The changing shape of Britain’s mosques
The Makkah Masjid mosque in Leeds. Credit: Getty Images
How Muslims are learning how to adapt their places of worship to 21st-century society.
The mosques of my early childhood in 1970s Glasgow were converted three-storey Georgian and Victorian homes with small gardens, in Pollokshields and Shawlands. They had names like Masjid Noor (Mosque of Light) and Madrasa Taleem ul Islam (School of Islamic Education). Dozens of men and women came to pray separately, even though they’ve prayed together in Mecca since the birth of Islam 1,400 years ago. In summer, male worshippers would kneel outdoors.
These mosques were either too damp, too cold or too warm, but they were friendly. On days such as the annual Eid al-Fitr prayers, which mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan, they were noisy from 7am with hundreds of men queuing to pray, impatient to return to work. A series of loudspeakers amplified instructions from the imam: “Can everyone stand in line, please?” or “Mothers, please control your children.” Strangers would politely hug each other at the end of the prayer; old men distributed sweets. The young, unestablished Muslim community couldn’t yet afford childcare, and babies could be heard crying throughout the worship.
Over the last few decades, a lack of public awareness about mosques has understandably led to confusion and untruths. According to a YouGov poll commissioned by the Muslim Council of Britain in February, almost 90 per cent of Britons have never visited a mosque. A 2016 ComRes poll released by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association discovered that nearly 43 per cent of more than 2,000 adults thought Islam was a negative force in the UK.
In the Fifties and Sixties, when Muslims first began arriving to the UK in significant numbers from an Asian subcontinent experiencing the aftershocks of empire, they sought jobs and accommodation, and they also required prayer rooms. The economic reality of immigration meant the first mosques in the UK were housed in modest living rooms throughout industrial cities such as Leeds, Cardiff, Aberdeen, Dundee, Bradford, Manchester and Birmingham. Britain’s earliest observant Muslims – some of whom were bus drivers and industrial workers – would find a peaceful location inside bus depots and on factory floors to pray. By the Seventies, Muslims had organised into small committees, raised donations and purchased homes to convert into mosques, maintained by salaried staff.
In 1981, my family relocated to Pakistan for nearly two years with the intention of resettling in the country my parents had left as teenagers. My father had lived in the UK for two decades – a period rewarded by work and friendship – but he felt the gravitational pull of Pakistan. We lived briefly in the Mughal city of Bhakkar, with gardens full of oranges and mangoes, before moving to Lahore. Our neighbourhood had one mosque, a small Raj-era building nestled between shops on either side. A narrow staircase led to the summit of a minaret. We spent school holidays exploring the old Mughal quarter of the city, and visiting the magnificent Badshahi Mosque, hewn out of fiery red sandstone imported from Rajasthan by Aurangzeb in 1673.
In our predominantly green residential area, the call to prayer could be heard five times a day. For youngsters, the imam’s voice served as a series of alarms – morning, school, lunchtime, dusk, sleep. On Eid, we would walk to the mosque and return home to a late breakfast of sweet vermicelli covered in pistachios. We returned to Glasgow in 1982, when I was nearly ten. In the two years we’d been away, some of Glasgow’s Asian grocery store owners and bus drivers had accumulated enough wealth to diversify into big box stores, import and export businesses and events catering companies. The following year saw the opening of Glasgow Central Mosque, funded by local authority grants and private donations. The mosque can accommodate 2,500 worshippers and sits on a landscaped four-acre site on the south side of the Clyde.
Inside London Central Mosque in Regent’s Park
In literature, churches are places of drama, beauty, romance, healing; vessels for departing souls. Mosques, which have existed in all four corners of the United Kingdom for 130 years, inhabit no such three-dimensional place in modern Western culture. Instead, they are venues of clandestine activity, or alien and illegal behaviour.
When extremist or violent groups seek to intimidate Muslims, they don’t visit the offices of Gulf-owned sovereign wealth funds, or the private surgeries of successful Asian doctors – they hurl bags of rotten pork at inner-city mosques or hold crosses outside religious schools.
Yet if Britons wish to better fathom the changing world they inhabit – around 50 per cent of UK Muslims attend mosque once a week, while Church of England congregations are shrinking – they could start by examining the topography of their evolving neighbourhoods. One encouraging sign is the success of the annual Visit My Mosque Day, which saw 200 British mosques open their doors to the public in February. During Ramadan, which ends in mid-June, many mosques offer free community dinners to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
A new book called The British Mosque: an Architectural and Social History, published by Historic England, offers a rich counterview of Islam’s contribution to British architecture over nearly 130 years. The author and architect Shahed Saleem begins with the 1889 transformation of a Georgian home in Liverpool into the first prayer house in England; the project was accomplished by 20 English converts who were led by the local lawyer Abdullah William Quilliam. Saleem’s generously illustrated book tracks the course of 20th-century immigration and ends with the designs of future mosques, inspired as much by science fiction as they are by Mecca and Medina.
In March, Historic England gave five British mosques new or upgraded listings in recognition of their architectural, cultural and historic importance. The sites include the first purpose-built Muslim place of worship, Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking (Grade I) and London Central Mosque in Regent’s Park (Grade II*). Saleem focuses on the history of design in Muslim houses of worship – minarets inspired by South Asia, domes imported from the Middle East and ornate carpets influenced by the history of the Turkish empire.
Yet historically mosques have been at the centre of British politics and society. Ever since the future founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, attended the annual Eid prayer at Shah Jahan Mosque in 1932 and contributed to discussions about a name for a post-Raj homeland for India’s Muslims, mosques have played an intrinsic role in Britain’s empire and relationship with its post-colonial self.
In late 1988, as the furore over the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses intensified, British mosques were the site of discussions – where Muslims deliberated their response to the book – and a few organised protests such as book burnings. More concerning today is the evidence that Saudi Arabia funds a small number of British mosques that propagate an austere and extreme Wahhabi view of Islam, responsible for radicalising young Britons.
The UK, home to about 2.8 million Muslims (3 per cent of the population) has around 1,500 mosques or prayer rooms, only 16 per cent of them purpose built. The view that mosques are dedicated solely to acts of worship is misleading: larger mosques concentrate most of their efforts on charitable work. London Central Mosque and Manchester Central Mosque provide English classes for all denominations, lessons for underprivileged youth, and sports coaching.
Mosques also host weddings and funerals, and raise aid money for international causes such as the plight of the Rohingya and the victims of Boko Haram. In the event of a death, Muslim families can ask managing committees for assistance: in return for an annual fee of about £80, mosques provide a burial service, which includes the cost of a casket and, if required, repatriation to any country of origin.
Many Britons would learn more about their neighbours by observing Muslims during prayers. The Islamic prayer is both a function of practicality and a reflection of its birth in the desert regions of the Arabian Gulf. Prayers are an unornamented ritual which, for dutiful Muslims, take place five times a day, seven days a week. The act requires no iconography, no book, no imam and not even a mosque. Muslims need merely satisfy the demands of ablution and wear clean clothing. Only the Friday prayer – where attendance is encouraged but not mandatory – requires Muslims to follow an imam during a short, prescribed service.
A visualisation of the planned £13m Salaam Centre in Harrow, north-west London
Since 11 September 2001, British mosques have sometimes become locations of international concern, as with the Green Lane mosque in Birmingham or north London’s Finsbury Park Mosque, where Abu Hamza was imam from 1997 to 2003; or of tragedy, as in the death of 51-year-old Makram Ali, who was killed last summer by Darren Osborne outside Muslim Welfare House, also in Finsbury Park. But the discord between communities who want to build mosques and those who seek to prevent them predates the World Trade Center attack by more than a decade.
In 1989, Gérard Dezempte, the mayor of Charvieu, an industrial French town east of Lyon, ordered a bulldozer to demolish two deserted buildings next to a mosque. The mosque – also used as a cultural centre and religious school – was destroyed at the same time. Dezempte said that the wrecking company had made an error, but he had pursued the mosque’s demolition for years.
When he ran for re-election in 1989, a few months before the mosque was torn down, his opposition to the construction of a new mosque was one foundation of his platform. His campaign literature warned that a new prayer hall would send local property values diving by 60 per cent. In the end, Dezempte won with 67 per cent of the vote. After the mosque was demolished, he proposed that a referendum decide whether Charvieu should be the site of a new mosque. He said only French citizens should be eligible to vote.
The disquiet over Islam has surfaced in other countries, too. In 2009, 57 per cent of voters in a referendum in Switzerland moved to impose a national ban on the construction of new minarets. Facts appeared to be in short supply: Switzerland has 150 mosques or prayer rooms; only four have minarets. Muslims make up 5 per cent of the Swiss population. During the referendum campaign, largely driven by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, posters showed a woman wearing a black niqab standing in front of rows of black, missile-shaped minarets emerging from a Swiss flag.
“There is an anxiety among Europeans who have given up on religion in terms of identification and behaviour,” said Jocelyne Cesari, director of the Islam in the West programme at Harvard University. “In Europe, there is a deep conviction that in order to be a good citizen you have to give up on religion in the public space. Muslims say, ‘We are good citizens and also good members of our congregation.’”
In recent years, mosque design in the UK has come under scrutiny from architects and critics – some of them Muslims. In 2002, the Guardian’s then architecture critic Jonathan Glancey described most British mosques as “brick boxes with minarets” and “determinedly glum”. In the same newspaper David Shariatmadari wrote: “There’s nothing awe-inspiring about a Barratt home, and these are the religious versions.”
What these writers don’t take into account is that most British mosques are built by poor communities who have function in mind, not form. In 2015, Sayeeda Warsi, the former Conservative Party chairman, argued that mosques would look more “quintessentially English” if they were designed without minarets, adding that there was “no reason why” mosques could not resemble English village churches (“It is not for me to say what that would look like”).
“I understand the sentiment… even if it is simple way of saying it,” said Shahed Saleem, who founded the architectural firm Makespace. “I think from a design point of view that mosques should speak a number of different languages. Rather than saying they should be English or European or British – those terms aren’t helpful or accurate.”
Many of the UK’s most striking Muslim places of worship – Glasgow Central Mosque, Manchester Central Mosque – appeared two or three decades after the arrival of the immigrant communities who funded their construction. “It takes a high level of security in your own identity to be able to start reinterpreting and representing your community and your culture,” said Saleem. “Many minority communities are still trying to figure [that out], the tenuousness of settlement and cultural identity.”
One possible new avenue of mosque design, sometimes referred to as “Arabesque”, takes its cue from the oil-wealthy cities of the Arabian Gulf, where state-funded public spaces such as Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat can house audiences of up to 40,000. They’re enhanced with white marble, latticed steel frames, fountains, dynamic lighting and interactive displays. The buildings, often set in streets lined with date trees against a backdrop of the waters of the Gulf, have a modern opulence when compared to the ancient places of worship in the West.
A strong example of future “Arabesque” can be found in the sleek white lines, luminescent glow and fractal latticework of the upcoming £13m Salaam Centre in Harrow, funded by British Muslim business owners and designed by Mangera Yvars Architects. Unlike most mosques, its prayer hall will be visible from outside.
Its design is both Islamic and ambiguous. In acknowledgment of austerity measures which have seen local authorities close more than 340 libraries and 500 children’s centres in the UK since 2010, the complex will accommodate 1,200 people, a gym and restaurant, and will function as both a mosque and a multi-faith community facility.
“The problem in the UK is that commissioning bodies often have a lack of understanding of what a mosque is or what it can be,” said Salaam Centre architect Ali Mangera. “In the UK, mosques should be seen as embassies to a faith, and as such they need to provide ‘architectural outreach’ and to create buildings that inspire and contribute to the cityscape while providing an inviting spiritual home open to all, regardless of faith. What does it say about a faith if its places of worship are unwelcoming?”