‘How my father set up the UK’s first Turkish mosque’: Erkin Gunay looks back to Masjid Ramadan’s beginnings in 1977
PUBLISHED: 18:26 31 July 2018 | UPDATED: 16:12 02 August 2018
Erkin Güney, whose father founded Masjid Ramadan, the first Turkish mosque in the UK, speaks to Emma Bartholomew about his father’s ambitious and successful conversion of the abandoned synagogue in 1977
“Thousands used to come through the doors,” remembers Erkin Güney, who was 12 when his father founded a mosque in Shacklewell Lane, Dalston in the ’70s.
“It was always packed, not only because it was the first Turkish mosque in the UK, it was the only mosque in the area at the time,” he said.
“It was out to the road and over spilling. People came from all over London, from all different cultures. Now there’s a mosque on every corner.”
Commonly known as Shacklewell Lane Mosque, it is one of Hackney’s earliest mosques and one of its largest. But it was originally built as a synagogue.
The foundation stone of the building which dates back to 1904 can still be seen outside, and was laid by the Hon Nathaniel Charles Rothschild, chairman of Stoke Newington Synagogue’s building committee. It was described as “plain but substantial” when it was first built. By 1976 it closed, and its congregation was amalgamated with Hackney Synagogue.
As chair of the UK Turkish Islamic Trust, Erkin’s father Ramadan Güney led negotiations to buy it from the trustees the next year.
A founding member of the Turkish Resistance organisation in his homeland Cyprus, established as part of the struggle against the Greek Cypriot nationalists, Ramadan was sent into exile and had moved to London in the late ’50s. He owned a record shop in St John’s Street, Islington, while his wife Süheyla had one in Green Lanes called World of Music. They would distribute Turkish books and cassettes and thanks to his music publishing business he was a millionaire by the time he was 35.
A decade later the mosque gave Ramadan a chance to enter the funeral trade. “My dad was spiritual, and he was a businessman. He was a visionary. Whatever he did was with good intentions,” said Erkin.
“The Muslim culture is interesting, the last journey is the most sacred. We bury within 24 hours, and that facility wasn’t in place for our community in the ’70s.”
There are still remnants of the Jewish place of worship inside.
“No one minded it had been a synagogue,” said Gurkin whose wife of 35 years is Jewish. “Myself, personally, I like the fact that we’ve got the remnants of the Star of David and Hebrew writing. There’s a lot of history there. A lot of mosques have been turned into synagogues as well.”
Erkin, who grew up in Stoke Newington and went to Woodberry Down primary school, is spiritual but has never much been into religion.
“I used to go to an English school singing Kumbaya and then come here and learn how to pray, so I was confused by it all,” he said. “I didn’t get the religious thing because I was a young kid growing up in London and I was programmed to go to work.
“My memories are of lots of people being there with headgear and robes, and I thought what’s all this about being a Turkish Cypriot. I thought it was part of our culture. I wasn’t wrong but not all Turkish Cypriots are practising.”
He also wasn’t enamoured with the conformist aspect. “It was very cultified, which most religions are,” he said. “You’ve got to do this and that, and you can’t do this”. If you don’t do it this way you’ll go to hell. What’s all that all about? There is more politics in religion than there is in politics. “The teachings of any religion should be kept to peace love and harmony. Of course, music is a real religion. It’s all about love,” he added.
A Porsche engineer by trade, the father-of-three took over as funeral director five years ago.
“Our funerals only cost a few hundred pounds. We don’t charge extortionate amounts of money,” he said. “I came around to this area and I had to think long and hard whether I was going to take over because it was religious, or let it go to the developers, and I thought I’ll try and give this a go and create a platform for the community - not just for Muslims but for everyone.”
The mosque has evolved over the years, serving an increasingly diverse Muslim community, perhaps a reflection of changing demographics but also Erkin’s decision to alternate his Imams.
“I don’t have a single Turkish, Pakistani or Bengali one. I alternate it so everyone comes which isn’t the norm. That’s how I see a balance, rather than it being about the cult. It’s about the religion and the teaching of the Koran.”