The Friday prayer is meant to be a joyous event in the Muslim week, something which we are all obliged to attend as one of our religious duties. So why do I leave feeling so irritated, so unrefreshed? It is alienation. More precisely it is the use of language. Ours is a diverse community: while the majority of Muslims in our town hail from Pakistan, we have a population deriving from several continents. There are West African, Malay, North African, English, Bengali, Turkish and Arabic Muslim families living here. We are a diverse community, but all of us who do not speak classical Urdu (including a significant proportion of young people with Pakistani roots) are cut off from our faith week after week.
I believe that the Imam is a good man – I have listened to the sound of his oration and it is clearly lyrical, inspiring those who understand him – and I know the situation in our mosque is much better than so many other places throughout the country, but the language barrier really troubles me. Today I watched him as he smiled with amazement at the story he was telling about the Prophet, peace be upon him, his congregation repeating, ‘Subhanullah‘ over and over. Those who could understand him were clearly inspired, smiling too and nodding their heads – but there were many of us looking bewildered because we seem to be unworthy of benefiting from his sermon. It was just at that moment that my irritation peaked. Why do we have to put up with this week after week?
It is not that we have a large immigrant community that has only just arrived, for which excuses could easily be made. The first generation has been living in the town for over forty years – as one old man proudly told me when he mistook me for an East European upstart who had to be told his place. Personally I’m quite a patient individual, one who believes that change will come: it’s only a matter of time. I have moved to this community having experienced the ethnically-diverse, cosmopolitan mosques of London and have had the opportunity to witness the behaviour of Muslims from a wide variety of backgrounds: thus I’m hardly going to be attracted by extremisms and strange ideologies. But what of younger folk who haven’t been around all that much? Could we not say they are easy prey for eloquent speakers – no, not even eloquent speakers: just people who simply speak their language? I think we could.
I am not calling on people to abandon their rich lyrical heritage – a dear friend of mine often opined how English poetry paled beside Urdu verse – only to recognise that the common language of the land in which we live is English. We live in a multi-cultural society and this works both ways. The town council and local health service provide translations of publications and interpreting services, recognising that our population is linguistically diverse. It is time that the leaders within the Muslim community recognised this too. After racial tensions in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, many within the British establishment realised that something had to change, that accommodations had to be made. The result has largely been good, whatever the current retractors may claim. It would be nice if the leaders in our community learned something from this experience.
As an English speaking Englishman in England – not to mention an English Muslim who believes that the majority of Muslim values happen to be traditional English values – I fear I may be about to lose my patience. All I want is to be able to attend my local mosque on a Friday afternoon and be able to understand the sermon. Is that really too much to ask?