The floral fragrance of Rooh Afza and the sight of the luminous pink beverage poured into rows of glasses on the floor, sit alongside plates filled with Arabian Ajwa, Palestinian Medjoul, North African Khudri dates, accompanied by the sound of the Adhaan being recited through the speaker meet the ears of the mums, dads and children hurrying to the Masjid to break fast. Only stopping to remove their shoes and ordering them neatly on the patterned hallway floor reminiscent of the tiles adorning the Alhambra.
They join their elders already congregated in the Masjid, whose hands, while holding tasbeehs, are raised in prayer listening to the Imam now making dua, asking Allah, the most Merciful, for His blessings during the holy month of Ramadan. You would be forgiven for thinking that the scene described is one of a mosque in Birmingham, Bradford or Blackburn. Of course it could easily be, however, this is a scene typical of a small, rural mosque nestled in the idyllic landscape of the Shropshire hills, a stone’s throw away from the Welsh border, where each night, during the blessed month of Ramadan, a different host family from the Muslim community has invited their brothers and sisters in Islam to come together to break their fast and enjoin in tarawih prayer, taking it in turn to host iftar on a different day throughout the month.
When we picture Muslims in Britain, the tendency has been to think of them as residing in metropolitan centres or cities, living their lives against the backdrop of debates around multiculturalism and Islamophobia. Coming from Birmingham, I’m all too familiar with these resonances! But it wasn’t long ago that I found myself residing and building a life different to the one I left behind in the UK’s second city. Despite the sprawling Islamic infrastructure that Birmingham is fast becoming known for, here, in Shropshire, I felt a deeper and more meaningful connection to my community, and Ramadan is a salient moment each year where I have found a very close connection to the Muslim community, even surpassing that when I was living in the city. It was in Shropshire that I prayed my first tarawih in congregation. It was also here that I met like-minded mums, facing similar challenges in our lives, realising similar aspirations for our children, wanting them to be the best of both Muslim and British.
When it came to community interaction, in the city I found it easier to get lost among the masses – thinking someone else is already doing the work for you so you can take more of a back seat -here I have found myself playing more of an active part in my local community, assuming the role of ambassador for my faith as a minority in a small conservative, English town. In doing so, I have made many warm friendships, both Muslim and non-Muslim. I have been conscious not to allow the contributions of my position as a Muslim to be limited by a multiculturalism that talks about ‘saris, steel bands and samosas,’ where, as a Muslim community we might only be recognized for our provision of foods on a fund raising stall or the local take-away, tantalizing the tastebuds, or bright clothes adorned with dazzling jewels. I feel there is room to be more than just a spectacle for the senses.
The importance of representing my faith has never felt more significant to me. I have been invited to talk to small schools tucked away in tiny English villages where it is rare that anyone has seen a Muslim woman other than on the TV. I have spoken to audiences at the Womens Institute, which I chose to do with a Jewish friend, who like myself upped from the city to settle over the border in a small Welsh town. Together, we share stories of our friendship and discuss the importance of coming to know one another and shift the focus towards our commonalities of which there are many, far away from the images of conflict we are often presented in the media.
Being one of the most rural mosques in the UK, Craven Arms Islamic Centre, in this sleepy part of Shropshire plays an active role in local inter-faith work, drawing visitors from across the county. It has opened its doors and welcomed, with open arms, visitors on the Visit My Mosque Day, year after year, curious about the presence of Islam in a muted town of the English countryside. Drawing in the crowds, the success of events like these can be attributed to the vision held by the small team managing the mosque, who consider the responsibility of their roles as a representative of Islam, a very serious one. With a native, English-speaking Imam whose brief it was to not only lead the congregation for daily prayers, but to undertake interfaith activities, host school visits, distribute charity such as annual Qurbani meat locally and teach the Quran to the Muslim youngsters. The mosque caters and serves a purpose for all. It holds lessons that are carefully curated to the needs of the small but expanding group of Muslim youngsters who attend after school classes to learn about the basics of Islam. It has hosted open iftar events inviting people from all faiths similar to those held across the country, and hosted a delegation of Palestinian youngsters who came to share their experiences of living under the Occupation.
When I think of Ramadan, I now think of this feeling of a strong sense of community and kinship with my fellow Muslims, something I didn’t feel before moving to more rural pastures. I think of the joy it brings to each and every one of us, and most importantly my young children, who are made to feel welcome in the mosque, their mosque. I think of the sense of belonging I feel when during the day we have been helping the host family prepare an iftar for the entire Muslim congregation, cutting salad, making bread, cooking the meat to flavour the rice, preparing Rooh Afza, helping with the school run, and each evening we come together to do the same thing, break our fasts together, pray together and encourage our children to do the same. We wash and clear up together and these small tasks go a long way toward building and strengthening the bonds of this small and humble community. The generosity of the hosts each evening never ceases to amaze me. Tarawih prayers are read beautifully each night, once being beautifully led by the renowned Sheikh Abu Bakr Al Shatri ,with young mums like myself, praying beside their children who go on to fall asleep in the corner, and by the elders whose warm presence, love and wisdom serves as a reminder to us to remain steadfast in our devotion to our faith, through being and cultivating togetherness.
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