Hackney mosque opens its doors as Muslims begin month of Ramadan
The Gazette visited one of the borough’s many mosques to find out about life at centre of the Islamic community during Ramadan.
As a show of support for Muslim friends during Ramadan, I once joined them in a day of fasting. I did not eat, drink or take any medication between the hours of dawn and dusk. And I felt awful.
Most of the afternoon was spent lying in bed waiting for the sun to go down.
So I have great respect for those who do this day after day for a whole month – especially in the UK at this time of year when darkness does not fall until 9.30pm.
“It is really difficult, especially in this country where evenings are light for a long time,” Hakan Yildrim tells me at the Suleymaniye mosque in Kingsland Road, Shoreditch.
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“But you are motivated for it. It is an interesting month. It teaches you to be patient and to help people.”
In countries such as Turkey – where most of the population is Muslim – life changes completely.
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Shops open later, workers take breaks in the afternoon and no one eats in public.
But fasting in the UK is very different.
“We would like to ask people to be patient with us,” said Hakan, secretary of the UK Turkish Islamic Cultural Centre.
“But I do not mean to let us off easily.”
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, when Muslims believe their holy book the Koran was revealed to the prophet Muhammad.
They practise self-control in their daily lives – including food, sleep and sex. Daytime fasting, or “sawm”, is followed by an evening meal, “Iftar”, often with large numbers of friends and family.
Giving to charity is also very important, as is prayer and special services at mosques.
The Suleymaniye mosque and cultural centre started life in a flat above a supermarket in Kingsland Road in the 1980s. The current six-storey building opened in 1999 and is now the headquarters of UK Turkish Islamic Cultural Centre, a nationwide charity focusing on education and social welfare that has another 10 branches across the UK.
Hakan gave me a tour.
The outside of the building is in both Western and Islamic architectural styles, including intricate blue and white tiles that come from Turkey’s tile-making capital of Kutahya.
“We want to give a message that you can get both together,” says Hakan. “You can be a good Muslim by living here in Britain and giving benefits to the community.”
One of the building’s most striking features is the white minaret – the tower used for the call to prayer, or “azan”. Like most modern mosques, Suleymaniye broadcasts the azan through speakers for morning and afternoon prayers.
“You can hear it, but not very loud,” says Hakan.
“It is nice to be able to call the azan to the outside, it’s a nice feeling for us, and we don’t get any complaints.”
Inside, the floors are covered in carpet and visitors are required to remove their shoes on entering as cleanliness is a vital part of worshipping.
The mosque can be found on the second floor, ornately decorated.
Its key features, Hakan explains, include the minbar – a pulpit only used by the Imam, the leader of worship, for Friday prayers.
Then there is the mihrab, a curve which points towards Mecca in Saudi Arabia where Muslims always face to pray, and the kursi, where the Imam sits to read the Koran in English, Arabic and Turkish.
Men and women pray separately.
There are no images of humans or animals, as Muslims believe only God, or Allah, should be worshipped.
The walls, ceiling and floors are mostly blue, red, and green – the colour of Islam – and chosen for their relaxing atmosphere and links to the natural world.
But do not just take my word for it.
Hakan is keen for people of all faiths to visit the mosque.
He said: “Thousands of people go to the mosques in Istanbul, but they do not need to, they can come here.”
“I have an aim. I would like to put a big billboard up outside saying ‘Come in any time’.
“All people see is the building and wonder what’s happening inside. People are wary of what they don’t know. We know people have many questions about Islam and they need to feel free to ask those questions.
“Just come in and ask what’s happening. We look forward to seeing you here.”
The cultural centre organises weddings for Muslims and non-Muslims alike, offers conference rooms and provides after-school education.
“We teach young people to be a good citizen and a good neighbour,” says Hakan. “It means that they are not outside on the streets in a gang or involved in antisocial behaviour.
“The role of the mosque is not just a place to pray. It is not only for Muslim or Turkish people. It is for the community.”