The recent report of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding on American Muslims was long, long overdue. It should forever silence and dismiss those voices in the wilderness of America that claim "80% of America's mosques are controlled by extremists." The report found that only a small fraction of American Muslims in the Detroit area, taken as a microcosm of the broader American Muslim community, prefer to follow a strictly conservative (labeled "extremist" by some) brand of Islam. In fact, radicalism and isolationism are not evident in Detroit mosques. I believe this to hold true for the rest of America's Muslims.
One of the most intriguing findings of the report is how American Muslims view the mosque. The majority of mosque participants, 58%, see the mosque as a place of ritual and increasing faith, while 42% view the mosque as primarily a center of activities and learning. This is a very interesting dichotomy. I am of the minority position on this issue. The mosque is more than simply a place of prostration. It is part community center, town hall, voter registration center, banquet hall, and youth center. At least that is what it should be.
This last function, youth center, should and must be the priority for American Muslims if we are to progress in the 21st Century. Too many of our brothers and sisters have made the mosque "youth-unfriendly" to say the least. I have lost count of the number of times congregants have loudly and publicly shown their distaste for small children running around in the mosque--inevitably making noise, as children often do--during the prayer. It is striking to me how seemingly little tolerance and patience there is for our children at the mosque. This is not our tradition.
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) welcomed children in the mosque. Once, he even descended from his pulpit during a sermon, picked up his two grandsons, Hassan and Hussein, and carried them in his arms while he continued speaking to the faithful. Another time, the Prophet was prostrating in prayer and his two grandsons climbed upon his back to play. The Prophet stayed in prostration for a very long time so that he would not cut short his grandsons' play time. Yet another time, the Prophet was leading the Dawn prayer, and he suddenly hurried to finish praying with the faithful. When asked why, the Prophet responded that he heard a child crying, and thus he did not want to agitate the child's mother by prolonging the prayer.
This mercy and tolerance, sadly, is long gone from our community. I have heard mosque leaders, to my utter shock and horror, tell the faithful that if their young children can not behave in the mosque, they should not bring them to the mosque. Not bring them to the mosque? If our children are not raised to love the mosque, they will grow up loving other institutions: the club, the bar, and other places. If our children do not love the mosque; if they do not feel welcome as they walk through the front door of the mosque, then they will walk out through the back door and leave the faith.
Now, I agree that teenagers should not be allowed to lounge around outside of the prayer hall while the congregational prayer is being conducted: they should be among the ranks of the worshippers. Nevertheless, we must be patient if and when a small child makes a little noise in the mosque during the prayers. If the Prophet was willing to hasten one of the obligatory prayers out of mercy for a crying child's mother, then surely we can be tolerant of the laughter and play of small children in our mosques.
Yet, our accommodation for the youth must go beyond small children. I believe every mosque should have several ping pong and pool tables. The crisp sounds of ping pong and billiard balls crashing on the floor should echo throughout the mosques of this country. If feasible, the mosque should have a few video games (non-violent ones, of course). Heck, it can help raise money for mosque activities. There should not be a Muslim house of worship without a basketball hoop, and a volleyball net, and a tennis court, and--which is my dream--a swimming pool.
We should make the mosque a fun place for our youth to hang out. When the time for prayer comes, all basketballs, volleyballs, tennis balls, billiard cues, and ping pong paddles must be put down so that everyone can attend the congregational prayer. Faith and fun can mix homogeneously; it just has to be done right.
Youth and adolescence is both an exciting and confusing time. It is exciting to be in a period of immense change, a welcome period of transition from childhood to adulthood. Yet, for Muslims growing up in America, that period of transition is rife with immense confusion. There is confusion over national identity. Throughout my adolescence, I asked myself, "Am I American or Egyptian?" There is confusion over which culturo-relgious identity should be pre-eminent: the Muslim identity or the American one? Unfortunately, sometimes these two identities are at odds with one another, and many non-Muslim Americans demand of their Muslim compatriots to choose.
Adolescence is probably the most difficult period of a young Muslim's life growing up in America. Consequently, there should be a sanctuary, a place where they can feel at home. For me, that was my very large extended family. But many, if not most, are not that fortunate. The mosque--with its ping pong tables, basketball hoops, tennis courts, swimming pools, volleyball courts, pool tables, and prayer halls--should be that sanctuary. What better place to hang out than the house of God? The only thing is, we Muslims have to do a much better job at making the house of God home.
Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is author of "Why I Love the Ten Commandments," published in the book Taking Back Islam: American Muslims Reclaim Their Faith (Rodale Press), winner of the prestigious Wilbur Award for 2003 Best Religion Book of the Year by the Religion Communicators Council.
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