It was the family and village communities that formed the original basis for the Muslim community in re-establishing Islamic life in Australia. Islamic organisations, in many cases, emerged from the activities of village community organisations. Humphrey (1989b) asserts that these Muslim community organisations have been the product of family and community ties. He argues that Muslim-Australian community religious life emerged as one aspect of village community activities and that as the community grew so did the community needs and this situation made it necessary for the establishment of a separate institution which could cater for multiple aspects of Muslim community life (Humphrey,
1989b). For example, village social centres or community meeting places frequently developed into provisional prayer halls and subsequently, as the population grew and demands increased, turned into mosques. Islamic immigrant cultures and practices emerged from these localised sets of contacts in multicultural Australia. These contacts selectively fostered the recreation of religious culture in immigration where Muslim immigrants found their status transformed from a majority to a minority group.
The key religious interests of the first generation Muslims were the arranging of what may be collectively described as Muslim life-cycle rituals - birth, marriage, and death - within the local Muslim community framework. Muslim village associations were important institutions for community life and played a key role in the process of settlement (Bouma, 1994).
Mosques have assumed a significant role in the Muslim settlement process. They have emerged in direct response to growth in the Muslim population and to Muslim community needs. According to Humphrey (1989b), in the context of Muslim immigration, mosques have been significant but are not the first Islamic institutions in Australia. He asserts that mosque associations came into being alongside various other voluntary Muslim immigrant organisations during the early period of Muslim settlement.
Like in many parts of the world where Muslims are in the minority, in Australia mosques cater for Muslim community needs and have become more than just places for worship. They have at once become the spiritual centres for symbolising the existence of Islam, collectivizing Muslims, and teaching and training Muslims about their religious values and practices. Mosques also act as the centres of religious, educational, cultural, and social activities.
According to Humphrey (1989a) mosques as symbols of collective Muslim presence in Australia either emerged from purchased sites which were developed into mosques or from existing community or village social venues. In either case, even though the way mosques are established is distinct, for instance, one comes into existence through communal life and the other based on broader community support both in terms of finance and lobbying the local council, the purpose for establishing the mosque remains the same - to fulfil the social and religious needs of the Muslim immigrant community.
Muslims do not necessarily have to have a mosque to pursue a religious life. Islam permits the offering of prayer anywhere - such as in an office, at home, or even on the lawn in a park as long as the place is clean. However, mosques always have played a role beyond being merely places of ritual prayer. For instance, classic mosques such as Masjid al-Aqsa (grand mosque in Jerusalem) and Masjid al-Nabawi (Prophet Muhammad’s mosque in Medina) have always played spiritual, educational, social, cultural, and political roles in Muslim community life. Prayer is only one aspect of Islamic life and given that Islam is a complete way of life, Muslims require, particularly in the context of immigration, mosques for other religious and social needs. In this sense, mosques as local community institutions that fulfil religious, welfare, educational, and social functions assume a role beyond a place for worship. As Humphrey (1991: 185-6) remarks:
As the pre-eminent community institution, the mosque becomes the domain for the assertion of separate identity and status within a pluralist political environment in which ethnicity has legitimacy. It is a centre from which demands are made on Australian political, legal and bureaucratic structures about the needs and rights of the ‘community’ vis-à-vis other groups.
Thus, through the mosque Muslims make demands regarding those aspects of life considered essential to uphold religious and moral values. For example, demands for Muslim girls to be allowed to wear hijab (veil) to public schools, legal recognition of the right of imams (leaders) to conduct marriages and perform burial services according to Muslim traditions, and acknowledgement of the right to pray at work. These demands symbolise the restoration of Muslim cultural practices in the context of immigration.
The question of religious leadership at the mosque has highlighted its intimate connection with the evolution of community and religious organisations in Muslim immigrant communities in Australia. The absence of an Islamic shura (consultative committee) or body of clerics has, in many instances, seen mosque leadership remain in the hands of individual mosque committees instead of separate autonomous religious organisations detached from social connections which have produced immigrant mosque communities. The course taken in the establishment of mosques reflects distinctive ethnic, linguistic, and regional backgrounds of Muslim communities in Australia. For the vast majority of Muslim-Australians, religion continues to be deeply rooted in class structure and ethnic sources. As a corollary, local community politics based on former family and sectarian rivalry in ‘home’ communities continue to play out in the mosque politics (Humphrey, 1987). The claim of Muslim as an identity and the stipulations for acknowledgment of Muslim religious and legal practices, in this political milieu, are effectively competitive and drawn into the politics of a community reputation and protection of cultural autonomy.
However, the organisational focus on community association is not fixed and could be moved on to the mosque. The quintessential character of cultural capital and political resources undergoes transformation as demands originally made based on parochial attachment to kinship, friendship, and community networks are located in totally distinct political and institutional frameworks. The mosque, which is established in light of a legal framework that demands a formal organisational structure and the establishment of proper management processes, becomes a central focus and serves as a base for the mobilisation of Muslim immigrants within a political arena.