By Mahera Ruby
Most Muslims are very proud of the historical presence of Muslims in Britain for at least the past 300 years, since the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Seamen came from Yemen settling in small communities in Cardiff, Liverpool, London, South Shields and Tyneside setting up small prayer rooms to help them meet and pray together. We are even more enthusiastic in sharing the history of prominent British Muslim intellectuals, who began to emerge during the late 19th century, responsible for establishing the first mosque at Woking in Surrey.
This surge of Islamic spirit continued into the early 20th century with a group of prominent British Muslims, including Lord Headley and Syed Ameer Ali, who met in central London and formally established the London Mosque Fund, to finance the building of a mosque in the capital. In 1941 the East London Mosque Trust purchased three buildings in Commercial Road, Stepney, and converted them into London’s first mosque. In the 1980s the East London Mosque moved to its present site in Whitechapel Road. At a similar time in the 1940’s the current site for Central Mosque situated in London’s Regent’s Park was presented to the Muslim community as a gift from the British government. Since then there are now over 1,000 mosques all over Britain.
Often our mosques were founded by energetic pioneers with little in the way of money or resources. They have become hubs within our communities, earning their place in the Muslim history of this country as places of prayer, enlightenment, refuge and comfort for those they aim to serve – most usually, MEN.
Majority have and are seen as ‘prayer clubs for men’. Every mosque committee will confidently say they are following the ‘Prophet’s model’, raise money from their worshippers to make the sites bigger and better, and yet a vital and most important portion of the community are neglected and not catered for – the Women and the youth. Yes, I do agree there are genuine limitations, as most places of prayer are converted flats, small houses and do not have the capacity to accommodate this section of the community. However, what does worry me are the attitudes of the people who are responsible for running these places, who openly alienate and are hostile to women and the youth and rarely have any arrangements or programmes at all for new converts, especially women.
I believe as I’m sure many would agree that it is time to re-think the role of our mosques. Our mosque facilities and our people-skills are the most valuable assets our communities possess. Now we are in the 21st century, we must develop what we have, and move forward to recreate our mosques as places buzzing with spiritual blessing and of care and compassion, not only for men but for the whole community, including the non-Muslims. I sincerely believe the most constructive way forward is to have people on management committees that represent the wider community, men, women, youth, professionals and the Islamic scholars that can address the needs of the community openly and objectively. I know this can work because I am part of such a committee of a large mosque. This wholesome representation and levels of expertise has allowed this particular mosque to grow from strength to strength, where every part of the community from far and wide feels there is something in it for them.
What are some of the strengths in having women on the committee? We are able to share what our needs are as women and this can be met from a faith perspective. Hence a women’s project has been set up and fully supported by the staff and committee members of our particular mosque. Women can also have an input into the education programmes that are running as professionals and as educators of our children. We can give our views on all matters discussed and give confidence to the women that are the cornerstone of our society; that they have a role to play as did the women during the time of the Prophet (SAW).
In ten years time I hope to see this model grow and become a ‘natural’ part of mosque settings. Mosques where, in ten years time, women will be able to seek Shari‘a advice from female scholars; where our new generation of women can be taught by home grown female scholars that understand the context in which we live in. A provision where there will be something for the whole community with women playing a key role and their contribution celebrated rather than put on paperwork to meet the criteria for funding or even just for the sake of minutes!
I look forward to seeing a change in ten years time, where we as Muslims will be the pioneers for social change, driven through our mosque institutions with our men, women, and the youth at the forefront of these changes – Amin.
Mahera Ruby is a researcher in Education with Goldsmiths College, University of London. She has served as a central mosque committee member for the East London Mosque and London Muslim Centre. Historically the mosque is the first to be established in London and the largest of its kind in Europe, serving thousands of Muslims in London and attracting visitors from the UK and abroad. She is also head of Muslimaat UK, a national community based Muslim women’s organisation that works to bring about the empowerment of women and positive change in Britain for all.
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