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17 Aug 12

Mixed-up and Moderate

Arbana Xharra

Outside London’s central mosque, I approached a young woman who was distributing leaflets urging assistance for children caught up in Syria’s war.

It was my first visit to the mosque, and I needed a hand fastening the headscarf I would be required to wear inside.

The woman seemed genuinely pleased to help me. “Of course sister, come closer… Mash Allah, you look so beautiful with the scarf,” she said.

Inside the building, she entrusted me to the company of a group of regular visitors, urging the “sisters” to make sure I sat in the right spot and received a copy of the Qur’an in English.

I was visiting London as an extension of my research into the changing nature of Islam in Kosovo. My story had led me to religious leaders, converts, officials, and experts in extremism. But I was still curious to see ordinary Muslims at prayer in a nation where they are only a minority.

I took the stairs and entered a huge room with a blue carpet, a few chairs and some bookshelves.

Scores of women sat around, some praying, others reading the Qur’an. I found a spot next a lady of around 50, who wore a colourful dress and a white veil. We introduced ourselves. She said she had moved to Britain from Somalia.

The room began filling up with women of all ages, from the elderly to the very young. When the Somali lady got up for a few minutes, she asked me to keep an eye on her spot, knowing that it might otherwise be taken.

As the worshippers crowded together on the carpet, their clothes announced their diverse origins. Many of them favoured a combination of the headscarf with a long dress, though some of the younger women opted for casual trousers instead. A few wore the yashmak, a veil covering the entire face except for the eyes. I was struck by the harmonious atmosphere in the room, and by the respect with which these strangers treated each other.

Men and women are segregated in the mosque, but they pray simultaneously. Though I could not see the men, I could hear the sound of their prayers. The cleric, or imam, began his sermon in Arabic before switching to English. He described what it meant to be a good Muslim, and urged his followers to forgive the enemies of the faith.

I was struck by the contrast between his tolerant words and the tougher message I had heard in Kosovo, where some imams vilified those they described as opponents of Islam.

The sermon ended and hundreds of men and women filed out of the mosque. I was surprised to see so many Muslims in London, and to see the freedom with which they practised their faith.

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