This may seem a silly question, but it’s probably one of the most important questions that Muslims need to ask themselves prior to even laying the foundation of a masjid. There needs to be a common and agreed-upon understanding of what a masjid is and what it is not. This is not to say that we need to standardize what masjids are and make it a cookie cutter application to all masjids. Each masjid will have its flavor or strengths and/or community demographics that it needs to play to.
However, in general terms we need to truly understand the role of the first central masjid in Islam that was established in Madinah. We all are familiar with the story and the journey that built up to the building of the masjid and the subsequent events that followed. We need to study the events that built up to the actual building prior to the masjid and would like to point out a couple of factors that will highlight the role of the masjid according to the biography of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
1) Community – Building vs. Building a Masjid
When you ask most Muslims what the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) did when he first came to Madinah most would say he built a masjid, however when we study the seerah more deeply we find that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) focused on building a community prior to the building of the physical masjid itself. He paired the Ansaar and Muhajir together and literally built a community. The building blocks of the community were not the clay bricks, but the people who would eventually become the sturdy foundation on which the first Muslim community would be established.
Unfortunately we see the opposite strategy is used by most masjid boards and communities. We want to see beautifully built and designed masjids that are empty most of the week except for jummahs and Ramadan. We must invest in community-building and emphasize this area much more if we truly are to see our masjid communities flourish. This means hiring imams and staff who truly understand the importance of community-building and building a warm, inclusive, non-judgmental and welcoming environment for all.
2) A Center of Community
Typically when you ask any Muslim what the purpose of the masjid is they’d say prayer. Which would be 100% correct. However, one of the outcomes of attending the daily prayers was to build a sense of community. To truly know your brother or sister in faith and at a very practical level to know who is in your community attending the prayer in congregation helps you know who is who in the community, what their challenges are, their hopes, their dreams, their fears and you’re able to help them overcome those challenges and also build meaningful friendships based on a common bond: the love for prayer and the masjid.
The masjid in Madinah also was inclusive of women, children and youth. No demographic was repelled or discouraged from the masjid. The beauty of the masjid in Madinah was that it was literally and figuratively an open door masjid.
3) A Center of Worship
The masjid is a center of worship and should be focused on ensuring the prayer experience for all attendees is the best. When we hire imams or have individuals lead prayer or even say the athaan we should be choosing the best of the best. To not provide a quality worship experience in all daily prayers and even the jummah prayer is doing a grave disservice to the words of Allah, the prayer, and the Muslim community at large. Also, when it comes to quality worship this also extends to the quality of khutbahs. We must find khateebs and imams whose messages and khutbahs resonate with the local community. To have any khutbah or khateeb/imam who is subpar is again another huge disservice and disrespect to the legacy of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
4) A Center of Learning
The masjid of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was a center of learning where learning of the Quran would take place and explanations of surahs/ayahs and other Islamic subjects would be discussed. Likewise our masjids should have high-quality classes, halaqas, and educational programs that cater to the needs of all age demographics in the masjid.
5) A Center of Social Services
The masjid in Madinah played a critical role in helping the poor, needy, oppressed and widows in the community of Madinah. There was the collection and distribution of zakat,sadaqah and food at the masjid to the low-income community members of Madinah. Thus, the first place individuals seeking financial difficulties would be the masjid. Likewise, our masjids today need to invest far more energy, efforts and resources into developing social services within the masjid including financial support and also counseling/therapy and other critical social services for the community.
6) A Center of Interfaith
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) would host non-Muslims in his masjid and would use the masjid as a place to teach non-Muslims about Islam. Likewise our masjids should be centers of interfaith dialogue and cooperation
7) A Center for Civic Engagement & Dialogue
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)’s masjid was a center for key decisions being made in regards to the functioning of the Muslim community and political decisions were made in regards to the political events of his time. Unfortunately, masjids today shy away from politics and civic engagement completely. While it’s understandable why masjids are uneasy about politics and political issues, it’s important to at the very least to encourage masjid community members to be heavily involved in civic engagement.
This doesn’t mean to go run for office (although that’d be great), but to get their children internships or volunteer opportunities in their mayor’s office, congressman/woman’s office, police department, etc. The key is to teach our community to be well-aware and well-educated about the institutions around us and simply be present in order to voice our concerns to those in positions of authority and power. To simply be passive in our approach to countering Islamophobia is not an approach that will help our masjids or our community’s grow.
8) A Center for Counseling
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was the best of counselors and therapists. He understood the conditions of people and didn’t make religion hard on his community members. This isn’t saying imams need to become professional counselors or therapists, but make the masjid a safe, welcoming, and non-judgmental space where people seeking critical mental health support can find those resources at the masjid. It would be an amazing achievement for masjids if they were to hire full-time counselors/therapists along with social workers at every masjid. The demand for those services is enormous and our community is woefully underserved when it comes to their mental health and wellbeing.