Mosques in Britain – where do we go from here?
As the number of practicing Muslims in the UK has steadily grown since the 1950s, the number of mosques in Britain unsurprisingly has also risen. Many of them have a story to tell, whether it’s through its congregants, its decor, in its position in the town or city in which it is located, each facet can potentially make up one small part in the multicultural story of post-colonial Britain. For example, given the number of Muslim immigrants to the country were (and many still are) part of the working or lower middle classes, many mosques were originally not purpose built, and started in any kind of location that could be found. Whether it be in an abandoned church, pub, shop front or so on. As time progressed and the congregation grew, the mosque was built upon, enlarged and improved. As one mosque got too busy and full, or more Muslims shifted to a different part of town, another one was built, and that was eventually enlarged and improved.
Now, we’ve reached a stage for someone living in a major urban centre such as London, finding a place to pray is not an issue. But unfortunately, given the number of different groups and organisations that have developed in the UK, these mosques very seldomly work together in any kind of cohesion, and what results are a number of different issues that affect the community at large. Eid on different days, the continuation of sectarian divides, the lack of sharing of resources, there are a number of problems mosques in the UK face today. Yet however we continually see up and down the country new ones being built or rebuilt. In some areas such as Cambridge or Canterbury, both places I’ve lived in, there is only one main mosque in the city, and the building of a new larger one is required to meet the basic needs of the community. But in larger urban areas such as London, Birmingham or Manchester, the problem isn’t so much that the city needs a place to pray, it’s just because there’s a particular area within the city that isn’t close enough to a mosque for people to attend regularly.
What this results in now is the constant demand for funds to build new mosques, and as the standard has now been set on what a mosque in Britain should be like, an inaccurate standard in my opinion, the councils for these mosques go out seeking funds that are just not within the wider community’s budget. Because your standard Mosque has a dome and minaret, your new one needs to have one as well, the other mosques don’t have an English speaking imam or resources for new converts, so don’t worry about that, no one expects that from you. As the community has diversified and grown beyond its immigrant working class heritage, unfortunately many of its place of worship haven’t.
So what is a potential solution for mosques in Britain to improve? In many Muslim countries you have a concept of a Jami’ mosque, a large mosque within a city centre that is built to cater for the large number of people who need to attend Friday prayers. You then also have a number of smaller ‘satellite’ mosques, “non-Jami’” that are built for the standard five daily prayers, so that people don’t have to walk long distances to attend prayers in congregation. Traditionally these mosques would work as ‘back ups’ in case the Jami’ mosque got too full on Friday. I think we as a continually growing community need to look at this option for our mosques in this country. Rather than continuously building large Jami’ mosques, pockets of Muslims in areas where the nearest mosque is not walking distance away should set up small centres of gathering for the five daily prayers. This can be as simple a place as a converted shed or garage, a handful of people who are the most knowledgeable in faith from this microcosm of people take on the responsibility of leading the prayers, and at most you have somewhere between 20-30 congregants (including women). On searching Google I can’t find the UK legislation that deals with organising gatherings of private worship at home, but you wouldn’t place the mosque in an area where people would have to drive to get there, it would solely be for people in the surrounding streets. The benefits of performing worship in this way are numerous. People who would generally not attend prayers, or those who faced difficulty in attending them in the main mosque, would now find it a lot easier. You would get to know who your neighbours are, you would meet them on a regular basis, as opposed to the large number of people you could potentially meet at a large-scale mosque. This leads you to finding out when your neighbours need any help, whether it be financial or otherwise, you can ascertain if someone living nearby is eligible for zakat and give them your donation, as opposed to a faceless charity online. Because the mosque is a community based initiative by local people, you avoid sectarian divisions, partisan mosque committees are not required, but scholars should still be consulted when needed. Gatherings of knowledge can be more commonplace and personal if there is a person of knowledge who lives nearby who can carry out classes and gatherings of dhikr. Women who were forgotten about or ignored by larger mosques have a simpler place to meet and seek knowledge if they choose to.
In this way you start a centre of spiritual development from the root. Rather than focusing on the exoteric features of the building, you start off in the way of the Prophet’s (ﷺ) mosque, a place of gathering and remembrance that builds on the faith of the local people. By making initiatives in the grass roots we have the potential to develop and progress our community collectively much more than large organisations who face many diseconomies of scale. We have traditionally been a people focused on community, yet we lack much that others have, especially when you look at the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, the Ahmadiyya, or the Dawoodi Bohras, they look out for one another, they help each other when they need it, because they know who is who in their community and they find out who needs help. We lack that, and there’s many reasons for it, but as we grow we need to change, and for that to happen we need to do things a little differently going forward.