Masjid Matters

From once lively socio-religious places where even affairs of the state used to be discussed mosques are now mere prayer halls. Raashid Maqbool finds out how state’s intervention and mushroom of ‘sect-specific’ mosques have shrunken the ‘ideal’ role of a mosque in social space

Historic Aali Masjid in Srinagar. Pic: Bilal Bahadur
Historic Aali Masjid in Srinagar. Pic: Bilal Bahadur

Even after Ramadan is over, mosques are abuzz with prayers. Valley atmosphere, in the evenings and mornings, especially is filled with hymns and chants. Loudspeakers amplify sounds to the highest possible frequencies. People complain about the “noise”. Clerics  responded by advising restraint in using the loudspeakers. The debate continues.

Larger Frame

Apart from the loudspeaker friction, that harks back almost every year in Ramadan and starts dying down with the appearance of the smiling crescent, there lies a bigger debate in the shadows: status and role of a Mosque in Muslim society. Since long, Muslim scholars and revivalists have been arguing the need to redeem the “lost” relevance of the mosques. Religious scholars and reformists in Kashmir valley have engaged in constant and consistent sensitization of masses regarding the centrality of mosques. However, any encouraging examples are hardly seen on ground. This, like many others, is one area where a huge gap is found between the ideal and the real.

In the larger Muslim discourse Mosques are placed at the centre of society.  One of the first Mosques in Islamic history Masjid e Nabwi (the Prophet’s Mosque) serves as the ideal, both in terms of internal structure and as institution as well. Built adjacent to Prophet’s (p.b.u.h) house in AD 622 i.e., in the first year of hijra, the mosque became the focal point of Islamic civilization. Besides a place for praying, as historical record maintains, it also served as a community centre, a court and a place of learning.

“Even military drills and Eid celebrations were organized there. The society in Medina developed around this mosque,” Dr Mueed-al-Zaffer, a scholar of Islamic Studies said.

Number of mosques has seen an exponential growth in last two decades in Kashmir. Nevertheless, none could develop into an institution that could cater to different needs of society besides prayers. Till late eighties mosques in many areas of the Valley would be put to more social use than they are now. Their social role has shrunk with growing time. Besides darsgah: a school of religious learning, mosques would also be used to address other social requirements like dispute settlement and also would provide the facility of public bath. Hammam: a public bath facility with a warm space to sit called Sufa, is built alongside the mosque and is considered an important part of the mosque if not essential. Hammam is mostly used in winters. Although using  Hammam has remained a male exclusively activity, however, there were instances in the past when females were also given entry on specific days of week at some places. Speaking of the old days Ghulam Hassan, an octogenarian from Alamgari Bazar, Srinagar said, “It is just some thirty five years back we had this practice in place, basically most of the people could not, in those days, afford a good bathroom in their houses especially with hot water facility, therefore, for two days in week women of the area would be allowed to use the hammam at the mosque exclusively.”

“The times have changed and now every household has better bathroom facilities so the need is no more felt,” he says. Thus, according to Hassan, one of the routines of larger societal engagement with mosque came to an end.

Mosques would also be used to rout the monetary aid to the needy in their catchment area. Annual payments that are mandatory for the believers to pay under Shariya like Zakat, fitrah, Khums and Ushur, would be paid to Mosque management who in turn would be responsible to give it to the mustahiqeen, those who deserve. The practice continues at some places, however, could not become an organized act. Hilal Ahmed from Shopian said, “The practice had manifold advantages. The money would reach a person as per his or her need and also their privacy and honor would be secured as people would not come to know who has received and how much.”

Mulla Akhoon Shah Mosque, Srinagar. Pic: Bilal Bahadur
Mulla Akhoon Shah Mosque, Srinagar. Pic: Bilal Bahadur

Of late an interesting trend has picked up among the Valley youth. Some people prefer to have their nikah read inside a mosque. According to Dr Zaffer, “The traditions supporting such an engagement are weak.” However, at the same time he considers it “a promising trend”. “It is paying off well and helps to reduce much of the unnecessary burden that otherwise people, especially on the bride’s side feel.”

Conducting nikah ceremony in mosques has indeed brought back mosques to the centre of an important social activity, thus, clearing way for broader social engagement.

Sufa according to Dr Zaffer was actually meant for addressing the social issues. “It emerged as a social institution in Madina.” Sufa again comes from the Prophet’s (p.b.u.h) Mosque in Madina. It used to be a raised platform in the mosque where different social interactions and engagements would take place and also would be used as a Darsgah. Here in Kashmir Sufa is referred to a sitting place that forms the part of Hammam and is kept warm during winters with the help of firewood. “The space” according to Dr Zaffer, “is unfortunately wasted as people often are found there engaging in gibber-jabber and merely trying to kill time.”

Diminishing role of mosques in society has many explanations. Many community leaders see it as direct result of overall fall of Muslims and loss of political authority. In early caliphate times mosques used to be the seat of power.  A caliph would conduct much of the business of the state inside a mosque. Moulana Altaf Hussain Nadwi, a columnist who also leads Friday prayers at Jamia Masjid in Srigufwara, Islamabad holds the State responsible for social irrelevance of mosques. He said, “Persons having religious mandate can play a meaningful role only if State institutions give them any importance. If the law of the land does not provide for any such role to be played by religious scholars how can religious institutions deliver as a socio-political institution.” In his opinion, “Institutions die or their role is reduced when the people associated with them are not empowered.”

Nadwi also smells a conspiracy in it. In a place like Kashmir where religion provides explicit means to lend expression to political aspirations, keeping a check on religious institutions becomes an in-alienable part of State policy. As per Nadwi, “Indian State has understood it very well that if mosques are allowed to grow as dynamic institutions in Kashmir it would mean trouble for them that would be hard to handle. The notion that mosques are only meant for salat and not a thing beyond, therefore, works in its best interest. Naturally, it would be interested in making this notion common covertly though.”

He does not absolve the religious organizations entirely from taking the responsibility.

Dr Zaffer also traces the genesis of the problem from the “fall of Muslims”. The “fall” in post World War -I Muslim history referrers to the end of Ottoman Caliphate in 1922. He said, “After the fall a new kind of mindset developed that advocated the separation of religion and the mundane world. This separation led to a ritualistic adoption of religion in public life.”

“Hence mosques were confined to the observation of certain rituals only and it is this tradition that somehow travelled across time and still continues,” he added.

Taking departure from ‘the fall’ narrative, Gazi Mueen-ul- Islam, a senior functionary of Jamat-e-Islami J&K identifies another factor: notions of the common people. He said, “Mosque is a symbol of Islamic society, however, we as people have developed a very traditional understanding of Islam. If we accept the deen as a complete way of life we will automatically give supremacy to religious places and allow mosques to become the centre of governance and discipline in our lives.”

It is also seen as a failure of the Muslim leaders including clergy and the organizations they head? In J&K there are numerous religious organizations that claim the following in lakhs. J&K Waqf Board that is supposed to look after the waqf properties is a governmental body and controls assets worth approximately 20 thousand crore rupees. These organizations have been operating for more than half a century. How come they could not create a single mosque on these lines that could have become an example? Responding to the question Gazi Mueen said, “We are trying to create such ideals but there is resentment among the people, which of course, is out of ignorance; once we overcome this and people are ready to support such an initiative it will happen.”

Dr Abdul Lateef Alkindi, secretary general of Jamiyat-e-Ahl-e-Hadees stressed the need of reform activities to be conducted through the mosques in every locality. He said, “The anti-social elements that perpetuate immoral activities and lead our youth astray can be effectively curbed if mosques assume the pivotal role.” He is sure that if such a mechanism is put in place social evils will be effectively eliminated. Rahet Deyd Masjid at Lal Chowk, Islamabad is leading by example in this case. A drug de-addiction centre is being run in the mosque changing lives of many youth.

The Imams

If we accept the deen as a complete way of life we will automatically give supremacy to religious places. Pic: Bilal Bahadur
If we accept the deen as a complete way of life we will automatically give supremacy to religious places.
Pic: Bilal Bahadur

Mosques besides social centers were supposed to be the points of unification in Ummah. In contrast, these have become the discernible signs of division in the community. The ‘sect-specific’ mosques, if not deny, but very robustly discourage the entry of the members of a sub community perceived as ‘other’; hence, promote sectarian exclusivity. And Imams who give sermons and lead the prayers at the mosques are often blamed for lubricating the divisive tendencies.

Tawkir Rizvi who teaches at a maktab in Alamgari Bazaar, Srinagar puts it rather ironically, “During 90’s when Indian military would crack down on an area; early morning the announcement would be made from the local mosque to come out and gather for parade at a particular spot. Everyone would follow without bothering to know which mosque the call came from.” “However, today when a muiezzin calls, first thought that comes to your mind is from which sect’s mosque is it coming?”

Nadwi, who has been highlighting such concerns through his columns in local newspapers, is deeply troubled by the state of affairs. “Most of our youth go to different states of India for higher studies in religion. Indian Muslims are, unfortunately, in many different ways more downtrodden than Kashmiris, therefore, these boys do not get a healthy learning atmosphere and also the problem is they are fed there with all kinds of sectarian and divisive narratives that they spread using their positions in mosques once they return.” And as per him if you want to break away from the tradition you are rendered irrelevant.

Nadwis’s argument is that Imams are also the reason for the shrinking role of the mosques in society. “Imams do not enjoy respect in society, whatever is, that’s superficial not real. They are often offered a rate and if they ‘breach their trust’ there is always another available at ‘cheaper’ rates.”

Dr Alkindi draws the similar analogy, “Imams are now treated as employees who work on salary basis and depend on mosque management hence lose their liberty to talk freely.” Highlighting the helplessness of clergy he further said, “People look towards others for their most important and common needs and to us they come for the rituals only. Given the state of affairs will they take our advice seriously?”

One more factor that has “devalued” the post of Imam and further contributed in diluting the status and role of mosque is culture of non-local imams. Earlier the local newspapers, a trend that has seen some decline now, used to be replete with advertisements asking for ‘an imam’ and many non-locals would end up in mosques leading the prayers. Now even if there are local Imams available, however, a person from one corner of the valley is found doing “the job” in another corner.

Mosques besides social centers were supposed to be the points of unification in Ummah.
Mosques besides social centers were supposed to be the points of unification in Ummah.

“The problem with such an arrangement is that you often get a person leading prayers who barely knows the area and the issues and also hardly wields any influence. Therefore, even if he wants to break the routine he won’t be taken seriously,” Tawkir Rizvi said.

Last Word

In Europe and America where Islam is fast gaining popularity Mosques do function as community centers. Though Islam reached these continents much after South Asia but the mosques there seem to be much more than mere places of worship.

Jamat-e-Islami is constructing a mosque in Batamaloo, Srinagar: Alhuda. Gazi Mueen claims that it will be a full-fledged community centre; on the other hand while talking to Kasmir Life Dr Alkindi said that Jamiyat is creating a special cell to look into enhancing the efficacy of the role mosques can play in community besides offering praying spaces. If these resolves are materialized Kashmir might see some  of its first ideal mosques.


  1. The day we isolated religion from politics doom of mosques started. Look how we discuss everything except those elements concerning Ummah inside a mosque. We have ourselves hijacked our sacred space. I am sure this writer has come across many instances where a particular sect or ideology has cleansed (purified/re-purified) a mosque just because a Muslim from different sect has prayed there. I understand not everything needs to be written about. But still happy that you showed courage in highlighting the above issue. Hats off


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here