This is part 3 of my journey to discover if, and how, Londoners still practice religion. I started off by visiting Chiswick’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral and then visited the Thai Buddhapadipa Temple in Wimbledon. This time my quest brings me closer to downtown, between Conan Doyle’s Baker Street and leafy St. John’s Woods, where the golden dome of London’s Central Mosque stands.
Islam is undoubtedly the second largest religion in London, and it’s growing. It’s also, given the current geopolitical situation, one of the most controversial ones and this made me quite unsure on the best way to approach it. Initially it seemed that the problem wouldn’t really need to be faced, for all my efforts to land a visit to a mosque ended nowhere. Then, finally, I remembered the large, golden dome peeking from between the trees in Regent’s Park: it’s not the latest addition to somebody’s swanky mansion, even though you’d be excused to think about it, given the kind of borough we’re talking about, but it’s actually the ICC. I emailed them expecting, as usual, silence… but then, straight away, I got a mail back from Jayde, Interfaith and Mosque visits Co-ordinator. So, one evening after work, I found myself walking along Park road, looking at the dome gleaming in the sunset. It also was the moment when I realised that I’d left my camera home and only had my antediluvian phone. Talk about planning.
Unlike the other places of worship I had visited in this series, where I could simply rock up and basically gatecrash whatever was going on, the ICC had a more elaborated approach. A small guard post stood by the entrance to the sahn, the courtyard that most Mosques have; a sign informed the visitors that CCTV was in action and another, more worryingly, said that abusive behaviour and insults will be dealt with by calling security.
Jayde was the perfect host. Lively, arms-waving enough to yield her an Italian passport, she had converted to Islam about two years prior to our meeting. Readers of the Daily Mail would’ve probably shivered at the news, fearing that she might proceed to behead me, all while posting the whole affair on Youtube. Well, unfortunately for them, that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Jayde’s conversion was, as she told me, the result of a process of sublimation of her religious consciousness, a process that started from believing in an abstract concept of deity to finding the divine message in the Qur’an particularly suited to her. It was, as she told me, a long process made of lengthy reads and studies: quite far from the idea of someone being radicalised by some idiot on Internet.
Originally, I had decided to make a point not to mention of the bad press that is swamping Islam ever since 9/11 but then I decided not to. You see, there have been too many instances, in our history, when problems went off the Richter scale because they had been ignored for too long. And, as you will see reading on, this is what made my visit so enjoyable, at least for me. So, while we were crossing the sahn, I asked the first of many awkward questions.
‘So tell me: this dome… is it really gold-plated?’ (added eye-wink).
Unfortunately, it wasn’t. It was, instead, made of bronze or copper – the first, I suspect – and would be due to be polished again soon, for it hadn’t been since the Mosque’s opening in 1977.
Building a mosque in London had been a long time coming. Many attempts were made during the years, culminating in an effort from Lord Lloyd of Dolobran, Secretary of State for the Colonies, who lobbied Winston Churchill to build one given the fact that Muslims, who constituted the majority of the Empire’s subject, didn’t have a place of worship in the capital of the Empire itself.
Years passed by and, finally, a designed from Sir Frederick Gibberd was selected. The construction started in earnest in 1973 and, similarly to Rome’s Great Mosque, a sort of Arabic Dream Team assembled to finance and administer it: the King of Saudi Arabia and UAE’s Sheik opened up their wallets, whereas an Al-Azhar University laureate was Imam. Nowadays the mosque is administered by a specially appointed Trust, whose board comprehends several ambassadors from Muslim countries.
The ICC is a large campus comprehending a cafeteria, a library, a cultural centre, administrative offices, a bookshop and, obviously, the large prayer hall. As it happened for pre-Council churches, men and women pray in separate places, a separation justified – as the Church did – by the need of avoiding distractions.
Prayer time was fast approaching (Muslims are asked to pray five times a day) and Jayde encouraged me to have a wander about the prayer hall, were few faithfuls were busy praying or reading copies of the Qur’an lined on shelves. It was a nice environment, a wide room with windows on both sides and a glorious dome covered in classic Islamic geometric motifs, as well as verses of the Book.
We then visited an exhibition about Islam and Mohammad, its founder. We discussed how Islam perceives itself as, in a way, the completion of the revelations made by the Bible and by the Christian Gospels (even though their message has been altered in time). I learned the special role played by Jesus and, surprisingly, by the Virgin Mary. I knew a little bit of Islamic history and theology, but it started growing on me that what I was reading and discussing with Jayde was quite at odds with what mouth-foaming lunatics babble about nowadays in Mosul, on the Afghan mountains and, up until not long ago, in Finsbury Park.
Jayde was emphatically keen on underlining what I was starting to notice. “It’s as if they took the Qur’an and decided to skip all the parts where it talks about mercy, respect and friendship”. She told me that, for instance, the ICC was open – and routinely visited – by Shia Muslims, the version of Islam practiced in Iran, Iraq and many Gulf states, branded ‘heretics’ and brutally attacked by the Al Qaeda thugs. She mentioned that the ICC also brokered workshops on inter-faith dialogue between the ICC itself, one of St. John’s Wood many synagogues and the Church of England. There might have been a bit of, let’s call it, self promotion and pride for her own employer but… honestly, an imam, a priest and a rabbi sitting together and discussing God without anyone of them ended up stabbed? Is it too much to ask the Daily Express to report about it?
Then, suddenly, the adhan, the call to prayer, sounded in the hall and above our conversation. We climbed back upstairs, witnessing the unfolding events from the open gates of the prayer hall: an imam, one of the four on roster, was leading the congregation: dressed in white, facing the mihrab, or the niche indicating the direction of Mecca, he was reciting a number of verses of the Qur’an. Suddenly a middle-aged man, a boy in tow, passed us and – with a wave and a flurry of words I didn’t quite get – invites us in. I glanced at Jayde with my best “Who-the-Hell-is-that-guy?” look, to which she replied “He’s the head imam”.
Happily we obliged, taking position in a corner of the great hall while three row of men – some of whom in bus driver uniforms, some in the high-vis that Westminster city council gives to its street cleaners, some in elegant attire – went to their hands and knees to pray God. And there we were, the very end of the room, near the security guard, invited to attend by an Al-Azhar laureate at the dusk prayer in London’s Central Mosque. I know it’ll never happen, but I wish that – for once – such a moment could be making news, not the usual gore and violence we’re all so fed up with.