Mohammed Langston is a Muslim photographer and hip hop artist. While he was in New York, I sat down with him and we discussed some of the issues that are plaguing our masajid in America.
Tell me where you are from, your conversion to Islam, and how the masjid facilitated or aided you in the process.
I am from Detroit Michigan, became Muslim in 2007, shortly after graduating from high school. The masjid didn't really play a large role in me becoming Muslim...it was more of what I learned and me not being comfortable with the doctrine I was raised in, Christianity. So after high school I was reading a magazine, and it just sparked the whole idea of Islam, so I went out and I purchased a Qur'an. I sought out people in my life that I knew were Muslim, and then I decided I would become Muslim. And actually I went to a masjid, and believe it or not, it is funny and ironic that you ask how did the masjid facilitate or aid me in becoming Muslim, because when I went to the masjid that I wanted to take Shahada at, I was looked at as if…they were confused as to why I might have been in the masjid. And so I told them I am interested in taking Shahada, and they said I couldn't. I was told that I couldn't because the Imam wasn't present, which is practically unheard of, I don't care what school of thought you follow. So I said thats is fine, so I left, and I googled another masjid and I ended up at the Wayne State University masjid, and that is where I took my shahada, January 19 2007. But I would say the masjid facilitated that. The first masjid was predominantly Arab, and I think in particular Iraqi Arab…that was the hospitality I received. It wasn't a very warm welcome.
Describe the ideal masjid board
I think women should be on masajid boards… A nonMuslim was asking me why are Muslim women treated like dogs in our mosques, and I had to inquire like what do you mean? How are dogs treated? And he mentioned some of these things, like they don't have any kind of positions on the boards, etc. I feel that is counteractive to Islam because at the time of the Prophet, Islam was revolutionary to women's rights. We need women in high positions, we need great diversity on the board even if the masjid is largely one ethnic group.
Were you welcomed into the Muslim community after your conversion?
I think over the years I have developed a sort of thick skin in my relations with multiple individuals from such diverse backgrounds, from South Asian, Pakistani, Bengali, so I'm a little more comfortable. But that should never be a prerequisite! Especially if you are going somewhere to worship the Creator. Initially it was strange, it was like, am I involved in the right religion? It seems like a South Asian thing, or an Arab thing... You have to constantly remind yourself that you came to this deen because of Allah, the Creator. Initially, it was the most uncomfortable experience ever, and I was thinking like, do I have to dress like this...? We have to be frank, a lot of our masjids haven't prepared for the amount of people who have embraced Islam. Because some masjids are actually cultural centers, or so it seems to the person new to this community that such and such community center of this ethnic background, that can be problematic and make one hesitant and reluctant to want to engage and worship with them.
What language should the Jumma Khutbah be delivered in?
In America, the masjid should give their khutbah in English, although even in my region there are masjids that give the khutbah in Urdu, and I'm even inquired sometimes, "Brother, why haven't you come to the khutbah in this masjid?" And I say I'll go to the khutbah when I can understand the khutbah….Priority based on where we are and the conditions we have, English is the best fit.
Why do you think masajid are ethnically divided? Is this healthy for Islam in America?
A lot of the immigrants that came to America didn't come to give Dawah. They didn't come to see some floodgates open where everyone takes shahadah. By far and large, most people were looking for a better living, a means to provide for their family, and maybe even succeed in the American dream. But in the middle of that they have erected masjids and we sort of have the masjids that couldn't keep up with the amount of immigrants who were coming and so you have immigrants that haven't yet become proficient in the language, and so some of these domestic masjids within our nations boundaries decided to give their khutbas in their original language. Still problematic, but we have to be fair. Many of these people came to America to have other people come into Islam.
We have Muslim lawyers, engineers, etc, but that can easily be replaced. But what will happen if you haven't made yourself indispensable with what is of utmost importance? Leading others to this way of life, Islam, this deen? Every Muslim is obligated to be some sort of voice of Islam and to teach others about this way. But you can't make yourself indispensable if you just bring Pakistan here, that doesn't resonate with people in our society. You preach to society with what they understand and know. If you make a Pakistani masjid here, an Algerian one, or any other masjid here that won't accommodate the needs of American youth, there is no interest in it. It won't be impactive, it won't be inviting.
Do you think it is ok for a masjid to ignore the youth?
Ignoring the youth can be likened to the idea of a child being raised without a father. And I see this in the African American community for a number of unfortunate reasons. You see the largest incarceration rate among any ethnic group, you see a great disparity in socio-economic state in the African American community, all as a result of not having that sort of fatherhood, or that nurturing and mentorship. The reality is what encompasses these youth programs is conditioning and nurturing, that people have examples of what they can be, or how they should be, and what they become. Otherwise they will find it elsewhere. So if you incorporate that in the masjid, it is complete. You will offer means of mentorship and development.
What do you think of the idea of a "third space?"
I think the third space is a great idea, and I believe it is a reaction to what we find currently in the masjids. People say they don't feel comfortable in the masjid because it is of one ethnic background, or they only have this type of people on the board, etc, and so the third space is the way to go. If people aren't going to change to make things easier and willing to sacrifice and accommodate that which will be more beneficial, then the third space is the only space to go. Then what are they going to do? When all these people are going to these third spaces? There is nothing wrong with third spaces, but here is some sort of majestic feeling and understanding, and it is mostly esoteric, that comes with still being in the masjid. So it is unfortunate that we are at this stage.