Visit My Mosque day: questions from prayers to beards answered

Visit My Mosque day: questions from prayers to beards answered
(Monday, February 8, 2016) 11:59

More than 250 non-muslims visit East London Mosque as it invites public inside to find out more about Islam’s teachings

The beard issue came up early. One of the first questions fielded by Juber Hussain at East London Mosque’s open day was from a young man in a leather jacket sporting a Motörhead logo, who wanted to know why Muslim men grew facial hair.

Smiling, and running a hand over his own impressive growth, Hussain observed that everyone seemed to be at it these days, not just Muslims – including his questioner. But he said that for Muslims it was a way of emulating the prophet Muhammad, who was believed to have worn a beard.

Questions kept coming: what happens at Friday prayers? What is Salafism?Why don’t Muslims sing during worship? What is the difference between Sunni and Shia traditions? Why do women cover their heads? Do Muslims believe in the Bible? Why do Muslims wash before praying?

It was precisely to answer questions such as these, and explain the basic tenets of Islam, that East London Mosque was among at least 80 around the UK that opened their doors this weekend to non-Muslims as part of a “Visit My Mosque” scheme.

Coordinated by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the open day was intended to counter negative perceptions of Islam and educate people about the religion. Large and small mosques in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland offered tea and cakes, talks, videos, tours and demonstrations.

More than 100 people came to East London Mosque, one of the largest in western Europe, in the first two hours of its open day. Groups were invited to watch a video about its history and were given copies of the Qur’an to take home. After removing shoes and – for women – covering their heads, the visitors were taken into the prayer hall for a demonstration. By the end of the day, more than 250 people had visited the mosque.

Katy Jack, a local primary school teacher, came because she wanted a better understanding of the lives and beliefs of her pupils, 95% of whom are Muslim. “It’s really important to me to try to have insight into what is guiding their lives,” she said. 

Richard Engler had brought three of his five children from north London. “I’m Jewish, and I wanted to see inside a mosque. Actually, it’s a lot like a synagogue,” he said. “There’s the same community feeling and weird rituals.”

East London Mosque has a strong relationship with the local Jewish community, now small but historically significant. Last year the mosque bought a tiny synagogue next door, one of the last in the East End of London, which had closed due to its dwindling congregation.

The change of ownership was an illustration of the changing demographics of the area. Tower Hamlets, the London borough in which the mosque is situated, has the highest concentration of Muslims among its population in the UK.

The mosque, which can hold 7,000 people, is a large site that incorporates the London Muslim Centre and the Maryam Centre for women. As well as prayer spaces, it offers education and training, community activities, counselling and advice, a circumcision clinic and a mortuary. Its roof is home to three honey-producing beehives. Attendances at Friday prayers, where the imam’s sermon is delivered in three languages, routinely exceed 6,000. On Sunday 1,500 men lined up for the midday Zuhr prayer, with hundreds more women next door in the Maryam Centre.

Anti-Muslim hate incidents have spiked in the past year. According to figures from the Metropolitan police, Islamophobic crime increased by 70% in the 12 months to July 2015. However, Tower Hamlets bucked the trend, with a 4.1% fall last year.

Don Richards, the Motörhead fan, said he had come to the mosque to gain a better understanding of Islam and show solidarity with Muslims. “The rise in anti-Muslim feeling is really disheartening,” he said. “I know people who live in places where there aren’t many Muslims, and they are often ignorant and hostile.”

Despite signs and posters outside the mosque advertising the open day, many in the neighbourhood were unaware of the opportunity to step inside. In the nearby Archers pub, Michael Marks said he might have gone along had he known earlier. “Knowledge is power, and all that,” he said, sipping a lunchtime pint. “But I can’t go now, and breathe beer fumes all over them, can I?”

Crossing Altab Ali park, named after a Bangladeshi textile worker murdered in 1978 in a racist attack, Kelly Davies shook her head briskly at the suggestion she might visit the mosque. “I wouldn’t go in a church, let alone a mosque,” she said. “They’re all as bad as each other if you ask me.”

There are about 1,200 mosques in the UK, catering for 2.7 million Muslims, about 4.5% of the population.

The Guardian
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