Preferred Citation: Metcalf, Barbara Daly, editor. Making Muslim Space in North America and Europe. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.

Transcending Space

From Home to Mosque

This shared religious life appears essentially private, personal, and deeply conservative. The prime constant in this experience has been the home domain, although not in the sense of a specific home, since families readily move, and not in the sense of a specific urban area, since there are no signs of a South Asian Muslim quarter emerging. At the same time, the Muslim sense of community and, even more so, the sense of religious identity, has increasingly been extending beyond the home. The two main mosques in Edmonton, the one originally Arab and the second South Asian, reflect a gradually evolving sense of community, serving less as “sacred space”[17] than simply as loci for religious observance. The mosque is also the place where South Asian Muslims are today negotiating a communal identity that has both religious and sociocultural facets. This is evidenced in the way they selectively attend both mosques on different occasions. For instance, for ‘Id prayers many Pakistanis go to the original al-Rashid Mosque, with the aim of joining in one single Muslim congregation on ‘Id day, as they do in their homeland.

Notable is the participation of women in mosque worship, a practice pioneered by Arab Muslims and now practiced by South Asians, although in their homelands, mosques are attended only by men. Another Western innovation is the use of the mosque basement for community “functions”—and, of course, for children’s religion classes. The significance of participation becomes obvious if one compares such centers of Muslim worship as the Shi‘a imambara (or imambargah) or, even more so, the Isma‘ili jama‘tkhana, where women, and thereby children, participate in complementary roles as fully as men, so that for these Muslims their centers have become truly a community space.[18]

Increasing mosque activity no doubt reflects a recent and slowly growing trend toward solidifying and projecting a collective Muslim identity in the public domain, while also negotiating ethnocultural and linguistic differences vis-à-vis the universalizing thrust of transnational Islamic movements. Muslim Canadians themselves, however, often debate and deplore the fact that they are not “well organized” as a community.

Where South Asian Sunnis have constituted themselves into public community groups, it has been as narrower linguistic, regional, and national associations, such as the largely Punjabi-speaking Pakistani Association of Alberta. On the other hand, Urdu speakers, who hail from urban areas across the Indian subcontinent, lack a national focus in addition to a specifically Islamic one.[19] Individuals and families also express themselves through association with earlier and differently defined communities of Muslims—the Muslim Student Association; its parent organization, the Islamic Society of North America; a Muslim youth or women’s group; a Sufi group; a mosque association. Over their history in Canada, self-identification for Muslims has ranged within a universe extending from the single family to the umma of all Muslims; Muslim self-expression can therefore draw from anywhere in this rich reference base.

A gradual shift toward the mosque as a center of identity has been taking place during the past ten years. With the establishment of the South Asian mosque, or “Pakistani masjid” (as the Markaz ul Islam is commonly called), a deep involvement in the building, funding, and running of the mosque has created a sense of solidarity among men, on the one hand, and women, on the other, of many families. Contributing to this solidarity has been the desire of families to strengthen the religious identity of their growing children by encouraging joint activities. Recitational assemblies, especially qur’ankhwani assemblies held after a death, are beginning to take place in the mosque. Out of respect for its sacred content, qur’anic recitation is done in the mosque’s area for worship, on the main floor for men and the balcony for women. Both men and women arrive individually and choose a sitting place on the floor, using the walls for back support; one or two chairs are provided for the infirm. The event proceeds exactly as in the home. Those who finish their reading sit quietly, silent or talking softly; some individually assume prayer position to say optional rak‘at preceding the regular namaz that will follow the completion of the qur’ankhwani. After prayer, everyone repairs to the basement, where an appropriate repast has been laid out by the hostess and her women friends.

Ayat-e-karima, too, is sometimes held in the mosque, so as to involve a much larger number of reciters. As in the home, women of the host’s family organize the event, but here with the help of friends who share the tasks of preparing the food and of telephoning a large number of people to recite, using a list that circulates for this purpose. What stands out is that women continue to manage these events even in the mosque.

Unlike qur’ankhwani and ayat-e-karima, the milad is held in the meeting area in the basement of the mosque, given the nonliturgical status of its texts. In this space, men and women are, beyond the cloakroom area, separated by movable screens acquired earlier to create separate classroom spaces for an Islamic school. In contrast to the home situation, the proceedings are under male leadership, including riwayat and individually recited na‘t. Na‘t are also recited by a group of children, mainly girls, but not by women.

The milad is concluded by a repast; but occasionally now another, more public, way is chosen to conclude a large milad by offering everyone a share of tabarruk (blessed food). Thus there are signs of a more “public” or communitarian hue in these mosque events. On the other hand, they are hosted by—or often in the case of a death, on behalf of—a particular family, just like the same events held in the home of such a family. The issue of female participation in mosque basement activities is an evolving one, influenced on one side by the lack of precedent for women taking any active role on mosque premises vis-à-vis men, other than providing refreshments, and on the other by the recognition of women’s actual contribution toward the genesis and maintenance of this mosque.

Zikr does not have the community appeal to warrant being held in the mosque.

At this point, the frequency and importance of mosque events is minor as compared to home-based assemblies; it remains to be seen whether the desire to articulate a public Muslim identity will in the future supersede other, nonreligious facets of community identity, which up to now have continued to motivate South Asian Muslim bonding and self-expression.

Transcending Space

Preferred Citation: Metcalf, Barbara Daly, editor. Making Muslim Space in North America and Europe. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.