Welcoming the Women’s Mosque of America

Women's Mosque of America(Photo by Alexa Pilato)

It’s a big day for the American Muslim community. Today marks the inaugural gathering of the Women’s Mosque of America in the Pico Union district of Los Angeles. This noble effort is organized by and for women with the specific goal of “empowering women and girls through more direct access to Islamic scholarship and leadership opportunities.” I for one support this because I value faith and women’s empowerment. The prophetic tradition includes examples of women leading each other in prayer but sadly the haters (men and women) will still hate. Some haters are threatened by strong, independent, empowered women so my response is to speak out and support this work and invest in its success.

I will admit that I was annoyed when first told I could not attend the service. I was particularly annoyed because my wife has the distinct honor of delivering the first sermon. I considered wearing a scarf and covering my face to sneak in, not a good look. I felt excluded because of my gender, I was being denied access for being a man! I couldn’t believe my XY chromosomes were holding me back, then it hit me. It was my first bitter taste of gender segregation. I experienced that cold, unpleasent dish served to so many women for so long at our mosques. Today that reality will finally change because of a group of pioneering women who chose to define their own spiritual experience and shape their own identity. Novel idea.

For decades women were treated like luggage-class travelers at the mosque. Many women felt slighted and discriminated against because prayer spaces often double as storage areas and supply closets. Women are often detached from the “community” experience when they watch sermons in another room via closed circuit TV. It should be no surprise why most Muslim women rarely attend Friday service. I understand it is not a religious obligation for females to attend but they do have the choice and they consistently choose not to attend. Until we address the gender issues in our prayer spaces then a Women’s Mosque is the most pragmatic alternative to disengagement from religious community experience. Our community is not complete without our mothers, sisters and daughters. The Women’s Mosque is about developing and nurturing that female segment instead of continuing to ignore it.

To be fair, the need for women’s empowerment is not limited to American Muslims; it’s just our time to address it. A wise man taught me that we are the architects of our destiny and only we can define our identity. Some identify their faith through violence, we can choose to identify ours by gender equality and the prophetic values of love and compassion. We can talk about identity but action speaks louder and its time to act. Its time to support this effort and to advance a better narrative. In the free marketplace of ideas it’s time that Muslim women have a place to gather, share and discuss faith, untainted by the male ego. Imagine that.

The organizers of this project decided on having one service per month to complement, not compete with other mosques. A noble gesture but I know that a supplement can quickly become a substitute if our mosques don’t learn to embrace our strong, intelligent, pioneering sisters before they leave. Once they leave the mosque ceases to represent the community and becomes irrelevant. We have a dual responsibility to support this Women’s Mosque while ensuring that our sisters have a voice in traditional mosques. For those who object to the Women’s Mosque claiming it “divides” our community, remember we have been divided for as long as women have been marginalized. This blessing is just the logical outcome of a history of oppressive behavior; it’s our silver lining and we should nurture it, and I will to my part.

The Women’s Mosque makes me proud to be an American Muslim. I hope my little girl will visit often and be inspired by her sisters. To all those who contributed to this achievement know that I support you and I pray that your efforts are divinely guided to every success and driven by the purest intentions.

Love in the Shade of the Divine

Sea of Love Under the Shade of the Divine

Sea of Love Under the Shade of the Divine (Rose Hills Memorial Park, January 5, 2015)

Monday January 5, 2015 a hero was laid to rest in the shade of a tree, surrounded by the love that he nurtured for decades. A beautiful end to a beautiful life.

While our sense of loss and sadness weigh heavy, I find sweetness and comfort in reflecting on the reunion of his soul with the dispenser of souls. A reunion between two whose love for one another is unmistakable. I’ve seen that love because I was blessed to know Dr. Maher Hathout and his family for many years. In that time he taught me so much through his example. One such lesson is how faith and love manifest in deed. His accomplishments were always rooted in love and a desire to please the most merciful. He taught me that serving the divine means serving his divine creation and that service is the true manifestation of faith. Based on his extensive track record and dedication to his family, his community and his country I saw that he loved the divine like nobody I know. Similarly I saw how dear he is to the most high who chose him to be a catalyst for love and progress on earth.

His life’s work reflected a love, sincerity and integrity that are uniquely his own. One of the hallmarks of his love is how contagious it is. He touched people’s hearts and created ripples that affected at least four generations, and those ripples will continue to shape our landscapes forever. Of all his accomplishments the most significant in my opinion is how he molded young people into leaders. He had a knack for taking quirky, insecure Muslim youth often from immigrant families who were struggling to fit in and he instilled in them a sense of confidence, courage and knowledge thereby transforming them into proud Muslim American leaders and doers. With his love and wisdom he inspired generations of artists, poets, civic leaders, humanitarians, philanthropists, rich and poor, men and women, young and old, helping them find themselves and define themselves. He pioneered institutions while simultaneously molding pioneers to carry on his work and to champion a progressive Islamic ideology that he so elequently defined. His skills defined him as an artist, poet and human sculptor, a creative genius guided by the greatest artist, the most genius.

During his memorial and funeral services I witnessed one of the beautiful ripples that Dr. Hathout set in motion during his life. When it came time for the congregational sunset prayer at the Islamic Center Memorial on Monday night I watched as the prayer hall filled up with both men and women, young and old crowding into one space. Women stood in front of men and beside them, all ages and genders side by side sharing rows and prayers, focused only on their love for God and for Dr. Hathout. There were no haters, no critics and no distractions. The focus was not on the worshipers but on the worship, as it should be. It took the passing of our beloved hero to transcend our experience beyond rules bringing us one step closer to unity and love.  The next day at his burial site the same thing happened. As we lined up for the funeral prayer men and women stood side by side focused only on their prayers. It was a beautiful and significant moment in our history, a milestone for our community as we continue developing our identity, just as he always encouraged us to do.

Dr. Maher Hathout taught us to define ourselves, to speak from our hearts about our own experiences and never to conform to foreign ideologies that do not define us. For more than 40 years he has always been there to guide us along the path, helping us find our American Muslim Identity. He has guided us as best he could and trained generations to carry on this work, to continue to build and define our identity. Today the baton has passed and it is our time to sprint with every fiber of our being. His passing reminds me that our time is short and that one day soon we will pass the baton to our own children and grandchildren. I only hope that our example will inspire the next generation as he has inspired us.

Today we stand on a solid foundation built by giants. It’s our time to build higher and fill the space with love and compassion in a way that would make him proud and in a way that would please the most compassionate.

God rest your soul Dr. Maher Hathout. May he shower you with all of his love, all of our love for you, and all of his compassion and mercy. May he grant patience and comfort to your entire family and especially the sweet, dear woman who stood by you until the very end.