Thursday, May 23

Is the mosque a political centre?

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MANY Malaysians are confused by statements of religious leaders or politicians on the role of the mosque in Islam. Is it a prayer place only or is it a community centre? If it is a community centre, then is it also a political centre?

From my understanding of human relationships in a community construct, whatever one person or a party of persons does to steer a whole community into a single direction, there is then political communication, strategies, and organisation. Politics is not just about modern political parties like Umno, PAS, PKR, or DAP. We, the Malaysians, living in a family construct, a work-office construct, a business construct, or a governmental construct cannot be devoid of political strategies, communication, and control.

If we live in a community, the bottom line is we are involved in one way or another in ‘politics’. Thus, the mosque, to me, is not just an institution of prayer. It has a Friday Sermon, an Id-al Fitr Sermon, an Id-al Adha Sermon, and even an Eclipse Sermon. All the sermons serve to remind Muslims to do good, avoid evil, and to purify their soul with ritual worship, charity, and good deeds.

Of late, there has been criticism of certain leaders that when an elected MP or minister speaks at a mosque, it is deemed ‘political’ in a negative sense. I do not know what the huge issue is because for a minister or an MP to say some words of advice like the short ‘taskirah’ or ‘reminder’ cannot be deemed as being in partisan politics. And if the MP or a minister strives to explain some governmental policies affecting the people in the mosque qariah, I fail to see this as negative ‘politics’.

What is abhorrent is an MP or a political personality attacking individuals or groups in a personal manner, but reminding about the dangers of corruption and extremism of race or religion that can disrupt nation building is no more than discharging the role of a good Muslim leader and a good citizen.

In today’s column, I am taking an excerpt from my book ‘Rethinking the Mosque for a Modern Muslim Society’ (ITBM), which was part of my PHD thesis from the University of Edinburgh. I would like to take the people of Malaysia 1,500 years back in time to ‘witness’ first hand the life of the Prophet Muhammad, when he was administering to the first Muslims in in his mosque in Medina. These accounts are from the book ‘Sirah Ibn Ishaq’, who lived 1,300 years ago and whose work was translated into English by A Guillaume. This book is my ‘video’ into the life of the Prophet in Arabia where tribal wars, loyalties, and the male identity reigned supreme.

In the midst of this harsh life came a simple orphaned reformer who brought simple honesty, good manners, human dignity, and a compassion to all life unknown to the harsh living of the unforgiving scorching desert. Let us now peek into the workings of the Prophet Muhammad’s house, which was also his mosque in the town of Medina.

In the seventh century ce, the Prophet’s mosque in his lifetime was used for a variety of functions. The mosque was used as the education centre where the Companions learned many aspects of Islam and heard the new Revelations from God through the Prophet:

Abu Said al-Khudri said: I sat with the company of the poor members of the Emigrants (Ahlul Suffa, or those who stayed in the Prophet’s mosque). Some of them were sitting together because of lack of clothing while a Reader was reciting to us. All of a sudden the Prophet of Allah (peace be upon him) came along and stood beside us. When the Apostle of Allah stood, the Reader stopped and gave him a salutation. He asked, “What were you doing?” We said, “Allah’s Apostle! We had a reader who was reciting to us and we were listening to the Book of Allah the Exalted.” The Apostle of Allah then said: “Praise be to Allah Who has put among my people those with whom I have ordered to keep myself.” The Apostle of Allah then sat among us so as to be like one of us.

The mosque was also used as a place for social interaction where modest celebrations, amusement and sports were held. This is where the Muslims gathered to socialise while learning religious knowledge. There were those who came to rest and take a short nap away from home. Children were also known to frequent the mosque and the Prophet did not forbid them:

Umm Atiyya reported: The Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) commanded us to bring out on Id-ul-Fi?r and Id-ul-Adha (Muslim Celebrations) young women, menstruating women and purdah observing ladies (veiled ladies). The menstruating women kept back from prayer, but participated in goodness and supplication of the Muslims. I said: Messenger of Allah, one of us does not have an outer garment (to cover her face and body). He said: Let her sister cover her with her outer garment.

Aisha reported that some Abyssinians came and gave a demonstration of armed fight on the Id Day in the mosque. The Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) invited me to see the fight. I placed my head on his shoulder and began to see their sport till it was I who turned away from watching them.

Simak b Harb reported that Jabir bin Samura said: The Prophet (peace be upon him) used to sit at the place where he observed morning or dawn prayer till the sun rose or when it had risen; he would stand and the Companions would talk about matters pertaining to the days of ignorance and they would laugh at these matters while the Prophet only smiled.

Abu Qatada reported: As we were sitting in the mosque, the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) came with Umama, the daughter of Abul-As and Zainab, daughter of the Prophet on his shoulder. He led the people in prayer. When he bowed he put her down and when he stood up after prostration, he lifted her again.

The mosque was used as a welfare centre for the needy and a shelter for the homeless. It was here that donations given by Muslims were collected and distributed to those in need. It was also used as a hospital for Muslim warriors in times of war. The Suffa people were those homeless emigrants who came from various parts of Arabia to live with the Prophet and learn Islam directly from him. The Prophet and the Muslims would frequently aid these people whenever they could. It was shown in the previous section that there were Muslim reciters who studied and work to help the Suffa Muslims:

Narrated Anas: Some people of the tribe of ‘Ukl came to the Prophet (peace be upon him) and joined the men of As-Suffa. Abdul Rahman said that the men of As-Suffa were from the poor people.

Narrated Anas’: Some goods came to Allah’s Apostle from Bahrein. The Prophet (peace be upon him) ordered the people to spread them in the mosque. It was the biggest amount of goods that the Prophet had received. He left for prayers and did not even look at it.  After the prayer, he sat by those goods and gave from those to everybody he saw.

The Prophet’s mosque was also used as a place for judicial proceedings and for the punishment of the guilty. These proceedings were performed in public as a social deterrent on crimes:

Abu Huraira reported: The Muslim captured a man from the tribe of Banu Hanifa and bounded him to one of the pillars of the mosque. (The Prophet questioned him for three days and he was defiant. Finally the Prophet released him. The man converted to Islam).

The mosque was the centre of administration where the Prophet governed the small Muslim community and consulted his Companions in many matters. The mosque was the Muslim’s political centre as the imam is the recognised leader of the Muslims. The election of the first Four Pious Caliphs occurred in this mosque. The political dimension of the mosque is essential for the unity of the Islamic brotherhood and the organisation of discharging the many social obligations:

Narrated Anas bin Malik that he heard Umar’s second speech he delivered when he sat on the pulpit on the day following the death of the Prophet (peace be upon him). Umar recited the Tashah-hud while Abu Bakr was silent and said, “I wish that Allah’s Apostle had outlived all of us. But if Muhammad is dead, Allah nevertheless has kept the light amongst you from which you can receive the same guidance as Allah guided Muhammad with that. And Abu Bakr is the companion of the Prophet. He is the second of the two in the cave. He is the most entitled person among the Muslims to manage your affairs. Therefore get up and swear allegiance to him.” I heard Umar saying to Abu Bakr on that day, “Get on the pulpit”, and kept urging him till Abu Bakr ascended the pulpit and the people swore their allegiance to him.

Aishah said: The Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) would set up a pulpit in the mosque for Hassan who would stand on it and satirise those who spoke against the Prophet. The Prophet would say, “The spirit of holiness (Gabriel) is with Hassan so long as he speaks in defence of the Apostle of Allah.”

There were many deputations that came to the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. Most of these came to swear allegiance and accept Islam to the Prophet. There were also those that came for diplomatic discussions and among them was the deputation of Christians from Najran:

A deputation from the Christians of Najran came to the apostle. There were sixty riders, fourteen of them from their nobles of whom three were in control of affairs … Mohammad b Jafar told me that when they came to Medina they came into the apostle’s mosque as he prayed the afternoon prayer clad in Yamani garments, cloaks and mantles, with the elegance of men of B al-Harith b. Kab. The prophet’s companions who saw them that day said that they never saw their like in any deputation that came afterwards. The time of their prayers having come they stood and prayed in the apostle’s mosque, and he said that they were to be left to do so. They prayed towards the East.

The Prophet had dispatched many military campaigns from the mosque. Discussions of military strategies were held in the mosque and the Prophet went out together with the Muslim armies to defend Islam. The mosque as a military base was also used as the place to treat the wounded and as a temporary shelter for war prisoners:

It was narrated on the authority of Aisha: Saad was wounded in the Battle of the Ditch. A man from the Quaraish called Ibn al-Ariqah shot him with an arrow which pierced the artery in the middle of his forearm. The Messenger of Allah pitched a tent for him in the mosque and would inquire after him being in close proximity.

It can, therefore, be surmised that the mosque of the Prophet held many roles including that of a political nature. This is because the role of Muslims is not merely to perform personal rituals of faith but are also charged with various duties within a community construct that involved not only relationships with Muslims but also with non-Muslims.

Mosques in Islam should not be judged by their bloated construction cost, their many domes, their splendour of decorations, or their expensive carpets and materials of construction but mosques are successful if the Muslims perform the role of managing their communities and preserving a healthy and cordial relationship society at large. Playing a political role in this dimension of nation building is what makes the mosque not a white elephant of iconic expenses but an institution of community construction of harmonious spiritual co-existence as exemplified by the Prophet Muhammad himself in his mosque of Medina.

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