Posted by: Dawud Israel | September 7, 2010

The Bawabb, Jester and User-End Strategy to Muslim Institutions

I was reading on urban religious architecture in Anatolia (present-day Turkey) and one thing that has always intrigued me is how architecture can shape societal roles and expectations. The many zawiyas in Anatolia set up as lodges and resting-places for wandering Sufis, for attending the gatherings of dhikr and how close the zawiyas were to the markets.

Contrasted to masjids, the zawiya was meant specifically for social services, such feeding the poor and hungry under cooks and employees paid for by the Muslim government, and for spiritual guidance under the head shaykh of a tariqa or his muqaddam- hence it is a place of continual dhikr (remembrance of Allah) and khidmat (service in the cause of Islam). One of the general features of these zawiyas would be a individual called the bawabb, an individual who would serve as the gate-keeper of the zawiya. There are few functions of the bawabb that I think are relevant to masjid management.

A few functions of the bawabb:

Like the Angel Ridwan guarding the gates of Jannah, the bawabb serves as a boundary and a transition for people to go from a secular to a sacred space.

-He serves as a common face, a symbol, for the tariqa to the general public, like a lighthouse lookout to journeying ships.

-He limits who can enters the zawiya and therefore sanctifies it’s special barakah, conferring upon it value and status (compare this to disregard of the masjids today) like the angels that spread their wings over the gatherings of dhikr.

-He recognizes the faces of visitors and attendees, gauging the quality and devotion of the attendees and able to keep track of the history of the community and its connection to the zawiya and shaykh.

-He can serve as a bridge between strangers and the community, a welcomer and a well-wisher- and by virtue of his position, never an enemy.

The idea behind establishing a place for the bawabb is considerate of both the visitors as well as the zawiya space. In those days, often the righteousness of these places could be used as an insurance policy, but today we find few guarantees in our community and the masjid is a place that is losing its sacred preciousness. And this is relevant today in what technologists call: user-end thinking. How does the technology work for the user? Is it glitchy? Similar thinking is what this blog was based on: rather than simply giving encouraging dawah pamphlets, why not see how effective they are? Test it out to see which works best. (Unfortunately, I still have yet to do figure out the testing!) This can be extended to how mosques are run- what was the impact of a khutbah on visitors and attendees? Not simply for the sake of marketing promotion, but to genuinely see if the masjid is helping the community, or dare I say, hurting the Muslim community? Can one prove the masjids are helping more than they are hurting now?

The thinking behind this design can be extended to Islamic educational institutions. The teacher can continue to teach but one has little guarantee what is taught actually gets through. One way of monitoring this would be to have students keep journals or to engage them in discussions that challenge them to act upon what has been learned- both at a simple level of acting on Tafsir to an advanced level of acting upon Usul al-Fiqh. This is important not simply to sharpen and hone their thinking skills, but also in order to understand “where” they are mentally and spiritually, and help foster a sense of direction and enhance learning. But even at a very elementary level, this thinking serves as a backup to understand how a convert is progressing and a safety net to activists and community leaders to make sure they aren’t overburdened to the point their hearts become spiritually dried out.

Muslim royal courts used to have a similar issue with the sultan. No one dared speak up against the sultan, for even if the kingdom was falling apart, the sultan’s advisers remained silent lest the sultan kill them or harm them, and hence the social reality of the society remained hidden or unknown. But there was one individual who could speak truth to power and that was the jester. This was the one person that could say anything, and critique the sultan, often comically, and serve as a safety for the soundness of the Muslim government. Again, this is an example of anticipating how things could go wrong and having a backup plan to counter-act any problems.

User-end thinking is a big paradigm shift that can revive and repair the ummah. Many of our teachers and leaders in the Muslim community, are still thinking from the perspective of the user, rather than the designer- complaining, not leading. User-end thinking need not demand a great deal of effort nor a great deal of money, but simply some deliberation over strategy with the help of a few creative minds. Mull over and scrutinize how things are done in our community, think of ways to improve them, and then ways to improve the improvements and never being unnecessarily attached to the way things used to be done (unless its sacred tradition). Muslims are a very conservative community and don’t react well to changes, but there are certain areas where Muslims will gladly welcome improvements. In our information-society, the possibilities for improvement are countless so sooner or later Muslims are bound to make the leap to user-end thinking.

Related reads: Design thinking


  1. Very informative post, DI!

    Muslim communities do seem to be making quite a lot of changes and accepting them, too. The problem is that the critics are the most vociferous. The Masjid “uncles” are usually the first to denounce anything. But they’re the leaders of yesterday who laid the foundation for today.

    We, as the youth should be standing up and taking over now. And Alhamdulillah, with our experience, skills, and knowledge (no matter how little), as you mentioned we’ll be better equipped to tackle the future, InshaAllah. Our parents couldn’t do it, because they were more concerned with just surviving. We’re past that stage. Now we can make solid changes.

    And the concept of the Jester is golden, yet there shouldn’t be a power-struggle in the first place. It’s liable to happen, of course, but people should not be afraid to speak to true leaders.

    Subtle messages may work, but there’s a great chance that they won’t. Sometimes people need to just do what they have to do and not worry about the critics. User-end thinking, is of course brilliant. And there’s thinking and doing. Both matter. And we have to make it happen.

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