Quietly, Liberal Muslims Are Defining Islam for Themselves

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Women leading the service? Musical interludes? Not quite what you would expect from a traditional mosque service.

But the Inclusive Mosque Initiative (IMI) is not your typical mosque. All of this and more was found in the IMI service in Bern, Switzerland last week, the first such service in Switzerland.  

The Inclusive Mosque Initiative Project  started in the UK and is an umbrella organization with chapters around the world, including Switzerland and Kashmir.

Dr. Elham Manea got to know them when she was in the UK to give a lecture and lead a prayer. Non-denominational, egalitarian, welcoming to the LGBT+ community, the Inclusive Mosque Initiative is trying to build an environment of inclusive Islam

The vision of the IMI is to establish a place of worship where everyone is welcome.

Jasmina Elsonbati and Elham Manea are co-chairs of the IMI in Switzerland and organized the service.

It was held on Friday, May 27, in the Dialogue Section of the House of Religions in Bern, which has religious establishments belonging to different faith communities housed together under one roof. Manea first spoke with the imam of the mosque to make sure he realized the initiative was not trying to cause him any disrespect, and that it was separate private event.

It was conducted by a team and followed the traditional order of a service.  

Jasmina Elsonbati introduced the whole concept in opening remarks. 

Elham Manea gave the khutbah (sermon, full text here). The sermon spoke about women's rights and having women as imams. 

Halima Gosai Hussain (IMI UK Chair) led the Friday Prayer.

Tamisla Tauqir held the iqamah, aadhan and dua (different parts of the prayer service).

All of these roles are normally done by men.

A musician joined with his Aud and music. Music can be a potent spiritual tool, and what Manea calls the "Arabization of Islam" has pushed it out of many mosques and other religious environments. She also noted that men and women used to pray together in mosques in the 1970s in Bern (although in separate areas), but that this Arabization process has increased gender segregation. The music was performed during the traditional break in the sermon.

Helene Aecherli took the pictures.

The Inclusive Mosque Initiative is one among a few similar organizations. There is one in South Africa, run by an openly gay imam. In North America, Universalist Muslims in Canada and Muslims for Progressive Values cater to the needs of Muslims who don't feel represented or welcomed in traditional Islamic spaces.

Manea was keen to point out that the IMI was not opposed to Muslims who want to worship in a more traditional setting. The project is fundamentally about choice. Those who wish to worship in a gender-segregated setting should be free to do so, just as the IMI provides a space for those who wish to worship in a mixed-gender environment.

Since the pictures and the Khutbah were posted to Facebook, Manea said she has received a lot of hate mail. Most of it was because a woman was leading the prayers and some of the women were not wearing a hijab. Others objected to the music. 

But there were also a lot of messages of support. The pictures were shared over 300 times, and Manea received messages including, "I would love to pray in such a mosque."

Organizations like this one show that liberal Muslims are not going to wait for a fatwa from Al-Azhar to legitimize their faith. They are going out there and defining their religion for themselves, in defiance of extremists who want to control them. 

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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org

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