John-Paul Flintoff: A funny thing happened on the way to the mosque

John-Paul Flintoff

A funny thing happened on the way to the mosque

London Central Mosque, near Lord’s cricket ground. I have passed it 1,000 times. Years ago, on the bus, I stared admiringly at the golden dome. More recently, pushing my daughter on the swings at nearby Regent’s Park, I’ve noticed the gold needs touching up. But in the past few weeks I’ve been wondering whether I dared to step inside, as if it were a church, for a spot of peace and reflection.

Like many other people brought up in no particular religious tradition, I’ve dabbled – attended a wide variety of Christian churches, married into a substantially Jewish family and looked extensively into Buddhism. But I’d never tried Islam, although the Central Mosque is one of more than 1,500 in Britain, serving a fast-growing British Muslim community that already numbers some 2.4m people – rather more than the 1.7m Anglicans who attend church each week. And I am intrigued by the thought that there may be lessons I could learn. Like it or not, mosques are a part of our landscape that’s here to stay. And they’re open to the public – so what stopped me before?

Despite thinking of myself as open-minded, I’ve come to believe that getting close to Islam can be dangerous. After all, extremists like Abu Hamza recruited through mosques such as Finsbury Park, and I’ve interviewed people who told me that went on at other mosques too.

But one reformed extremist, Ed Husain, now runs a counter-extremist think-tank and encouraged me to visit a mosque. Who knows, I might discover that the prayer mat and the pew have much in common.

And so, on a spring Friday, I took myself off to the Central Mosque for lunchtime prayers. A largely male crowd gathered, like something at football grounds.

Inside the great hall, I sat on the carpet like everyone else, at the back. I admired the geometric design inside the domed roof and watched the men around me – poor Bengalis from nearby estates, prosperous Arabs up from Edgware Road, and assorted Kosovars and Bosnians. Here and there, small children rolled about quietly.

After half an hour of Arabic, the imam spoke in English on the need to apologise after doing wrong. He addressed us as “dear brothers and sisters” – somewhere unseen, women were listening to him too.

Then the call to prayer began, and people behind me pushed forward to fill gaps. A few, having secured a place, turned and beckoned me to join them. But I was only here to observe, so I smiled and stayed where I was – until an angry-looking man stepped out of line and beckoned more forcefully. I meekly followed – only to find myself on a mat facing Mecca, bending at the hips as if to inspect my shoes, then dropping to my knees to rest my nose on the mat, bottom in the air, holes in socks for all to see, muttering “Allahu akbar” (God is great).

It wasn’t the most spiritual moment in my life. When it finished, I got up and joined 8,000 other people in a mad rush to retrieve shoes.

The past 15 years have seen a phenomenal growth of Islam within Britain’s indigenous and African-Caribbean communities, according to Batool Al-Toma, who runs the Leicestershire-based New Muslims Project. Born Mary Geraghty, she’s a former Catholic who embraced Islam three decades ago. She wears a headscarf and a long floral coat modestly buttoned up to her neck, but retains a feisty, bustling quality not uncommon in middle-aged Irishwomen.

Hundreds of people have come to Al-Toma’s office to convert to Islam, which involves no more than reciting the shahada (a conviction that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is his prophet). “People ask how many I’ve converted,” she said. “They ask that all the time, as if I’m out there with my net.” She told me she discourages would-be converts if she thinks that they – or their families and friends – are not ready. And that can take a very long time: her own children were born into Islam and have embraced it as adults but when she went to Ireland recently with her son, he was constantly rebuked for wearing a beard “to promote Islam”.

Sarah Joseph is the editor and CEO of a Muslim lifestyle magazine, emel. Like Al-Toma, she was brought up Catholic but converted 22 years ago. It was very painful.

A priest said, don’t worry, we all have doubts.” Meanwhile, her brother married a Muslim and converted. Joseph looked into Islam and was surprised to find “intellectually satisfying answers”. Like Al-Toma, she knows it can be hard to keep the support of friends and family. “Some families can feel a degree of bereavement,” she says. “It’s as if your child has given up on the right path, the middle-class dream. People think, ‘Oh my God, what have they become?’”

Another convert, Yahya (formerly Jonathan) Birt – son of the former BBC director-general John Birt – agrees that embracing Islam can cause upset. “Converts can be labelled traitors or, more kindly, eccentrics.” So why bother? What can possibly be the attraction?

Birt is reluctant to talk about his own conversion, in 1989, because to people who are cynical about religion it can sound deluded or pretentious. It’s a personal matter, he stresses. His own interest arose after meeting somebody who seemed to embody the religious life at its best: “It took me over three years to get past my own lack of interest in all things religious to ask him about his faith. I was presented with no argument but simply with holiness, with the possibilities of contentment, integrity and wholeness that the religious life offers. Saintliness is its own argument.”

Impressed, I wondered if it might be possible to get some taste of Islam – but without actually converting. To practise, if you like, some kind of Islam-lite – like dipping into Christianity by trying the Alpha course.

To begin, I spent weeks reading about Islam, and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him, as the books said). Jemima Khan, perhaps the most prominent convert of recent times, spent six or seven months reading Islamic scholars such as Gai Eaton, Alija Izetbegovic and Muhammad Asad. “What began as intellectual curiosity slowly ripened into a dawning realisation of the universal and eternal truth,” she said. I tried those authors, and others too.

But I didn’t read the Koran. People say it’s fundamentally untranslatable, and I don’t have time to learn Arabic.

On Google I found my local mosque, the Islamic Centre of Brent. Its website listed daily prayer times that were a couple of months out of date. Elsewhere, the site offered audio files for the whole Koran, and forms to download for child benefit, housing benefit, jobseeker’s allowance and visas for Pakistan.

After phoning ahead, I wandered over and met the manager. Yasir Alam was quietly spoken, with a mild Pakistani accent. When I mentioned the calendar on the website he looked pained: he’d just got back from his father’s funeral and hadn’t updated the site. I regretted mentioning it.

Shoes off, we entered one of the empty halls. I asked Alam about prayer. He looked pained again, torn between the wish to refer my questions to a greater expert and a polite desire to help out. Tentatively he outlined the mechanics of prostration and offered the idea that prayer is about being thankful. What did that mean? He said that if I was a poor man with no shoes I could still thank God that I had feet, unlike (even) less fortunate people.

I asked if he had many visitors like me. He nodded. Perhaps Alam saw through the superficial matter of my ethnicity and social class, glimpsing the seeker within; but in half a dozen visits to the mosque in the weeks that followed, I would see few white people, and meet only one who spoke English as a first language. It seemed that the Islamic Centre of Brent has yet to be woven into the fabric of everyday British life.

But some rituals are universal: “Would you like a cup of tea?” Alam asked. In his office, a screen monitored numerous CCTV cameras. Many people believe they are not allowed to enter mosques, he said. He often sees them standing outside, hovering, then walking off. Sometimes, he goes out to explain that they are welcome to step in.

Alam took me downstairs and left me to watch lunchtime prayers, promising I would be left alone this time if I sat at the back. One man sat to the side, reciting the Koran, another lay asleep, snoring audibly. Then all at once people flooded in, muttered “Salaam aleikum” (peace be upon you) to nobody in particular and started prostrating anywhere. But after the call to prayer, with about 40 people in the room – most dark-skinned, none female – they shuffled forward to fill spaces on the prayer mat.

A young man with a long beard came to join me. A sweet-smelling Bosnian named Mo, he spoke imperfect English but managed to explain that, during prayer, worshippers look over one shoulder, then the next, to greet angels recording our good and bad deeds.

My heart sank. TJ Winter, a lecturer in theology at Cambridge and himself a convert, better known among Muslims as sheikh Abdal Hakim Murad, believes that Islam, once we have become familiar with it, is the most suitable faith for the British.

“Our doctrine could not be more straightforward,” he says. “The most pure, exalted, uncompromising monotheism. A system of worship that requires no paraphernalia. Just the human creature and its Lord.” But Mo seemed to suggest there was more to it. I was not sure that I believe in God. How could I believe I had an angel on each shoulder?

The point, Mo stressed, was to think always of judgment day. Alas, I didn’t believe in an afterlife, except in the sense that my body would one day be consumed by worms, so I would “become” a worm, and then be consumed by a bird, and so on.

Mo looked blank but recovered his poise by opening his Koran, and shortly afterwards actually offering to give it to me to keep.

I was overwhelmed: we had met only moments before. But he reduced my sense of gratitude a teeny bit by suggesting that I shower before reading this holy book.

I wasn’t fitting in as I’d hoped. The Muslims I met were friendly, but I felt detached, like a tourist. So one Saturday night I went back to Brent mosque. It was 10 in the evening, but Alam had particularly said this was the time to learn more about Islam. I found a man occupied with brushing his teeth outside the prayer hall.
He didn’t look surprised to see a visitor at this hour, and took me to the kitchen, where a group stood drinking tea but said they were about to leave, and suggested I look for another group. So I walked round the building. Through a door, I heard voices. I knocked, and someone shouted: “This door is locked, brother.”

It was nice to be called brother. But not to be locked out and lost. In frustration, I climbed a fire escape and found an open door. Inside, shoes lay scattered everywhere – a promising sign. Pushing through, I came to some stairs and another door. I knocked, coughed, shouted hello – but no reply. I pushed through, only to find myself in… somebody’s bedroom. I dashed down the stairs, put my shoes on as fast as I could, and returned to the bottom of the fire escape.

I went back to the group in the kitchen, who gave me spiced tea and HobNobs, then led me to find the people I was looking for in the ladies’ prayer hall – not somewhere I’d dared to look. Twelve men sat in a semicircle chanting Arabic hypnotically. They seemed delighted to see me.

The group was ethnically mixed, with members whose origins appeared to lie in Africa, the Indian subcontinent and southeastern Europe. Some wore clothes from those parts, others could have been dressed at Gap. In age they ranged from early twenties to late fifties. I was placed next to a young man I assumed to be Arab: he had dark hair, a wispy black beard and Islamic hat, and prefaced every utterance with “Alhamdullilah” (praise be to God). But in fact he was English and an ex-Catholic.

Joseph had told me that converts to Islam, particularly if they are cut off by friends and family, find themselves pressured by the established Muslim community to conform to standards that are not Islamic but cultural. Jemima Khan experienced something like this, adopting traditional Pakistani clothing after marrying Imran Khan. “I over-conformed in my eagerness to be accepted,” she said. I wondered if the same applied to my neighbour.

Over the next hour or so I joined the group’s meditative practice, using a bilingual text to chant the 99 most beautiful names of Allah, then the 201 names of the Prophet, and praise each one to the utmost – as much as there are stars in the sky and drops of rain. Nobody complained about me, a non-Muslim, doing this. By comparison, I remember being rebuked, gently, by my grandfather after taking communion though I’d not been baptised or confirmed. And that was in the easygoing Church of England.

While somebody lit incense, I confessed to my neighbour that I’d inadvertently joined the prayers at Regent’s Park. He didn’t quite manage to suppress a broad grin, but recovered swiftly by saying “Alhamdulillah”. Allah would know if I’d done it with a good intention, he said.

The chanting ended. I was given fruit juice, dates and baklava, and introduced to several members of the group, who extended the eastern courtesy of touching their hearts as they shook my hand. I may have been feeling light-headed, but the room seemed to be charged with celebration and a strong sense of brotherhood – as if we were a sports team that had just won an important fixture.

When it came time to leave, one of my brothers called out: “Have a good evening!”

It was nearly one o’clock in the morning.

At home, I looked up the group I’d met and discovered that they were an order of Sufis. According to my books, Sufis aspire to detachment, patience and gratitude, using techniques that include chanting and prayer but also walking on hot coals, wearing a hair shirt, lying on a bed of nails and spinning on the spot for hours on end. This might be a promising area for someone who is dabbling in Islam.

I found a group in the whirling dervish tradition and emailed a couple who host meetings at their home. A few days later I met Amina Jamil and her husband, Hilal, at a cafe, where they explained more. They were dressed in western clothes – no headscarf on Amina – but possessed what I can only describe as a kind of nobility, as if they were from another time.

Hilal explained that their Sufi sessions start with silent mantras. These included “There is no God but God,” to be repeated 100 times. Then “Allah” 300 times. “Then we ask for our faults to be forgiven, and we forgive others,” he said.

“We end with ‘Hu’, which is the divine pronoun.”

“The work of Sufism is to embrace and discover the self,” said Amina.

It gradually dawned on me that there was to be no whirling. After the mantras, the group reads a portion of poetry by Rumi, the 13th-century Persian mystic, theologian and founder of the dervishes. Amina handed me a copy of Rumi’s poetry, slightly worn at the corners. She wanted me to have it.

It was the second time I’d been offered a book that somebody loved. I mentioned Mo, the Bosnian, and my concerns about reading the Koran in translation. Hilal agreed that some translations were better than others. “But more important than the language is what you bring to the text. Do you have an open heart? If you are cynical, that is what you will find.”

Days later, at their smart mansion block, Hilal introduced me to six members of the group – mostly women. I didn’t catch everybody’s names, but they included an economist, two doctors and a psychiatrist. Some were born to Islam, but one was a former Catholic (another!). We sat in a circle on chairs and sofas. The women put scarves on their heads and we began the silent mantras.

After the poetry reading, the chanting began. I noticed that my own voice was deeper than others, but gradually lost my thoughts to the harmony. Then Hilal laid out prayer mats. I took my place beside the women. Prostrating mechanically was easy. But praising a God I didn’t necessarily believe in? I kept in mind something Rumi wrote. “Stop trying to be the sun and become a speck,” I told myself. “Don’t pretend to be a candle, be a moth.”

The following Saturday I went back to Brent mosque to find out more about the group I’d met briefly in the kitchen – Sufis from yet another order, whose worship relies heavily on music.

I was introduced to a Sudanese man wearing what the ignorant might describe as a long white dress, and a fur hat. This was the sheikh, or teacher. He was obviously held in great esteem because people stooped to kiss his hand.

As we talked, another man started to sing ecstatically, while others tapped out an irresistible rhythm on the kitchen’s stainless-steel counter. Scarcely able to stop myself swaying to this somewhat hypnotic music, I asked the sheikh what it was about.

They’re praising Allah, he said. All Sufi groups do this. “You can go on British Airways and I can go on Pakistan Airways, but we are all going to the same place. Daily life makes you blind. This opens your eyes.” I said I was trying to get a taste of Islam.

He approved, said the only way to do that was to try it, and told me a story about the Prophet holding a jar and asking his followers what it contained. One guessed it was honey, as did a second. But a third actually dipped a finger in and tasted it: “Honey!”

I decided to try fasting, which isn’t only done at Ramadan: one of my Sufi brothers had told me he won’t touch food or drink during daylight on Mondays and Thursdays – not even water.

I rose early. I still hadn’t mastered the routine for prayer but did my best, remembering what Al-Toma had told me about prayer: “It’s not what other people think. It’s between you and God.”

I ate a bowl of yoghurt, a banana and a slice of toast – and glugged a litre of warm water. Went back to bed, rose again at seven to get my daughter ready for school, dropped her off, and returned for an hour of desultory typing.

But I wasn’t thinking straight, and at exactly 9.42am I decided I would have to break the fast for a coffee. Managing somehow to restrain myself, I crept back to bed at 9.58 to doze for 90 minutes, and rose, for the third time that day, only marginally refreshed.

After lunchtime prayers, I needed help. My wife suggested I give up. But that wouldn’t do. I emailed Hilal to say I couldn’t imagine how he copes doing this for a month. He sent back a poem on fasting by Rumi, and encouragement. “It’s tough when you’re doing it for the first time, and only for one day.” (Apparently, it gets easier after four or five days.)

Shortly after, something magical happened. I stopped feeling hungry, tired and frustrated and became instead terrifically excited at the prospect of my first bite of food, my first sip of water. Just as, in the mosque, by the physical act of prayer I’d achieved an overpowering sense of humility, so by fasting I’d struggled for self-control and worked up a powerful feeling of gratitude.

It was true what the sheikh said: only by actually trying it would Islam make sense. Of course, dipping my toes in was never going to be the same as converting properly.

One convert who later gave up on Islam told me he’d been put off after being pressured, at his local mosque, to change his name and adopt Pakistani clothes. “There’s nothing un-Islamic about my name,” he said. “And as for my clothes, Islam is supposed to be a universal religion.”

He stopped going to mosque and, lacking any wider Muslim support network, gradually lost faith. He felt scared even to speak of this, he said, because the penalty for giving up on Islam, in some countries, is death. Others who converted and then quit Islam told me they should really have looked into it more beforehand. “I truly believed in Islam at the time,” said one, “but the more I learnt, the more I disagreed with.” Specifically, he felt uncomfortable about the different treatment of men and women.

I, too, was troubled by a number of questions. Will the Koran always seem alien to people who don’t speak Arabic? At her north London offices, Sarah Joseph reassured me by stating that she’d not found it necessary to master Arabic (nor to change her name) though she takes care to research the meaning of key passages (and, for the record, she chooses to wear a headscarf). Trumping even the generosity of Mo and Amina, Joseph gave me a monumentally beautiful copy of the Koran, translated with commentary – and without suggesting that I wash before reading it.

Will mosques ever become, like some churches, places that ordinary Britons wander into for spiritual sustenance and quiet time?

I doubt it: mosques aren’t sacred spaces in quite the same way – what matters, so I’m told, is for Muslims to pray together, all pointing towards Mecca – and that could perfectly just as easily happen elsewhere.

What’s more, there’s the gender divide: if I brought my wife to the mosque we’d be separated – not something we’re used to, unless to change at swimming pools. But is separation so bad? After living in Pakistan for years, Khan concluded that “Islam is not a religion which subjugates women while elevating men”. Who am I to argue?

I’ve found the practice of Islam surprisingly familiar – energising as a yoga class, meditative as Zen, worshipful as the most happy-clappy Anglicans.

Did I ever feel uncomfortable? A bit, when I was propelled forward to join the prayers at Regent’s Park, and later when I travelled with Al-Toma to Iranian-owned TV studios in west London for a discussion show on converts, only to be left in the lobby because the producers considered me a security risk.

On my last visit to Brent mosque, I bumped into Mo, the Bosnian. He was delighted to see me, but wanted to know if my frequent reappearances meant I had accepted Islam. Unsure what to reply, I said I was still trying it out.

This seemed to satisfy him. I left the Islamic centre happy to have been accepted. But as I stood outside, my warm feelings were dashed. A neighbour – a white man in his forties – opened his window and shouted, hoping I would do him a favour and burn the mosque down.

This story first appeared in The Sunday Times magazine

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