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Power of prayer: an all-women mosque in America

Updated June 16, 2015
Photo taken with special permission shows prayers under way at the women-only mosque housed in the oldest synagogue in Los Angeles, United States.
Photo taken with special permission shows prayers under way at the women-only mosque housed in the oldest synagogue in Los Angeles, United States.

MUSLIMS praying in a synagogue is as rare to hear about as the concept of an all-women mosque. But both have a long history, organisers of the Women’s Mosques of America insist, and that it needs to be invoked more often. Every Friday, women from the Muslim faith gather to not only pray but speak about what matters to them the most in Pico-Union’s oldest synagogue in central Los Angeles.

It is noon when one of the organisers and leading lights of the project, Craig Taubman, meets me in the historic building. In the main hall, the pews have been replaced by white sheets, the Torah has been replaced by the Quran, and prayer mats of all colours and sizes are spread on the white sheets. Women start filing in for Friday prayer. Ordinarily photography is not allowed, one of the organisers informs me. This became the rule when some women objected to being photographed in the media frenzy after the news of a women’s mosque first came out a few months ago.

Within a few minutes, there’s silence, and one of the women goes up to the stage and makes a call for prayer. There’s no dress code in this space. The space is not dedicated to a particular school of thought, either. The women sitting on the floor are either coming from offices, shops and homes or are curious visitors from another street nearby. All have congregated to listen and to pray.

At the end of the main hall, as we are on our way out, Craig speaks about how the building came to be a congregation place for people of all faiths. Built in 1909 as a synagogue, it was sold to the Welsh Presbyterian community in 1926. “Three years back, I found out that the dwindling Christian community was looking to resell it to the Jewish community once again. That’s when I stepped in, thinking it’d be a place to meet and do things that ought to be done,” he says. Craig opened the place up for people from all faiths; from musicians to writers to poets to people coming together to pray, the space is open to any and everyone. As he says himself, “I’d rather sing about peace than speak about violence and terrorism.”

Speaking about how they settled for the place, Aziza Hasan, executive director for NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, says the organisers were looking for a space to pray and approached her. “I asked Hasna [Maznavi], who is the founder of the mosque, to look at the Pico-Union project by Craig. Interestingly, the synagogue is built in the exact direction of Makkah, so it became easy to facilitate prayer,” she adds.

It is an initiative that brought together people working on the same agenda but belonging to different faiths to bolster the first women’s mosque of Los Angeles. But they want you to know that the space is not for male-bashing. As Hasna, founder of the mosque, pointed out in her recent article for The Huffington Post, “Muslim men have been one of our greatest supporters. Imams have come forward offering us to congregate in their mosques. There’s nothing sensational about the creation of the mosque as tempting as it may sound.”

In her Friday sermon, Aziza speaks about tolerance, of accepting the differences and the power of praying together. The Friday before that, the sermon was about sexual violence and the need for compassion and justice. Speaking about the women’s mosque and the sermons, she says, “There’s a great deal of pressure on women to raise good children, nurture family and build community. While these are incredibly important roles, how do we as a society support women in being able to fulfil such significant work? The short answer is we really don’t, or we don’t do it well.” In order to thrive and have healthy lives, Aziza says, we need a space where women can be inspired, learn from each other and serve as resources to each other. Other reasons to congregate include having a female perspective on Islamic knowledge and spirituality.

“This is our call to the doers, as well as the haters,” says Craig. “Please come and take a look and, if need be, sit and talk with us.”

Published in Dawn, June 16th, 2015

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