The ‘Un-Mosquing’ of American Muslims

Some Muslim leaders are pursuing more inclusive ways to experience the faith.

Sue Ogrocki / AP

Maliha Latif started looking for a mosque to join after her divorce. She soon discovered that as a 35-year-old Muslim divorcee, she faced a special challenge in finding a spiritual home. Latif did not reveal her marital status during what she calls her “masjid-hopping period” (masjid is the Arabic word for mosque). She instinctively knew that was a bad idea.

“Divorce is still a taboo in most Muslim communities,” said Zia Makhdoom, an Afghan-born imam in Alexandria, Virginia. “There’s an Afghan saying: ‘Once you enter someone’s house as a bride, the only way for you to leave that house is in a coffin,’” he said. “It is literally, ‘Till death do us part.’” He added that while few American Muslims would interpret marriage quite that starkly, there is robust social pressure against divorce inside Muslim-American communities. That was one of the motivations for Makhdoom to start his own Muslim organization,  called Make Space, which seeks to “un-mosque” Muslims, and to make Islam appealing and relevant to women, young people, and others who feel excluded from the faith.

Islam is the world’s fastest-growing religion. In the United States, the number of Muslims has doubled over a span of seven years, according to a Pew study. But generational changes are presenting a challenge to Muslim leaders in the U.S. Some say Millennials and Generation X-ers are less likely to stay affiliated with the mosque they grew up in than their parents because they feel hemmed in by the expectations, rules, and practices. This is especially the case for immigrant Muslims, who make up 63 percent of America’s Muslim population.

Latif’s parents are from India, and growing up in Rhode Island, she spent a lot of time at their South Asian-run mosque, where her father was on the board. There, she learned to dress modestly, and to always cover her hair while praying. Those habits continued into adulthood, but when she started exploring new places to pray, she worried that she’d be criticized for the ways in which she is more liberal than other Muslim women: wearing pants rather than skirts while visiting the mosque, and not covering her hair outside of the mosque. As a just-divorced adult, Latif hoped to find a community where people were more focused on the broad principles of Islam than on the modern-day application of the Koranic dress code.

Imam Mohamed Magid has witnessed the broadening of the American Muslim identity firsthand. Magid runs one of the largest mosques on the east coast, the All Dulles Area Muslim Society. As he put it: “There has been no institutional absorption of this changing identity.” American mosques are still largely run by first-generation American Muslims, which means there is usually little English spoken and the social expectations are more traditional. As a result, many young Muslims simply opt out of practicing Islam, according to Magid. “All or nothing is not good for the Muslim community in America,” he said.

Makhdoom, of Make Space, is on the leading edge of a small group of American Muslims who are trying to redesign Islam to better fit a new generation. One indicator of the shift is the way Makhdoom asks his congregants to call him “Imam Zia,” just as many evangelical Christian leaders choose to be called “Pastor Joe.” The informal title, he says, makes him more accessible to young people.

Despite having lived in Afghanistan until his twenties, Makhdoom has never been convinced by “the very rigid conservative interpretation of Islam.” Once in the U.S., he found himself chafing against the Afghan-run mosque in D.C. where he worked for 12 years. “Like a lot of mosques, it was run by folks who grew up overseas and brought the mindset and cultural practices with them,” he said. “They mean well, but often end up being exclusive.”

Makhdoom and his wife, Fatimah Popal, became especially disillusioned when they noticed that while women did a lot of the work in the mosque, they had very little say about how things were actually run. “The women would put on a nice event, but be forced to sit in the back, behind a curtain or a barrier, and watch from afar,” he said.

The two decided to leave the mosque shortly after. “I knew we weren’t just going to start another mosque. We had to be different,” he said. “We had to be more inclusive, particularly for young people and women.” That’s how Make Space was born. Although it does many of the things that mosques do—holding Friday prayers, teaching the Koran to young people—it has no building, no dome, no minaret. Instead, Makhdoom holds Friday prayers in a restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia. Events and lectures are held in what they call “third spaces,” meaning somewhere other than the home or the mosque, such as recreation centers and university libraries.

Makhdoom wants to welcome people who feel pushed out of the faith, but it is also important to him to work within the strictures of orthodox Islam. Like other leaders of the “un-mosqued movement,” he believes separating Islam from the mosque can lead to a more authentic Islam, which he defines as “faithful to the spirit and values of Islam.”

The ideas behind the un-mosquing movement first surfaced in the Bay Area in the early 2000s, and gained more momentum among Muslim Americans in 2012. A 2014 film called UnMosqued documents some of the reasons that these Muslims want to leave their mosques, such as a lack of democracy, transparency, and equality. There are groups around the country, such as the Ta’leef Collective in the Bay Area and the Lighthouse Initiative in Long Island that share Make Space’s goals.

Two years ago, Latif’s masjid-hopping brought her to Make Space. She saw a post on Facebook for a “Ladies Halaqa”—the Arabic word for circle—set up by Makhdoom’s wife. Latif went, hoping to hear something enriching, but not planning on speaking to anyone there, since she was, as she put, “used to practicing my faith alone.” But this was not the kind of experience she could passively imbibe. “The women were all talking at once, engaging with the topic and voicing their opinions,” Latif said. “I was almost offended by it. I was like, ‘this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.’ I don’t think I had ever seen that before in a Muslim community—a group of women comfortable with sharing their opinions, and being able to discuss them in a place they felt safe.”

Latif realized that like many Muslim women, she had not resolved the conflict she felt about women’s role in the faith. She was intrigued enough to try it out again. “I started thinking, ‘Oh, this is actually amazing, that everyone is allowed to be important enough to have an opinion,’” she said. “I guess it was a case of not knowing what I was searching for until I found it.”

Muslim literature encourages women to pray at home, and when they do attend the mosque, women are traditionally separated from the men, to prevent sexual distraction from prayer. A 2011 survey showed that two-thirds of U.S. mosques use dividers of some kind to demarcate women’s prayer spaces during daily prayers. In some mosques, the women’s prayer area is in the back of the prayer hall, behind a low barrier. But in most U.S. mosques, women are hidden behind a high barrier or placed in a different room, where they can hear, but not see, the imam.

There are some alternative Muslim spaces in the U.S. in which men and women are encouraged to pray side by side, or where women are even told they do not need to cover their heads during prayer. At Make Space, women do pray in the same room, with no barrier dividing them from the men, but they tend to gravitate toward their own section at the back of the hall, and they all cover their heads to pray. Still, Makhdoom said that during Ramadan this year, the hall was so full some days that women and men had to pray side by side. In a mosque, that would be unthinkable, but at Make Space, no one made a big deal about it.

Makhdoom wants to see Islam, as it is practiced in the U.S. today, become more accessible and appealing. He thinks mosque boards should include women and young people (his own board has an equal number of men and women serving on it). He also believes that as long as women dress appropriately to pray, it does not matter if their sweaters do not cover their entire wrists. He thinks Muslim communities should open their doors to divorcees if they consider themselves Muslim.

Other Muslim leaders are taking notice of the un-mosqued movement. Magid told me it presents “an important challenge” to the Muslim community. “It is forcing us to push the envelope even inside our institutions,” he said. Magid, too, hopes to change the way Muslims perceive Islam. He has started holding what he calls “spiritual hangouts” each week in peoples’ homes. “Many people express the desire to separate themselves from institutional religion these days,” Magid said. “We have to respond to that. We have to make it relevant.”

One way that Makhdoom tries to achieve that is through writing his sermons by committee. He has a group of volunteers who help draft content for it each week. He admits it is unusual—he hasn’t heard of any other religious leader doing anything like this—but, he said, “When you have a group of people acting as conduit to the community, the suggestions they give you are going to reflect what the community needs.” It makes his sermons feel “rich and refreshing,” he says, and that is what he hopes more people will feel about Islam as a whole.