Whoops, been a while since I’ve updated – sorry about that! I’m moving in two weeks, and everything has become a bit hectic. But the zany world of Western misconceptions about Islam rolls ever on and on, and I’d hate to appear lax in my made-up duty to monitor it!
Anyhoo . . .
In the last week, the French Minister of the Interior has opened a renovated firehouse to serve as a mosque in central Paris, in response to pressure from the French right, including the Minister of Religion, who want to ban the new tendency developing among Parisian Muslims of praying in the street. First off, I think it’s important that we give credit to the French – at least this time they’re trying to ban something that does actually exist in France (unlike the ban on burqas earlier this year). However, in this case, they’re banning something that no one is actually in favor of – it’s not that Parisian Muslims felt like they needed more outside time, it’s that there are too few mosques in Paris, and there is simply no room for them to pray inside. The Minister of the Interior’s plan has stemmed the problem somewhat, by offering space for several more thousand Muslims to be able to attend prayers in a mosque if they should so wish, but that doesn’t address the larger underlying problem that France needs to face – Muslims pray.
The relationship between the act of praying and physical prayer space in Islam is slightly complicated (or actually not complicated at all, but not what most people think) – it is not the case that the five daily prayers that Muslims perform must be performed in a mosque. Any of them. Muslims are free to pray anywhere, so long as they perform the prayers at the correct times of day (which are set by the position of the sun wherever they are), perform the correct ablutions (cleansing rituals) beforehand and face towards the Ka’ba in Mecca (the direction of prayer is called qibla in Arabic). A mosque at its most basic is meant to aid these traditions – thus it generally has a minaret, a tower from which the times of prayer can be announced, washing areas, and a mihrab, a niche in the wall that marks qibla. However, really any building can be a mosque – in fact, both here in Oxford and at the University of Chicago (where I did my undergrad), the Muslim society pray in the chapel, pushing the pews against the walls to make room – church sites traditionally face east (from our perspective, of course), and have their own bathrooms, so they convert to mosques quite nicely (no pun intended).
At the same time, many Muslims choose not to pray in mosques – as the AP piece mentions, in many places it’s considered customary for women to pray at home (although as a historian in this field, I can say there’s very little evidence for this being customary historically for Muslims, but that’s a topic for another day). Check out woodturtle’s blog for a very interesting discussion of segregation in mosques and how it affects religious practice – I wholeheartedly agree with her interpretation of the physical experience of the mosque, and I’ve known many Muslim women who choose not to pray in a mosque for precisely those reasons. In addition, lots of Muslims don’t pray in a mosque simply because there isn’t one nearby, or one that they like nearby, or because they just don’t like the experience, and that’s entirely their prerogative. There are some classical Muslim jurists who argue that attending the khutba, the talk that accompanies Friday noon prayers, is required for adult male Muslims, but as far as I’m aware, even this was never accepted by all jurists, and for the other thirty-four prayers in the week, Muslims are free to perform these wherever they want.
However, the important part is that they do perform them – the prayers themselves are not optional. And this gets back to the concerns of the French government – the French government is correct that Muslims don’t have to have a mosque to pray, but they seem not to appreciate that the Muslims who are praying in the streets aren’t doing it to make a scene (or to disturb the secular atmosphere of Paris, as in the words of the Minister of Religion), but because those prayers are a central tenant of their faith that they cannot be expected to pass over. Unlike in the Christian tradition (or at least, the non-monastic Christian tradition), Muslim prayer is not a take-as-needed scenario (most monastic communities pray the hours, a series of prayers throughout the day that are very similar to Muslim prayer, but obviously this is a tradition that only pertains to a very specific form of Christianity, and a form that, by it’s nature, most people have never experienced).
I’m sure the Parisian Muslim community is happy to have the new space (and who doesn’t love industrial renovation decor!), but trying to find them space isn’t really going to help in the long run if the French government has any legitimate interest in integrating Muslims into French society. If they are legitimately seeking integration, the very best thing they could do to start with is to get used to Muslim prayer, as a daily presence that isn’t any more an affront to secularism than sharing is an affront to capitalism. It’s just a reality of how some people live their lives.
And, as an upside, at least personally (and admittedly I must be biased as I work in this field and send a lot of time hanging around Muslims), I think prayers are a thoroughly pleasant and relaxing experience, as much to watch as (I presume) to participate in – I have very happy memories of sitting in the Umayyad mosque in Damascus for days on end, watching prayers.