I went to the East London Mosque, one of Britain's earliest and largest, with kneeling space for up to 7000 worshippers. It has a long history, far longer than you might expect from the relatively modern building fronting Whitechapel Road. Funding for London's first mosque began in 1910, but Muslims had to meet in temporary rooms until three houses on Commercial Road were bought in 1941. It wasn't until 1985 that the current purpose-built mosque was built, and the swelling congregation forced an extension on adjacent land in 2000. This was topped off with a further extension opened in 2013, adding even more communal facilities and an even larger area of carpet. And I never realised quite how much lay behind the brick façade until I stepped beneath the minaret.
I didn't go in the main door - that seemed presumptuous. Instead I entered via the London Muslim Centre nextdoor, part of the millennial extension, into a large and somewhat disorienting triangular atrium. There being no obvious clues as to where to go next, I stood and took in my surroundings. To the right a long large empty room awaited the mosque's females at the next call to prayer. To the left was a descending staircase beneath a sign labelled 'Ablutions', up and down which a variety of gentlemen were passing, and also a passageway leading off towards racks of shoes, which might just have been some inner sanctum so I held back. It took a couple of minutes to spot the VMM notice at the far end, and for the security guard to usher a few of us through, his presence because they can't be too careful these days, what with you know, stuff.
There was a definite sense of comings and goings, through every set of doors, with this warren of back rooms perhaps better resembling a community centre. Outside the lift a couple waited with their tiny babe-in-arms, beside a sign reading Circumcision Clinic 6th floor. Thankfully we were only off to the 1st floor, and the mosque's visitor centre, which comprises a few sets of information boards in an upper lobby. Here we were warmly welcomed, not just by various ambassadorial members of the mosque but by a table of free food and drink. Whatever cultural delicacies I might have been expecting of this spread, the reality was tea, coffee and fruit juice, some plates of digestive biscuits and several trays of chocolate cupcakes. This could very easily have been the same hospitality as at the church hall down the road, on any day with special visitors to greet.
An imam took time out to talk to us, in a small sideroom laid out with chairs. He explained some of the main tenets of Islam - the sharing of beliefs being one of the key objectives of Sunday's nationwide VMM experience. The word Islam, he explained, means both peace and submission, with that peace emanating from a conscious decision to submit your life to God. I was struck by the number of strict rules a Muslim has to follow, not just the requirement to fast through daylight hours in Ramadan, but the expectation of praying at astronomically appointed times five times a day, ideally at the mosque. It all makes being an Anglican look positively wishy-washy, indeed barely any commitment whatsoever. The group I was in asked several intelligent questions of the imam, obtaining several intelligent answers, until the call to prayer signalled one of those appointed times and off he went.
It wasn't possible to continue the tour while daily prayers were underway, so a further refreshment break was taken while the service played out. The visitor centre doubles up as a viewing gallery, so it was possible to watch the assembled worshippers lined up across the large room below as they went through the appointed motions. Whilst some religions shield their holy places from others, the entire visit to the East London Mosque felt very open and we were simply allowed to be 'present' while those in attendance continued around us as normal.
The delay allowed me to enter into conversation with some of the congregation, who were very keen to explain more about the religion they followed. The first to approach me offered a 'goodie bag' of information, and engaged in interesting chat about the ways of Islam and the life he followed. I fear I might have accidentally uttered one key word in my responses, because I was then politely passed on to a second gentleman who proceeded with a more animated approach. He explained the reasons why he believed Islam was the one true religion and how every word in the Koran was a God-given miracle, using individual verses as examples. There was never any pressure, but I did sense a subtext that he hoped I'd be impressed and search out more. Instead, well, if you ever want to completely waste your time, try persuading me to believe something - I'm a hopeless case.
Once the main service had cleared out somewhat it was time to descend to ground level and take a look inside the prayer hall. This required the removal of shoes, and passing through a door labelled For Health And Safety Reasons Please Do Not Leave Shoes Here. Whatever I'd been expecting before I arrived, the reality was more like a medium-sized sports hall with a comfy carpet. An adjacent linked hall had some colourful tiling at around head height, and the dome above us had minor decor around the inside of a mostly-white rim, but elsewhere the key sense was understatedemptiness. One of the most prominent features was a bland electronic clock displaying date and time, a reflection on the importance of temporal precision, while latecomers stood directly in front of a southeast-facing wall and continued their prayers. Devout throughout, but never showy.
Rather than a downstairs tour as such, we were invited to sit on the carpet where minutes earlier several rows of gentlemen had been kneeling. Again we had a talk followed by questions, as worshippers of all ages dripfed out of the main hall ahead, giving our group a cursory look as they passed. Again our collective questions were intelligently framed and comprehensively answered, eventually hitting the not unexpected topic of why the ladies in the group had had to cover their heads before entering the hall, and why women prayed together in a separate room. However logical our spokesman tried to make the historic regulations sound, the underlying gist was awkwardly anachronistic, and doubly so when the next enquirer asked about Islam's approach to homosexuality. Some things remain totally unacceptable it seems, even today, but are tolerated because of the country we live in, and because any form of hatred is anathema to a true convert.
Over 250 of us took the opportunity to step inside the East London Mosque yesterday, with thousands more visiting mosques across the capital and around the rest of the country. And yet there must still be tens of millions of Britons out there who've never set foot inside one, and who may have distorted views of what goes on and what the community believes. Open days like yesterday are only a small step along the way to mutual understanding, but the underlying message of peace shone through.