“Unmosqued”: Trajectories of Participation in Religious Communities

A few months ago, I was visiting a friend in Alabama and we were at the local mosque for the Friday congregation. As I was getting ready to leave, I noticed a woman explaining something to my friend in Arabic. My friend doesn’t speak Arabic, so I walked over to help translate. We realized she was pointing out that my friend prayed “incorrectly” and should have prayed another way. We thanked her for her advice and left. Later that week, we stopped by the mosque again and my friend, who does not normally wear the headscarf, refused to enter or exit without having it on. When I asked her why, she said she did not want to expose herself to any criticism.

I found these instances telling, and not because I live in the Bay Area where women without headscarves are quite engaged at mosques and people are usually aware that there is more than one way to pray. What interested me was the effect these and other such instances have had on my friend’s involvement at the mosque.

In this regard, let us consider briefly the concept of a community of practice, a term coined by Lave and Wenger (1991) in their theory on situated learning. Lave and Wenger identify communities of practice based on a common craft or profession, but this concept has since been applied to other contexts. Nasir and Cooks (2009), for example, use it to explain how participation and identity changes in a track and field team at a high school, using Wenger’s (1998) later developed concepts of inbound and peripheral trajectories. Inbound trajectories have the prospect of and often result in full participation within a community of practice; peripheral trajectories never lead to full participation so individuals on these trajectories stay marginal within the community.

Attendees at any place of worship also form a community of practice, whereby the shared domain is a shared faith, with varying levels of participation. What, then, causes some members to follow an inbound trajectory and become active or full participants, while others remain marginal? This is a broad question, as people might be on a trajectory for any number of reasons, which could simply be personal preferences or time constraints.

However, my experience in Alabama did make me think about external reasons. Communities of religious practice create not only a shared structure but also “shared” expectations, often rooted in their own versions of doctrine – products of varying sociocultural contexts – instead of actual doctrine. Members who willingly meet these expectations could end up as full participants; members who unwillingly meet them or do not meet them at all are pushed to the edge or, sometimes, over the edge. In the American Muslim community, the “un-mosqued” phenomenon has caused marginal participants to opt out of mosques altogether and create their own “third spaces” where they can participate more centrally in an environment that has different expectations.

Recent research conducted by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) aims to understand and address precisely this phenomenon, calling for a “reimagining” of “Muslim spaces” to include diverse participants, especially marginalized groups, and to break barriers to participation. The reports include recommendations, case studies, and toolkits for interested communities to “transform their current spaces.” Findings warrant further discussion, but I would be especially curious to see how transformation affects participation trajectories, if at all. In Alabama, my friend continues to participate peripherally at her mosque. She hopes to increase her involvement in future, but remains guarded on the margins for now.

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