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: how kind! And 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.”