“Do we need a minaret?”: Challenging urban contexts and changing Islamic theologies

Sultan Tepe, University of Illinois at Chicago

This introduction is part of POMEPS Studies 32, The Politics of Islam in Europe and North America. Download the full PDF here.

Religion’s dual potential to transcend or reinforce some well entrenched social, racial and spatial boundaries has been recognized in many studies. Yet, studies of Islam in many cities focus on Islam and Muslims’ impact on their respective cities or communities and questions how Islam reinforces preexisting shared identities and whether and how these identities can be better integrated. Such studies disregard the plurality of Muslims’ experiences and leave unanswered the question of whether and how the city impacts the experiences of Muslims. But the distinct ways in which urban governance is exercised is not extraneous to Muslims’ experiences. Instead, as noted by Avi Astor and Osman Balkan in this volume, urban governance plays a major role not only in defining the location and appearance of Muslim spaces but also in facilitating internal theological changes.

In order to illustrate how the treatment of religious assemblies makes inroads into Muslim experiences and theologies, this essay focuses on so-called mosque disputes, placing them in their urban administrative structure and tracing the theological questions they pose. An overall review of mosque disputes, public hearings, and subsequent discussions indicates that the cases discussed here are not aberrations but instead help us to understand a general trend. The findings show that any treatment of Muslim communities in a vacuum requires careful questioning and implicitly and explicitly advances the idea that the beliefs and practices of Islam are self-enforcing—they shape yet are not shaped by their environments. Such decontextualized studies risk generating self-confirming analytical narratives and missing critical aspects of these controversies.

Building a place of religious gathering may seem to be routine process, but such attempts have always been challenging for unorthodox and minority religious groups in the United States.   A federal law was adopted in 2000 (The Religious Land use and Institutionalized Persons Act) to prevent religious groups from excessive burden on the religious groups.[1] Religious communities, particularly Muslims, that strive to have their own places of worship have the option of buying a vacated temple or church, purchasing a building to be reused through a “special use” permit, or buying their own lots for new constructions. Zoning boards decide whether and how certain building types (commercial, residential or religious, etc.) can be built in designated areas. Each option poses different challenges. For instance, vacant temples are often located in areas with declining populations and gaining a special use permit can be challenging due to the limitations of existing structures and parking. Lots available for purchase are often located in unincorporated areas (which constitute unique administrative spheres in the U.S.) that maintain a level of autonomy and are governed directly by their respective counties.

This essay reviews several mosque projects in Chicago by focusing on one mosque project called MECCA, in the Chicago suburb of DuPage County, Illinois in an unincorporated area next to the village of Willowbrook.  This case offers an excellent example of the overall process and its impact on diverse Muslim communities. It mirrors a pattern that has been seen in countries such as Spain of pushing new religious temples built by immigrants outside of residential areas and sheds light on the intra-community debates (see Avi Astor, 2017).

The MECCA Project

MECCA’s request to build a mosque was declined by the DuPage County when a board member noted the area was “saturated by religious institutions.”  [2]Also noted was that unincorporated areas are meant to maintain a rural structure in urban environments and that such construction projects were threatening the expectations of residents. [3]

These objections did not stand up to initial scrutiny. Despite the references to “oversaturation,” Willowbrook’s population has been on the decline since 2010, yet the area has maintained a median income of $70,000 and an average home value of $227,000, placing itself well above the state average. The village’s foreign-born population (25%) put it well above the Illinois State average (%13).[4]  The temples close to MECCA included a Macedonian Orthodox Church, a rare Anjumen e Saifee center, a Dawoodi Bohra center (a largely unknown small unorthodox Islamic group with members from South Asia and Ethiopia), and a Buddhist Wat Buddhadamma center.[5]

Objections to MECCA echoed those against other mosque proposals—the uncertainties regarding the precise number of people who will use the facilities; expected traffic congestion, especially during Friday prayers and religious holidays; depreciation of home values in the immediate vicinity; the increasing likelihood of flooding in the area; and compromises to the well and septic systems. [6]An application for another center, the Islamic Center of the Western Suburbs (ICWS), that sought to use an existing house near West Chicago as a prayer center and chose not to build a new place faced exactly the same list of objections. [7]Although the concerns about Islamic identities played a role, the public statements against the reuse argued that the real issue was “the right to protect private property” and potential property tax increases to support infrastructure problems caused by non-profits which take over private homes for broader use. [8]

What makes the MECCA case unusual is the visual aspect of the project. MECCA’s architectural structure included a 69-foot-tall dome and 79-foot-tall minaret. The plan exceeded the county’s height restriction of 36 feet, a restriction that was often waived for religious places.[9] What is important however is not only the community’s reactions to a minaret as visually unacceptable but also diverse reactions to the proposal from the community.

The mosque applicants considered a dome and minaret to be the sine qua non of an Islamic prayer place, and argued that the permit needed to accommodate it. Building a mosque without a minaret would be akin to building a church without a steeple. For the proponents of the mosque it was not the height constraint but the increasing visibility of Islamic ideas and presence that created the reactions. The minaret became the symbolic locus and triggered debate on Islamic symbols especially among suburbanites who argued that such places needed to maintain rural life with a familiar religious landscape.

For the proponents of the minaret, the real issue was not treating MECCA as a regular temple and approaching it as a disruptive appearance in a rural landscape. Two of the three existing religious structures in the area exceed the county’s height restriction of 36 feet proving that exceptions were granted to others. More important, due to the increased buffer zone between the building and surrounding buildings, the minarets would be noticeable only to visitors. Thus the issue of visibility was more the issue of having a disruptive presence.

The reception may also have been shaped by a recent increase in the number of permits requested by Muslim communities (DuPage Country received five applications from Muslim communities between 2009 and 2014) marking an unprecedented number in its history. While zoning and permit decisions often involve prolonged processes with polarizing debates and negative decisions, they still offer a useful venue to voice concerns. DuPage County revived one of its earlier amendments to restrict the construction of new places of assembly in unincorporated areas and to move all new places of assembly to industrial or commercial zones, a trend that has been marking many U.S. cities. [10] Defenders of the proposal to move places of worship outside of residential zones present it as a market-driven solution to the perturbing financial influences of new places of assembly. But while market-driven language may justify zoning changes, a systematic review of existing research does not indicate what financial prospects and projections prevail. Proponents of the zoning practice present it as a strictly property-based decision as the highest level of increase (above 500%) of newcomers in many cities is constituted by Catholics (due to migration from South America) and not Muslims. Neglected in such discussions is that such groups can receive services from existing churches while an Islamic landscape and places of worship are completely missing in many areas.

The DarruSalam Mosque as a comparison

The MECCA experience can be useful compared to another recent mosque project in the area.  DarrusSalam followed the county’s idealized pathway of having a temple beyond the eyes and ears of communities in commercial areas. The project was successfully completed in 2013 and the new mosque was located on an interstate highway and in a commercial and industrial strip surrounded by a fast food chain, gas stations, a warehouse, a set of factories, and hotels.[11]  While this mosque exemplified “the move-assemblies-to commercial/industrial zone model”, the mosque proved itself to be distinct in its reaction to urban marginalization, exemplifying the cost of uprooting mosques from communities and the risk of depleting spiritual civic capital, a capital that is often defined as a set of ideas and actions stemming from religion and available for use in inclusive economic and political practices” (Berger & Redding 2010).[12]

Unlike other mosques, DarrusSalam commits itself to hosting only American-born and raised Imams by stating that, “now the time has come to raise up a new wave of learned Muslims who have been born, bred, and educated at home to address Islamic legal and social issues and challenges unique to the American context.”[13]  Paradoxically, while DarrusSalam is physically separated from many communities, its teachings address the unique needs of groups in the U.S. and tackle very controversial questions, such as if Islam can be lived best under an Islamic state, or if a   Muslim group can pay attention only to their own ethnic issues (e.g., the Palestinian cause) if such interests lead them to neglect others (e.g., Rohingya Muslim).  Addressing the questions of radicalization or a specific ethnic outlook is especially important considering that such issues are left unaddressed in many mosques due to their effort to create completely a-political neutral places, thereby limiting their spiritual capital and depriving the mosques’ contribution to civil society as noted by Aubrey Westfall in this volume.[14]

Representing Islam – Reactions to or appropriating essentialization?

MECCA’s experience captures a broader historical patterns of how zoning and special use permits are appropriated to control and manage urban spaces and minorities within those spaces. The Nation of Islam reported the impact of zoning on their projects as early as 1968.[15] Yet what is neglected in many accounts of so-called mosque disputes is the impact of such discussions on the communities themselves. More often than not, zoning related issues pose many theological questions to the community.  As the county discussed height limits, the same question arose in discussions in the community. Given the variety of mosque designs, what was traditional in Islamic architecture? Was a minaret an indispensable part of a mosque or was it a necessity when the first mosque was built? What was the meaning of a minaret, without having a public call for prayer? Since minarets were originally meant to create an elevated structure to make the call for prayer accessible and audible to many, could such a structure be easily eliminated when many had cell-phones that reminded them of prayer time?

Discussions in the community regarding architectural adjustments were intense yet very muted—many debates took place quietly as members tried to balance the demands to create a place that the community would find acceptable and would meet the demands of the county. One of the first Syrians to move to the US explained the discussion as a “reverse essentialization” of Islam–what was considered as a “traditional” symbolic representation of Muslims was actually appropriated by Muslims based on their perception by others, without engaging critically with authentic Islamic ideas. A minaret served a function (expand the sound as a reminder of the time of prayer) and was not a main pillar of Islam; it was no longer needed due to the prevalence of watches and cellphones. Only uncritical decisions to assert Muslim identity, not missing minarets, would hollow Islamic practices. A careful engagement with so-called Islamic tradition would be much needed as Islam was practiced in new places. Some felt that given that minarets are always associated with Islam and religious places of assembly, not having one would be complying with the expectation of the majority that wanted to promote a watered-down Islam without a commonly accepted theology and symbols.  Regardless of the debates, the center was eventually built without a minaret and its carefully developed website included the designs for the original project without any explanations for the omission of the minaret.[16] Meanwhile, the first newsletters and sermons focused on the deeper implications of Islamophobia, which might not mean much to those who did not know the history of the place.

From External to Internal Transformation of Mosques: balancing the power of boards, bylaws and Imams?

Building a mosque might appear challenging, said a mosque president who engaged in a several-year long battle to get the required construction permits in another suburb, but the real challenge is to find an Imam who would not only lead but also understand the community. Imams conventionally maintain a level of autonomy in controlling a mosque’s services and teaching. Perhaps the most important questions facing many mosques include recruiting and defining the responsibilities of Imams, as noted by Nancy Khalil in this volume’s analysis.[17] While many mosque communities try to maintain traditional Islamic practices, they also seek to reach out to the younger generation who are not familiar with the traditions their parents have experienced firsthand. Many mosques with two different constituencies—Arabic, Urdu or Farsi etc. -speaking elderly immigrant generations and English-speaking younger generations—try to bridge the difference. Among American born Black Muslims the generational gap issue remains with different manifestations.

Linguistic and generational gap questions are intertwined with theological questions.  While some communities uphold conventional methods and do not make fluency in English a requirement for an Imam, many communities strive to find bilingual Imams who can bridge the generations. In the case of MECCA, the mosque found a solution by creating a two-tier system that has been adopted by many mosques.[18] While the Imam at MECCA came from the prestigious Al-Azhar University in Egypt, the youth leadership was entrusted to a local sheikh. However, indicating emerging hierarchies in the newly formed mosque communities, both Imam and youth leader were required to submit regular reports to the board.[19] As many mosque decisions are scrutinized and contested by members, one of MECCA’s first newsletters urged members to vote in both national (presidential) and board member elections.  Such practices are new as many mosques were conventionally run by ad hoc decisions and Imams. The changing context required the adoption of bylaws and changed the internal hierarchy of the mosque in favor of boards, said a community member.[20] For many mosque attendants, the shift from an Imam-led mosque to a board-led mosque with bylaws changed the entire structure of the mosques, including the content of sermons. When Imams’ independence is curtailed, boards and committees emerge as platforms to discuss and resolve different ideas and interests, forging new practices.

In Zoning We Unite: urban entropy, rules and institutionally induced identities?

While many studies reduce mosque disputes to a contestation between well-knit communities (Muslim groups and anti-Muslim groups), such processes often include multiple stakeholders. Instead of pitting well-defined groups against each other, such disputes often help to consolidate ties across and within Muslim communities. “We had a rather vague sense of unity before we tried to have a learning center,” said a member of an Islamic center. [21]The center experienced a multi-year, highly contested process of attaining a special use permit. Paradoxically “it is the zoning decisions and public hearings that turned us into to a community–we coordinated our participation in hearings, raised funds, took time off from work to go to the court, baby-sat for children etc.”[22] More importantly, statements such as  “we did not know the process, we received help from an Islamic center that we had no ties with before ” are echoed  by many mosque members noting the lack of understanding of the local regulations and the emerging collaboration across various groups that would have theological differences otherwise.[23] Such statements are not outliers. Instead, interviews with different Muslim communities show that it is not the communities that build mosques, but rather the decision to build a mosque that brings together and consolidates Muslims’ identities, thereby creating the community. The reactions of neighbors and committees (e.g., development, zoning and county boards) differ significantly. When public hearings are scheduled, a small, well-organized community can change the tone of the debates, while how the zoning and development committees are formed and the individual experiences of members might create completely different results.  While some communities that experience contested zoning issues limit their discussions to in-group conversations, others make it one of the main pillars of their call for unity and fundraising efforts. Additionally, these disputes are internalized and even in some cases instrumentalized, reinforcing a distinct identity, emphasizing the existential crisis in a hostile context where Islam is demonized.

Zoning restrictions serve as a US-specific demobilization strategy and treat all Muslim identities as similar, but inside the mosque communities one can witness changing power dynamics as well as increasing room for creative expressions that view the moment as one of change and construction of a new identity.[24] What makes such expressions important is that they are framed as a result of the externalization of Muslim identity in many countries and also from the perspective of Muslims’ position among other minorities. The accommodation of such questions shows that, once established, mosques become the realms of newly emerging exegetical practices with substantial implications:

The entire world is waiting to see,
Just what this Ummah might be,
But can we tell them who we could be,
When we ourselves cannot see…
Who we are.[25]

Are we foolishly left holding shattered dreams
And battered lands with which to go galumphing back?
Are we rabid wolves part of the pack?
Is the only word we know -attack?![26]

While collective identities are used to express zoning and special use claims, the expressions exemplified in the above poem capture the ongoing individuation of Islam that addresses a range of question from code-switching to being Muslim while struggling with some Islamic injunctions. Such faith-rooted critical questions as well as challenges to stereotypical approaches to Islam appeal to the younger members of the community who deal with rejection by mainstream Muslim and non-Muslim groups as well as the older generation and want to connect with other groups who are critical of the historical and past marginalization. [27] “We are a minority within a minority,” said an Ismaili. “For instance, some Muslims do not think I am a Muslim, but a client did not want to work with me after he found out I am a Muslim, yet I strive to get myself recognized as Muslim at my school by the Muslim groups. I am marginalized in every community.”[28]

Changing Theologies in and Beyond Mosques.

Although mosque debates are often forgotten after their permits are granted or denied, many mosque communities seek to create a viable financial structure and loyal congregations once they are built. As a result, how they approach current questions surrounding them and how they conduct Friday sermons help to modify and construct new Islamic theologies.  It is not surprising that MECCA’s first issue, for instance, focused on Islamophobia, but this group does so by focusing on the very early years of Islam by isolating such issues from their current context. The discussions indicate how early Muslims were described as liars and madmen, and how they reacted to such accusations with patience and prayers. Such discussions also describe Muhammad’s activities in Mecca and Medina as “activism” to emphasize the importance of debate and discussion. [29]While such calls are rooted in the familiar Islamic historical accounts, they take new terms such as Islamophobia and activism and ground them in early Islamic practice, turning engaging with Islamophobia into a religious practice. One address given by MECCA’s Imam concludes, “Coexistence instead of dependency and fusion should be the way of Muslims anywhere. We should avoid blind imitation of others, Muslims or non-Muslims.” [30] Inside the mosques there is a range of different questions that were not previously tackled by communities, especially in Muslim majority countries. A lecture on diversity, for instance, does not focus on the plurality of identities in the US but the plurality of identities within the Islamic community and the implications of privileging one ethnic-Islamic group or cause (Syrian refugees, etc.) over others. [31] Likewise, the question of how the community can respond to excessive individualization generates different answers. Fitrat, human nature, requires individuals to protect themselves not only from Hollywood but also from Bollywood, says an Imam; dawah, spreading Islam, is most useful because it reflects what the Qur’an has said about human nature and its inclination to discern bad, do good and how Islam’s approach to human nature differs from others, raising a set of ontological questions in relation to other theological traditions that is not posed in many Muslim majority countries.[32]

The Transformation of Urban Space and Muslim’s Identities

The building of a mosque in the west challenges Muslim communities “who never raised funds to have a mosque,” said a mosque executive board member of a Chicagoland Mosque.[33] The lack of an established tradition to finance a mosque requires residents to adjust to a new tradition (a new practice of building a community’s own mosque), to raise the necessary amounts while finding a place to build a mosque. As new places are built, there are objections, often reduced to the precarious ideas of Islam and its followers; it is an unsettling process. Some members leave right away and go to established communities. Contested urban spaces, the increasing tendency of local governments to use zoning to manage their tax revenues and growth, and increased property values compel many new Muslim communities to look for buildings or lots, especially in unincorporated areas or suburbs where urban governance is less present and can be more accommodating, yet such regions often have a populace that reacts to mosque communities more vocally. The reluctance of local governments to accommodate new identities, especially when they are seen as symbolically and economically destabilizing, and the increasing tendency to move mosques to industrial zones risk creating spatial isolation and limiting their spiritual capital.  Many mosque communities embark on their mosque construction process without much information about zoning and other requirements as well as with limited financial capacities and fundraising abilities; thus they are transformed throughout the process more drastically—not only in their Islamic identity, but also in the ways they approach local and national governance.

As the size of local communities gets smaller, it gets easier to organize opposition against mosque construction projects. Thus, building mosques actually becomes more difficult in small communities where sometimes one or two oppositional votes can prevent construction. At the same time urban centers with large populations often do not offer enough space for the construction of new temples, and Muslims are moved to suburbs. The struggle over the very location of the mosque becomes an important area of contestation that not only alters Islamic identities but changes the formation of U.S. cities and suburbs.  Suburbs and unincorporated areas risk becoming increasingly fragmented due to reactions to new places of religious assembly and relegating new temples to commercial/industrial zones, thereby increasing the social distance among communities. Financially struggling mosque communities refer to the costs of their rejection to raise funds; Islamophobia becomes the raison d’etre for many collective actions that risk putting important debates about accountability and critical engagement with conventional practices on the backburner as divisive issues while many express declining trust in institutions.[34] Nevertheless, new theological questions are posed due to voluntary and imposed adjustments in response to the demands of urban environments. Meanwhile multiple emerging novel answers reinforce the pluralization of views and theologies within the Muslim community.  Behind the so-called mosque controversies or minaret disputes is the intersection of urban transformation and theological questions that allows communities to create internationally focused and locally rooted Islamic theologies, suggesting that a vernacularized Islam marked by American urban space is in the making.

[1] E:|\BILLS\S2869.ENR

[2] Barry Ketter, Zoning Appeals Board member  “In good faith” Chicago Tribune, February 27, 2011.

[3] DuPage County, Zoning Board of Appeals, T-3-10, August, 26 2010

[4] http://www.city-data.com/city/Willowbrook-Illinois.html

[5] Dawoodi Bohras are Shia Muslims, an off shoot of Ismailis. The community believes that the 21st imam went into seclusion in Yemen in the 12th century and appointed a deputy, called a dai-e-mutlaq, to lead the community. Many Dawoodi Bohras first moved to Gujarat, northwestern India and now have branches in 40 countries.

[6] DuPage County, Zoning Board of Appeals, T-3-10, August, 26 2010

[7] Du Page County Zoning Board Of Appeals Minutes. July12 -August 26, 2010

[8] ibid

[9] Interview with Mark Daniel, Zoning attorney, April 12 2016.

[10] For an example of such a trend see Hackworth J, Stein K. The Collision of Faith and Economic Development in Toronto’s Inner Suburban Industrial Districts. Urban Affairs Review. 2012;48(1):37-63.

[11] DarusSalam purchased a 6.5-acre parcel of land at the intersection of I-355 and North Avenue.

[12] Berger, Peter, and Gordon Redding, eds. The Hidden Form of Capital: Spiritual Influences in Societal Progress. London: Anthem Press, 2010.

[13] DarusSalam,  masjidds.org/ retrieved December 10, 2018.

[14] For more on the relation between civic culture and the restriction on Islamic practices see Aubrey Westfall’s Mosques and Political Engagement in Europe and North America, Wheaton College.

[15] Sultan Tepe, Building Faiths, forthcoming.

[16] http://meccacenter.org/about/history-of-mecca/ ( retrieved on December 11, 2018)

[17] Please refer to Nancy Khalil chapter.

[18] “Mecca Center Youth Coordinator” October 23, 2016.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Author’s interview with a member of the Mosque Foundation, April 12, 2017

[21] Author’s interview with a member of Irshad Learning Center, April 12, 2017.

[22] Author’s interview with a member of Irshad Learning Center, March 8, 2016.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Please note how disqualification and demobilization strategies of the states differ depending on their political administrative context see Julien Talpin’s Constraining Muslim Mobilizations in France: Symbolic Repression and Disqualification as Demobilization Strategies in this volume.

[25] https://meccacenter.org/2016/02/28/who-are-we/

[26]  https://meccacenter.org/2016/02/28/who-are-we/

[27] For a more detailed review of individual expression of Islam see Bogumila Hall’s Art and activism of the ‘war on terror’ generation: British Muslim youth and the politics of refusal in Britain.

[28] Author’s interviews with Zahra April 2018.

[29] The Mecca Center Newsletter, November 2016.

[30] Sheikh Hassan Aly , Submission, Unity, & Identity: Lessons learned from changing the Qiblah,The Mecca Center, April 2016.

[31] Minhajuddin Ahmed, The Diversity in Deen- Mufti, Jummah Khutbah, March 16, 2018.

[32] Minhajuddin Ahmed, “The Hardships of Practicing Islam,” Jummah Khutbah, December 11, 2015.

[33] Author’s interview with an Orland Park Mosque Member, April 2016.

[34] For a more detailed discussion between feeling discriminated and trust see Mujtaba Isani  and Jolanda van der Noll’s The Effects of Discrimination on European Muslim Trust in Political Institutions.