I recall how awkward I felt when I saw Oum ‘Umar praying in the main prayer hall at the Purdue University’s Muslims Students Association (M.S.A.) mosque in West Lafayette, Indiana.
After all, isn’t congregational prayer required of men only? And shouldn’t women pray in their own separate hall away from men’s gawks, ogles, gazes, and stares?
For someone who grew up in Saudi Arabia, seeing a woman praying in the same prayer hall with men, albeit her taking a position clearly behind them, was bordering on perfidy.
Indignation and denouncement ensued (mine were silent but others were not). Oum ‘Umar, however, would not be deterred. She kept on praying in the main hall, with men praying in the same hall, and in same time.
Not only that, but Oum ‘Umar was a full member of the M.S.A. and she voted in each board election, and insisted on doing so despite the indignations and the denouncements.
Wow. I did not know then whether that was courageous or foolish.
Years later, I discovered that Oum ‘Umar was neither foolish nor alone. Most Muslim women, particularly new Muslim women, in the West either did what Oum ‘Umar did, or at least fought similar battles.
Many of them were scarred – emotionally – in that very same battle, or in others, and preferred to withdraw from the Muslim community, some gave up on the religion itself, some acquiesced, and very few stood their ground.
Jeffery Lang recounted in his book “Losing My Religion: A Call For Help” the sad story of an Arab man threatening new Muslim women in a mosque in the U.S. to bodily remove them from the mosque if they did not leave the men’s prayer hall, and how this very action resulted in the women reversing direction and renouncing Islaam.
What is sad about this story, and similar ones where a new Muslim or a Muslim-wannabe is faced with a stubborn and irrational behaviour shoved in his/her face in the name of Islaam by individuals who are, generally, well-meaning but are either narrow-minded or simply ignorant, is that it hurts the most vulnerable; the ones who are most in need of help, true companionship, and compassion.
What is more lamentable, in my opinion, is that Prophet Mu’hammad (P.B.U.H.) never prevented women from praying in the same hall with men.
He, (P.B.U.H.), did not even order that a curtain or a partition of any sort be placed between the men’s prayer area and the women’s prayer area in his mosque. Neither the Prophet (P.B.U.H.) nor any of his successors, the Caliphs, separated men and women in distinct prayer halls.
So, either the contemporary Muslims are more pious than the Prophet (P.B.U.H.) and his companions, or that he, (P.B.U.H.), failed to warn his Oummah against this particular vice of men and women praying in the same hall; either explanation would by summarily rejected by any and every Muslim. Or – a more likely explanation – particular societal rules are being enforced under the guise of Islaam.
A courageous exposition of those and similar guises is eloquently written by J. Lynn (Jenny) Jones in her book “Believing as Ourselves”, published by Amana Publications in 2002.
But lest you think, dear reader, that “Believing as Ourselves” is only about the said exposition, I shall quote to you from the author’s own introduction: “We are the first of countless generations to embrace Islaam, and, like the earliest believers in Mecca, face prejudice, persecution, and pressures innumerable from our own societies, friends, and families.
Unlike those kindred predecessors, however, we often find the waiting embrace of the Islaamic community less than welcoming. Instead of a haven of nurturing encouragement, where our faith should continue to grow and flourish, the reality of life among Muslims can be harsh, and the inevitable disappointment that results from that realization is bewildering as well as damaging.”
It sounds like a cry for help, doesn’t it?
Actually the book is not a cry for help. It is rather a help book for Muslims who have experienced, are experiencing, or who might experience what the author described if they are contemplating the decision of embracing Islaam.
The author explains that new Muslims try, in their drive to be as true Muslims as can be, to emulate other native Muslims in every minute detail, irrespective of how trivial or important and whether it has an origin in Islaam or not, to the point that they let go of what made them embrace Islaam in the first place; their own identity.
Having diagnosed what ails new Muslims, the author (I am here quoting Jeffery Lang from his introduction to the book): “… reaches out to them with practical, hard earned wisdom and carefully thought out advice on how they can overcome the many distractions and hardships, and reclaim that “initial determination, internal strength, and sense of authentic faith that was once theirs.””
Sister Jenny’s tried remedy is, in her own words: “In order to experience Islaam as we once did, as pure, and as strong, we must bring ourselves back in the frame. We must step back in honest appraisal of the pitfalls and trapdoors of “Islaamic life,” be willing to turn within rather than without, and we must, as Matthew Arnold wrote, “Resolve to be yourself; and know, he who finds himself, loses his misery.””
J. Lynn Jones is a writer and mother of two, She lives in a modest home under the shadow of a grove of giant cedar trees in suburban Washington state.
Title: Believing as Ourselves
Author: J. Lynn Jones
Paperback: 176 pages
Publisher: Amana Publications
Date: March, 2002
Book webiste: Amazon.com
Publisher website: www.amana-publications.com