The UK has around 2000 mosques ranging from mega-complexes like the LMC in London with space for over 10,000 people to small terraced buildings like the mosque on the corner of Chaple Street on the Isle of Wight which has space for no more than 50-100. As an overall ratio, there’s roughly 1 mosque in the UK for every 1350 Muslim (male and female, based on 2011 census data). If we remove the under 4’s (12%) and over 65’s (4%) who we perhaps wouldn’t normally expect to frequent mosques so much, the ratio improves to 1 mosque for every 1136 Muslim. If we then remove the 48% women, the ratio becomes 1 mosque for every 545 Muslim men. The latter stat suggests that aside from an increase in the rate of mosque goers among men or from a natural increase in the Muslim population, future growth in mosque numbers and sizes would depend on making space for women or expanding the provision of community services. Excluding outlier days like Eid and Friday prayers, elementary after-school Arabic classes (maktab) and the occasional ‘iman booster’ talk, the proportion of Muslims who are regular congregants (attending mosque for at least once a day) is probably no more than 2-3%. In the UK, that’s roughly a mean average of 30-40 attendees in every mosque at prayer time (salah).
That said, 2000 mosques is a significant achievement. After all, it’s only been about 50 or so years since the start of mass immigration of Muslims. And it’s a fair number considering that the first mosque – the Abdullah Quilliam Mosque on Mount Vernon Street in Liverpool was built in 1887, or the ‘Turkish-style’ replica built by William Chambers on a whim in Kew Gardens in 1761. However, these stats aside, there are good reasons to believe that many mosques are struggling on a number of fronts. Knowing that, it’s brilliant and courageous to see that the MCB has called for a ground-breaking ‘OurMosquesOurFuture’ conference to explore solutions to systemic, underlying issues. So what are some of these issues?
A look at the impact of demographic changes is usually a good place to start, where a number of trends are emerging. Firstly, in many towns, Muslims are living further away from mosques and often establishing new smaller mosques, mainly for maktab services and as prayer spaces. Consequently, in many towns, resources (finance, expertise, skills etc.) are spread thinly across mosques making the economics of scale and quality (of imams, community services, general experience etc.) less likely. It doesn’t help that management committees and trustees of mosques generally aren’t good collaborators prepared to share best practices and resources due to sectarian/ethnic differences, lacking professional standards, and inter-personal conflicts/politics. Cue the lack of inspiration to attract the right kind of ‘thinkers’ and ‘doers’ as volunteers for the upkeep and spirit of ‘community hub’ that a Prophetic model for a mosque demands. It’s made worse by a lack of confidence, fearing external influence and questions will only lead to a dilution of religion.
Secondly, an overwhelming majority of mosques still don’t cater for women despite their huge socio-spiritual potential. Though, we’re not short of edicts (fatawa) explicitly arguing the lawfulness of women having unfettered access. Notable examples include shaykh Akram Nadwi’s translation and annotation of Ibn Hazm’s tenth century fatwa, and Dr Jasser Auda’s fatwa. But I have yet to come across one that offers a compelling holistic approach to the issue, combining fiqh with considerations about the practical dilemmas and challenges on the ground that require non-fiqhi interventions. Overall, the problem space can be distilled into four contentions as I see them.
1) The issue is largely a South Asian religio-cultural expression. Turkish, Arab or African Muslims don’t in the main have this issue, and I’m pretty sure that if the majority of British Muslims descended not from Pakistan or Bangladesh we’d be having a different discussion. 2) It also reflects the cultural patriarchy of these places which continues among women of 1st and 2nd generation in particular, who conform to norms that largely make them absent from public religious discourses. This means that in practice there is as yet only a nascent internal demand (among 3rd generation and millennials), and certainly its presence is geographically sporadic. As 3rd generation and millennials aren’t yet in positions of authority calls for change will likely be an uphill struggle. 3) There is a lack of willingness and courage by exclusively male management committees to recognise the changing lifestyles of Muslim women and families and therefore to be more accommodating. While some do recognise that ‘allowing women to go shopping’ yet not making space for them for prayer is irreconcilable, they lack the courage to step out of their convenience and comfort zones. 4) Many mosques are heavily burdened by physical space or financial constraints and so spending to build separate toilet and ablution (wudu) facilities, privacy, and possibly crèche facilities can be a tricky case to make.
Thirdly, the lack of progress on English-speaking and British-trained imams who can contextualise Islam for us in the UK is another major area of improvement. While a number of recent policy reports (Missing Muslims and Dame Louise Casey) have made references to this, in practice there are more fundamentally-rooted issues. 1) There are few institutes in the UK that professionally train imams for public service with the insight to contextualise meaningfully, overcoming cognitive dissonance for instance. 2) There is generally a lack of foresight and courage by Muslims to perceive mosques as places of vigorous intellectual pursuits of ‘what does God want of me?’ and ‘what is the Prophetic guidance for me?’ 3) Mosque culture in some places is caught up in the sentiment of preserving what is usually a mish-mash of low-grade ethnoculture (as opposed to a high culture typified by an acquaintance with literature, learning, philosophy, history, arts etc.). This in turn acts as a barrier to mosques becoming inclusive community hubs.
Now, there has been a flurry of activity in recent years to sort out some basic housekeeping like DBS checks for those involved in teaching kids in mosques, putting in place policies for safeguarding, health and safety, and fire etc. But training or upskilling of management committees and trustees have rarely been touched.
In all of this, perhaps, the single biggest factor which is already impacting many mosques is the rampant apathy and disinterestedness of 3rd generation Muslims. Finding committed and competent volunteers has got increasingly challenging as a result. Mosques are no longer the only opportunity to volunteer (khidma) or to work in service of God. A plethora of choices exist between diverse charity organisations, at hospitals, at work, and so on. All of which must fit into the demands of a career, raising children, looking after elderly parents, and so on. Given this trend, unless the mosque scene changes for the better the younger generation will have little confidence in mosques, and there will be a filtering process by which the least able will remain associated with them. But if Islam is to bring value to British society, our mosques will have to play a pivotal role and more will have to become thriving community hubs. And so it’s imperative that we send delegates from as many mosques as possible to attend, absorb and implement learnings from the MCB’s conference.