Joe Milburn is a 24-year-old law student from St. Louis who moved to Chicago in 2016 to study at DePaul University College of Law. He hopes to eventually use his legal education to work in civil rights. In his free time, Joe likes to make memes, kayak, and go to comedy shows.
Q: Asalaamu alaikum, Joe, Ramadan Kareem! Two years ago you began a personal project you called “Mosque Hopping” in Saint Louis to experience what the diverse mosques in your area were like. Now that you’re in Chicago, how is this year different in terms of your approach and experiences?
A: Wa alaikum asalaam and Ramadan mubarak. Well… while I do consider myself as having assimilated into Chicago well, there are a few things I will never assimilate to. I will never support the Cubs nor will I ever prefer deep dish over St. Louis thin crust. [laughs] In regards to my approach, Chicago’s Muslim community is much more diverse than Saint Louis. There is probably a masjid or community center for almost every Muslim demographic out there. The Chicago Muslim community unlike Saint Louis, has “third spaces,” an active African American Muslim community, and a lot more Muslim social service organizations. A “third space” is a concept of an Islamic community that meets in neither a mosque nor in a house but rather in a community center. These types of organizations exist mainly to serve Muslims who do not feel comfortable in their local mosques and feel that they have not properly learned Islam in their own homes. These types of organizations (such as Ta’leef) exist mainly to serve converts and those who are newly practicing, despite having a Muslim upbringing.
Q: How did you find out about these organizations and centers, and what was the order in which you chose to visit them?
A: There are websites that provide directories of mosques such as salatomatic. From this, I looked at various mosques within the Chicago area, I contacted them to determine when their iftars are, and I made plans accordingly. As for order in which mosque I visited, it was mainly spur of the moment to be honest. I must however admit, that at times, I visited a mosque on the basis of the type of food I wished to experience.
Q: So tell us about these experiences! What were the people like, the events, the talks, the atmosphere – and how does one “experience” food and the culture from which it comes?
A: One place in particular that I went to was a place called IMAN (Inner-City Muslim Action Network). This organization was founded in 1996 by Rami Nashashibi and it is one of the leading Muslim charities in the United States. This organization promotes a variety of social services including: a Farmer’s market, community garden, a health clinic, and a food pantry (among other services). It holds regular iftars and prior to each iftar is a talk by a local scholar or community activist. From this aspect, each time I went to IMAN, I felt an inspiration towards social justice.
A second place that stood out to me in particular from a cultural lens was a place called SABAH (Society of American Bosnians and Herzegovinians). This is a well known Bosnian community which is led by Imam Senad Agić who is widely respected among Bosnian Muslims throughout the diaspora. When I went to SABAH, everyone around me was speaking Bosnian, the imam gave a brief sermon in Bosnian after taraweeh prayers, and I found the environment there to be very laid back overall. One thing I noticed in particular is that SABAH is very egalitarian in regards to women. Women and men prayed in the same room and men and women ate iftar together. Some mosques believe in strict segregation while I personally believe in a healthy balance between strict segregation and frivolous free mixing. I believe that while men and women should be cognizant of how they interact with each other, men and women should also benefit from each other spiritually, professionally, and socially as the Prophet (saws) interacted with women in the marketplace while also observing certain boundaries as well. Unfortunately many Muslim communities believe in shunning women instead of elevating them and promoting them for their talents.
A third place that came to mind was an organization called Ta’leef. Ta’leef is an example of a third space. It was founded in San Francisco by Sheikh Usama Canon (may Allah grant him recovery as he has been inflicted with ALS) as an organization to serve both converts to Islam as well as those who might come from Muslim backgrounds but are newly practicing. Ta’leef’s motto is “Come as you are to Islam as it is.” Everyone is at different levels in their relationship with Allah (swt) but Islam is constant. Ta’leef exemplifies this doctrine by neither comprising on Islam’s stances while also refraining from condemnation towards others. It is a healthy balance which allows one to learn “as you are” about Islam “as it is” in an environment free of toxic negativity that unfortunately plagues many mosques. Ta’leef has had regular iftars for converts and it was nice to break fast with those who have a similar relationship to Islam as I do. Ta’leef has a branch in both San Francisco as well as in Chicago. Despite being an organization centered on converts, events at Ta’leef tend to have attendees from a multitude of backgrounds.
Despite being a white Muslim, if there is one demographic of Muslims I have felt most comfortable with, it would be the African American Muslims. I attribute this to the cultural similarities – similarities in food, as well as the fact that African American Muslims tend to be the most inclusive (especially to converts) considering the fact that many African American Muslims are either converts themselves or are the descendants of converts and as a result I admit that I have found common ground with the vast majority of African American Muslims that I have met. I also personally believe that African Americans have the best iftars!
Chicago has a large African American Muslim community. The Nation of Islam’s headquarters (Mosque Maryam) is located in Chicago as well. I have even been there for jummah on a few occasions. One mosque that I visited for iftar that stood out for me was Masjid al Taqwa, which is headed by Imam Tariq El Amin. Masjid al Taqwa is associated with the community of Imam Warith Deen Mohammad, the son of Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam who was the predecessor to Louis Farrakhan. Masjid al Taqwa is a small community but is also active in their social services. They regularly provide meals for the needy in the community and this mosque is active in interfaith engagement. When I went to this mosque for iftar, I could tell that everyone in this community knew each other very well and treated each other as if they were relatives. I also noticed that the women (just like at SABAH) were treated with respect. Men and women prayed in the same prayer space and I definitely saw that the men and women interacted with each other in a way that was mindful of Islamic boundaries but also in a way that didn’t involve disrespect towards women. This is the type of mentality I wish other mosques had.
A fifth iftar of mine that stood out was the annual iftar at CAIR-Chicago, the most active chapter of the Council on American Islamic relations whose executive director is Ahmed Rehab. As someone who is a law clerk there, it was pleasant to see different faces of the Chicago Muslim community come together. It was also pleasant to see the many non-Muslims who were in attendance as well. I respect CAIR’s work in fighting Islamophobia by also building meaningful relationships with non-Muslim communities.
Lastly but definitely not least, there was one iftar I attended this Ramadan that was most meaningful to me. This Ramadan I raised over $5000 for the Rohinga Culture Center by soliciting donations on Facebook. I visited the Rohingya Culture Center which functions as not only a mosque but as a resource center to allow Rohingya refugees to learn English, take citizenship classes, as well as receive job training. I visited this center with my two friends, Sanela Ovnovic and Vahidin Kuric, a married couple that is active in fundraising for charitable projects both in Bosnia and in Chicago. From their perspectives as being refugees who fled genocide on the basis of their Islamic faith, they felt a sense of solidarity with the Rohingya refugees. I also felt very welcomed by the Rohingya center and I encourage those in Chicago and abroad to take action for the Rohingya.
Q: It sounds like your regard for these centers is high. Has mosque hopping changed your initial impression on what mosques are like in the U.S., and has your idea of Muslim communities changed as well?
A: It has changed my initial impression on what mosques are like in the sense that each community (or in particular each demographic) tends to have their own unique way in how they operate their mosques. It is safe to say that just as no two snowflakes are alike, no two Muslims are either.
Q: May you give us examples of these differences? How does culture influence the way a mosque is run?
A: For example, in many Bosnian communities (due to their heritage from living under the Ottoman Empire) it is common to engage in group dhikr after prayers. This is a particular element that isn’t common among many other mosques that are populated by various other demographics. In regards to interactions at “Bosnian mosques” (and I use the quotation marks because mosques belong to everyone) a man and a woman could speak with each other without others accusing them of wrongdoing. I have also noticed that this is a common allowance at the majority of “African American” mosques that I have been to. Conversely however, I have noticed that at the mosques that are populated by various other demographics, one would likely be scolded for even saying “salam alaykum” to someone of the opposite gender. I find it hypocritical for Muslim men to be super shy around Muslim women but to act with normal courtesies (or more) with non Muslim women at work or at school. I believe it is possible for Muslim men to interact with the opposite gender in a way that is mindful of the Islamic guidelines regarding interactions with the opposite gender while also treating Muslim women with the dignity and respect that they deserve.
Q: What is the greatest takeaway from this initiative? Will you be mosque hopping again in the years to come?
A: Many Muslims have a habit of only attending mosques that cater to their demographics. While I can understand why some Muslims would have this preference (in particular immigrants) I struggle to comprehend why a Muslim who grew up in America wouldn’t try to build bridges with fellow Muslims across ethnic barriers. A Muslim who has grown up in America in many ways would have more in common with a fellow American born Muslim of a different background than with a Muslim who lives in the country of their ethnic origin.
I find being a convert to be a double edged sword. On one hand, it is quite bothersome that aside from certain exceptions (such as Ta’leef) I don’t fully fit in any Islamic community due to the fact that the vast majority of mosques are catered to a certain demographic. On the other hand, a benefit I do have is that I have been able to appreciate Islam (and Muslims) without any cultural influences that at times makes it difficult to distinguish between authentic Islamic teachings and cultural norms. Being a convert has also allowed me, as a result of not feeling “part” of any community, to appreciate the cultural diversity of Muslims.
My biggest advice to any Muslim community is to work on being more inclusive to outsiders, especially converts. Many converts (especially new converts) often feel out of place due to being in an environment where people are speaking a different language. I do recognize the right of everyone to take pride in their heritage and language and I also recognize that mosques should give their khutbahs in the language of the community. However, mosques should also have an equal amount of programs in English to allow not only converts but those from other backgrounds to feel like they’re a part of the community. The best thing a Muslim can do for a convert is to help them feel like a part of the family.
The greatest takeaway from this initiative is that I got to experience and report on various communities while also having the opportunity to sample different kinds of food! I definitely plan to continue to do this every Ramadan and I encourage other Muslims to do the same.