Asra Nomani’s new documentary, The Mosque in Morgantown – airing tonight on PBS – exemplifies the great American and Islamic tradition of questioning authority. But although Nomani is certainly one such challenger, Nomani seems to undercut her own objective and isolate herself as an outlier in the community by imposing her approach on others who share her views.
A new PBS documentary, The Mosque in Morgantown, which airs nationwide tonight at 10 pm ET, goes beyond the standard headlines of a “sensational female rebel in a small town mosque” to present a nuanced, complex portrait of the conflicts within a community, a mosque and a woman. Since the tragedy of September 11, many mosques in the U.S. have felt under siege, adopting defensive postures towards anyone who criticized them. Typically the attacks came from non-Muslims, but in sleepy Morgantown, it was an insider, a member of the Morgantown mosque who began to rock the boat. Asra Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal correspondent, returns from Pakistan to her hometown with her infant son and the knowledge that her dear friend and colleague, Daniel Pearl, has been captured and beheaded by Pakistani men who perverted Islam to rationalize his murder. She seeks refuge in her local mosque, but finds herself uneasy with the rules governing the community’s place of worship.
Nomani begins to protest the cordoning off of the women’s prayer space, insisting that women be given adequate space to pray in the main hall. She considers her protests an indictment of the community’s inability to rectify a situation which she believes has no religious sanction within Islam. Nomani feels she can not afford to handle this problem with half-measures and diplomacy; in Normani’s mind, the stakes require nothing less than a revolution. She invites a storm of media attention in what she sees as a fight for a more egalitarian mosque, but others in the community, specifically the moderates, believe she should modify her approach, adopting a path of incremental change of a conciliatory nature. The documentary quickly sets the stage for a struggle between these competing paths to social change.
As the documentary continues, Nomani’s fight evolves; she had embarked on her journey of activism with the single goal of awarding women equal prayer space in the main hall, but Nomani then begins to campaign for women being allowed to stand beside men in the congregational prayer. Finally, she joins a prayer hall of both men and women who stand behind Muslim scholar, Amina Wadud, as she leads them in prayer. For the moderates who have been pitted against her, as well as the viewers following Nomani’s story, it seems as though she is confused as to what precisely she hopes to achieve and ambivalent about her identity as an American Muslim woman. Her struggle against conservative traditions in American mosques begins to overlap with her aversion for intolerance and extremism. The viewer feels compelled to echo the sentiment of a woman in the documentary who asks why Nomani automatically links inadequate prayer spaces for women in mosques to violence and extremism.
Once Nomani’s activism shifts from an insistence for women’s right to pray in the main halls of their mosques to the demand that women stand amidst men while praying and lead mixed gender prayers, she becomes even more estranged from the moderate majority. Cordoning the women to a small prayer space above or below the main hall of a mosque is typically the result of cultural norms imported by immigrants from patriarchal societies. Women’s visibility in the main prayer hall often reflects their status and participation in the mosque and therefore, Nomani’s initial call for equal, adequate prayer space for her sisters seems a reasonable and valid one to the moderates. Her demand is backed by the Prophet’s (pbuh) unequivocal ruling that Muslim women enjoy the right to pray in the mosque; when women find themselves relegated to the sidelines, neither seen nor heard (and unable to see or hear), they are being denied access to a place of worship which the Prophet (pbuh) has already opened to them. The mosque’s leadership then stands culpable of violating a clear Prophetic command.
However, most of the members of the mosque, who sit squarely in the middle of the religious spectrum, feel that if women such as Nomani are going to empower themselves by pointing to textual evidence of their rights within Islam, then they must not try to circumvent the limitations of those rights. They feel there is no textual evidence, neither in the Qur’an nor the hadith, to support the idea of women leading their male counterparts in prayer or women praying alongside men—and by this I am referring to women interspersed with men in the prayer congregation, not women standing adjacent to the men separated by a few feet. It is important to note that men and women do pray in an intermingled congregation in the Holy Shrine of Mecca but the vast majority of scholars attribute this anomaly to space and logistical concerns.
Edina Lekovic, the Communications Director at the Muslim Public Affairs Council, approaches Nomani at one point in the documentary and suggests that while she respects Normani’s passion and her struggle to garner equal and adequate prayer space for women, by zeroing in on the issue of women leading prayer Nomani is adopting an extremist stance of her own and thereby lending credence to misogynists within Islam who are all too eager to dismiss all women as potential radicals who must be kept in check. Lekovic goes on to say that by pushing this issue, Nomani risks distracting from more important indicators of women’s empowerment in their mosques—women serving on the mosque’s governing board or the community inviting female scholars and guest speakers to share their ideas at the mosque.
Lekovic invites Nomani to adopt issues and a methodology that resonate with the moderate majority. Her suggestion crystallizes the problem Muslim moderates within the Morgantown mosque, as well as across the country, have with Nomani. Nomani is convinced that the systemic inequality between the male and female members of the mosque can only be stomped out by a revolution of sorts. She dispenses with dialogue in her hope to level the playing field for Muslim women. The moderate contingency of her community find her tactics confrontational and lacking nuance; as a result these potential allies are left feeling alienated. They feel her mission for reform is better served by working with the men and women in the mosques who share the aspiration for reform in the Muslim community.
Questioning authority is a great American and Islamic tradition. The schools of thought and jurisprudence we find in classical Islamic law today are the product of those who dared to challenge the authority and the status quo of their time and place. Nomani is certainly one such challenger but by imposing her approach on others who share her views, Nomani seems to undercut her own objective and isolate herself as an outlier in the community.
Zehra Rizavi is Associate Editor of Altmuslimah.