How Jamila – And Her Children – Got Cut Off From Their Heritage

Jamila is the granddaughter of an American Muslim pioneer. Her father came to the US from the Levant, part of an earlier wave of immigration decades before Americans became paranoid about Syrian immigrants.

As Jamila’s father started a family, he realized the community needed a mosque. Her father and a few other men got together to start the first mosque in town. It was initially just a small prayer space used mainly during Ramadan and important holidays for services, Ramadan potluck iftars, and a “Sunday school” for teaching kids the basics of their faith.

By the time the founding generation reached their 40s, they became wealthier and more established. The founders collected the funds to build an actual mosque. What they had in mind wasn’t only a prayer space, but a family-friendly welcoming space: an encounter point where the families, and more importantly, the children could learn about their roots and heritage. The mosque would be a way to transmit the culture and traditions to the next generation born and raised in America.

Jamila fondly remembers that mosque. She grew up inside the community and loved attending Eid celebrations and iftars. As she recalls it, the mosque was a warm and welcoming place – somewhere she looked forward to visiting.

Not anymore.

Jamila today is in her 50s. She took more from her mother’s Irish features than her father’s Levantine looks. She married an Irish Catholic man and had three children with him. Although she considers herself Muslim, Jamila and her husband raised their children in both traditions. They got married in church, and their children were baptized. Her plan was to introduce her children to her father’s culture and heritage the way she herself was introduced to it: through Sunday school, Eid parties, and Eid Al Mawulud singing circles and lamp lightings.

At first, Jamila was able to bring her kids to community celebrations. But suddenly, sometimes in the 1990s, she noticed the ambiance at her father’s mosque was changing. It began with subtle changes as a new Imam was brought in by the new board members. He was warmly welcomed by the community, as he was well-educated, had an impressive command of Qur’an, tajwid, and Arabic (expertise Jamila and many other members appreciated).

The new Imam began canceling the traditional holiday parties that attracted not only Muslims, but also non-Muslim relatives and friends of congregants. Gone were the chanting and candle lighting for Eid Al Maulid. Holding trick or treat rounds involving boys and girl were ended — “too much much mingling, and too much like Halloween” claimed the new Imam.

Then, the new Imam began imposing gender segregation, making a big deal about the mosque’s need for new construction work to build a barrier and an extension for a women’s prayer space. Then the Sunday school classes had a new requirement: pre-pubescent girls had to wear headscarves. Any girls who weren’t dressed appropriately would be sent back home after getting a lecture on how nudity would land them in hellfire in the afterlife.

These changes took place gradually. The original founders, who were now in their 70s didn’t understand what was happening. They were happy the new Imam was introducing more “authentic” Islamic teachings. But things began souring by the time little girls were being denied instruction to learn the basic surats every Muslim needs to know to perform prayers just because they were uncovered.

One by one, the original founders were removed from the board by the new Imam and his supporters on the board, newer immigrants from the Middle East and South Asia who had a more hardline approach. The newcomers supported the Imam, claiming the mosque needed more rigorous Islamic teachings to preserve Islamic faith in a unbelieving society and protect the children’s souls.

By the time Jamila had her youngest child, the children themselves no longer wanted to go to mosque as they felt it was too strict and suffocating. They insisted the family stop visiting the mosque.

She is unhappy that the mosque her grandfather founded this loss: “We used to go to mosque to have fun. Instead it turned to this unwelcoming space that looked very little like the mosque I grew up in. I grew up thinking about mosque as my Ammu’s welcoming place, where I could taste great food, learn new things, and hear about the old country’s stories while picking up Arabic and Qur’an. I feel very sad that my children will be deprived from that.”

Jamila’s children are now cut off from their roots and grandfather’s heritage.. “I failed my children, and I failed my father’s memory,” she laments.

Despite her grief, you can’t help but wonder: Was it Jamila’s failure – or someone else’s?