There was a recent conference held by the Muslim Council of Britain last January called “Our Mosques, Our Future“. The conference was based around the idea of “#morethanaprayerspace” – looking at the role of Britain’s 1,500 mosques today compared to how they were in Prophet Muhammad’s time and examining if they are fulfilling their multi-faceted roles and meeting the needs of their communities.
I unfortunately did not attend the conference but have myself become increasingly fed-up by certain obstacles/patterns of behaviour. At the same time, I have also been inspired by the great examples set in other places of worship such as churches and synagogues. Based on personal and non-personal experiences, I therefore present 12 essential recommendations for UK-based mosques – in no particular order.
1. Childcare facilities
A mosque should be a community space. At the same time it should allow space for quiet prayer and reflection. Especially during busy periods such as Friday Jummah prayers and Ramadan, something as basic as a crèche would avoid clearly distressed children having to be in the prayer hall and disturbing other sisters.
Childcare services would also ensure that women have easier access to mosques. The choice should be mother’s to either to stay at home and build prayer around child caring duties at home or if they so wish to be able to pray at the mosque without yet another obstacle in their way.
2. Interfaith programmes
Interfaith programmes are a must for any mosque, in particular in multifaith societies such as Britain. It’s crucial that Muslim communities learn and reach out to other faith (and non-faith) communities. This is especially important in relation to the Jewish community.
Such programmes should however not simply utilise members of boards/management committees – they should be open for members of the local congregation/community to participate and learn for real maximum effect.
3. Women co-leadership
The sad truth is that some mosques do not even have prayer spaces for ladies. I’ve seen some wudhu (ablution) “facilities” that were so dirty I could not wash. This is abhorrent. Islam is for everyone – men and women. This is just the basic level.
Moving onwards and upwards, women must crucially be more greatly included. They must form part of leadership committees, educational programmes and local initiatives. They must be given a platform to share their voices – and with real roles not simply a token platforms and gestures.
For the sake of equality and to ensure that women’s needs are met, women must be included. The lack of women’s leadership and instead great number of all-male committees is a sad reflection of our community and not representative of Islam.
4. Marriage counselling
Marriage counselling both before, during and even after a marital split to ensure cooperation and mutual respect is essential. Marriage is a big commitment and cultural barriers, communication issues, family tensions and a number of other potential “problems” can create significant tensions and misunderstandings in a marriage. To ensure that couples know what to expect and what is expected of them, pre-marital counselling must be openly available – and be highly recommended to couples prior to their marriage.
Counselling is an excellent form of therapy for couples experiencing problems but is often expensive, comes with stigma or feelings of failure/shame and may lack religious expertise. Mosques must ensure that they can provide a good quality professional service with staff sensitive to religious needs/understandings. This could be through a referral network and in many cases these services may offer a more professional/adequate service.
5. Women’s support services
Girls and women at risk of FGM, domestic abuse or any other issues must feel that they have somewhere to turn to seek confidential advice and support. Women experiencing any forms of emotional, sexual, physical, physiological, financial, spiritual or physical abuse will feel frightened, confused and alone. An additional range of cultural, linguistic and social barriers or simply a lack of knowledge of services out there which can help, means that a dedicated support team for women who (are able to) attend the mosque will ensure that these vulnerable women and girls have a greater support network.
Through either dedicated staff or a strong referral network, safeguarding mechanisms, counselling, protection and reporting, legal support and guidance can be offered and protect women at risk or subjected to these unjust and brutal forms of violence.
6. Social justice initiatives
A mosque should not simply be a place of prayer – we may all know that. It should serve as a community centre which helps both its own and other communities, as part of a wider society. That’s why food banks, charity (sadaqah) funds and a whole range of social initiatives are a must.
Help and support should reach those of all faiths and none, regardless of sexuality, gender, age, nationality or ethnic background.
7. Khutbahs in English
I think it’s rather sad that in my entire experience of attending khutbas in the UK, I have only ever understood the sermons in one mosque/community centre. The khutba should serve to teach Muslims about important issues. However, I see two problems here:
- Most are not in English (instead in only Arabic or another language)
- They generally are repetitive in nature and do not address a wide enough range of (current) issues
We need to engage people to take action against injustice, to utilise the wisdom of the Holy Qur’an and to do good as Allah wills. This is not simply through “religious ibadah” (worship) but through taking action against injustice, giving in charity and building bridges amongst other communities. Khutbas should therefore be accessible to everyone in terms of language and content, regardless of age and ethnic/linguistic background. The use of interpreting headsets/subtitles is one way to address the linguistic challenges. I also urge leaders to reflect upon their sermons and further reach out to the younger population.
8. Adequate facilities for the disabled
It has been pointed out to me by the Open My Mosque initiative something which I sadly failed to notice for myself – and this speaks volumes: the lack of facilities for and measure to promote inclusion for Muslims with physical disabilities.
We must ensure that sign language interpreters are available as well as hearing loops, ramps for wheelchair users and adequate disabled toilets and parking. Consultation with communities, families and service providers should ensure that peoples voices are being heard and their needs are being met in the best, most professional, sensitive and inclusive way possible.
9. Youth clubs
It is critical that younger members of the community (especially teenagers) have creative and social outlets, such as craft clubs and sporting initiatives to offer space, productive and inclusive spaces to make friends, spend free time and learn new skills or simply get some exercise!
Having a stable community network with respected role models, people to turn to in times of trouble and meet like-minded young people is important. Mosques must offer this community element, not simply a prayer space for religious purposes.
10. Social clubs
As with youth clubs, social activities to bind the community together are essential. This is particularly important if we consider new arrivals to the UK/refugee communities, converts, stay-at-home or single mothers and other groups to whom we should be offering a strong social community network. The mosque should offer a home, a safe space of understanding to come together and enjoy being Muslim! The greater the cultural diversity the better!
11. Intrafaith inclusion
I’ve talked about interfaith work and bringing different cultural communities within the Muslim community together but here’s one essential critical need which is simply a “no-go” for some people. However, it cannot be escaped. Prejudice, discrimination and intolerance must be broken down and dismantled. We must unite as a community. Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Ahmadi Muslims must work together.
If you cannot work together as a religious community within Islam (and yes Ahmadis are Muslim and who are you to question!), then how can you reach out and build stronger bonds with other religious communities (e.g. churches, synagogues and gurdwaras) and the wider community? It’s hypocrisy. Plain and simple. Harsh words but this needs to be said. No one is saying you have to have exactly the same beliefs and practices, but you should be welcoming to others, share dialogue, shared events and never turn people away. Simple.
12. Good referral network of NGOs and service providers
No one can expect each and every mosque to have an infinite amount of financial and professional resources. That is why it’s crucial to build good referral networks with local and national charities, governmental and non-governmental organisations and services providers.
Some of the organisations/local government departments with which mosques need to build, strengthen or maintain links include:
- ESOL services: Refugee, asylum seeking and migrant communities may need linguistic (and cultural) support. Local refugee organisations and colleges often offer (free) English classes, whilst the Refugee Council can offer advice and support
- Hate-crime reporting bodies: Islamophobia (as with anti-Semitism) is on the rise and Muslim women in particular are experiencing the brunt of this. Mosque committees need to know what constitutes hate crime, how to report it and how to support their community members by building links with organisations such as Tell MAMA and the police
- Mental health services providers: We need to end the stigma and reach out to people in need of support – but with professional qualified counsellors and therapists from organisations such as Mind and local community providers
- Financial advisors: Free debt support services provided by charities such as the Citizens Advice Bureau can offer critical practical advice to families in crisis, greatly impacting upon their physical and emotional wellbeing
- Immigration advice: Visa worries, asylum claims and anything immigration related can be very confusing, worrying and at time incredibly complicated. Local charities specialising in immigration advice and support can be a lifeline for community members – including people who are undocumented
- Crisis housing: Homelessness is becoming an increasing problem across the UK and can affect anyone who has fallen on hard/uncertain times. By having the right networks with local councils and organisations such as Shelter, mosques can help an individual/family off the street or falling into homelessness
- Local foodbanks: For smaller mosques who may not have the resources, local foodbanks will be able to assist members of their congregation and/or offer critical advice/signposting
Now, I’m not saying that all mosques lack these facilities, approaches and services, nor am I saying that all mosques – no matter how small – must have an endless supply of resources – financial or otherwise. However, all mosques must be inclusive, approachable and welcoming for everyone and offer as much help as possible. I do however believe that these recommendations can offer a good conclusive set of guidelines for British mosques.
Through direct service provision and better networking with service providers, facilities can be made available. And when it comes to gender, age, cultural and religious inclusivity and welcoming those with extra access needs, there must be no excuses. Islam is for everyone and mosques must represent that. Mosques – as many are already calling for – must also work as a community centre not an “in and out” prayer space.