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Eat, Pray, Learn: The Many Roles of Mosques in Britain

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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.

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Society is Starving: What Religion Taught Me About Food

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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

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