Ramadan - A time to gauge Muslim institutions

By Muneeb Nasir

(August 28, 2009) – The month of Ramadan is an excellent time to get a reading on the state of Muslim institutions in Canada.

The priorities of the community are showcased, the level of maturity is evident and the changing demographics in areas of cities are seen.

I visited one of the city’s oldest mosques in Toronto recently and was surprised by the drastic change in the demographics of the congregation.

It once had a mix of people, originating from all parts of the world, who were generally integrated into the society.

Now, its congregation is primarily new arrivals from Africa, many recent immigrants and refugees.

The previous congregants have built mosques in the suburbs and moved on.

Yet, this mosque has not advanced much in the services it provides.

It is not in tune with its locale or membership whose needs go beyond spiritual ones to requirements for social, integration and counseling services.

This frozen-in-time situation is repeated in many mosques and Muslim institutions throughout the country.

The priorities of most institutions continue to be on building, acquiring or renovating real estate – to such an extent that a ‘27th night of Ramadan’ malady has taken hold of the community in which fund raising is the main preoccupation of the day. (Of course, there are institutions that have no choice but to do this type of solicitation because they occupy aging buildings or their numbers overshoot their physical space).

But the fund raising frenzy in Ramadan that grips the Muslim community has a great deal to do with poor organizational planning, institutions living and dreaming beyond their means or the general lack of appreciation that communities and capacity are not built with bricks and mortar but with people and through the services provided to them.

Quite a few Centers have chosen to create cultural zones representative of mosques in their members’ country of origin.

This may be a quaint attraction for the occasional visitor who can get a ‘taste of the world’ experience by traveling through these institutions but it also says a lot about the level of understanding of these communities on their role in this country.

So, sadly, the maturation of the Muslim community in big cities, such as Toronto, seems stunted.

Yes, large numbers of people go to the mosques in Ramadan to fulfill the religious rituals but they are totally disconnected from the institution.

What a decade ago was possible now seems improbable.

The process of deculturalizing Islam from immigrant Muslim practices and then localizing it into a Canadian context has slowed.

Institutions where this is possible are reduced to a handful.

Cultural, traditionalist or rules-based scripitualist Islam have become entrenched in most mosques.

The spin-off effect from all this is that women, activist Muslims, students, youths and new Muslims are formulating services and creating alternate institutions outside of mosques to fill the void.

Women have generally given up on mosques and Islamic Centers.

They may go there to pray occasionally but they have no inclination to do anything for or about these institutions.

Younger Muslims are channeling their energies through student, youth and sports associations.

Socially active Muslims are spawning creative services and programs– everything from new Muslims support groups, professional associations, advocacy groups, weekend intensives and educational conferences to matchmaking services.

They are congregating and holding their activities in restaurants, cafeterias, schools, campuses, convention centers (when confronted with the question of ‘where shall we hold our program?’ the answer is ‘not in a mosque; too many restrictions and hassles; women not allowed…’).

Islamic Centers, which traditionally served as the nucleus, gathering place and creative center of the Muslim community, has been reduced to a restrictive and ritualized prayer facility or children’s school.

Leaders may gloat about the success of their organization by looking at the number of attendees in Ramadan.

A better indicator for them would be to ask the questions – Where have they gone? And why have they gone? – the day after Eid-ul-Fitr.