The story of Rabia al-Basri is one that Muslim kids learn early.
Image Courtesy: chicagotribune.com
She ran through her hometown of Basra, Iraq, with a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. When townspeople asked her why, she said she wanted to burn down heaven with the torch and put out hellfire with the water so that people could worship without fear of punishment or desire for reward, for the sake of God alone.
“The story defines this space,” said Mahdia Lynn, who co-founded the mosque in 2016 in the Loop that bears the name of Rabia, and, more importantly, she said, the responsibility that comes with it.
At Masjid al-Rabia, the difference from mainstream mosques is immediately apparent. Every Friday, a handful of men and women pray shoulder to shoulder. The khutbah, or sermon, is a discussion, and congregants participate in a group circle. There is no consistent imam, or leader in prayer; rather, anyone can volunteer to stand in the front to lead. It is one of very few public mosques in the world that allows and encourages women to lead prayer in a mixed-gender prayer space.
“Our approach says that wanting to lead a prayer in that moment, that is what makes a person equipped to lead," Lynn said.
In mainstream mosques where men lead the prayer, men pray in the front and women pray behind them, or in some cases, behind a barrier. Sometimes, women pray in a separate room with an audiovisual setup.
While women-only mosques have existed for hundreds of years in China, it is only in the past several years that imams and scholars have begun to organize more inclusive mosques in Indonesia, Europe and the United States — all with varying styles and levels of success. In 2015, the first women’s-only mosque in the U.S. opened in Los Angeles, according to news reports.
Though men and women often attend private prayer groups together, it is difficult to find any mosques in the world that publicly advertise having a prayer space with no barriers to gender, like Masjid al-Rabia.