The Inclusive Mosque Initiative (IMI) is a transnational association of activists who have come together with the explicit goal of creating inclusive sacred spaces that value all human beings, including disabled individuals and those with different sexual orientations and gender identities (SOGIs), while worshiping, learning about, and remembering Allah.
IMI’s activities aim to develop the “kind of mosques” that sit comfortably within democratic, secular, multi-faith communities and encourage Muslims to take greater ownership over their local, national, and global families. IMI aims to provide peaceful, enriching, inclusive worship spaces that welcome all people regardless of who they are.
To do this, IMI bridges the gap between inclusivity as a theoretical concept and Islam, as practiced virtually, online, and physically, in mosques. The movement—which was originally founded in London but seeks to establish local chapters throughout the world—supports nontraditional and traditional sacred spaces that speak to the experiences of a diverse population of young Muslims eager for greater engagement with religious knowledge and practice.
IMI seeks to provide a space where questions that persist in the minds of Muslims can be asked and answered in a virtually-connected community space. Questions around the participation and authority of women in Islam, the acknowledgement of all sexual orientations, and the inclusion of disabled Muslims are some areas in which IMI focuses.
Naima Khan, a London-based IMI committee member, is the daughter of recent immigrants; her mother is from Pakistan and her father from India. A strong link to the diaspora community in Britain infuses much of Naima’s understanding of the world, and her identity and professional pursuits. As a writer-cum-activist, Naima’s passion for greater inclusivity in Islam was visible from the time we first met in 2010.
I recently had the pleasure of talking to Naima about IMI, as well as her personal background. Below is an excerpt from our conversation.
Jillian Foster (JF): Take us through your background and what led you to the Inclusive Mosque Initiative (IMI).
Naima Khan (NK): I grew up in a multicultural family where differences in the way that Islamic religious rituals were practiced were common. My family regularly had huge discussions that would turn into debates about specific interpretations of the Quran, cultural traditions, and the practice of Islam. At the end of these discussions, we always managed to get along well with one another. At nineteen, I left home for university and struggled to find a faith community that civilly and intellectually engaged with and welcomed difference as happily as my family did.
Then one day, a friend posted a link to the IMI website on Facebook, which is how I discovered the organization. I reached out, hoping I could find a group of Muslims in the United Kingdom with whom I could openly debate and pray. I met members of the IMI team and they suggested I join the London committee.
JF: What would you say is the main agenda and specific goals of IMI? Do these goals necessitate doctrinal changes, or simply cultural adjustments?
NK: There are a lot of people (see our Facebook and Twitter numbers) for whom these goals require no change at all. They already possess an attitude in line with the kind of atmosphere and establishment we at IMI want to create. Even if they are not actively attending local mosques, they long for an inclusive practice of Islam that speaks to their diverse experiences, personal identities, political leanings, and spiritual needs.
This is the same longing I felt after leaving for university. Finding IMI was a moment of clarity when I realized there are others like me who are passionate about encouraging an Islam grounded in social justice.
For other people, however, achieving IMI’s goals might require a change in attitude in order to fully embrace people who are often habitually excluded or marginalized from our gatherings.
IMI explicitly provides opportunities for both men and women to lead prayer, encourages Muslim communities to welcome diverse SOGIs, and advocates for disability-accessible buildings and programming at mosques and centers of social activity. This level of inclusivity challenges a number of social taboos and requires our communities to reconcile cultural tradition with a multilayered modernity.
At the same time, IMI does not take the position that all existing mosques should change. That would be counter to our belief that no one group or individual has the right to mandate how anyone else should practice Islam. If individuals have found a way to more meaningfully engage with their religion, that is what we want to encourage.
That being said, certain communities have based this engagement on excluding others. IMI is here to provide spaces, whether on or off-line, to those who might feel excluded or marginalized.
Islamic texts are so widely debated and discussed that there will always be some who say the text does not permit spaces like the ones that IMI is trying to create and others who say it does. IMI believes, however, that inclusivity is progress.
As one example of our work, IMI hosted an inclusive Eid prayer with Dr. Elham Manea, an associate professor at the University of Zuirch who specializes in women’s human rights. The event was held at the House of Religions in Bern, Switzerland. Twenty-three people gathered for an inter-faith Eid event, with representatives from the Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, and Atheist communities.
Following two opening prayers, Egyptian musician Nehad El Sayed played Oud music. In all, eleven people joined in the Eid prayer; six men and five women. This inclusive Eid experience was a lovely instance of the type of religious expression IMI encourages.
JF: What strategies is IMI using to achieve its goals?
NK: To bring people together, we hold regular events, which include online Quran discussions that can be accessed from all over the world via Skype. We also hold group discussions, seminars, picnics, and concerts featuring music, spoken word, and comedy.
One recent example of these events was our “Act Like a Man: Is there a crisis of masculinity?,” discussion on October 21, 2013. I led this exploration of masculinity and Islam, asking questions like, “In a world of men’s fashion, cosmetics, pornography, and consumerism, has the notion of what it is to be a man become more exaggerated than ever?” and “What place does tradition have in defining the modern man?” The discussion centered on men’s increasingly ambiguous social role and how this perceived crisis of masculinity may be a turning point.
JF: Have you encountered many obstacles along the way?
NK: The greatest obstacles we have encountered so far have been financial. Creating or renting inclusive spaces for regular use, particularly those that are wheelchair accessible, is expensive. At the moment we are trying to bring like-minded people together to explore ways of creating a sustainable stream of revenue that would allow us to maintain a building and raise funds for our immediate expenses. Thus far, we have paid for our work through donations and our own personal savings.
JF: What would you say is the driving force connecting IMI supporters?
NK: The driving force connecting IMI supporters seems to be a shared understanding that religion, ways of life, and all manner of personal belief that influence how we live, are more than lists of do’s and don’t’s. We all tend to look at Islam for more than injunctive directives. There is also a common understanding among IMI supporters that no one should be shut out of something as spiritual and inclusive as Islam.
IMI is explicit both about its desire to include diverse practices of Islam and its belief that inter-faith dialogue and collaboration is an extremely positive step toward progress.
JF: You mentioned that the largest support network for IMI is within the United Kingdom. Can you tell me if and how the IMI movement is spreading globally?
NK: To varying degrees, we have had support from diverse sets of individuals within the United Kingdom. As you know, the United Kingdom has a multiplicity of diaspora communities (e.g. South Asia, North African, etc.). IMI supporters from these diaspora groups are often looking for a space that will support them in honoring every dimension of their identity; e.g. their Britishness, as much as their Arab-ness, South Asian-ness, etc. IMI encourages the exploration of personal identity as it relates to Islam. The movement feels these personal and spiritual journeys are foundational to an inclusive Islamic faith.
Specifically on the point of support from abroad, IMI’s base is in Europe. We have, however, begun outreach efforts into the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and Asia, but political unrest and economic uncertainty have created a number of barriers.
The Arab Spring presents an opportunity for IMI, as protests that encouraged recent regime changes can also inspire greater social and religious inclusion. Unfortunately, this opportunity for positive change also comes with a considerable number of physical and ideological obstacles. While the world has seen an upsurge in progressive politics, there has been a discouragingly divisive and insular tone during peace building efforts in the region. The reality of continued chaos in the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia affects IMI’s ability to expand within these regions.
That being said, social media has harnessed the ideals of the Arab Spring and proved powerful in grassroots organizing. In a similar way, IMI relies heavily on a virtual community of activists as we grow.
London is one of the few locations with a standing IMI committee. Activists in MENA and Asia are a loose virtual network, which IMI hopes to develop as the movement builds from virtual discussions to bespoke events to consistent religious practices in inclusive mosques.
JF: Beautifully said. What can people do to find out more about IMI, to offer financial support or help expand the movement in their local communities?
NK: First, one of the newest projects we would like to launch is an architectural tour of mosques with a view to encouraging all participants to think inclusively about the spaces that men and women use. We think this is important because most men do not have the opportunity to get a good look around mosque spaces used by women and therefore may not know, see, or understand why it makes a difference not to be in the main mosque space.
To realize this project, IMI would like an artist or an architect–someone with a keen interest in space and structure–to take a diverse group of people on a tour of women’s sections in various mosques, culminating in a hands-on art project about space, worship, consciousness, and spirituality.
Second, IMI often holds regular planning meetings in London in order to discuss upcoming events and future organizing. We are eager to hear from a larger group of individuals—whether based in London or around the world—and hear ideas for events they would like to attend and topics they would like to discuss. As I mentioned before, IMI encourages everyone to identify those ideas, problems, and needs that matter most to them, and share them with our growing community.
Finally, as a young movement, we are always looking for those who can support IMI by simply spreading the word and donating, either with their time or resources. While much of our presence is online, one of our biggest goals is to establish a physical space dedicated to IMI.
Right now, IMI has to rely on other organizations to generously donate space. We know this is not sustainable, however. As we attempt to build a dedicated IMI-space, we are also looking for businesses to partner with and use as venues for social, prayer, and discussion spaces.
I should also mention we are keen to establish advisory committees throughout the world. If anyone is interested in sitting on a local committee, they should contact IMI, either through our e-mail address or website.