Sociology of the Mosque

Presented to Department of Religious Studies at Stirling University, Scotland

1. The topic I have chosen for this occasion is ‘The Mosque’. I decided on this for several reasons, some of which are:

A. Scholars, though genuinely and enthusiastically interested in Islamics, have over-looked both the theology and the sociology of the Mosque.
B. The dynamism and the theology of the Mosque is the centre of the present Islamic revival, and this is throughout the world, including Britain.
C. Finally, it looks as though the Mosque has not yet been fully understood, and as such, the Mosque remains an enigma for scholars and a mine-field for politicians and diplomats.

2. What is this ‘nuclear power’, the Mosque?

Theologically speaking, the Mosque is a ‘sacred land’. As a holy place, the Mosque is more important than people. Not even the prophet Mohammed is considered as holy. By contrast, the church in christian theology and tradition means ‘people’, precisely ‘christian community’. In Islam, the Mosque transcends the community. This theology on its own provides an endless energy for thought and philosophy.

3. As the Mosque is holy and transcends its people, who is its owner?

The owner is God. There is no room here for an alternative interpretation or understanding. The semantic possibilities are clear, limited, and boxed. Both the Koran and the tradition explicitly reinforce each other on the subject of ownership. We are here in a theology similar to that of Karl Bart. The theology of ‘Holiness of the Mosque’ and its ownership has generated a wider ideology at the level of ‘practical theology’ and sociology.

4. God is the owner. Who then is the care-taker?

The latter is the state. The government provides the temporal or material needs of the Mosque, such as water, electricity, carpets, maintenance, etc. In addition, the State provides the salary for the priest, the Imam. Where muslim community is in a minority, as in Britain, the situation is different. It is not, however, the same in Germany. There, the state taxes individuals according to their religion and refunds that to the respective religious institutions.

5. The Mosque is holy, God is its owner, the state is the care-taker. Who, then, is the user?

Theologically, historically, and sociologically, two categories of users are referred to: individuals and Muslim community.

A. For an individual living nearby the Mosque, whether he is a business person or retired, the Mosque is an open home. From 5 o’clock in the morning until about 10 o’clock in the evening, it is a place for worship and rest. For the homeless and traveller, the Mosque is a shelter. For the sick, it is a hospital. To speak in terms of liberation theologians, the Mosque is a part of the Kingdom of God. In it you find justice, care, and equality all because the landlord is God.

B. The second user is the Muslim community. When it comes to Muslim community, Islamic theology starts to get deeper and more complicated, for as the Mosque transcends the community, so the latter transcends individuals. I shall explain this further.

First, despite the etymological meaning of ‘Islam’ which is translated in English as ‘submission’, the real meaning does not imply passivity. Rather, it is an active obedience to God. In addition to that, faith and action, body and soul are one in Islam. Pauline theology does not apply here. Luther’s emphasis on faith has no disciples in Islam. If anyone, it would be St James who would expound Islamic dogma — faith without action is a cadaver.

Simply because Islam rejects any sort of dichotomy or distinction between faith and action, the Mosque, at once, is instituted as a religious, political, and social centre for the Muslim community. Life and death, happiness or misery of a government is decided within the Mosque. Each Mosque functions as a micro-society. You have the Muslim community and the Imam as its leader.

The task of an Imam is an unenviable one. He embodies spiritual and political responsibilities. He has to act as a political/social leader, and as spiritual adviser and counsellor. His diet is everyday life. He has to highlight what is wrong in society as a whole, as well as the world. He is expected to criticise and suggest. He is supposed to carry out these duties with his eyes fixed upon Heaven. He acts like a prophet, tells people God’s will, but also as a shaman, he speaks to the government on behalf of his community. Good Imams are rarely on good terms with their governments. They are to their government what Dr Ramsey, the former Bishop of Canterbury, was to Mrs Thatcher. This explains why mosques and universities are common places for police vigilance.

When the Mosque Theology coincides with the government’s views, the circle is closed. In Hegelian terms, the dialectic is dead. In Derrida’s terms, the truth is lost. At the present time, Islam is going through a new age: the Messianic age.

6. As the Mosque is the vehicle of the new age, it is the heart of artistic excellence in the Islamic world. Witness the mosaic art, carving, etc. Only palaces were able to compete with Mosques in this respect. The Mosque’s art inspired great literature, poetry and philosophy.

7. Just a word on the Mosque and feminist theology.

In many ways, feminist theology in Islam has an easier task compared with its counterpart in Christianity. This is because in Islam, God is neither male nor female, neither black nor white. Despite this, not one single woman has ever been ordained; and this, despite the fact that many women have acquired the same divinity qualifications as Imams. The problem can’t be simply linked to the emancipation of women, for many of them hold powerful jobs and occupy high public office. Witness the former Prime Minister of Pakistan. Excluded from the priesthood, some Mosques have embarked on a process of integration. It is the first time in the history of Islam that women are provided in Mosques with personal facilities for use prior to worship. It is a small step, but it means more access to the ‘holy place’. This might, in time, trigger a theological and social problem similar to that encountered in Christianity with regard to the Eucharist. If then women become equal in the Mosque, why not in society as a whole? If women by any dialectic gain access to the priesthood, Islam will truly enter a new age.