A Friday prayer at the Central London mosque. Demotix/Piero Cruciatti. All rights reserved.
Sitting cross-legged in my local mosque in West London last Friday afternoon listening to the Imam deliver a sermon on the history of the Kaaba in the holy city of Mecca, I was tapped on the shoulder. Turning around, a middle-aged man was sitting down dressed in a pristine white dishdasha. Pointing to my lower back, he said in a low and friendly voice so as not to interrupt or distract the Imam, “Tuck in your t-shirt, your lower back is showing.” I nodded thankfully, tucked in my t-shirt, turned around and carried on listening to the Imam and forgot all about the incident as we were called to prayers and every man prayed shoulder to shoulder behind the Imam.
Having finished praying, I remained seated for a few minutes as is my usual habit to reflect on the week that has just passed. As I was doing so, I unwittingly had a front row seat to an argument. A young Asian man in front of me had just finished praying, by my guess he was either Malaysian or Indonesian, and as he finished and got up onto his feet to leave, a man of African descent sitting next to him, also in a white dishdasha but not the same person who had earlier told me to tuck in my t-shirt, grabbed the man’s wrist and started shouting aggressively: “Your prayer isn’t accepted. Your shorts are not over the knee, these shorts are not for the mosque!” I sat there shocked by the man’s outburst and so I completely sympathized with the young Asian man’s stunned face. He had just finished praying, and if it wasn’t bad enough that he was now being shouted at by a complete stranger, his wrist was still being held onto tightly.
I’m not exactly sure what I would have done in this man’s position. To his full credit, he initially tried to politely brush off the man’s outburst with some brief nodding of agreement as he tried to, at first, softly release his wrist from the man’s grip. As he did so, he received more backlash: “You must pray again,” the man proclaimed, louder than his initial outburst, “Allah cannot accept this prayer in your shorts, you must pray again!” At this point the victim of the outburst had lost patience and yanked his wrist free from the man and shouted back, “Who do you think you are?” and walked purposively towards where he laid his shoes and promptly left the mosque without another word.
What I have just described here started and finished in a matter of seconds and yet I think it speaks volumes about the current state of the Muslim Ummah, or community, not just in London, but around the world.
In Egypt and most Muslim countries in the Arab world, you are never too far away from a mosque. Whether it is rich in history (as the Al Azhar or Sultan Hassan mosques), or a small apartment building basement converted into a place of worship for Muslims, a place of prayer or reading the Quran is readily available.
In addition to being a place of worship, a mosque is also meant to promote a Muslim Ummah. A place where Muslims can meet, pray, and feel wholly part of something that they share with others. As you can imagine, a Muslim Ummah is not very hard to achieve in a country like Egypt where approximately 80% of the population are Muslim. That is not to say that the Muslim Ummah in Egypt is a single united body. Other variables such as wealth and social class also have an influence on how integrated the Muslim community is in Egypt, not to mention divisions on how literally or liberally the application of Islam should be enforced in the political and social spheres of the country.
You may think that feeling part of a Muslim Ummah is difficult to achieve in a place like London because it does not have mosques on every street corner, but in actual fact there is reason to argue that this should promote and not discourage a strong Muslim community. By being a minority, an integral source of support inevitably comes from within the minority itself. Unlike in Egypt where you have a multitude of mosque options to pray in for Friday mass prayers, the likelihood in London is that you will pray in the same mosque week in, week out. While living in Egypt, if I was in any danger of missing Friday prayers in the mosque that was a stone’s throw away from my apartment, I could always walk a little further down the street and catch Friday prayers at a mosque where I knew they usually were taking place at that time. The point was that I always had options and that I wasn’t stuck with one mosque. In London, however, if I am running late or just miss Friday prayers at my local mosque in West London, which is by the way three miles from my house, there are not any other mosques in the area that I can attend prayers at.
So what about the young Asian man who was scolded by this fellow Muslim and stranger? If that is his local mosque and the only one within reach of his work place as Friday is a working day in the United Kingdom, will he want to come back? Did he feel part of a Muslim Ummah upon leaving the mosque last Friday after being scolded? If you’re wondering, the young Asian’s shorts looked over the knee to me but that is obviously not what frustrated him. It was the manner in which he was addressed and told that the religious and spiritual feelings he had just attained from mass prayers were not accepted. I certainly hope he does come back but the fact he might be reluctant to come back is enough to illustrate how far away we are from having a united Muslim Ummah.
This was of course a small incident in the grand scheme of things and it is important not to make mountains out of mole hills, but the month of September exemplified the splintered state of a Muslim Ummah around the world. A YouTube video that degraded the character of the Prophet Muhammad was enough to send the Muslim world into a state of frenzy, with Libya and Egypt reacting violently against the US Embassies in their respective countries, resulting in the tragic death of US Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens. However, while this angry reaction has been well documented, that is not the single unified voice of the Muslim Ummah. There are a number of Muslims around the world who strongly condemn the violent reaction to the video, arguing that it only reflected the nature and character of those who made the film and not their intended target, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Some Muslims have even defended the video under the banner of freedom of speech, arguing that every religion is ridiculed and criticized around the world, and while the video is in poor taste and insulting to Muslims around the world, reacting violently is far from the solution.
What is tragic about the incident I described at my local mosque is that the young Asian man may feel forever shunned and ostracized from his experiences there, cutting him off from possibly the only opportunity he has to be part of a Muslim Ummah in a city where his options are limited. His aggressor may have had the best of intentions, but unknowingly, on a very small scale, he has shorn his local Muslim community of one more member - when members are already scarce, and exemplified how divided we currently stand.