Welcoming God into our Mosques

“Winds in the east, mist coming in

Like somethin’ is brewin’ and bout to begin

Can’t put me finger on what lies in store,

But I fear what’s to happen all happened before”

(Bert – Mary Poppins)

The weather experienced by the UK over the last week has been nothing short of riotous and ferocious. Whilst we’ve had crazy weather before, it seems every time it happens, it’s a new experience for us and as a nation we are just never adequately prepared. Most likely because it happens so infrequently.

From across the country we’ve been hearing reports of tragedy striking with traffic chaos, death and injury being caused as a result of the snow and the storm. However, what we do find is that when hardship comes to Brits, The Brit resolve kicks in and we have also heard some heartwarming stories. The couple who managed to get married thanks to strangers who helped clear the path to the church by bringing shovels and diggers to the rescue. Or the car dealer who sent 4×4’s to rescue a wedding party and get them to the church on time. And most importantly the  wedding cake too! And of course our emergency services including the military coming to the rescue across the country and providing much needed assistance.

But the stories that have made me smile the most are the stories from up and down the country of mosques opening their doors to allow the homeless to come in and shelter  from the freezing temperatures, get warm and have something to eat.

I was in two minds over whether to get myself some heroin or crack, so that I could be okay for the night. As I was thinking about this, a guy came over from the side and said “you’re homeless, would you like to spend the night in a mosque?’  (Al Jazeera)

Mosques in Manchester, London and Ireland for example have all featured in various news reports for opening their doors and welcoming in the homeless. But why is this only done when such extreme weather kicks in and a ‘good news’ opportunity arises? Why are our mosques not ‘open all hours’ as they are in many other countries? I am well aware of the current climate and yes there is a chance that problems could occur, but surely the need to provide shelter and warmth out weighs any concerns we should have. Opening mosques to everyone needs to be more than just a method of publicity seeking. Even if it is some much needed positive publicity surrounding Islam and Muslims.

A mosque was never supposed to be just ‘a house of God’ in the sense that everyone else needed permission to enter. In the early days of Islam, mosques were the centre of the community, open and welcoming. They were the place everyone would congregate as a community. They were open to Muslims, but also those of other faiths. We have examples from the life of the Prophet Muhammad (may Peace and blessings be upon Him) that show Christians who had come from Yemen were permitted to pray within the mosque. And many other examples of the respect He gave to ‘People of the Book’. One such incident illustrates this, when a funeral passed by the Messenger he stood up and someone commented  “It is a Jew.” to which The Prophet responded, “Was he not a soul?”.

Hundreds of mosques across the country (and i suspect churches, synagogues and temples as well) are locked up every night when the space could be used to shelter the homeless – whether the temperatures are 10 degrees or -10 degrees. No doubt they are kept locked because of the fear they will be damaged, property stolen or desecrated if left unattended. Perhaps if our mosques were kept simple and not adorned to the extent that we worried about valuables being stolen, the true essence of what a mosque should be, can be returned to. I find it hard to believe that our houses of God that close their doors to His creation in the most difficult of times, could possibly be occupied by God.  In order for this to happen however, as Muslim communities, we do need to take more of an interest in our mosques and particularly in ensuring our mosque leadership understands the reasoning behind developing mosques suitable for 21st Century Britain. A leadership that can affect change and is effective in delivering a service for all the local community. A mosque should never be treated as a private venture owned by a handful of individuals who will only give up their seat of influence when carried out in a wooden box. If our mosque governance does not allow for community participation, then it is our responsibility, our duty, to make a fuss. Our mosques must be inclusive and not exclusive and seen as the (halal) old boys club.

Maybe when our mosques  can achieve this, when they are open 24 hours a day, welcome everyone, become part of the local community and allow the cold and the destitute to seek shelter we might just find God residing there as well.

And when our mosques have achieved this, maybe they’ll consider letting women in as well.

Midnight Musings

“Truly adversity has afflicted me and You are Most Merciful of all who show mercy.” (Surah 21: Verse 83)

I have just returned home after an emotional visit to the Westway Sports Centre in London. Very close to the smouldering remains of the Grenfell Tower that just 48 hours ago turned into an inferno, killing (so far) an unknown number of people and destroying the lives of all the families that lived there. It’s not a sports facility at the moment. On approaching it, I had visions of scenes reminiscent of the Mad Max movies, a tableaus that wouldn’t have been out of place in War of the Worlds. Crowds of people carrying boxes, suitcase and carrier bags. Others handing out ‘missing’ posters with pictures of elderly grandfathers, mothers and children. Groups of people outside Notting Hill Methodist church were handing out food as I approached and inviting people to a prayer at 8.00pm. Others were sticking posters on walls, writing heart-breaking messages to loved ones, tying flowers to railings or just standing and quietly sobbing.

After manoeuvring the many police check points, Haris Iqbal, Head of Programmes for Penny Appeal and the main person coordinating the work of charity on the ground, talked me through what had been happening. I could have been in a Syrian refugee camp. Tables piled high with food and water; croissants, loaves of bread, tins of beans, biscuits, crisps, bananas, apples, cereals – everything you could possibly think of had been donated by local residents and people from across the country who had driven down purely to help those in need. Boxes were piled high against walls containing clothes, towels and bedding. Another table was being set up by a volunteer with the essentials we give little thought to – toothpaste, toothbrushes, toilet paper, tissues, nappies, wipes, tampons – everything anyone could possibly need was there. Someone had already thought about what people might require. People who had left their flats in the middle of the night, with their lives and just the clothes they stood in. Further down were piles of shoes, handbags and yet more clothes. And all the time volunteers in orange Penny Appeal shirts were running around carrying things, organising, moving things and just trying to make life for these individuals whose lives had been devastated, a little bit more comfortable. The main sports hall was covered in mattresses, blankets, sleeping bags and pillows. Small huddles of people stood around, some weeping. One elderly woman had just been informed her husband had died. Words cannot adequately describe what I saw this evening. All day long I have been hearing news about more bodies being found, the number who have perished very likely being in triple figures and friends of friends hearing they have lost a loved one and I keep asking – why God? Why have You allowed this to happen?  Why have You allowed such pain and misery to be inflicted on this group of people? Men, women, children, the elderly – individuals who will have gone to bed on Tuesday night fully expecting to wake up in the morning. Why wouldn’t you? They will have gone to bed preparing for the next day, all sorts of dreams and aspirations for the days to come. Maybe they were planning a summer holiday or what to wear to work? Perhaps they were thinking about how they were going to spend the weekend or had promised to take their children to the cinema on Friday evening if they just went to bed early. Not one of them would have expected their lives to change within a few hours. Why didn’t you stop it?

But this disaster didn’t happen because of You. Was this a man-made tragedy, human error or just an accident? No doubt in the weeks and months to come, the public enquiry will uncover how and why this disaster was allowed in happen, in the richest borough, in the richest city, in one of the richest countries in the world,  in the 21st Century.

As I drove up to the area, I saw the most amazing properties, fantastic houses, wonderful shopping centres and lavish restaurants. Yet the richest people I saw today were those volunteers on the ground who had been on their feet for near on 36 hours. People like Haris, Haroon and the young girl taking paracetamol but determined to carry on because she was needed. These were the wealthiest people I saw today. Their kindness and compassion, their patience and fortitude, their courage and resilience made them the richest people in Kensington and Chelsea this evening. Where were you God when all of this was happening? You were right there, in the eyes, the hearts the hands, feet and faces of each and everyone of those individuals. You were there with the fightfighters rescuing those trapped, returning time and time again, without a thought to their own safety.  And You will be with those injured, bereaved and left destitute over the difficult days, weeks and months ahead.

My grateful thanks go to all those who have been involved in the traumatic events over the last few days. The emergency services, firefighters, police, paramedics, nurses, doctors and volunteers. A special thanks to Haris and Penny Appeal who I saw in action today. Many of us wish we were closer to help and support you. You have shown us all what it means to be human.

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