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.
The old Pakistani uncle at the mosque is due his seventy excuses too.1 People like me are often found muttering taciturn complaints about the unfriendliness we perceive in our fellow travellers when we come together for prayer. In weeks and weeks it could be as if we are not even there, as if ghosts standing in line.
But to give your brother seventy excuses was the lesson I learned when I returned to the mosque after some months’ absence. There was a time—when I was doing better—that saw me hurry there for every prayer, until laziness got the better of me. My Lord would note my disappearance, I told myself, but no one else would miss me.
I was wrong. As I wandered into the mosque that afternoon, an old, white-haired man with weak English got up from his place and headed straight for me. ‘Where on earth have you been?’ he asked me, ‘We thought you’d fallen dead.’
A minute later another approached to ask after me. Had I been away? Had I been ill? Um, no, I muttered, I’ve just… ‘Well as long as you’re alive and well,’ he interjected, sensing my inability to account for the months that had passed.
It is difficult to prise many words from these old folk. Salam alaikum is usually all they will spare, or the occasional, ‘How are you brother?’ We don’t have conversations, but that afternoon encounter taught me much. Perhaps they’re shy. Perhaps English isn’t their strong point. Perhaps they’re waiting for me to strike up the discussion. Perhaps their mind is on the prayer. Perhaps they have problems at home on their mind. And for the literalist, this is only seven percent of the excuses due to them.
Nowadays I attend the midday prayer each working day in another town. The folk there don’t seem all that friendly either, but here I have learnt to give them their seventy excuses too. We may not sit and chat when we come together for prayer, but still we are brothers to one another, witnessed in random acts of kindness.
My office lies a fifteen minute walk from the mosque—a hurried march there beside main roads set apart from my leisurely saunter back along the cobbled streets of the old town. It is in this daily journey that I learned my lesson, for I have lost count of the number of times someone has stopped to give me a lift. Often I don’t even recognise them as they come to a halt beside me, tooting their horn, but it doesn’t seem to matter. ‘Salam alaikum,’ they say as I peer in at them, ‘Do you want a lift?’ Or, ‘You’re going to miss the jamat. Jump in.’
Most of the time we don’t strike up conversation. We exchange salams and I reiterate my gratitude, but that’s it. But it does not matter. These random acts of kindness serve to remind me that things are not always as they seem. When someone is silent it doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t like you; they may just have nothing to say.
Sometimes I am too hard on people, jumping to conclusions and making assumptions about them. And sometimes I fail to give credit where it’s due. Bumping into a couple of friends from Arab lands after Friday prayer one week, conversation soon turned on our favourite bugbear: the incomprehensible Urdu speech followed by the hastily sung generic Arabic sermon. It’s a problem, I had to agree, but then another thought occurred to me. ‘Of course,’ I said, ‘were it not for these people, we wouldn’t have a place to pray at all.’
Beside me, my friend stopped and smiled. ‘That’s very true,’ he said, and soon we were considering our own shortcomings. And there were many.
- “If a friend among your friends errs, make seventy excuses for them. If your hearts are unable to do this, then know that the shortcoming is in your own selves.” — Hamdun al-Qassar, narrated by Imam Bayhaqi in his Shu`ab al-Iman 7.522. ↩
Tonight on Dispatches – Muslim fundamentalists claim that cleanliness is next to Godliness, but our under cover investigation reveals an atmosphere of whiffiness spreading through Britain
Mullah Nasrideen: We Muslims have lost the mop
Abu Imran: Jif is bid’a
A Dispatches investigation has uncovered the stinkiest toilets in England, spreading from the basement of mosques run by major UK organisations which claim to be dedicated to the message of Islam, to cleanliness, good manners and civilisation.
Caption: Undercover filming
Our reporter went undercover last summer, joining thousands of worshippers. He’s staying anonymous. After his foot got trapped in the sink. The enamel had turned brown and smelt like chicken and rice.
Caption: 9 August 2006
Our undercover reporter discovered this toilet hasn’t been cleaned in three years. He asks the cleaner why?
Abu Imran: Why should I clean it? It has its own cistern. It automatically cleans itself when you flush. Brown is the new black anyway.
The imam didn’t want our reporter talking to the cleaner for long.
Mullah Nasrideen: This is exactly why we can’t afford toilet cleaning fluid. The man’s always talking. If he would just stop talking we might be able to afford some soap.
Shots of manual of Fiqh
This book contains a whole chapter on ritual purification. But our reporter filmed there in a mosque for over four months, and found that nobody cleaned the toilets once.
Fatima Khan investigates smelly toilets. She keeps her face hidden in interviews because of the dangers of her work; plungers and squat toilets are an explosive combination.
Fatima Khan: Muslims believe that cleanliness is half of the religion and that it’s next to Godliness, but nowadays the ummah is engaged in important debates about the kuffar, so we have to make compromises.
Not cleaning the toilet is opposed to the traditional beliefs of classical Islam, according to leading Muslim academic Dr Ali.
Dr Ali: We tell non-Muslims that our way of life is best, but they can smell that the stench coming from our bathrooms. We don’t understand the irony when we call them dirty kuffar.
Our undercover reporter discovered just how far the culture of leaving the toilets to clean themselves goes in mosques up and down the country when he dropped his hidden camera down the trap by accident. Find out what he discovered in Part Two.
Disclaimer: This is satire. It did not really happen, although, yes, it may sound familiar.
At the end of the summer last year, we spent our days between visits to a clinic in Jihangir, Istanbul. While its views over the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn beyond were stunning, I was not too keen on those streets. In this secular quarter and haunt of expats, wine shops outnumbered grocery stores. In the rising heat there was often an unpleasant smell, for the area’s pet owners would not clean up after them. These streets had a continental European feeling to them and indeed conversations in French, German and English were often within earshot. Pehaps Jihangir’s most famous resident is the writer, Orhan Pamuk, whose apartment I always passed on my way to the mosque. My heart in Istanbul lies in a place inland called Gunesli – it is not beautiful, it does not have grand views and its residents are far from rich – but in its huge mosque in its centre into which pour local shop keepers for every prayer, there is a sense of iman. Jihangir is a place without spirit, a pale imitation of a Parisian street, losing itself in Efes Pilsner.
But on Fridays, a beacon lights on that hillside overlooking the Bosphorus and the Marmara Sea. The adhan calling me from Jihangir’s eroding minarets, I would wander down the road to join my jamat. Nobody ever looked at me and stared, for in this land of different hues, nothing indicated that I was an Englishman. Sitting on the carpet, the sun streaming through the open windows, the voices of foghorns down on the water below would greet us. Seeing young men entering in droves through the antique doors was a true delight, having recently returned from Artvin Province where the toothless, grey-haired ones dominated the mosques, though even they were small in number. These youthful faces were not locals, but came here for employment: my visits for Asr and Maghrib met with an elderly jamat numbering no more than five.
With every period of darkness, when my life seems so distant from the Prophetic ideal, I recall that beacon on the hillside. In the midst of despair there can still be light. And where did that beacon lead me? Warmed by dhikr after jummah, refreshed and renewed, we packed up and moved on to Gunesli, where salams are exchanged on its streets.