Earlier today, I visited Middlesbrough’s Dar ul Islam Central Mosque as part of my 40Fifty Challenge. Although I was with a couple of friends in Imran Naeem (who had arranged the visit) and Zak Mahmoud, I will admit to feeling slightly nervous beforehand. It was to be a completely new experience and rightly or wrongly, I saw myself very much as the “odd man out”.
Imran, Zak and I had already talked at length about various aspects of the Islamic faith and my fence-straddling position as an agnostic, and what is great is that whilst I’m in an ideal position to respect their beliefs, I was afforded equal respect for the sharing some of the experiences that underpin my personal beliefs (irrespective of whether or not they conform to any “religion”). When such recognition is given by individuals whose lives are so strongly guided by faith, well that actually means an awful lot.
Anyway, with shoes safely removed, I sat at the back of the room, which filled steadily as the clock ticked towards half past twelve. On arrival, there was time for quiet individual prayer, the precise form of which seemed to vary, but it was apparent (and, if I’m honest, surprising) that there was a significant number of different cultural backgrounds or countries of origin represented, all brought together by a shared faith.
The Imam gave a sermon, the majority of which was in English— which helped! Whilst I’m sure his words resonated strongly with the majority of those in the room, I listened intently and was certainly interested by what he had to say. Due entirely to media stereo-typing, I had expected the sermon to be delivered forcefully, perhaps even aggressively, but that absolutely wasn’t the case. There were definite parallels with the style of delivery I would have heard in Church of England services when I was much younger, and there was something pleasing about having my preconceptions proved wrong.
I should also add that I got pins and needles in my right foot, and a particularly hot back caused by the pipe against which I was resting, but I stayed admirably still throughout!
After the sermon, there were more regimented prayers, all in Arabic, and I was struck by the contrast between the initial individual prayer
and reflection and the final group prayers, which clearly united those in attendance. I was also acutely aware that I was the only person sitting down amongst the rows of standing men—that feeling of self-consciousness increased sharply when everyone knelt down and my head suddenly appeared over the top!
Thankfully everyone stood up. Phew…
Then knelt down again. Drat…
Anyway, with prayer over, the room started to empty. Before he left, the Imam came over and greeted me with a traditional hug, which I certainly hadn’t expected. I thanked him for allowing me to come into the Mosque and listen to his sermon, and was duly invited to come back again in the future. Shattered preconception number two… a non-Muslim being so warmly welcomed by someone of such standing.
I have formed the impression that there are members of the local Islamic community who appreciate when genuine interest is shown in their culture and beliefs, that open, non-judgmental conversations can take place with non-Muslims, and mutual respect and friendship can grow out of outward diversity. If that is the case, then I think that’s fantastic.
It was a pleasure to be able to visit the Mosque. I’m really grateful to Imran and to Zak, and also to those who didn’t know me, but greeted and welcomed me nonetheless. Thank you!
And finally, just to tie off a couple of random loose ends from the car conversation: The legendary silent comedian Harold Lloyd did indeed lose his right thumb and forefinger following an accident with a prop bomb in 1919, and he also became a well-respected photo-grapher in later life. Hopefully I’ll soon learn some facts which will earn me a decent salary!!
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