REVISITING THE THIRD PLACE with Usama Canon
Revisiting the Third Place
by Usama Canon
Well before it was even named as such, Ta’leef Collective was a group of people who met regularly for one shared goal: spiritual growth. The meetings grew, as did the spaces where we met, and Ta’leef formalized into an organization. A few years into our journey, a close friend of mine sought to capture the warmth and congeniality he was experiencing at Ta’leef. He said Ta’leef was a “third place” - a place that was neither home nor work, where you could ‘come as you are’ and belong. He directed us to the work of a noted sociologist, Ray Oldenburg and his seminal work, "The Great Good Place." We found ourselves nodding with recognition throughout our first readings of the book.
It was also helpful in thinking through how we thought about Ta’leef. “You’re neither a mosque nor a school, so what are you?” we were often asked. We called our main hall a ‘semi-sacred space’: it was neither a legally delimited space (like a mosque) nor quite an entirely mundane space (like a mall). The terms of the conversation about the mosque and its role didn’t seem to fit what we were doing, so we sought to dislodge those calcified positions by sharing the ‘institutional option’ that Ta’leef embraced: Muslim civilizations historically developed spaces besides the mosque for gathering (the zawiya/khanqa/darga, coffeehouse, bathhouse, etc.), and we could develop Muslim ‘third places’ today as revitalizing that institutional practice. It seemed appropriate to describe Ta’leef as a third place, an institution of fellowship that was not a mosque.
We’ve been wrestling with the notion of third place since we first publicly discussed it with reference to Ta’leef. Oldenberg's work became a staple to our conversations about organizational framework, and "The Great Good Place" was read by many of our staff and volunteers. It even sits on our recommended reading list for participants in the Mu’allif Mentorship Program (MMP), where we dedicate sessions to unpack its theory. Over the course of our many conversations, however, we’ve seen that the third place model is not entirely applicable in thinking about Ta’leef’s mission.
First, there is a significant difference in context: Oldenburg’s work is part of a conversation about neighborhoods and residential planning, and shows that we need third places in walking distance from our homes so that we do not live in silos. Most of us likely feel that a walkable third place would be a valuable contribution to our neighborhoods, but that has more to do with where we live than it does with our membership in a faith-based community sparsely spread across cities. Second, even in a residential neighborhood, the organic emergence of a third place is a signpost of a healthy local community. The third place is not a community on its own, nor is its establishment the necessary beginning of a community. In retrospect, the substance of our analysis engages the subtitle of the book. Third places are “Hangouts at the Heart of a Community” and they emerge when a healthy community already exists with its members living in walking distance of one another.
This assessment led us to another important consideration: while the discussion about the relevance of the mosque (or the phenomenon of being ‘unmosqued’) is mostly centered around the openness of certain buildings, the underlying concerns are linked to a need to belong to a nurturing faith community. The implication is unsettling: rather than considering the institutions or the buildings that would best serve the “Muslim community,” we need to first assess the health, the scale, or even the existence of the ‘community’. The vast majority of American Muslims might identity with a large and broadly defined national “Muslim community.” Far fewer, however, would claim full participation in a particular expression of that community (as through a local mosque).
The term “mosque communities” appears several times over Zareena Grewal’s important book "Islam is a Foreign Country." While Dr. Grewal uses the term for purposes specific to her research, it captures a broadly accepted conceptualization of the Muslim community in the West: mosques must be community centres and all Muslim communities must be centered in a mosque. When mosques are deemed the only institutions appropriate for community cultivation, mosque and community become conflated terms. Rather than standing as ideologically neutral space (“Verily, the Mosques belong to God” the Qur’an reminds us), dedicated for devotional worship, they are community centres that shoulder the responsibility of all religious communal life, and consequently become highly contested space.
We encourage our beneficiaries to (of course) worship in mosques, but also to act as merciful agents of change in them. At the same time, we’re more hesitant to label Ta’leef by the type of physical space we occupy. Instead, we’ve come to describe the Collective as an intentional community. This is another phrase frequently attached to a type of residential planning, but it aptly describes Ta’leef: an intentional attempt to nurture a community that helps us grow closer to God and to each other. Ta'leef has long been an intentional community that seeks to meet the communal needs of fellowship and pastoral care of its constituents.
Ta’leef Fremont has grown, as has Ta’leef Chicago. In Edmonton, the seeds have been sown for another intentional community, Tarjuma. In these communities and elsewhere, the over one hundred graduates of the Mu’allif Mentorship Program are seeking to practice forms of spiritually-grounded community care.
There is no single solution to the many challenges Muslims in the West face today, but those challenges will need to be engaged by local Muslim communities. Through our training programs, we hope to contribute to the healing of existing communities, and the growth of new ones.
We are still asked how Ta’leef-like spaces can emerge and grow in other places. Support the people who seek to plant intentional community. We trust that the physical spaces will follow, God willing.
- Usama Canon | Founding Director