It’s a common lament: we sit there in the mosque, week after week, uninspired and bored. There is nothing for us here, we sigh, listening to the unintelligible oration. But perhaps we are the lucky ones: we have attended the prayer elsewhere in other towns and listened to sermons in English so dreadful and lame that we can only leave in a state of perpetual irritation. Perhaps the sermon in a foreign tongue is a small mercy. Perhaps. This is the lamentable state we find ourselves in.
But every now and then, out of the blue, comes a stranger to inspire us. A visiting imam bringing glad tidings: a considered sermon, carefully prepared to feed the hearts of a jaded community. He speaks with clarity and wisdom; he has sat and studied and learnt. He is fluent in English and Arabic and Urdu. When he recites it is with near perfection, with precision and with passion. The visiting imam is a most welcome guest, causing happiness and joy to spread in our midst. The congregation rejoices: this is what we deserve, we all agree in unison.
Of course when he departs from us, that melancholic gloom descends again, more potent than before. Now the uninspiring sermon is ever more pronounced: the boredom apparently heavier still. Now every little moment of incomprehension is an eternal sore: a wound to our being. This is not what we deserve, we cry within; we deserve so much more than this. We are worthy of so much better. We want a revolution and we want it now!
Sometimes you have to step back and pause for thought and ask yourself, “Is this what it means to be grateful?” To ask: “Is God not aware of our affairs?” To wonder not what our community will do for us, but what we can do for our community. Sometimes you have to reflect more deeply and ponder how different things could be. Instead of sitting on the carpeted floor in a vast pillared prayer hall, could you be squashed in a tiny back room above a shop, kneeling on old curtains set on top of flattened cardboard boxes? Or crammed into a stationery cupboard at work, praying in secret, fearful that Margaret from accounts will come looking for a box of staples just as you’re going down to prostrate before your Lord?
The spacious building in which we find ourselves was not just magicked into existence from thin air. It was the fruit of many years of hard work by individuals in our communities who gave of their time, effort and wealth to buy expensive land, develop workable plans and build bespoke houses of prayer fit for their growing community. Much as we decry the ethnic and tribal cliques that run our mosques, it was largely exclusively these same cliques that built these mosques in the first place. Not an insignificant achievement for a people who arrived in this country with next to nothing forty years ago.
Look around at the mosques in London which now serve cosmopolitan, diverse communities. Where did they come from? With the exception of a few state-sponsored mosques, most of them were also built by impoverished immigrant communities, largely Pakistani and Bengali, who strived when they arrived to fulfill their primary obligations: to gather together for prayer.
And so here we are: residing in obscure market towns and conurbations north and south, blessed with a place of worship in our midst which enables us to fulfill our primary obligations: to gather together for prayer. Few of us do, of course. Except at midday on Fridays, our mosques are severely under-utilised. At fajr, no more than ten people gather to offer prayer. At maghrib, maybe 50; at isha, somewhat less.
We could say we get back what we invest. About 9 years ago the committee of our much maligned local mosque organised weekly Qur’an and Islamic Studies classes in English delivered by a learned teacher from outside their ethnic group. For a few weeks it was attended by over fifty men and women. After a month or so, the number dwindled to about thirty. Then gradually, gradually the numbers dropped off, until finally there were only six people who attended regularly: two ladies and four men. In the end it was hardly worth our teacher’s effort travelling to us and so the remaining students agreed to travel to him instead.
About 3 years ago that very same mosque committee tried to offer that service to the youngsters again, bringing in a young imam who would teach in the mosque in English several evenings each week. But in the end he too moved on, because we as a community did not embrace him and take advantage of the opportunities offered to us. We frequently complain about lack of opportunities, but when they are offered we turn away contemptuously; we demand change, but not if it requires us to change too.
It is easy to criticise the older generation, but much harder to appreciate what they have actually done for us. Sure they have their shortcomings, but they did not come here as scholars. They came to provide cheap labour in the now defunct factories and mills of our insignificant rural towns. Once upon a time, these folk were newcomers too; look what they have achieved.
Perhaps it’s time that we newcomers also asked ourselves what we are going to achieve. Maybe we have strengths they didn’t. Maybe we’re more familiar with British culture than they were. Maybe we better understand the needs of the young. Maybe we can offer something that the previous generations couldn’t. Perhaps that’s our mission for the next 40 years: to work slowly and patiently as the generations before us did to build something. They’ve given us the bricks and mortar; it might be our job to build hearts, to serve neighbours and strangers, to provide social services, to revive sacred traditions, to visit the sick and elderly, to be a helping hand, to be an inspiration to others.
Most of us don’t use our mosques for what they were primarily built for: as a place to offer our daily prayers. Few of us wander down to stand in prayer with the white haired ones. Few of us manage to get to maghrib after work, or isha as the night draws in; don’t even mention fajr. After a long day at work and the tiring commute, dinner time, putting the children to bed, the Seven O’Clock News, the washing up, reading the mountain of paperwork from school, and the trauma of catching up on our Facebook news feed, the idea of leaving our warm homes in the evening to stand in congregation is easily dismissed. We’re just too busy to venture to our mosques for prayer.
If we are to demand change from our mosques, perhaps change needs to come from within. Perhaps we need to change our relationship with these building that stand in our midst: to wander down in the evening to stand in prayer, whether our friends will join us or not. To gladly walk in as the unknown stranger and return home ignored. To humbly supplicate to our Lord, to quietly pray. To remain steadfast despite the loneliness, to make an effort despite the cold. Perhaps, somehow, we need to change ourselves.
“Indeed, God will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.” — Quran 13:11