Come as you are: Finding new spaces in the Muslim community

INDY VOICES: Rafia Khader
Blog Post
FS Stock /
April 30, 2020

New America-IUPUI Public Problem-Solving scholar Rafia Khader brings us the first in a series of pieces exploring the concept of "third spaces" and how faith traditions call communities to connect in new ways.

At the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving, I study the role faith plays in giving. Much attention is given to weekly “church” attendance as a measure of religious affiliation. While there is indeed correlation, it is a mistake to assume that “church” attendance gives us an accurate picture of the number of faithful in this country. We have to, I argue, look and think outside the congregation.

On a very personal level, I know that going to the mosque for the weekly Friday prayer (jumu’ah) is not an accurate representation of the importance of Islam in one’s life. As I recalled to a friend a couple of weeks ago, “I can’t remember the last time I went to jumu’ah.” I am somewhat ashamed to admit this. Even though attendance is not required of me, I know deep down in my heart attending the Friday prayer is a good thing. Islam is not a private faith. It is about community -- and one cannot be a good Muslim without being a contributing member of the Muslim community, the ummah, both on a global and local level.

I grew up in a traditional Sunni Muslim family in the suburbs of Chicago. I went to Sunday School (yes, we call it that, too!) or had some sort of Islamic afterschool programming from the time I could read the Qur’an in Arabic at the age of seven up until my senior year of high school. I went to the mosque with my family regularly and never questioned why my mother, sister, and I prayed in a different room -- often on a different floor -- from my father and brother. I couldn’t see the imam; I didn’t even know what he looked like. We just followed him through the speaker. And if the speaker system were to stop working midway through prayer, that was it. The women were on their own.

As Zareena Grewal documents in Islam is a Foreign Country, during the 1980s and 1990s, with an influx of immigration from particular Muslim-majority countries, the influence of Salafism increased gender partition in mosques (155). While the revivalist Salafi movement has a number of strains, most adherents of Salafism follow a literalist interpretation of the two primary sources of Islamic law: the Qur’an and the sunnah, the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad - Peace Be Upon Him* (Meleagrou-Hitchens). Among other things, Salafis tend to practice strict gender separation.

Moving to Hyde Park for graduate school in my late twenties gave me a taste of what it may have been like prior to these changes. During my time there, I was on the board of the Muslim Students’ Association and served as an assistant to the Muslim Affairs Adviser on campus. Each Friday, I would head up to Bond Chapel to set up the prayer rugs on the floor, newly bare, as the pews were pushed to the side. I had never prayed salat in a church before at that point, but I thought how ironically beautiful it was. The men and women all prayed in the same room. It was a tiny chapel after all. There was no divider, not even a makeshift one. I could see the imam. I could hear him. And nearly every time the sermon (khutbah) was delivered, something in my soul stirred. It was a unique combination of intellect and spiritual uplift I never knew I was missing in my life until then.

When I went back home to my local mosque, I could tell something in me had changed. It bothered me that the women had to pray in a different room, unable to see or hear the imam. Each time I went to a mosque, I noticed things that had never bothered me before. For example, why did the men get a lush carpet, but the women had to pray on the unfinished gymnasium floor? Slowly over time, I just stopped going to the Friday prayer regularly.

I didn’t stop praying though. I pray five times a day. I give my alms (zakat) each year. I fast in the month of Ramadan. I even performed the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj) two years ago. Externally at least, my five pillars are intact. For me, Islam is more than just a religion; it truly is a way of life that colors my world, shapes my actions, and motivates me to be a better person and more devoted servant of God.

But because I rarely go to the mosque, I am not counted.

I am far from alone however. In the past few years, the Muslim community in America has seen a proliferation of “third spaces,” as they are called.

According to Tannaz Haddadi, co-founder of Next Wave Muslim Initiative in D.C., a third space is “an institution that is not trying to replace the traditional mosque; rather it seeks to fill the gaps where the traditional mosque is unable to meet a community’s particular needs.” A third space “seeks to provide participants with a safe space ‘for people to come as they are,’ in terms of their religious understanding and leanings” (ISPU, Make Space Case Study 2016). I would add that a third space is not limited to an institution. In many ways, the Muslim community I found in Hyde Park was a third space, operating sometimes, I felt, on the margins of the university campus. I see no irony in the fact that the Office of Spiritual Life was first located in the basement of Rockefeller Chapel before moving to yet again to the basement of Ida Noyes Hall.

After graduating, upon the recommendation of the Muslim Affairs Adviser, I started a job at a third space located in the suburbs called Mohammed Webb Foundation. At Webb, I was in charge of the various programming that melded the good of American traditions with Islamic rituals and practices. We organized Father & Son Football games that made the time and space for prayer. We put on Mawlid ceremonies, which celebrate the birth of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), featuring songs sung in Arabic, Urdu, and English. We had a Family Choir, of which I was briefly a member. Who’s ever heard of a Muslim Choir? I even performed solo in front of a mixed-gender audience, something that simply would not happen in your average mosque. The topic of music in Islam is controversial; women singing in front of men even more so. Each year, after the pilgrimage season, we would honor the year’s Hajjis with a graduation ceremony. All these programs were different and new to me. But as the Webbies saw it, why did we have to bifurcate our Islam from our Americanness? Notwithstanding my two years in Hyde Park, never before had I entered a Muslim space and felt that all of me was welcome. At Webb, I didn’t have to bracket any part of my life and experiences as a Muslim woman raised in North America who just so happens to also love singing. Webb attracted progressive-leaning Muslims and more “traditional” Muslims like myself. Oddly enough, we were all welcome.

I have been living in Indianapolis for about four years now and I have been unable to locate any such similar third spaces. One of the things that distinguishes Indianapolis from a major city like Chicago is that there are no well-known Muslim scholars rooted in the city around which third spaces like Webb Foundation gravitate. Indianapolis does have dynamic religious leaders, but they are not the ones who headline major Muslim American conventions. Indianapolis is however home to the second Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress and has over a 70-year history of Islam rooted in the Imam Warith Deen Muhammad Community. The concept of third spaces may perhaps be a response to a particular set of concerns of second-generation Muslim Americans.

An ethnographic study of one particular mosque in Brooklyn demonstrates how a change in demographics can change the culture of a particular congregation. Originally founded in Harlem, the Islamic Mission was attended by a sizable African-American and Afro-Caribbean population. As Rogaia Abusharaf writes, “For people of African descent, [The Islamic Mission] represented an ‘African space’… for those many former slaves with Muslim roots, the congregation told a ‘powerful story about continuities between the past and present’ of African peoples in the Americas” (Abusharaf 241). Women were also very active during this time and prayed in the main area along with the men, although there was a partition. Echoing what Grewal found, a seismic shift occurred in the 1980s. With the death of the founder, much of the former congregation, including the African American constituency, left. The Islamic Mission is now predominantly a Yemeni congregation, “governed and regulated by the Yemeni ethos, codes of behavior, and cultural sensibilities” (Abusharaf 246). Today, the very few women who do come to the mosque pray in a small study room inside the imam’s office. Most women do not come to the mosque, preferring to pray at home.

As IUPUI Professor of Religious Studies Edward Curtis has suggested, the rich and vibrant African American Muslim social networks and spaces in cities like Indianapolis may challenge the “third spaces” approach. As the US Mosque Study 2011 found, African American mosques, particularly those that follow the leadership of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, tend to be more women-friendly. The issue of gender segregation may in fact only be an issue within predominantly immigrant-run Sunni mosques like the ones I used to frequent as a child. As I learn more about the different networks and communities within the city of Indianapolis, I am beginning to ask myself whether the idea of a third space is even the appropriate lens through which to examine the Indianapolis Muslim community. And if it is not, why is that the case? Perhaps Indianapolis mosques, or at least some of them, are doing a better job of being more inclusive and accessible to its members and thus the community does not feel the need to create a separate third space institution. As I am coming to learn, each city and community has its own story to tell and I am looking forward to learning more about Indy’s story.

Rafia Khader is a scholar in the New America - IUPUI Public Problem-Solving Partnership. Her work focuses on examining contemporary Muslim spaces and exploring how committed Muslims create spiritual bonds and communities in and outside of the mosque.



* As a sign of respect, Muslims follow any mention of the Prophet Muhammad with the phrase “Peace be upon him” or “ṣallā -llāhu ʿalayhī wa-ʾālihī wa-sallam” in Arabic. For brevity the author uses the acronym PBUH.