By Manya A. Brachear
Tribune staff reporter
Published April 24, 2006
A red polyester curtain that once separated men from women during prayers at the Muslim Community Center on Chicago's Northwest Side never divided the 1,400-member congregation until it disappeared.
A janitor took the curtain down in October 2004 during renovations of the prayer hall. The 6-foot-tall curtain was misplaced and never returned. Some Muslim women lauded the removal as a chance to participate more equally. Other women left the mosque, unable to fathom praying in the presence of men.
But after an 18-month debate that may not be quite done, a curtain of the original size replaced a smaller partition on Sunday, becoming a symbol of the struggle in the American Muslim community between tradition and modernity. Some say the sudden move signals an ideological shift on the horizon for the historically multicultural and progressive mosque.
The ceremonial curtain-raising followed an emotional two-hour meeting at which board members instructed the president to work over the next month with the women of the mosque to permanently resolve the conflict.
"There is a verse in the [Koran], Chapter 33, in which it is said to the Muslims when they ask anything of the prophet's wife they should ask behind the curtain," said Dr. Abdul Sattar, the mosque's newly elected president, who supports barriers to separate men and women. "This is not only something that we are making up. It is in the holy book."
But even Islamic legal experts--including three scholars commissioned by the Muslim Community Center's board of directors--disagree on whether the missing curtain violated the Shariah, the Islamic legal principles that guide Muslim life. They say such debates are quite common in largely immigrant communities where cultural backgrounds vary and Shariah scholars are in short supply.
"One of the principles of Shariah law is you have to be conscious of the context," said Inamul Haq, adjunct professor of Islam at Benedictine University in Lisle. "Orthodox clergy in America come from back home. It is hard for them to respond to the change in the American situation because they have not lived that situation. Since Islam insists on modesty ... this is the way Islamic law is interpreted."
When the case of the missing curtain began, Uzma Sattar, the president's daughter, said women immediately hung saris and other pieces of fabric to block men's stares.
The curtain was replaced last year by a 3-foot-tall fabric partition. Earlier this month, three scholars submitted written opinions on what kind of barrier, if any, was required by the Shariah. One scholar was Imam Jamal Said of the Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview.
"My personal advice to the leadership of the MCC is to let the sisters decide for themselves what would make them more comfortable in their worship," Said wrote. "If they prefer a divider or curtain for their privacy or comfort, then give them this freedom."
On Sunday, a band of believers sealed off the back corner of their prayer hall with a 6-foot-tall sheet of pink fabric in time for the fourth prayer of the day.
Khaled Abou El Fadl, a leading Islamic jurist and professor of law at UCLA, said these kinds of squabbles, which seem trivial on the surface, emerge in communities where leaders feel threatened by modernity.
"In the case of Muslim men--especially Muslim men--that feel Islam is under siege and the West has invaded Muslim culture in every other way, the way they express this anxiety is by being restrictive toward women, making sure women are not going to become more Americanized," he said.
That perceived threat escalated after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Abou El Fadl said, when many Muslim women began to assert their autonomy and question the origin of common practices that limited their participation in the community.
"We are seeing more Muslim women reading the Koran, reading the tradition of the Prophet, reading the original teachings of Islam and coming back and challenging the role defined for them," Abou El Fadl said. "A lot of these women were born Muslim, but grew up in the United States and grew up in the West so they have a `my rights'-oriented mentality."
Mary Ali, one of five women on the center's board of directors, opposed putting up the curtain. She said the mosque has always been a progressive place to worship and only since the recent mosque election has its membership exhibited conservative leanings.
Over the years, the 40-year-old mosque has served as the house of worship for Indians, Pakistanis, Arabs, people from South Asia and Africans.
But Uzma Sattar said the debate has nothing to do with progressive vs. conservative. It has to do with a woman's right to worship the way she wants.
In the time of the Prophet Muhammad, women did not wear cosmetics or perfume to the mosque, and they covered themselves from head to toe, said Abdul Sattar, who is from Pakistan. Today, they wear makeup, blue jeans and loosely wrapped headscarves, so a curtain is necessary, he said.
Whether the Koran calls for a curtain is still debated, but it does address modesty in front of the opposite sex, scholars say. Because Muslim prayer is a physical exercise that requires bowing, kneeling and prostrating, some prefer seclusion.
"It's about having your personal, private space where you can connect with God," Uzma Sattar said. "In my mind, it's completely in line with feminism to say women deserve their own space. The men took the curtain down. The women are standing up and claiming space for themselves."
"We want the curtain. We want our privacy," said Noor Aliuddin, 49, who removes her hijab, or head covering, when she prays. "We have to open our face to God."
But at a time when American Muslims face discrimination, poverty and injustice, Shama Aleemuddin said she cannot comprehend why her congregation is consumed by a curtain. She is on the mosque's board.
She said the center, which occupies a converted theater, must focus on building a new mosque, facing down anti-Muslim bias and hiring a new imam. The curtain debate has drained time and energy from those issues that matter.
"It seems that everyone is obsessed with the curtain issue," she said. "It's a shame."
Abou El Fadl said leaders should focus on what will move Islam forward in the 21st Century, not decisions they really have no right to make.
"If it's God's law," Abou El Fadl said, "then it shouldn't be up to people to decide."