A 21-day, nationwide, complete lockdown was suddenly announced on the evening of March 24, 2020. In an effort to contain the now deviant coronavirus, which had given many unheeded warnings of its arrival for months, the people of India were ordered to “do just one thing” by the Supreme Leader — stay at home.
While this was a ritual of commonsense for the top few percent of the country’s population and a troublesome struggle for the rest, a ‘small’ group of people and their imminent destiny were very conveniently overlooked. We speak of the worthless, unimportant lives of just 44 million inter-state migrant workers that come from their towns and villages so that the capitalist machinery of the metropolitan can run 24×7.
With a complete lockdown in place, and a ban on transportation, there was no option for these poor souls but to walk back home on their feet for thousands of kilometres. Exhausted as they were, by this humanly impossible endeavour, some found themselves and their families overrun by trains while they rested near train tracks and accidentally fell asleep. Some old and diseased people could not survive the long walk. Some were stripped of their dignity when they were welcomed in their hometowns’ borders by spraying hoses of unidentified chemical disinfectant, under which they were made to sit and bathe ceremoniously in public, and on live television.
The uncertainty around the COVID-19 situation had but one certain impact: the loss of jobs and livelihoods for thousands of such people. In Mumbai, which was a centre of the migrant crisis, owing to its large population of migrant workers (roughly 40% of the total population), the migrant workers’ problem had hit catastrophically. Despite a strict lockdown, some masjids of Mumbai took in their hands the task of feeding thousands of these people who were suffering. The motto was, “No one should go to sleep hungry”. However, this humanitarian upsurge in Mosques did not stay limited to the boundaries of Mumbai. While there were unfounded allegations on the Tablighi Jamaat of what was notoriously termed ‘Corona Jihad’, an effort was being made to curb the reports of hundreds of Masjids becoming first responders to this apocalyptic disaster.
Cooked and uncooked food, grains and packets of other essential supplies were bought with the help of religious funds (zakat) and distributed amongst migrant workers, and other poor and marginalised communities.
Muslim religious organisations like the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Hind, and the Students Islamic Organization of India, amongst others, remained actively involved and offered their premises (including mosques) for covid relief efforts.
During the second wave of COVID-19, which was unmatchable in its impact on healthcare, many Indian mosques offered their premises to establish makeshift hospitals and recovery facilities. Opening these spaces meant additional, impossible tasks like bringing oxygen and essential drugs, things that were significantly depleted during the second wave, mainly due to hoarding and selling of these drugs in the black market, and an existing dire shortage due to poor governmental strategy, that resulted in exports of Covid essentials to other developed countries during and after the first wave.
In this article, I have attempted to reignite discourse amongst community members, especially youngsters, around reimagining Indian mosques as Islamic ‘community centres’ and the many ways in which such an endeavour can benefit and strengthen the Muslim community. We’ve seen in the aforementioned examples how mosques have shown an attitude of resilience and provided the community with a supportive infrastructure in times of desperate need.
However, it can be safely said that the idea of mosques in India has suffered grave reductionism, due to which these spaces have not been used to their complete potential, depriving the community of the benefits of one of the most important physical spaces in their religion.
As the monster of the Hindu Rashtra comes to life, and violent attacks on Muslims only seem to exponentially increase, there has been a need to instil a stronger sense of community and belonging in the people. There is no other way that an onslaught such as this can be survived, except through building stronger connections amongst each other, being each other’s backbone and reigniting a sense of ummah (the whole body of Muslims as one universal being).
Idea of Masjid: The beating heart of Muslim Community
The idea of mosques being community centres finds its presence in both Islamic philosophy and theology. The Mosque is the primary, tangible religious institution in Islam. It is at the centre of the performance of religion and the physical space around which a Muslim’s life revolves. According to Dr. Spahic Omer of the International Islamic University of Malaysia, this is due to two reasons. First, man’s primary need to worship his Creator, and second, his inherent human desire to be a social being.
Therefore, for a Muslim, it has both spiritual and social implications. A logical conclusion that can be derived from such an assertion is that if mosques were supposed to be just places of worship, wouldn’t they have been ordered to be built only inside homes where private acts of worship could happen more conveniently, instead of places where the community can gather and attend prayers in conglomeration?
In the same manner, prayers cannot be limited to places specifically designated as mosques. For Muslims, the world is their oyster, and prayers are valid everywhere, with some obvious exceptions. The most befitting example of the mosque being a community centre can be derived from the life of the Prophet himself (peace be upon him). Upon arrival in Yathrib (now Madina) in the 7th century, the first communal activity performed by him was to designate a space for what went down in history as the first mosque in Islam, the Masjid-e-Quba. It was the first institution of an Islamic city/society.
Through the tradition of the Prophet, which was followed by the four righteous Caliphs, the mosque became the centre of spiritual and communal activity. It was where crucial decisions were discussed and made, where councils would sit, where justice was served, and from where Islam was thoroughly learned and propagated. The sick would come to the mosque to get nursed, homeless migrants would come to it for refuge, the hungry would come to feed and the thirst for knowledge would bring to its clusters of people to drink from its fountains and springs of transcendental abundance.
In the city of Madina, which was to serve as the ideal model for Islamic cities, the mosque was the city centre. The premises of the mosque would hustle and bustle with life, alight with worship and communal activities of all kinds. Men and women were both welcome to study, preach and connect with their fellow Muslims.
In conclusion, the idea of the mosque during the time of the Prophet was not merely spiritual. Its role seeped in and flourished beautifully into all the aspects of a Muslim’s life: spiritual, socio-political, economic and social. However, it remains clear that the primary role of the mosque is worship, as is ordained in the Qur’an. [(Those who are directed to this Light are found) in houses which Allah has allowed to be raised and wherein His name is to be remembered: in them people glorify Him in the morning and in the evening]: Qur’an (24:36).
The Role of Mosques in Countering Islamophobia
Amongst a hundred other things that the revival of the mosque as a community centre can do for Indian Muslims is its primary role in disaster risk management. In his book ‘The Role of Mosque in Building Resilient Communities’, Abdur Rehman Cheema has empirically argued for the role of the mosque during disasters, particularly through an elaborate study of the aftermath of the 2005 Pakistan earthquake. He argues, “In an age of growing ethnic conflicts in different parts of the world, such an approach has an essential appeal to attract an audience as it may enable us to better prepare and survive future disasters both materially and spiritually”. Thereby, Cheema has suggested a 4-step disaster management system to be in place in mosques, namely: preparedness, response, rehabilitation and reconstruction. Such a system can be put into action in case of natural calamities like earthquakes, floods and famines to communally inspired attacks on mosques or Muslim mohallas in general.
Mosques in India are the focal points of Islamophobic hate crimes. This is evident through the surge in cases of attacks on mosques in the past decade. Hindu mobs mobilise to perpetrate organised acts of vandalism on mosques throughout India. This symbolic attack on the primary, most revered religious place of Muslims remains consistent in almost all organised pogroms. For example, a report prepared by the Delhi Minority Commission in the aftermath of the February 2020 pogrom in North-East Delhi mentions that mosques were specifically targeted by violent Hindu mobs during the pogrom, while Hindu religious sites remain completely untouched. 11 such mosque attacks were recorded. Some of these mosques were completely razed to the ground.
The news of arbitrary attacks on mosques, especially during Hindu religious processions like Ram Navami has become increasingly commonplace. The Gujarat model of attack on religious spaces is consistently followed to date. Mosque was also under targeted attack on the fateful evening of 15th December in Jamia Millia Islamia, when the police entered the university mosque premises and brutally beat up the imam and praying students.
With the rapid escalation in the number of cases of Islamophobic violence, a strong security system needs to be in place. Mosque premises can be used for first aid to victims of racial, ethnic and religious violence. A basic first-aid mechanism can be put in place and training provided to the members of community centres (from hereon, the word mosque in this article will include in its meaning the mosque as a community centre, which has registered members of the community as participants and decision-makers). All such mosques must have basic first-aid tools available on their premises. I leave it to the reader’s imagination to think how beneficial this would be in case of organised attacks.
Apart from imminent medical care, mosque authorities can also help document incidents of hate crime and help connect victims with lawyers, NGOs and influential Muslim bodies so that timely and appropriate legal action can be taken (e.g. the filing of FIRs). Community centres can also collect and supply funds and resources to people who have been victims of Islamophobic attacks. For example, rebuilding shops and businesses, and providing shelters to victims of the government’s demolition drives and eviction campaigns.
However, first and foremost, a security system needs to be in place in the mosque for its own protection. According to the Qur’an, the responsibility to maintain and protect their mosques is on Muslims. Private security systems with gates, locks and CCTV cameras, emergency alarms and 24×7 guards should be put in place to prevent hate crimes in mosques as much as possible. Further information on basic security steps that can be taken can be found in this booklet by the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) on Mosque and Community Safety. Inspiration can be taken from this booklet to devise a safety plan for Indian mosques that fits the budgetary limits of our community.
Community centres must educate and train people in the community to be able to tackle a possible organised attack on the area and educate people on the security and defence measures that can be taken in the event of such an attack. For decades, Muslim-populated mohallas have been unprepared in the face of mob attacks, and have therefore been brutally dismembered by these carefully organised forces. Having a working security strategy that can be activated in case of attacks by violent, armed mobs can possibly mitigate if not entirely prevent such calamities.
Opening the gates of mosques to non-Muslims
After a thorough background check (for obvious security reasons pertaining to mosques), non-Muslims should be allowed to enter the premises of mosques to read and learn about Islam through lectures organised particularly for this purpose. This will help them unlearn the misconceptions they may have about Islam and its practices. Registered community members should make the effort to disseminate reading material such as books and pamphlets on Islam to attendees so an awareness campaign can be run amongst non-Muslims.
In the long run, this measure will help curtail Islamophobia as more people turn towards understanding the true essence of Islam and its guiding message. Registered members of the mosque should be required to undergo a period of training on the how-to of dawah so that the message of Islam is sent across with love, peace and humility.
Development and welfare through mosques
Indian mosques do have working kitchens that regularly provide food to the needy. However, these are only very few and this process is not exactly systematised. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said ‘He is not a believer whose stomach is filled while his neighbour goes hungry.’ Sahih (Al-Albani). Feeding the poor is one of the many societal obligations of a Muslim. Why is it, then, that we do not contribute to collective efforts of sheltering the homeless and feeding the poor by collaborating with our respective community’s mosques? If the zakat that is obtained from well-off Muslims is properly and transparently allocated, such a goal is not too hard to accomplish.
An existing project I could find that has a similar developmental objective and seeks to turn Masjids rightfully into centres of Muslims’ socio-economic development is the Masjid One Movement started by Mohammed Imtiyaz of the All India Muslim Development Council (AIMDC). Through this project, the organisation seeks to: a). Create a communication network between existing mosques b). Gather data on people from the community who need financial help and c). Help these people to benefit from government schemes.
India has more than 3,00,000 mosques. If less than a quarter of these mosques could function as proper community development centres and be run to use their full potential and each mosque work on at least one socio-political development agenda, massive social, psychological, spiritual and economic development will reflect in the community in the next 10 years. However, this must be done with an inclusivist approach so that the maximum number of people could benefit from our shared religious space.
Mosque as the Centre of Imparting Islamic Education
Historically, mosques have been the principal centres of Islamic education. From madrassas of Madina to Morocco, Cairo, Granada and Bukhara, mosques have produced scholars and spiritual foot soldiers whose works have been immortalised through different ages and times. It is they who shouldered the responsibility to transfer the spirit of Islam generation after generation. While evening madrassas do run in mosques to this date, this effort can be maximised to include different groups of people to ensure an inclusive community is created. All the children of the community, up to a certain age should be admitted to these classes mandatorily, regardless of their social or economic background. I am inclined to give the example of the Malabar region of Kerala, which has a very rich madrassa culture that imparts important Islamic education to youngsters from their very childhood. Going to the madrassa is so common, it is almost a social obligation. Surely, the rest of Indian mosques can take inspiration.
Masjids can also take up initiatives of Summer/Winter Schools on basic Islamic education and literacy to ensure that school-going students can learn the tenets of Islam, and become regular attendees at the masjid. There should also be an effort to provide basic literacy to all the diverse members of the community, with special emphasis on elders, and major steps need to be taken towards the upliftment of the socially and economically downtrodden ones amongst the Muslims so a steady educational development can take place.
Entry of women into Mosques
The project of inclusivity in mosques is incomplete so long as the doors of mosques are closed upon Muslim women. As the primary caretakers of children, women have on their shoulders the responsibility of educating and influencing entire families, and their role is eventually reflected in generations. Denying them entry into mosques prevents them from experiencing a very important and moving spiritual experience. For developing a close-knit community, it is essential for women to be allowed to have their own halaqah (knowledge circles) and dars (lectures) where they can meet frequently and indulge in private and communal acts of worship. Meet-ups and gatherings should be encouraged on Fridays or on occasions like Eid so that a sense of belonging is created amongst them.
In India, the few mosques that have permitted entry of women have, more often than not, a very poorly managed space designated for women. What impact this obvious alienation may have on the minds of young Muslim women is a question that our clerics must wrestle with.
Dispute Resolution in mosques
The existing boards or committees of mosques should try their best to get formally Islamically educated, knowledgeable people on board. Mosque premises can be used by dedicated committee members to solve small disputes within the community. The ability to do this will build the community’s confidence and self-reliance.
Let the gates be wide open
The gates of mosques should be opened to travellers in need, the poor, marginalised people, victims of violence, women, youth and children. Mosques should welcome everyone with open arms and show great levels of hospitality, just as they did at the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him).
The benefits of turning mosques into community centres are many, and to discuss them all is beyond the scope of this article. However, we must briefly discuss the means with which the aforementioned goals can be achieved. First and foremost, the mosques need to elect committee members who are knowledgeable and regular in their prayers and dhikr to form the core management of the mosque. Their presence should be mandated in frequently organised meetings. Informal community activities like tea parties, get-togethers, competitions, Islamic games and activities should be organised for all age groups to establish a sense of belonging. The community’s youth should be made to engage in humanitarian, relief and volunteer work. This will develop their confidence and self-esteem. Mosque authorities can use social media applications like Facebook and WhatsApp groups to document community work and engage with the masses on a regular basis.
In Conclusion, there is a dire and urgent need for mosques to be restitched into the fabric of Muslim society so a strong familial connection can be slowly nurtured in the community and these beautiful, spiritual spaces ordained by God as the centre of our communities can be utilised to their full potential. The project is long-term and it may take several years for any significant change to appear, however, in the face of our current circumstances, we should remember: it’s better late than never.
Wardah Beg is a Law Graduate with research interests in Human Rights, Community Development and Islamic Law.