Birmingham is a multicultural and multi-faith city. Spend five minutes in the heart of the bullring, the city’s main shopping area, and you will pass by Christian and Muslim preachers, a Salvation Army band playing for Jesus, St. Martins Church and a ‘Muslims against terror’ banner. You will note also, differences in people; Sikhs with beards wearing turbans, Muslim families in traditional dress and the occasional roman collar on a Christian cleric of various denominations. I had expected the first mosque I visited, Birmingham Central Mosque, to be large and a similar size to say the local cathedral. I was wrong! By the time prayer began, the large hall was filled end to end with several thousand men standing shoulder to shoulder. It was, with the possible exception of a public audience in St. Peter’s square, the largest religious gathering I had ever been to.
My knowledge of Islam is limited to a few half remembered facts from my GCSE studies at secondary school. I was thinking about this during the first section of preaching which was in Arabic with the exception of the words ‘GCSE Exams’. The congregation was asked to remember students sitting exams, something my own parish priest had done the Sunday before. This was followed by an explanation in English of the requirements of Ramadan including the rules of who had to fast, what to do if you fell temporarily ill and so on. This reminded me of my particularly ‘by the book’ parish priest who at the beginning of Lent had given a homily on who needed to fast and why. I found the imam’s explanation of Ramadan much more interesting, but then I was hearing this with the ears of a stranger.
The similarity of the preaching to my own religious experiences made me relax. What I was not prepared for however was the communal prayer. I found the action of several thousand men falling to their knees in prostration at the same moment and with their heads touching the floor, a strangely moving spectacle. I’m pretty sure in this first mosque, my jaw dropped a little.
The subsequent mosques I visited were smaller in scale and were even more welcoming. At Birmingham central mosque I was by no means neglected. The men around me smiled and shook hands to welcome me, but for the most part I was ignored. Muslims of all races and nationalities united in worship at this mosque whereas the smaller mosques in Birmingham were more like community centres as well as prayer halls. Everyone seemed to know each other which meant I stood out, and this meant therefore, that I was approached and spoken to a little more.
The Green Lane Masjid hosts Eid in the park every year and is the largest Eid gathering in Europe. Unfortunately I visited at a time of sadness for the community. A young man who worshiped at the centre had been found murdered. Emotions were running high and the imam urged people must ‘wake up to what is happening in our community and to our children, before it’s too late’. At a time when it would be understandable to be wary of a stranger visiting I was shown nothing but kindness and welcomed generously. The Masjid had a lively group of volunteers to organise the thousand or so people praying. They made sure I was positioned somewhere I could see without being in the way and introduced me to those people positioned around me.
Next I visited a Shi’a mosque on Clifton road. After being searched for recording devices I was welcomed inside. After the prayer and preaching, I was given a guided tour of the mosque and had an opportunity to ask some questions to deepen my understanding whilst offered hot tea.
The final Masjid I visited was very small. Where the prayer halls I had visited previously could fit 1000-4000 people inside, the Sparkbrook mosque could fit 100, possibly 150 people. Consequently everyone knew each other and there was a friendly atmosphere. Each time someone entered the room they would say ‘salam’ and everyone would respond. One old gentleman walked along the rows offering a perfume to anoint hands and feet. It was very busy but I was welcomed none the less.
I was asked to consider the relationship between Christian and Muslim prayer and whether I felt I could pray in a Muslim prayer space. I found all of the prayer halls to be spiritual places. In the quite before the main prayer, with people studying the Quran and sitting on the comfortable carpet, I found it quite easy to pray. However during the main prayer I could not. Whilst I found the movement mesmeric and emotionally moving, I was brought up in the Benedictine tradition of quite contemplative prayer. To pray in an Islamic way, I would struggle.
At each of the mosques I visited I was made welcome. In most instances I turned up unexpectedly with limited explanation of what I was doing. Had I been them I would have given me a wide birth, or at the very least questioned my purpose for being there but these communities didn’t. At worst I was treated with indifference, as if it was normal for a stranger to be there, at best, my interest in the details of prayer life were encouraged. I feel I have gained a far better understanding and respect for Birmingham’s Muslim community; Shi’a, Sunni and Ahmadi. I believe more people, particularly in the cities where there is an opportunity to do so, should spend time visiting their local mosques. I feel it is important to learn more about our neighbours and educate ourselves in their culture and religious traditions. In doing so I believe there would a lot less fear, much less hate and perhaps we could begin to heal some of the divisions of recent years.
The Columban ‘Faith in Action’ programme is an appointment for enthusiastic young adults to join the Columban Mission team in Britain, to explore their faith through active participation in mission and to give their time, skills and energy in support of disadvantaged and vulnerable people. We are excited to be recruiting not one but two local young adult volunteers to embark on an year of personal development and growth beginning in September 2021.
THE CLOSING DATE FOR APPLICATIONS FOR THIS ROLE IS NOON ON THE 14TH MAY 2021.
Eid al-Fitr, also known as the ‘Festival of Breaking the Fast’ celebrates the final evening of Ramadan. This year it falls on Wednesday 12th May. This religious holiday is celebrated by Muslims worldwide and marks the end of Ramadan, a period of a month during which people will abstain from eating food and drinking between sunrise and sunset. Following many years of community engagement in and around the city of Birmingham, the Columbans are actively involved in grassroots initiatives that bring together people from different faith traditions, cultures and religions.