diamond geezer

 Monday, February 08, 2016

Yesterday was Visit My Mosque day. Did you go?

Jeremy Corbyn went. Zac Goldsmith went. Sadiq Khan probably didn't need to go specially. And I went.

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 fa├žade 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 understated emptiness. 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.


<< click for Newer posts

click for Older Posts >>


click to return to the main page


...or read more in my monthly archives
Jan17  Feb17  Mar17  Apr17  May17  Jun17  Jul17  Aug17  Sep17  Oct17
Jan16  Feb16  Mar16  Apr16  May16  Jun16  Jul16  Aug16  Sep16  Oct16  Nov16  Dec16
Jan15  Feb15  Mar15  Apr15  May15  Jun15  Jul15  Aug15  Sep15  Oct15  Nov15  Dec15
Jan14  Feb14  Mar14  Apr14  May14  Jun14  Jul14  Aug14  Sep14  Oct14  Nov14  Dec14
Jan13  Feb13  Mar13  Apr13  May13  Jun13  Jul13  Aug13  Sep13  Oct13  Nov13  Dec13
Jan12  Feb12  Mar12  Apr12  May12  Jun12  Jul12  Aug12  Sep12  Oct12  Nov12  Dec12
Jan11  Feb11  Mar11  Apr11  May11  Jun11  Jul11  Aug11  Sep11  Oct11  Nov11  Dec11
Jan10  Feb10  Mar10  Apr10  May10  Jun10  Jul10  Aug10  Sep10  Oct10  Nov10  Dec10 
Jan09  Feb09  Mar09  Apr09  May09  Jun09  Jul09  Aug09  Sep09  Oct09  Nov09  Dec09
Jan08  Feb08  Mar08  Apr08  May08  Jun08  Jul08  Aug08  Sep08  Oct08  Nov08  Dec08
Jan07  Feb07  Mar07  Apr07  May07  Jun07  Jul07  Aug07  Sep07  Oct07  Nov07  Dec07
Jan06  Feb06  Mar06  Apr06  May06  Jun06  Jul06  Aug06  Sep06  Oct06  Nov06  Dec06
Jan05  Feb05  Mar05  Apr05  May05  Jun05  Jul05  Aug05  Sep05  Oct05  Nov05  Dec05
Jan04  Feb04  Mar04  Apr04  May04  Jun04  Jul04  Aug04  Sep04  Oct04  Nov04  Dec04
Jan03  Feb03  Mar03  Apr03  May03  Jun03  Jul03  Aug03  Sep03  Oct03  Nov03  Dec03
 Jan02  Feb02  Mar02  Apr02  May02  Jun02  Jul02 Aug02  Sep02  Oct02  Nov02  Dec02 

eXTReMe Tracker
jack of diamonds
Life viewed from London E3

» email me
» follow me on twitter
» follow the blog on Twitter
» follow the blog on RSS

my flickr photostream