Mosques should be the centre of our communities

As the UAE becomes more metropolitan, we need additional venues where community social functions can take place, writes Fatima Al Shamsi

Muslim women kneel for the prayer service at the Women's Mosque of America in downtown Los Angeles. Lori Shepler / Reuters
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Once again, the holy month of Ramadan has come and gone all too quickly. The sense of community that takes over during Ramadan is overwhelming. I truly enjoyed joining friends and family on late-night “excursions” to the masjid and engaging in discussions about Islamic practices, philosophies and verses from the Quran as we all tried to learn from each other.

As well as offering the chance to share different cultural practices and norms, these intellectual discussions reminded me of the community spirit that surrounded masjids and Islamic centres when I was living abroad. I had not felt that since moving back to the UAE.

Growing up as an expatriate, the masjid was not just a place for worship but one for the community to come together to celebrate a joyous occasion, to mourn together, to attend lectures, hear out each others' grievances or simply to enjoy an afternoon learning from each other over a meal or a group activity.

Technically, Muslims do not need a mosque. They can pray at home, they can read the Quran for themselves. When questions arise, there is a plethora of resources for them to consult to find answers. But the fact remains that Islam is a religion whose fundamental tenets exist within the context of community. They are intended to be practised collectively and most actions are meant to reflect your character as you do good to and for the people around you. Building a mosque is a tradition within Muslim communities. One of the first things that the Prophet Mohammed did when he entered Medina was to build a mosque.

So mosques should not just be thought of as a place for prayer. Especially in our day and age, when we are so immersed in our day-to-day routines and rely so heavily on technology that makes us so isolated. We need to have at our disposal a variety of centres for the community to build around. In the US, it is very common to find YMCAs and YMJAs. You do not need to be affiliated to the religion to use them but they become centres – outside of the usual school or work circles – for people to come together, whether it be through community projects, summer camps or fitness classes.

This is why I think that we could benefit from such associations in an Islamic country. As the UAE becomes more and more metropolitan, we need more venues where community social functions can take place. Why not have these guided by Islamic values of community service and peace? Not only would they be a perfect way to get to know your neighbours, they could be venues for people to connect and start grass roots community programmes. These could include tutoring for schoolchildren, mentoring, networking or workshops conducted by anyone with practical expertise. In New York, it was very common after Friday prayers for there to be an announcement about an upcoming wedding, or the birth of a child, or even a call for donations if someone from the community was in need. This made charitable giving more personal and helped build a support system. To engender trust and build a healthy society you need to keep these links alive.

We used to have people of all religions and backgrounds come to listen to the Khutba on Friday. It was also a centre that was open throughout the week for anyone with questions about Islam. How else can intolerance and ignorance be dispelled? Masjids are perfect centres for intercultural discourse. Since coming to the UAE, I have realised just how many Islamic traditions there are, not just between people from different nations but also within the country. People sometimes assume that being Muslim means that we are all the same in the way we practise our faith.

We live in troubled times when dangerous ideas float about. I believe that one of the best ways to tackle this is to create communities that look after one another, making sure to instil in each member tolerance, love and peaceful habits.

Fatima Al Shamsi is a globe­trotting Emirati foodie, film buff and football fanatic