Muhammad ‘Abd al-Haqq
This Ramadan, whether you are a Muslim or a non-Muslim, for obviously different reasons, you should find yourself in a masjid(mosque). For the Muslims, unless for some extenuating circumstances such as not living in a town with a masjid, isolated from a nearby town, or living in an environment that makes it hard to practice your faith, such as being a young convert whose non-Muslim family is virulently and adamantly opposed to your reversion, there is no excuse not to be in a masjid this Ramadan. Not that the latter are excuses, they are simply reasons . A Muslim should be in Jumm’ah at least 4 times this month to cultivate the habit of always attending salat in jamm’a whenever possible. And you should make the utmost effort(jihad)to attend iftar at the masjid, also participating in Maghrib, ‘Isha and Taraweeh prayers.
An article from Iesa Galloway from MuslimMatters highlights perfectly what we as Muslims can do to make our masajid more inviting to the non-Muslims this Ramadan. I crosspost an extended quote from that article here:
Section 1 – Correspondence before a visit:
Many Islamic centers fail horribly in their phone and email communication. However, the good news is technology is on your side! Create a system to respond to incoming calls and e-mails in a timely manner. Few things can be more frustrating than trying to schedule a visit at a Muslim community center, so let’s streamline this as much as we can.
We have all had the experience; you know, calling a mosque and one of several things happens or fails to happen:
1) The phone rings FOREVER! During normal business hours it is inexcusable to not have a live person answering the phone, let alone a functioning voicemail system.
2) The receptionist is a “chacha” (uncle) or an auntie with little to no command of the English language! Nothing says welcome to the center like a complete failure to communicate.
3) The person who answers the phone is rude!
4) You are put on hold FOREVER
5) You are told that you are going to be transferred … and you get the dial tone!
Enter Google Voice (it’s free) or any service for that matter, just make sure that you have the following:
1) A clear greeting. If you say Asalaam Alaikum or Ramadan Mubarak, then you have to translate it too. OK, OK, May God’s Peace be with you and May you have the blessings of Ramadan.
2) Ask the caller to leave their number; this tells them you are responsive and that you care that they called.
3) Ask them to state why they called; this will help you prioritize your responses.
4) List the hours of operation and any special instructions for guests or first time visitors. Try to put visitors at ease by helping them know what to expect and that visitors ARE welcome. Be sure to include Iftar (fast-breaking meal) details (explain what it is) and prayer times.
5) Include an assurance that you will call them back within __X__ hours/days
NOTE: The same information should be posted on a “Visit Us” page on your website. It would be even better to have a “Schedule Your Visit” form that would e-mail you appointments and group details.
7) Lastly, set up a call forwarding service that you can turn off and on when needed. This will allow staff or volunteers to take calls remotely. A good service will show that the call was originally for the mosque, alerting the answerer to use the appropriate greeting. This is important during emergency situations or when a high priority call is expected.
8) Whoever is trusted with answering the phones should always keep a pen and notepad with them.
Section 2 – Create a welcoming committee:
Imagine that all you know about Islam and Muslims is what you’ve seen online and on cable news. Then, Allah (God) inspires you to visit a mosque and you get past the website, email and telephone issues. So you drive to the center and (if there is no welcoming committee) one of two scenarios are likely:
Situation #1 No one is there! The door was unlocked. So you hesitantly go inside, call out a questioning “hello?” and it just echoes. You look around, no information table, no sign that says “Welcome,” no community bulletins and no visitor sign-in sheet. In many cases, it is just a hallway with a bunch of dusty bookshelves serving as shoe racks and a bunch of random fliers for events that have already taken place in random and haphazard stacks. Then you notice doors to a big, empty but carpeted space and the only signs you see says “No Shoes.” Next to those doors you see a bathroom and you think to yourself… did I enter in the backdoor?
Situation #2 No one who is there works there! You walk in, and no one smiles. (We won’t touch what might happen if a woman entered a door designated as the men’s entrance.) Then, no one greets you. Next it becomes clear that there is no plan to accommodate visitors and you find out very quickly that you are in the way and disrupting people’s schedules.
* NOTE: Of course there are millions of alternatives on how an unannounced visitor could play out; it may even be a very positive experience, but why risk it? Having a welcoming community that plans for visitors is a proactive, low cost way to get your community members involved in the center’s success. That old saying — you only get one chance to make a first impression — is true, so let’s put our best foot forward insha’Allah. Just ask yourself how you would like to be treated if you were a visitor at someone else’s house of worship and then make it happen.
The Basics of a Great Welcoming Committee:
A great welcoming committee should be made up of friendly and knowledgeable Muslims and Muslimahs (Muslim women). At least one person should be “on duty” during operational hours (anytime the building is open to the public), but at a bare minimum you should have someone ready for visitors during events and community functions like tarawih (night prayers). These people need to have enough standing in the community that they could manage other community members’ reactions while showing visitors around.
Example: Enter that one brother who wants to ask every non-Muslim he meets controversial questions… before he even knows their names. Your welcome committee members must be able to shut someone like this down politely and have the full support of the Imam and the mosque board.
They should be friendly, dress appropriately, have a good command of English and should be knowledgeable enough to defer difficult questions to the Imam and to admit that they don’t know the answer to every question. Most importantly they must be passionate about Islam AND be well-adjusted and happy people!
Tools for the Welcoming Committee:
Have some materials about the center, Islam and Ramadan ready to offer. For printed materials about the center, be sure to use lots of photos. A simple tri-fold will serve the purpose. It should feature some historical information like when the center was founded or when it was built, what services are offered, how many attendees it currently has, include any distinguishing features or interesting facts and be sure to highlight some biographical information about the Imam and other community leaders to help humanize the center and finish by listing the website, phone number and hours of operation.
Dress Codes & Clothing:
Have a stock of extra hijabs (scarves) and clothes to offer if a visitor indicates that they feel self-conscious about the clothing they are wearing. If the center has a dress code, it should be posted and clearly visible and well thought through. Any dress code should be consistently applied and should feature minimum requirements for both males and females. You do not want to ask a non-Muslim to take on special clothing requirements and then have them see Muslims who are dressed less modestly than they are at the center. Make these items gifts. Let the person know that it is/will be theirs so they do not have to worry about hygiene. Do not force women to wear a scarf or other clothing except in extreme circumstances. 99% of the time people who will come to the mosque will be open minded and will appreciate and want to adhere to the social norms. Your guidance before visitors arrive will be crucial; people generally do not want to cause offense, especially once they arrive and are in a public setting. How we treat non-Muslim visitors will reverberate throughout the community.
Space reserved for visitors in the center and in the prayer hall:
TRUE STORY: I once was asked to make sure that no non-Muslim females entered the prayer hall if it was that time of the month during their visit!
Create a designated space for your guests. Make it a space that is not distracting for the congregation and that is also respectful of the visitors. Do not make them feel like they were shoved into a dusty corner or are being hidden from the people. Have easy-to-set-up chairs and people to answer their questions, explain rituals or even to translate, if needed, during a lecture.
TIP: Nearly everyone loves kids, so find a way to have a young Muslim child offer them something even if it is just a greeting and a smile.
Have a security and/or parking team:
Train your security and parking teams to direct people who look lost or confused to the lobby or other location where a welcoming committee member can meet them. If you are expecting guests, your security and parking teams need to know. At all times they need to know who is on the welcoming committee and who from the committee is on call at that time so they can instruct the visitors to them.
While we are on the subject of parking, take steps to be more courteous to your neighbors. This is especially important if the mosque is in a residential area. Let them know in advance when you expect a lot of traffic.
TRUE STORY: A few years back a pretty large mosque in North Texas had its first candidate forum. The major politicians for each race showed up and as did the invited non-Muslim neighbors. The event was a big success, the mosque was packed and at least half of the attendees were non-Muslims. During the Q&A session, the first question was given to a little elderly blue-haired lady who stood up, and in front of everyone asked: “How come you all are so uncivilized that you park in my yard every Friday?”
Section 3 – The Media:
With the current climate surrounding Islam and Muslims in America, the upcoming presidential elections, the 24-hour news cycle and the 10 year memorial of Sept. 11th just around the corner, this Ramadan may present more than the normal potential for members of the media to drop by unannounced. For all visitors to your center, sections 1 and 2 above are important. However, for visitors from the mass media, who will be seeking to film your center, interview your staff and your community members and then publish or broadcast what they recorded at your center, the following steps are vital.
1) Always have one person who can make decisions for the mosque or community center on site during events.
2) Train your receptionist/administrator on how to handle a call from the media. More here.
3) Train your parking and security teams for the arrival of media professionals. When they are expected have designated parking spaces for them.
TIP: make sure that no one will double-park behind them, or any visitor for that matter. Media professionals live by tight schedules and have to be able to move on quickly.
4) Know the difference between speaking to a member of the media and being in an interview with the media. Never start answering questions without a clear understanding of the situation. Remember that all mics are always on!
5) Know the difference between a community member speaking and a representative of the Islamic center speaking. A community member only represents themselves. At most, a community member can be seen as voicing popular sentiment. A verifiable representative of the Islamic center has a title and authority to speak on behalf of the congregation even if acting alone. You cannot prevent a willing community member from talking to the press but you can clarify who and what that person represents.
6) Know your scope. As a local mosque, you represent your local constituents. Do not exceed your mandate, and never speak for a group larger than you really represent.
7) Be honest.
8) Send a thank you note for accurate and positive coverage.
As for the non-Muslim, Islam figures too prominently in our Media in the post 9/11 and the “War on Terror” world for you to not use Ramadan as an opportunity to learn about Islam by attending an interfaith event at a masjid. Do not use the excuse of having Muslim friends, since your friends may very well be secular, liberal, non-practicing cultural and nominal Muslims. They may also belong to one of the various factions and sects in Islam, or may be part of some group of mubtadi’a[one who belongs to a group that promotes the rejected religious innovations(bid’ah)] or the various right or left Muslim Extremist groups. Going to your local masjid goes toward helping you form a more balanced, nuanced picture of Islam, hopefully free of falsehood.
Last year on August 26, 2010, the Dallas Islamic Center organized a traditional Ramadan Iftar dinner in collaboration with Congregation Kol Ami — Flower Mound, and Faith Lutheran Church in Flower Mound. The food was prepared by the members of the Dallas Islamic Center and the event took place in Congregation Kol Ami. Jews, Christians, and Muslims broke bread together to know each other better and celebrate a night of interfaith friendship.