home. This group is my family.” With this paradigm shift in thinking, every member must roll up his or her sleeves and participate. This brings us to the quote mentioned in the beginning: community does not happen organically. A group of Muslim denizens of a local region cannot be expected to magically form a stellar community just by the very fact that they cohabit the same place. In a community it is not the few people who initiate who should manage all affairs, while the rest of the members only attend Friday prayers, weekend school, and fundraising dinners. In a community, everybody eagerly and deliberately participates.
We do not have to look far to find an example of such a community. The community of the Messenger of God (may peace and blessings be upon him) was such a place. From molding adobe for the new spiritual center of the Ummah, Masjid al-Nabawi, to grinding grain to bake bread for the destitute amongst Ahl al-Suffah to forming rings of knowledge and dhikr every Companion, man and woman, in some way or another, participated with love. Thus, a change of heart will spark a change in action: only a true sense of belonging coupled with compassion, determination, optimism, ithar, i.e. preferring others to ourselves, and knowledge will trigger the avalanche of elements that characterize a harmonious and active community: classes, local scholars, recreational and social events, cleanliness, companionship, beauty, etc.
On a more practical note, I offer some humble suggestions for local mosques to enhance their communities. Community should require, in addition to the membership fee, a set number of community service hours and regular meetings to instill a sense of belonging; financial support is necessary, but physical presence and cooperation is just as important. Furthermore, professionalism, unfortunately lacking in many Muslim institutions, is an attribute of any successful institution; rules that uphold community values cannot be compromised due to familiarity and camaraderie among individuals. Of course every community harbors a unique dynamic, and these are just a few suggestions. The upshot is that people begin to think about how to creatively address issues within an ethos of prophetic character. It is imperative that Muslims rethink the notion of “community,” bolster that relation by viewing and treating each other as their own, and attempt to resuscitate the Ummah by embodying prophetic virtues. In a milieu of mistrust, intolerance, and chauvinism, we have no other choice.