A funny thing happened on the way to the mosque

Originally published in The Sunday Times

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).

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