Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Professor Lo with an Imam (part 3) (by Taimoor)

Here is Professor Lo with yet another Imam, this one the Imam of Masjid Meidan Tahrir (Tahrir or Independence Square). Meidan Tahrir is the area where both our Arabic school and hotel (Hotel Hilltown) reside and so, naturally, we Duke Engagers often spend a lot of time in this area. That being said, I knew nothing about this Masjid until Professor Lo recommended it for his last Friday prayer in Yemen.
This is the first Masjid that I visited in Yemen that is 100% government. Masjid as-Shuhada is independent of the government having been financed by and run by Egyptians, while Masjid al-Kabeer, though following the Yemeni law that only State appointed Kaatibs can give the Friday sermon instead of the Imam as traditional in Muslim societies, is much older than the state itself, having been built by the second Caliph, Umar around 1400 years ago. Masjid Meidan Tahrir was built by the government and is essentially a municipal utility, like roads or rest areas in the U.S.
From afar, the Masjid appears to be a mass of bleached domes exuding, in the very blunt way of government construction world-wide, the purpose of the building. Professor Lo and I were actually late for this prayer, so we sprinted across Meidan Tahrir as the Kutba (Friday sermon) blared across the Mosque loudspeakers. We entered the Masjid and passed through the masses of droopy eyed congregants as we approached the front of the Masjid, where the Imam and the State appointed Kaatib resided.
The difference between Meidan Tahrir and the other two Masjids that I visited was palpable. While the Imam of Masjid as-Shuhada seemed to electrify the very air around his congregants with his impassioned and impressive oratory skills and the Kaatib of Masjid al-Kabeer managed to at least pique their interest with his interesting, if decidedly neutered speech, the Kaatib of Masjid Meidan Tahrir made his congregants fight for consciousness with what appears to have been a soporific sermon. Of course, I couldn’t actually understand the actually kutba, as it was in Arabic, so this is merely conjecture on my part.
I couldn’t help thinking, while I pretended to listen to the kutba, what the position of such a Masjid was in the civil society of Yemen, or whether there even was a position for it in the civil society. Most Masjids that I have been to in my life are reflexive of the societies in which they live. They are usually paid for by local funds, run by and Imam who lives in, is heavily involved with, and delivers kutbas that have at least some relevance for the local community, and shaped by the different demographics that make up the community itself. A Masjid is like water in a sense: it takes the shape of whatever its container (a.e. its community) takes. Though the nature of the debate in a Masjid may often times involve international issues, the Masjid is essentially a very parochial institution.
To be honest, I found Masjid Meidan Tahrir a little disconcerting. Built and controlled by the Yemeni government, the Masjid felt like the incursion of a foreign power (the State) into the affairs of a local area. Admittedly, part of my discomfort can be because of my natural anti-authoritarian mindset, my distrust of the Yemeni government in general, or even because the experience of visiting Masjid Meidan Tahrir was eerily reminiscent of going to the DMV back home. However, I remember the Masjids I have seen in my life and I wonder if the administrators of this Masjid really have the needs of its community, the community of Meidan Tahrir, at its heart. The State Kaatib travels through communities and gives the speeches that the State pays him to give and then leaves, never permanently attaching himself to a community. The Imam leads the prayers, but has no real administrative or influential role in the community, reducing this traditionally crucial position to essentially that of a minor bureaucrat. What then, if any, purpose will an Imam and the institution of the Masjid have in Sana’a’s civil society, and that of any other area of the Muslim world where such a policy is enacted?

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