A guest post written by Abdul-Azim Ahmed, editor of On Religion magazine, a current affairs publication with a focus on theology and religion. Abdul-Azim is a PhD candidate researching British mosques at Cardiff University’s Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK.
I arrived just before sunset on a Monday evening at my local mosque, Dar ul-Isra. The mosque, a former church hall, is packed with people. On the bottom floor, volunteers in matching T-shirts frantically set out food to be eaten by worshippers for the iftaar. It’s the holy month of Ramadan, and Muslims are fasting from about 3am until 9.30pm, and many will come to the mosque to break their fasts and share a meal with others.
I stand in the foyer and remove my shoes. In the corner of the foyer is a large red bucket filled with tinned food. It’s a collection for the Huggard Homeless Centre nearby. As I make my way to the main hall, I’m greeted by the sound of dozens of Muslims reciting the Quran in the final minutes before sunset. I look around the large hall and find the group I came here to meet, a delegation from PeaceFeast, a charity that aims to build links between communities by sharing food. I sit with them until the call to prayer is given. I break my fast, and then join a congregation of about a hundred and fifty in performing one of the five daily prayers of Islam.
This isn’t an extraordinary day in the mosque. In many ways, it is business as usual. This snapshot of the daily life of a mosque is a million miles away from the images we are treated to in some corners of the media. Daily Mail articles about “mega mosques” and radical preachers are examples of the torrent of negative press British mosques receive. Perhaps unsurprisingly then they have become the targets for hate crime. Tell MAMA, the UK-based charitable organisation measuring anti-Muslim assaults, recorded over a dozen attacks on mosque in the past year, the most serious of which is the case of Pavlo Lapshyn, a Ukrainian PhD student who murdered an elderly Muslim pensioner and then detonated three bombs in mosques in the Midlands.
Yet away from the negativity, mosques are incredible places of hope. Some accuse them of being spaces of segregation, where Muslims isolate themselves from wider-society. This accusation is naïve at best. To the contrary, mosques play an important role in allowing Muslim communities, often disengaged from mainstream politics, to engage in civic life. From one-off surgeries with local councillors, to Friday sermons on the importance of voting, the mosque is often a gateway into a wider political world. By holding interfaith and community events, mosques also allow for meaningful relationships to be built between peoples of all faiths and non-religious people, in a way that otherwise would not be possible. Those who criticise large mosques in British cities as symbols that Muslims do not want to integrate fail to appreciate that by establishing a mosque in Britain, British Muslims have made a powerful statement that here is home.
Mosques are also places of charity. A survey by The Times found Muslims are one of Britain’s most charitable communities. Much of this charity takes place in mosques, with aid organisations such as Islamic Relief raising millions through collections and fundraisers at mosques across the country. Charity of course starts at home, and alongside international organisations such as Islamic Relief and Muslim Aid, local charitable projects can also be found. These include collections for the homeless and tinned food drives.
It is not uncommon to hear the refrain “a mosque is a community centre” amongst Muslims. This often highlights the vision that a mosque should be a part of the local neighbourhood, not apart from it. As such, it is possible to find many activities you would expect at a community centre being held at mosques. These include Scouts groups, fitness classes, GCSE and A-Level tuition, and CV-writing workshops. Naturally, these are of interest not only to Muslims but to non-Muslims alike, and I’ve seen mosques where their services and activities are utilised by a wider cross-section of society.
Not all mosques of course hold the projects I mentioned above. It is sometimes easy to forget that the word mosque might refer to everything from tiny terraced homes used for worship to purpose-built landmarks with built-in restaurants and gyms. Further, there is still much work to be done on providing greater access for women, in training and recruiting Muslim Imams and religious professionals who can lead a new generation of mosques, and facing up to the dangerous Islamophobia in Britain that often leads to attacks of mosques.
Yet when we consider how much mosques have developed in the past fifty years alone, one can be certain that mosques will play a central role in the future of Britain.
Within and beyond my work at the William Temple Foundation, I am an active member of the interfaith movement in the UK and Europe. And there are many, many reasons why I love this work. But I have a guilty admission; one of these reasons is the food! Religious communities can be fantastically hospitable, from sangar at Sikh gurdwaras, to the feast of a Shabbat dinner, I have happily munched my way through numerous interfaith encounters. Recently the subject of food in religion has been on my mind for the Islamic month of fasting, Ramadan began last weekend. It is a very special time for many Muslims; a time of reflection, spiritual renewal, and in my experience, delicious communal iftars (evening meals) at the breaking of the fast each day.
In the religious context, food and community are inextricably linked. As a Church of England Priest recently reminded, it is no surprise that eating and drinking is at the heart of the Christian liturgy. The bread and the wine of Christian worship, whilst food for the soul rather than nourishment for the body, demonstrate the power of sharing and eating together.
In the interfaith context food offers a handy stating point, as something which we can all discuss from our differing perspectives, thereby offering a space from which further discussions might grow. It is also an opportunity for giving, receiving, and sharing, thereby developing bonds of trust from the start. As such, members of British Muslim communities have developed all sorts of ways for none-Muslims to experience and understand their fasting, and (most excitingly for a foodie like me) to share in the breaking of the fast. One example is a project called Dine@Mine, started by one of my closest friends with the aim of matching Muslims who are eager to share their hospitality, with non-Muslims keen to learn more about Ramadan.
But whilst food can be a great source of celebration for many faith groups, in recent months, it has also been a great cause of concern. Food has become the junction where religion and politics meets. Responding to the dire needs of their communities, faith groups up and down the country have set up food banks. Whilst these projects might be seen as another example of the hospitality of faith groups, food banks rarely exist for the purpose of sharing communally; of eating and drinking and being together. For how can they? The rise of food poverty in Britain is a stark reminder of the most basic need of food. And what becomes clear is how poverty is not a mere matter of physical deprivation, but that it also robs basic dignities, diminishes spirituality, and limits the ability to be social (with inevitable impacts on mental wellbeing).
The invaluable social capital of faith-based organisations is undoubtedly filling vital welfare gaps. And for all we might celebrate these chances for outreach and service, as my William Temple Foundation colleague Chris Baker recently pointed out, the success of such programmes may come at the dangerous cost of normalising food banks. In doing so, we risk normalising the notion that the state no longer exists to assist in the most basic needs of its citizens.
Further, in responding to food poverty there is the risk that religious hospitality becomes a culture of giving, rather than a culture of sharing. And there is, of course, a distinct difference between the two. Unlike giving, which implies a one-way transfer, sharing is imbued with commonality, commitment and equality. In a society that has more than enough to go around, gaping inequalities risk starving us of more than just physical nourishment.
Charlotte Dando is Assistant Director for Communications & Development at William Temple Foundation
How should Christians relate to Muslims? Are they a problem, unwelcome, a threat? Recently there has been a lot of interest in, and disapproval of halal slaughter. We also learnt that the broadcast of the call to prayer in Channel 4’s Ramadan Seasonlast year received more complaints than anything else aired by the broadcaster. Meanwhile Britain First – a “patriotic political party and street defence organisation” – has been entering mosques with their shoes on, giving Bibles to worshippers, and a Presbyterian pastor has denounced Islam from the pulpit. Internationally, we have heard worse things of women being killed and another being sentenced to death.
I admit to being particularly attuned to it, but Muslims are rarely out of the media. Sometimes I am asked, ‘How should Christians relate to Muslims?’ Many have already made up their minds. In some ways the question is new, but it is also very old. We don’t have far to look to find a ‘Saracen’s Head’ pub (Saracen = Muslim) or organisations called ‘Crusaders’. Historical tension and animosity between Christians and Muslims is woven into our culture. In the present, we encounter many negative stories and impressions of Muslims in the media, whether it is, so called, ‘Islamist terrorists’ or a Muslim ‘Trojan Horse’ takeover of schools.
Many people have a negative perception of Muslims because of media coverage, so that if you ask them who Al-Qaeda or Boko Haram are they say Muslim, rather than terrorist. Channel 4 sought to challenge the negativity with its Ramadan Season but was then accused of “imposing Islam”, or not giving an honest picture.
For the Christian perhaps, there are more important theological or religious questions about Islam: how can we relate positively to a faith which explicitly denies the central tenets of Christianity? How do we navigate these difficult questions, especially where minds are already made up?
There are clues in our past, both Christian and Islamic. One ancient story is that of St Francis of Assisi who, in the middle of war, when a city was being seized, went out to the Caliph’s camp and engaged in dialogue with the leader of the Muslim army (this was in the days when both Christianity – Christendom – and Islam were geopolitical entities). Francis entered, held deep discussions and left in peace. He did not persuade his dialogue partners, but there was mutual respect and listening (just as Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman that no one else would have spoken to).
At another time of great difficulty, when believers were being persecuted for their faith, they were sent to another country, where a fair-minded religious ruler would keep them safe. This is the story of Muhammad sending his followers from Mecca to the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia. Another example of dialogue is when a Christian delegation came to meet with Muhammad and discuss their divisive differences in beliefs about Jesus. When it was time for the Christians to say their prayers they prepared to leave, but Muhammad encouraged them to pray in his mosque.
Peaceful encounters between our two faiths go back to the earliest days of Islam, there is no reason why they should not continue today. But such opportunities can be derailed by our difficult history. There is much talk of ‘truth’ when interaction between people of different faiths is being contemplated. Should ‘truth’ be a barrier for us, keeping others out so that we cannot even be the witnesses that Jesus asked us to be, or to adopt an attitude of searching? – as the Puritan John Robinson said, ‘the Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from His Word’.
As people of truth we should not be swayed by perceptions but seek to discover the reality, just as the Apostle Paul sought to be ‘all things to all people’ (1 Cor. 9.22) in order to communicate with his society. In my own experience many people, including Christians, take issue with the idea of ‘all things to all people’ as mealy-mouthed, ‘political-correctness gone mad’. Perhaps because the words have drifted loose from their context of passionate, robust, honest and committed engagement. In fact, we may not realise, Paul is actually role-modelling how the Christian should ‘do’ inter faith encounter and dialogue.
Inevitably, in my own work I am often speaking up for Islam, bringing to bear what I have learnt, or more often, and more likely, what I have experienced. Some would say that this is the point at which inter faith work has gone too far, and I might agree if that was all that happened (yet without forgetting Jesus’ simple but challenging words, ‘Do unto others …’). Because the reality is that Muslims are also speaking up for Christians, supporting, for example, David Cameron’s comments about Britain being a Christian country, or speaking up on behalf of Christians suffering at the hands of mobs and unjust rulers in Muslim-majority countries. Or on hearing a Muslim colleague (who was educated by Scottish Presbyterian missionaries in India) quote those important and well known words from Micah 6.8, ‘this is what the Lord requires of you: only to act justly, to love loyalty, to walk humbly with your God’. Again the prophetic wisdom, speaking to someone in another tradition, gives a blueprint for inter faith (or any other) encounter – being balanced, developing committed and trusting relationships and not being too proud in this world, as if we have nothing to learn from anyone else.
But perhaps, ultimately, our principles – dogma and theology – will get in the way and make it clear that inter faith does not fit with the Gospel. Yet, one of my colleagues Dr Andrew Smith, formerly of Scripture Union, now the Bishop of Birmingham’s inter faith advisor, found that as a school worker in Birmingham the only way to talk about Christianity was in a dialogical way. The way of dialogue involves listening as much as (or more than) talking, taking account of where the other is and giving them space for their own witness. These principles became local guidelines for sharing faith, and eventually developed into the Christian Muslim Forum’s Ethical Witness Guidelines.
All of this does mean that for some of us, it is our calling to follow the way of Francis and Paul, to take the bold step of encountering the other deeply; just as Jesus did, when others were turning away and saying, ‘No, that’s too far for me’. It is only in the deep encounter that we can begin to have some insight into the other’s beliefs, values and to walk with God.
A Victorian Gothic barn of a church, with most of the pews still anchored in place, on a cold wet Saturday afternoon in February. The parish in a multicultural inner city in the North of England has struggled to survive, but remains committed to evangelical mission and community engagement. Twice a term now we put on a Messy Church session, advertised mainly through the majority Asian Church primary school that stands next door. The vicar’s wife, a retired teacher does most of the work of planning and preparation. The vicar himself does most of the platform presentation, and the team of a dozen or so volunteer helpers are predominantly aged over 60, white and English.
From 3pm the church fills with parents and children, mostly families who attend the school, and maybe two or three who regularly come to worship on Sunday mornings. It’s mostly women and children, though there are a handful of dads. There is a group of white working-class mums, some of them lone parents, who obviously know each other and spend a lot of time chatting and letting the kids get on with the activities. But as the number of people in the building rises to 90 we realise this is the most popular Messy Church since we started 18 months ago – and that over half of those attending are Muslims. One of the women is dressed in a black abaya, worn with a niqab – though she does remove the face covering when she has become comfortable with the social setting inside the church. Several other women and girls are wearing hijab (headscarf) and are in modest Asian dress.
One of the Muslim women who had encouraged friends to come is a single parent who first came along to a Messy Church a few months ago. We got to know her better through the midweek job club in the church hall. She had been unemployed, and destitute because she had been sanctioned for some trivial breach of benefit conditions by the job centre. We had helped her with food parcels, friendship and eventually to find a job in child care, and though she does not say she is a follower of Jesus or attend Sunday worship, she clearly feels herself to be part of the church family.
As usual Messy Church is a mixture of games, child-friendly Jesus songs, craft activities, a story and eating together. The vicar tells the story of Joseph, bringing out the importance of family and forgiveness. The crafts features coats of many colours, camels and silver cups. People are invited to write their prayers for forgiveness on coloured paper cut in the shape and size of their hands and to stick these to a board at the front of the church. We then share in food which church people have brought along – sandwiches, cakes, biscuits and some fruit (up North this is known as a Jacob’s join). Probably we should have thought more clearly about making sure there were halal options, but vegetarian items mean everyone found something they were happy to eat. By five o’ clock the helpers were anxious to start clearing up but several people just wanted to stop and chat, so it took a long time before we could all go home, tired but encouraged.
How do we reflect on what was happening here? The situation has all the characteristics of what William Temple Foundation’s Chris Baker and John Reader have labelled a “blurred encounter”. There were a wide range of expectations and motives in the room. Christians were there with the hope of sharing the gospel. Children from a variety of backgrounds were just happy to be together and to have fun. Parents of various faith backgrounds and none were pleased to have something for the family to do on a cold February afternoon, that didn’t cost anything, and had some free food thrown in.
Sociologically speaking it seems that the parish church, though its close involvement with the school next door, is able to offer a safe social space for the banal everyday encounters on which social cohesion can be built. The school and the relaxed informality of Messy Church, linked with other community involvements such as the job club offer a milieu for building bridging social capital, crossing boundaries of communities which some commentators suggest are trapped in parallel lives. Religion is not in itself a barrier, but rather seems to offer common ground where trust can be built. It is significant too that Messy Church is an environment where women and children go first – perhaps typical male approaches to faith would be more dogmatic and divisive. There can be everyday good neighbourliness, friendship and trust across faith communities at this level. However it is also the case that in the local community there are examples of barriers and racisms directed against Muslims, while we also know of painful and hostile experiences when someone from a Muslim background “comes out” publicly as a follower of Jesus Christ.
Theologically one can also ask what is going on in this situation and how is God at work? A classic evangelical answer would be that to some degree at least, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is being preached, if only implicitly, or at least proclaimed by deeds and attitudes. A more liberal approach would be to stress that the values of acceptance, friendship, trust, love and forgiveness are signs of the Kingdom of God, and of the Holy Spirit at work. Whether or not anyone discerns or names the name of Christ in this situation, God alone knows what is happening in people’s hearts, and He alone is the final judge of us all.
It might be worthwhile to reflect on NT Wright’s recent perspectives on Pauline theologywhere the emphasis is placed not so much on individual justification before God as on incorporation into the multicultural community of those who are “in the Messiah”. However, this raises many questions about how in such blurred encounters and ambiguous social and religious spaces, people may or may not find “salvation” — amidst all the competing definitions of that term one may come across in our theologically diverse environment.