4.  The Mosque or Masjid

4.1 The Basics of a Mosque

4.2 Formal Worship

4.3 History of Mosques in Britain

4.4 Factions and Control

4.5 Organisation

4.5.1 Vulnerability of Open, Transparent Management

4.5.2 Control and Growth

4.5.3 Defining Membership

4.5.4 Takeover Bids

4.6 Imams

4.6.1 Need for a Regular Imam

4.6.2 Native Arabic Speakers

4.6.3 English Speaking

4.6.4 Limited Incentives

4.7 Islamic Authority

4.8 Notices and Leaflets, Speakers and Events in the Masjid

4.8.1 Speakers and Events

4.8.2 Handbills in the Masjid

4.8.3 Leafleting outside the Masjid

4.8.4 Respect for Sacred Text in Leaflets

4.9 Umbrella Groups

4.9.1 Federation of Student Islamic Societies

4.9.2 Union of Muslim Organisations

4.9.3 Islamic Party of Britain

4.9.4 Muslim Parliament

4.9.5 Islamic Society of Britain

4.9.6 Muslim Council of Britain

4.9.7 Muslim Association of Britain

4.9.8 British Muslim Forum

4.9.9 Sufi Muslim Council

4.9.10 MINAB

4.10 Pictures, Photos, Posters and Symbols

4.11 Visitors

4.12 Conventions and Etiquettes in the Masjids

4.12.1 Attire

4.12.2 Separation of Men and Women

4.12.3 Shoes

4.12.4 Photographs and Posters

4.13 Madressahs

4.14 Home and Overseas Education

4.1       The Basics of a Mosque

The word Mosque comes from the French word ‘mosqué’ which is a crude rendering of the Egyptian dialect masgid derived from the original Arabic masjid, meaning a place for prostration.  Masjid is the correct term, and ‘mosque’, while widely used, has no proper meaning.

The only fundamental requirement for a masjid is that it is ‘religiously’ clean, i.e. free from the contaminants whose presence require ritual purification, e.g. human or animal blood, urine, faecal matter, alcohol, animal matter not from halaal animals.  This explains the requirement to remove shoes when entering the masjid so as not to bring anything off the street, and the need to use shoes in the lavatory area.  Practically all masjids are equipped with facilities for ritual washing, wudhu, to prepare for salaah, though these can be as basic as a tap over a drain.

Policy Note: Given this ultimately minimalist definition of a masjid, and contemporary debate about problematic masjids, there would be major difficulties in defining, approving of, regulating or enforcing closure of a masjid whose reputation is unsound.  Presently councils apply planning permission rules and fire regulations governing use of a building for places of public assembly, but even these would be hard to apply if the gatherings are small or infrequent and in what is effectively a private house.

In most masjids, including converted houses, there is usually joinery or masonry to form a mehrab or alcove at the front of the praying area.  Its traditional purpose was to act as an amplifier of the imam’s voice in salaah and as a sutra or barrier at the front of the jamaat.  (See the notes on Salaah - Ritual Prayer.)  The imam’s position is marked by his own musalaah or prayer mat.  Adjacent to the mehrab is a mimbar, or pulpit, from which the Friday khutbah or sermon is delivered.  The ritual for Friday's Jumu'a salaah requires a mimbar or stand with at least three steps, but a simple chair will suffice as an absolute minimum for the imam's khutbah (the imam stands to deliver its first part, sits for a moment and stands to deliver the second part).  For ceremonial reasons, the khutbah must be delivered in Arabic in a set pattern, but the tradition of delivering a preliminary talk  (bayaan or wyaz) in the local language goes back to the earliest days of Islam.  A custom not always observed is for the imam to grasp a wooden stave or asaar while delivering the khutbah.  The asaar is often richly carved and will be found near the mimbar.

Policy Note: Orthodox Sunni Muslims will not accept that Friday salaah is valid unless the khutbah is performed in Arabic in the stipulated manner - they will not accept an English khutbah for example. However the bayaan or wyaz is unstructured and perfectly well meets the desire of many people to provide guidance in an appropriate language. There still remains however, the fact that most of the assembly who arrive in time for the bayaan will be elders, many retired, who will have good reason to expect a bayaan in their mother tongue, and that very, very few imams have sufficient fluency in English to provide a convincingly assured level of rhetoric in a bayaan in English. Pidgin English is not a credible medium for challenging controversial views, even if it sufficient to meet Home Office immigration requirements.

Additional architectural features such as a dome or minaret make the building more distinctively Islamic but have no essential religious significance.  Domes act to keep buildings cooler in hot climates and the minaret would have been used for the muezzin to broadcast the Adhaan, the call to prayer.

Unsurprisingly there are invariably many bookshelves of copies of the Qur’an in Arabic.  Book size, text font and style may vary, but the Arabic text is always identical.  Sometimes large collections of Qur’an recitation tapes are kept too and these should be treated with the same respect as the Qur’an book.  Most of the book collections in masjids are decorative – in the ironic sense - Qur’ans will be used by a few people for recitation, but most of the books go untouched.  People often offload unwanted collections of Islamic literature onto masjid libraries, where they may remain undisturbed for years, especially if the literature looks Islamic but is in an unknown tongue.  Very few non-Arabs can read Arabic other than the Qur’an itself, so many masjid users will treat such material as sacred literature without knowing its content. 

Policy Note: It follows therefore masjids cannot reasonably be held accountable for the literature found within them unless it is prominent or clearly attributable. The controversial Policy Exchange report 'The Hijacking of British Islam', made many errors in its analysis of the circumstances in which it found literature it deemed unacceptable, and this fact, of the religious obligation to dispose of literature with religious content in an appropriately respectful way, was one of its failures. (The respect is not due to the problematic opinions an exegisist might express, but due to the scriptural source material.)

Community Note: Concommitantly there is a neglected service that many masjids could provide, but none currently do, i.e. the proper disposal of unwanted religious artifacts and literature.

4.2       Formal Worship

It is mandatory for each of the five obligatory salaah to be preceded by the Adhaan or call to prayer.  This has to be recited in a loud voice from a raised place outside of the masjid area, traditionally from the top of a minar or tower, but the basic requirement can be just a single step off the ground just outside the prayer room itself and without amplification.  Many of the more affluent masjids have set up CB radio transmitters with receiver-only devices available to neighbouring homes.  There is no essential requirement for masjids to proclaim the adhaan from loudspeakers in public outside the masjid, but this would be a positive gesture where it is acceptable to the local community.

Most masjids are open for the five daily salaah of course, for each of which a jamaat or congregation will form at a fixed time, led by the regular imam.  However, invariably only a very small number attend compared with Friday Juma’a salaah or in Ramadhaan or on the two Eid days.  Thus normally there is no noticeable congestion and disturbance around a masjid, but most masjids are full on Friday lunchtimes and some are overflowing.  Masjids are usually left open during the intervals between salaah, since attendees who will have missed the fixed time jamaat will still need to make their salaah alone or in ad hoc jamaats.  However, individual masjids may restrict access during the longer intervals between salaah times to keep the buildings secure.

4.3       History of Mosques in Britain

Most British Muslim communities that evolved from the 1950s and 1960s started by making ad hoc arrangements for salaah, e.g. in the front room of someone’s house.  As families with children became established, typically a mother would extend the teaching of Qur’an recitation and mother-tongue from her own children to include those of other families.  Families clubbed together to buy a small house to use regularly for salaah and teaching and would arrange to bring a moderately qualified imam from their home town to provide regular five times daily salaah, Friday Juma’a and Qur’an and mother-tongue teaching.  They would support him with a meagre retainer from their Friday collections.

In time, bigger premises would be bought with accumulated savings, sometimes with land from the local authority, and sometimes including large contributions from successful local businessmen (but extremely rarely has this come from overseas donations or Islamic institutions).  As the masjid attendees grow in number they include increasing numbers of people from other Muslim ethnic groups than the founders.  As numbers grow, particular Muslim factions also become distinct.  When dissenters reach a critical mass and it becomes practicable for them to support another masjid, they split off and establish another one, often nearby and usually with a more distinct ethnic or factional identity.  Masjids continue to grow in this organic fashion so that for example in High Street North, East Ham, London, there are five masjids in 200 yards on the same street.

Policy Note: In the 1980s and 1990s dissenting factions sometimes battled to take over the control of the local masjid, with conflicts that occasionally made national news.  Since then, firstly, management committees have invariably been very careful to prevent dissenters from making any headway, e.g. by obstructing dissenters' use of masjid facilities beyond the most basic 'pray-and-go', and secondly, accumulation of wealth and property in the Muslim community has made it more practicable for dissenters to find alternative sites to establish new masjids. This has resulted in most masjids becoming more sectarian in their outlook and suspicious of deviation in their congregations, and intensified rivalries between factions of all kinds. I have explored this issue in depth in my 'Mainstream Muslim Sectarianism Causes Extremism' paper, available on this website.

Masjids and Islamic community centres are usually named in some Islamically significant way, usually with an Arabic or Urdu phrase.  As with all representation of Arabic and other cursive script languages rendered in the English alphabet, spelling is approximate and arbitrary, since there is no direct phonetic correspondence between the alphabets.  Therefore it is normal to find the same entity referred to by different names.  For example “Masjid Talim-ul-Islam”, “Edarat-e-Alimul Islam” and “Idara Taleem-ul-Islam” are all used in formal documents as names for the same actual premises, and in this case translate cumbersomely to “Knowledge of Islam Mosque” and “School of Knowledge of Islam”.

4.4       Factions and Control

The Muslim community is very touchy about factionalism.  No one wants to be the first to admit to its existence since unity is stressed in many Islamic sources, and every masjid will claim that they are not a faction, that all Muslims are welcome to use their masjid.  In practice this is basically true – any Muslim can pray in any masjid without interference – but in every masjid there will be practices that are encouraged, others that are tolerated, and other practices that are obstructed.  The imam himself is an employee of the management committee and they will inevitably have selected an imam who maintains their doctrines. 

Policy Note: Whatever his background, the imam's tenure depends utterly on conforming to the expectations of the management committee.  Although news editorials frequently try to blame militancy and extremism among Muslim youth on firebrand preachers, there have only ever been a handful of masjid imams who could be considered for this, and in every case the masjid committee have either been forcibly removed from control, as in Finsbury Park in the late 1990s, or the masjid has been a fringe, breakaway body that local mainstream factions have effectively ostracised.  This has two noteworthy implications.  Firstly, it motivates an incumbent imam to try to safeguard his tenure by cultivating a body of supporters around him, entrenching or exacerbating the sectarian competition within the masjid. Secondly it illustrates how sectarian pressures lever out dissenting factions whether they are wholesome or not, making it very difficult to debate with, or even identify, individuals drawn towards problematic points of view.

For all the protests that Muslims decry factionalism, the litmus test of factionalism in every masjid is when the congregation has to select someone to lead salaah when the imams are all absent.  The dominant faction will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid giving anyone else the opportunity to take the imam’s role.  The management committee will also control permission to users to arrange meetings, lectures and other activities and will invariably withhold permission from those who appear to be following a different doctrine.  This is not simple awkwardness – among the older generations there are profound emotional ties to some of their traditions and they do not have the religious training needed to defend their traditions intellectually.  They invested in their masjids in order to secure their traditions for their children to take up and they have genuine fears that rival doctrines seek to undermine this influence.

By the mid-1990s the Muslim generation that had grown up in Britain, had reached university in sufficient numbers to form viable religiously active Islamic societies on campus.  Here for the first time they were away from the ethnic divisions, factions and mother-country traditions of their parents.  They also mixed with Muslim overseas students from the Middle-East and Africa and found great disparities in their various practices, which they resolved by rejecting traditional Islamic scholarship in favour of their own searching of original sources.  Thus Salafi-ism, returning to the notional roots, the salaf, of Islam, became popular among younger Muslims who then found themselves in conflict with their elders that were holding tight control of the suburban and textile town British masjids.  As the new student generation dispersed from universities, and as Arab-language communities, e.g. Algerians, Moroccans and Somalis began to settle, new Salafi and other challenging factions have started to make an impact, with increasing numbers of small Salafi masjids being set up.

4.5       Organisation

4.5.1       Vulnerability of Open, Transparent Management

Some of the larger local mosques are managed in an open, democratic fashion instead of by enforcement of a rigid doctrinal position in the mosque’s affairs.  While one might hope for a correspondingly open, ecumenical approach to factionalism, unfortunately such mosques are treated as fair-game for influence and for recruitment by marginal factions and become scenes of bitter disputes.  However most of the time the desire to maintain a polite public façade and avoid unpleasant confrontations pushes such activity and the efforts to counteract it, into furtive scheming and meetings out of the spotlight where it is difficult to manage.

4.5.2       Control and Growth

In any masjid the management committees and their imams are almost always determined to maintain exclusive control by their faction – they want to protect their material and moral investment in the mosque.  The usual pattern of organic growth of the masjid is for the congregation to grow until a new factional or ethnically distinct, and discontent, group forms, then grows until a breakaway mosque becomes sustainable.

4.5.3       Defining Membership

Within the limitations of building security, all masjids are open to anyone as a matter of principle.  Thus the only sense in which most worshippers are ‘members’ of a masjid is by habitual attendance.  Most masjid management organisations are registered charities and are therefore required to have some form of constitutional governance, which implies some form of membership criteria.  In practice, this can vary widely, in the most elaborate cases taking the form of a democratic structure in which would-be members are elected to join an electoral college fixed in number that then elects management committees, who in turn employ imams, teachers and caretakers.  However, more often, the committee is appointed by an annual general meeting that is made up from whoever troubles to come to the venue.  Because of the potential instability of this arrangement, many masjids make their meeting arrangements discreetly e.g. by word of mouth, and thus become very inaccessible, this being one of the many complaints of young Muslims about their elders.

4.5.4       Takeover Bids

No matter how open the controlling arrangements are, every masjid has to determine the geographical franchise of its members.  This is invariably a problem because there are usually no natural boundaries.  In the larger cities, habitual attendees could often choose from several masjids in the neighbourhood, not limited by any well defined boundary.  The more openly democratically organised masjids often attract sustained attempts by disadvantaged factions to take over control by packing meetings.  Power struggles of this kind have sometimes led to tense squabbles and sometimes to intervention by the Civil Courts or the Charity Commissioners or by reference to an independent local figure, e.g. a senior local police officer.  Because of the difficulty in defining the franchise and the factional and ethnic aspects of how the masjid was founded and by whom, natural justice is not always on the side of the majority.  Note however that in spite of the obvious problems of the vulnerability of masjids to take-over, only in one case out of circa 1600 masjids, that of North London Islamic Centre in Finsbury Park, has this kind of power struggle had sinister consequences, and in that case the main factors were not constitutional but a weak committee stuck without a trained imam for a significant period (they had sacked two), followed by sustained violent intimidation by the supporters of the ad hoc imam (Abu Hamza Al Masri).

4.6       Imams

4.6.1       Need for a Regular Imam

In the informal masjids set up in people’s houses and before the size of the congregation has grown sufficient to employ an imam, the imam will be chosen from among those present at the time of each salaah, based on his knowledge of recitation of sufficient verses of the Qur’an and his reputation for piety.  However this ad hoc arrangement can lead to bickering among the unschooled, and there still remains the needs of religious education for children or authoritative sermons on Fridays, so as soon as they can afford it, most places will seek to employ a full-time imam who meets their financial, ethnic and doctrinal constraints.  Usually this means bringing someone from overseas.

4.6.2       Native Arabic Speakers

In the small number of Arab-run informal masjids the role of imam is merely an honorary courtesy, because many of the attendees will be able to act as imam for the prayers, having Arabic as their first language.

The dozen or so very large Arab-dominated UK masjids such as Regents Park and Aclam Road centres in London or the Potter Row masjid in Edinburgh, are very keen to honour their responsibilities to the community and many have management and imams that maintain good relations with the authorities.  Each such large masjid has a few Arab mother tongue scholars employed as imams and teachers.

4.6.3       English Speaking

The Muslim community across the board recognises the importance of trained Islamic scholars who are eloquent in English, but pressure on them to employ individuals with basic knowledge of English actually makes the problem worse.  Explanation of the contentious and subtle points of religion to disputatious youngsters (and elders too) requires careful and effective communication and therefore real competence in English to address the youth as well as mother-tongue to address the elders.  Basic knowledge of English is more useless than no English because mediocre English skills merely bury the problem, and shortage of supply of imams with an English qualification and willing to work in the poor conditions of most masjids, leave masjids open to disputes and opportunities for unqualified trouble-makers to take over.  The main factions (the Sunni sects - Deobandi, Bareilvi, Maudoodi, Salafi and the Shia sects) have accumulated enough resources to train imams adequately in Britain for the larger ethnic divisions, but graduates have only emerged very recently, and the smaller ethnic divisions remain unrepresented.

4.6.4       Limited Incentives

However there are real obstacles in the way of young, British, would-be imams.  There are no material incentives that lead anyone raised in Britain to choose this career and they cannot have expectations of British working conditions and wages.  The vast majority of masjid budgets are very limited, and so the majority of imams are still obtained from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh and work in poor conditions at very low wages because that is all that is available.  British-trained imams usually end up in junior positions in the larger mosques where there are often associated Muslim-oriented full-time schools where they can be more fully employed, or they take on other employment instead, typically in their family business.

4.7       Islamic Authority

Just as it is often supposed that the Muslim community is fairly homogeneous, so it is often supposed that religious authority is respected and applied hierarchically.  This is not the case at all.  There are two aspects to the problem, the principles of authority, and the practicalities of applying that authority.

The principle is that each new requirement for a religious ruling is ultimately referred to the Qur’an and the practice of the Messenger Darood graphic and his companions.  This is achieved by comparing the new requirement with whatever has gone before that has satisfied this condition and the task is performed by a mufti, i.e. someone who is qualified to make a fatwa.  A fatwa is an individual religious judgement applicable to one case.  The body of religious instructions that apply to an action, the masa’il, is produced through consensus among scholars across the whole Muslim community agreeing that particular rulings should apply generally and not just as individual fatwas in individual cases.  Thus the Islamic equivalent of a judge’s verdict does not become case law by legal precedent, but becomes something like statute-law through a forum for judges to make a consensus.

The practical difficulties are that (i) the Muslim communities are scattered around the world with no means of determining a common consensus, (ii) there are few places where the verdict of religious scholars is taken up and applied by the government, (iii) the entrenchment of factions prevents any consensus emerging across factional boundaries, and (iv) with factionalism and dispersal there is no longer an agreed standard or recognised qualification that demonstrates the required level of scholarship except within the most narrowly defined factions.  With no formal network of authority at this level, and with numerous key source texts available in questionable and unqualified translation in print and on the web, and with innumerable web-sites that encourage readers to submit questions to ‘Islamic authorities’ that are completely unknown, there is a strong tendency for Muslims to make arbitrary decisions about right and wrong practice, which adds to the number of informal, local schisms. 

Policy Note: In these literally anarchic conditions, individual Muslims may pick and choose the religious opinion that suits them, and they have little incentive to respect the opinion of the imam of their local masjid or scholars associated with any umbrella organisation such as the Muslim Council of Britain.  Indeed, when news media report that some supposed supreme Muslim authority has issued a ruling on some topical controversial subject, very few Muslims would even have noticed the report, even less have heard of the personality being cited.

As explained above, fatwas are religious judgements reached by Muftis, i.e. Muslim scholars with specific qualifications, and can apply to any subject in contention where a general religious ruling or practice does not exist.  They are not ‘death warrants’, as is supposed following the Rushdie case; and they cannot be applied to the general case having been given for a specific case, at least not without much wider consultation.  They cannot be given by unqualified individuals.  Some militants make or are accused of making ‘fatwas’ to incite their followers to violent acts.  This kind of rhetoric must not be confused with the studied approach to Islamic law interpretation of genuine Muftis.

4.8       Notices and Leaflets, Speakers and Events in the Masjid

4.8.1       Speakers and Events

Difficulties in achieving effective management of masjids as described above, caused by uncommunicative management committees, anxiety to avoid confrontations with controversial or rival groups, or lack of confidence in tackling complex Islamic issues means that most masjids are very reluctant to allow events to be organised or speakers to be arranged except from a narrow range that are known to conform to the management committee’s views.

4.8.2       Handbills in the Masjid

On the other hand the same factors of ineffective management make it difficult to control what literature is displayed or left to take away on the periphery of the masjid and provide an incentive for dissenters to do just that.  Piles of flyers, handbills, newsletters and other publications will be found in the entrances to most masjids, and notices promoting various kinds of fringe groups and opportunities to learn about aspects of Islam will be pinned up on the notice-board by individuals.  Few people in the masjid will know what significance the statements or the events advertised have, whether sinister or wholesome.

4.8.3       Leafleting outside the Masjid

Some Muslim organisations muster support by leafleting outside the masjid entrance, often to the annoyance of the masjid’s management who usually assume they can do nothing about it.  Generally speaking, the law allows wider latitude for collecting money for charitable purposes than for commercial or political ones, both of which are more closely regulated by licensing.  ‘Charitable purposes’ means any charitable, benevolent or philanthropic purpose. It includes the relief of poverty and the advancement of religion or education at home or abroad, but it does not include collections  to raise funds for a political party or for a political campaign, such as CND or animal liberation.  However, the law relating to these subjects is confused and inconsistently applied.

A leaflet must have on it the name and address of the printer.  The police may also move leafleters if they appear to be causing an obstruction.  It is an offence to hand out leaflets that are threatening, abusive or insulting or those that are intended to stir up racial hatred.

Community Note: Although there is no need to obtain a licence or certificate for handing out leaflets or collecting signatures for a petition, local bye-laws can be used to restrict leafleting from near specific buildings.  An example is quoted below to aid anyone interested in pursuing this remedy:

Under Section 4(9)(a) of the London Local Authorities Act 1994, Westminster City Council proposes to designate pursuant to Section 4(1) of the Act this street as a place within which the distribution of free literature will require a written consent from the Council … on or from land within 7 metres of any designated street by anyone who is not

                (i)   the owner of the land,

                (ii)  the person liable to be assessed for the uniform business rate in respect thereof

                (iii)  on that land with consent in writing of either of the persons mentioned in (i) or (ii) above

For the purposes of Section 4 of the Act, “distribute” means to offer or make available, and includes the placing of free literature on or affixing it to a vehicle; and free literature means any news, document, card or other literature for which no charge is made to the recipient and which advertises, or contains or comprises an advertisement for commercial gain.

Section 4 of the Act does not apply to the distribution of free literature:

                (a)  by a charity within the meaning of the Charities Act 1960 where the literature relates to or is for the benefit of the body,

                (b)  by or on behalf of a political organisation,

                (c)  where the person who distributes it does so by putting it into a building or letterbox;

      or by London Regional Transport, any of its subsidiaries ….

Where free literature is distributed in a designated place without consent, an authorised officer may seize any supply of that literature which the distributor has at or near the place.

4.8.4       Respect for Sacred Text in Leaflets

Many Islamic leaflets contain quotations from the Qur’an or related religious text in Arabic.  Recipients will not then normally throw the material away but horde it along with religious calendars, damaged prayer books and other Islamic material until they find some respectful way to dispose of it.  The religious requirement is that no trace remains of Qur’anic text on material being disposed of.  Traditionally this is by casting it into a river, but modern inks do not dissolve and modern paper doesn’t disintegrate easily.  Nowadays incineration is more effective and most scholars agree that in the right circumstances this is not disrespectful.  However not many homes have a safe and suitable place where this can be done, and it would be a useful step for masjids to arrange this as a service, so the material does tend to accumulate, although it has not occurred to the management of any masjid to do so to date.

Community Note: It would be perfectly possible for masjids to provide a disposal service for religious documents, e.g. if the masjid has open, safe space available, else if a responsible individual with the space so volunteered, to set up a brazier and at regular intervals take material left appropriately at the masjid, and destroy it in accordance with religious sentiments.

Policy Note: Possession of extremist Islamic literature has been a factor in several criminal cases, some of which have come to court.  Defendants have successfully defended themselves by citing the fact that its distribution outside masjids is commonplace and the tradition of disposing of material with sacred text on it only when it can be done respectfully.

A further twist is that piles of literature left for people to take away will be removed in bulk by people who disagree with its content, but who are also faced with the same problem of respectful disposal.  Thus individuals opposed to extremist views may be found in possession of stacks of controversial literature that appear to be ready for distribution when the individual’s intent was precisely the opposite.

4.9       Umbrella Groups

Various attempts have been made to form national representative bodies for the Muslim community over the last three decades.  None has been satisfactory because they either aim to be too general, bland and therefore ineffective, or they become associated with particular factions or ethnic divisions so that rivals boycott them.  This happens even when most such efforts have tried hard to be non-partisan.  Because the organisation starts within a group of like-minded individuals and gains most initial support from their network it inevitably becomes seen to be partisan.  Even though others join, as soon as there is a perception that one faction is making the running, the more partisan members of other factions make a point of boycotting it.

There are probably around 3,000 enduring Muslim organisations in Britain, of which about half are primarily involved with running masjids and community centres.  The vast majority are locally focused organisations and probably about half are registered charities, although many of these have only trivial amounts of finances .  Many more have tiny memberships and are short-lived.  However a fair number claim to act as umbrella organisations, mostly around specific issues. 

Recognising that:

  • imams and other masjid and madressah staff are invariably employees of local management committees, not of a hierarchical church-like structure,
  • masjids are almost always funded and supported from the local neighbourhood, not from central or overseas organisations,
  • and that affiliation of a masjid to an umbrella group involves no binding commitment, merely a recognition of common interest,

it will be understood that declarations, rulings, statements, even fatwas, issued by umbrella groups have only token significance.  That is not to deprecate such declarations, but expectations should not be raised about their impact.

The following list of umbrella bodies is selected merely from those that have had a lot of public exposure over the years.  Some of them are really quite insignificant and there are many more claimants for influence besides these.

4.9.1       Federation of Student Islamic Societies

FOSIS was founded in 1962 and is probably the only organisation to be relatively free of factionalism, whether intentional or not.  It is confined to student Muslim societies, but these are the places where most of the significant changes in British Muslim society take place.  FOSIS usually steers a moderate and reasoned course relative to the outspoken militancy of many Muslim student activists.

4.9.2       Union of Muslim Organisations

The UMO was founded in 1970.  It has always endeavoured to be as inclusive and therefore uncontroversial as possible.  Correspondingly it has made little impact on the Muslim community.  Its membership comprises of about 200 Muslim affiliated organisations, but the list is not published, and currently it does not have a web site.  Its charity has a single trustee, its founder, and total annual expenditure of under £4,000.[1]

4.9.3       Islamic Party of Britain

The IPB was founded in the late 1980s and attracted a lot of attention through fielding significant numbers of candidates in the 1992 election.  However it has never succeeded in maintaining the momentum and has all but disappeared.  Its founders and continuing supporters are a very small clique of individuals and it never received serious endorsement from any significant Muslim organisation.

4.9.4       Muslim Parliament

This was formed in 1992 and attempted to create a democratically representative body for British Muslims.  Affiliate organisations were asked to submit representatives to join the 'Parliament'.  Inevitably most were self-selected and gravitated around those who had similar views to its founders on contemporary political issues and Shia-Sunni collaboration.  The latter topic does not receive much enthusiasm among many Sunni Muslims, and with its founder’s death, the Muslim Parliament is now largely defunct, although its primary sponsor still sustains a number of related organisations.

4.9.5       Islamic Society of Britain

The ISB was founded in the mid 1990s and is an organisation of individuals rather than an umbrella body of organisations.  It concentrates on family issues and aims specifically at the generations that have grown up in Britain.  It has about 2000 members in essentially autonomous local groups, but its inception was largely stimulated by the Islamic Foundation, the Maudoodi-ist entity in Leicester.

4.9.6       Muslim Council of Britain

This was founded in 1997 and lists over 400 organisations as affiliates.  It has gained a great deal of prominence since 2001.  Individual members are organised into a number of topical committees, though many of the committees have hardly met more than twice.[2]  Affiliation is by payment of a small annual fee.  Among the factions, 32 of the 57 UKIM, Maudoodi-influenced masjids are members, about 7% of  Deobandi masjids, and much smaller percentages of the other factions are members.  Altogether about 179 masjids are members of MCB[3] out of around 1560 masjids in the UK. It is noteworthy that 22 Bareilvi-oriented masjids are MCB affiliates, so pro rata, at 7%, Bareilvis are as well represented in the MCB as Deobandis, in spite of claims to the contrary by more intransigent Bareilvi spokesmen.

4.9.7       Muslim Association of Britain

The MAB was founded in 1997 in order to raise the profile of Arab-speaking British Muslims that have settled mainly from the Middle East, particularly the Levant rather than than North Africa.  Membership includes individuals and affiliated organisations.  Although membership is not exclusive, the relatively small community which it seeks to serve is a constraint on its ability to have a wider influence, so it invariably teams up with other bodies for much practical activity.

4.9.8       British Muslim Forum

The BMF was founded in 2005 and has approximately 270 member organisations affiliated[4], of which 230 are masjid addresses, although about 30 of these are defunct.  Almost all members are Bareilvi-inclined masjids.  In spite of its larger representation among masjids, the BMF is very loosely organised and initiates few activities.

4.9.9       Sufi Muslim Council

The SMC was founded in high profile publicity in 2006 at a time when the MCB was being subjected to intensely critical scrutiny by some journalists.  Its intention was very explicitly to rival the claim of the MCB to represent British Muslims. Its supporters are staunchly Bareilvi in outlook and have claimed that such viewpoints are representative of two thirds of UK Muslims. Statistics demontrate the contrary, and the SMC is held in little regard among Muslims, the more so as it is very coy about the range of support it has.

4.9.10       Mosques and Imams National Advisory Body

MINAB was formed in 2006 largely as a result of recommendations made by Muslim community panelists that participated in the Home Office's Preventing Extremism Together initiative that followed the London bombings of July 2005. It has published recommendations for the ways in which imams and masjid management committees should conduct themselves. It comprises of delegates from various major masjids under the joint auspices of the MCB, MAB, BMF and Al Khoie Foundation, the latter representing a number of UK Shi'a institutions.

4.10    Pictures, Photos, Posters and Symbols

In Sunni Islam there is strong reaction against the depiction of people and animals.  This has roots in both the association of pictures and statues with idolatry and in its association with fame and pomposity, and although casual photographs my be a long way from such concepts, the reaction is reinforced by the declaration of Allah’s Messenger Darood graphic that ‘Allah’s curse is on the one making the picture and on the one whose picture is made’.  Some scholars have refined the injunction to state that anything with eyes cannot be depicted.

Many Muslims will be reluctant to wear clothing and badges that depict faces, people or animals, e.g. as part of a uniform, though the facetious may argue that people do not object to coinage in their pockets for example.

Symbols can also raise sensitive issues.  Muslim worship is not concerned simply with the proper intention of worshipping none but Allah, but Muslims are also anxious to avoid anything that could misrepresent the act of worship.  This includes both the symbols of other religions and acts which could appear to be in imitation of other religions.  Therefore e.g. depictions of symbols in multi-faith posters may limit the places where these could be displayed, irrespective of sympathies towards ecumenicalism.  However there is no sense in which members of other faiths themselves would not be welcome as guests in any masjid, regardless of their symbolic dress or tokens of faith.

The fact of the Union Flag being comprised of three Christian crosses, and the implications of saluting it, has so far escaped most people’s attention, but no doubt will raise some interesting debates in due course.  Some scholars have described saluting as a ‘half takbeer’ – a meaningless phrase in itself but which purports to compare saluting a senior human being with the raising of the hands to the head at the start of Salaah, “saluting” Allah Himself.  The common Spanish/Latin and Arabic roots of the word ‘salute’ as a respectful greeting does rather underline the point in what would otherwise be a specious argument.

4.11   Visitors

In principle all masjids are open to anyone to perform their Islamic duties at any time.  Islam has always been an outward-looking, “evangelising” religion and therefore Muslims invariably welcome opportunities to invite others to the faith.  Accordingly all masjids welcome visitors.  However noting the basic and limited resources of the majority of masjids, often no more than an unoccupied terraced house in dire need of renovation, it will be recognised that not all masjids have the means to accommodate visitors conveniently.  Also, given the limited means of communication in English of many of the elders and imams, their lack of confidence in dealing with people from outside their community, being frequently subjected to racially motivated hostility, and recurrence of problems with officialdom, common to all marginalised communities, e.g. council planning officials, visitors may be left feeling a little awkward, and their hosts may contrive a disproportionate amount of formality.  Sometimes the communication problem has been so basic that an imam has supposed that a casual visitor’s purpose in visiting had been to convert to Islam (a very basic ceremony in Arabic), and the visitor being unaware of this, has been subjected to the conversion ritual and sent, none the wiser of his newly acquired salvation, on his way.

The larger masjids usually have some more regularised arrangements for receiving visitors and explaining Islam, Muslims and the masjid to visitors.  This is because they may have a range of facilities and support of volunteers or several employees.  Such places commonly provide for school parties too, and a few have regular public events that are aimed at propagating Islam.  Notwithstanding the formalities, casual drop-in visitors can still expect to be welcomed.  The only word of caution in visiting a masjid, is to be aware of factionalists who may sense the opportunity to propagate their own views at odds with the rest of the congregation.

4.12   Conventions and Etiquettes in the Masjids

There are a number of practices and conventions that require clarification in visiting masjids or arranging events around the masjid.

4.12.1   Attire

Men’s and women’s dress should be modest and as far as possible respect the Islamic dress code which mandates that men’s bodies must be covered at least from the navel to the knee, and women’s bodies entirely except for the face and hands.  The men’s case is unlikely to present difficulties, and depending on the circumstances of the visit, common sense and normal conventions will be respected in the women’s case as well.

While ‘best clothes’ are assumed for Muslims for Friday Juma’a salaah, in general little attention is paid to formal dress when visiting the masjid, since attending the masjid is a five-times daily routine.  Indeed Muslim sartorial standards can fall as low as a dressing-gown for the very early hours of fajr salaah.

4.12.2   Separation of Men and Women

The five times daily salaah in congregation in the masjid is enjoined on men, not on women.  Women’s salaah is expected to be discreet and private and therefore performed at home.  The majority of masjids make some provision for women, but most of these do so by allocating space only when specially asked for.  Larger purpose-built masjids often have a gallery over the main masjid room, part or all of which is for women’s use.

Accordingly, and depending on the circumstances of the visit, separate hosting arrangements may be made for women visitors, e.g. for larger parties or more formal visits.  Casual visitors that include women can usually be accommodated.  While the congregational salaah is in progress it is usually practical for male visitors to wait at the back of the masjid room itself, but not so for women to wait.  Most masjids are extremely full on Friday Juma’a salaah and some small masjids have no ante-room or office at all, so they would have difficulty accommodating visitors at all at this time – indeed many have late-coming worshippers filling the doorways and flowing out into the street.

4.12.3   Shoes

Shoes are not permitted in the area of the masjid building in which salaah may take place.  This will vary from building to building according to the arrangements of facilities in the premises, but there will almost always be a clear notice and racks for shoes at the point where this is required.  Occasionally people take away the wrong shoes and occasionally ne’er-do-wells slip in the open door to steal the shoes.

Shoes for mandatory use in the toilets are provided, usually slip-on plastic sandals.  These should be used since otherwise contaminants would be brought into the praying area.

Community Note: Visitors from the emergency services may sometimes need to visit the masjid while on duty in circumstances that are not vitally urgent.  Being on duty, they are obliged to keep on their shoes as part of their readiness and personal safety requirements.  It is possible to obtain from medical suppliers, disposable, tie-on, shoe-covering galoshes in clear, thin polythene, normally for use in controlling infectivity.  It would be prudent for masjids to acquire small stocks of these in preference to the complications of ritual re-cleaning of a masjid carpet walked over in outdoor shoes.

4.12.4   Photographs and Posters

As noted above, there is a strong aversion among more strictly practising Muslims to being photographed.  Therefore one should not take photographs or video people in and around the masjid, and should ask permission before using individuals’ photographs in other circumstances.  Nevertheless some masjids have accepted the use of security video equipment, especially as masjids themselves are often the target of both petty and serious crime.

Policy Note: Public information posters, whether intended for the Muslim community or not, will not be displayed in masjids if they include pictures of people or animals.  This issue came up in 2008 in the instance of a puppy dog's picture promoting a crime contact number service, but was inflated out of context, the context not being the masjid but the individual decisions of private shopkeepers.

4.13   Madressahs

Muslims are required to be able to read the Qur’an in Arabic to the best of their ability.  Therefore almost every masjid also runs a madressah (school) to teach young children to read Arabic script, recite the Qur’an correctly and learn the basic beliefs and practices of Islam.  Madressah teachers are drawn from among the imams, volunteers and part-timers working for “pin-money”.  Children are started from as early an age as possible, three, four or five, and tend to drop away as they approach secondary school age.  Some may continue for several years in order to memorise the entire Qur’an and thus become a Hafiz, which is a celebrated religious achievement.

Madressahs are often also used to teach mother-tongue languages, so madressah teachers are required from the home country for this purpose.

Madressahs are usually run after school for one or two hours, typically between 5.00 pm and 7.00 pm.  Some masjids organise a minibus to pick up and drop children.  Teaching methods are very often rather traditional, by rote and often using mild corporal punishment.  Awareness is slowly spreading that this is not lawful, but madressah teachers do not have any formal teaching qualifications and they and parents are mostly unaware of the legal position.  Occasionally physical punishments do exceed even a traditional view of what can be considered safe, and there have been a very few prosecutions in recent years.  It is almost unknown for masjids and madressahs to request Criminal Records Bureau checks on suitability of staff and volunteers to work with children.  The reasons are (i) ignorance of the availability of such checks, (ii) lack of funds to cover the CRB fee, and (iii) general belief that there is no problem of this nature – the ‘mild corporal punishment’ is accepted as normal, and cases of sexual abuse of children are either unknown or unreported.

4.14   Home and Overseas Education

There are a very small number of Muslim children who are “home educated”.  One of the many reasons for this is that the child may be dedicating the time to the intensive process of becoming a Qur'an Hafiz, one who has memorised the entire Qur'an word perfect, a highly prized accomplishment.  The legal position on home education, in which a family has ‘opted out’ of school, is quite straightforward, i.e. if a child is registered as attending a particular school, state or private, and does not attend, then truancy regulations apply.  But if a child is not registered at a school, or has been ‘de-registered’ and the local education authority informed, (the latter being the school's responsibility) it is perfectly lawful for the child to be educated at home (or outside the home) as long as the local authority is unable to demonstrate that the education received is inappropriate.  In the words of the 1996 Education Act, ‘The parents … shall cause him to receive efficient full-time education … either by regular attendance at school or otherwiseUnfortunately many local authorities try to avoid addressing this issue by playing on the common belief that education in school is compulsory, to obstruct home educators. 

This situation affects Muslims because a few families set aside from school the two, three or four years that is required for a child to become a hafiz, ‘protector’ or memoriser of the Qur’an, and achieve this highly prized religious status by learning at home or at a neighbourhood masjid’s madressah.  There is rarely anything irresponsible about this – most such families make some provision for maintaining the core of curriculum subjects as well, and most hufaaz achieve high academic standards afterwards, arguably as a result of the discipline of this training.

Many Muslim families are unaware of the benign legal position on home education, and as noted, local authorities frequently do not disavow them of this. As a result, some families mistakenly seek to conceal their child's circumstances.   However some support organisations such as ‘Education Otherwise’ provide assistance, e.g. they issue unofficial identity cards that confirm the child’s status.  Cultural and integration barriers mean that few Muslims are aware of support groups such as this.

Many, often quite young, children go overseas to study, cared for by the extended family, for a variety of reasons, (i) to achieve memorisation of the Qur’an, (ii) because of the frightful state of education in British schools (yes, many private schools in Pakistan do offer a higher standard of education than available from inner-city schools in Britain.),  (iii) to inculcate in children traditional values of respect and deference that are much prized by their parents.  Since ‘madressah’ simply means ‘school’ in Arabic/Urdu, and since nearly every one of tens of thousands of masjids in a Muslim country has its own madressah, it would be seriously mistaken to suppose that there is anything sinister about children and teenagers of primary and secondary school age travelling overseas for this purpose.  Furthermore, this generally benign practice continues in spite of Pakistan's and British Government's nominal obstruction of British youth travelling to Pakistan to study in madressahs there.

[1] Register of Charities of England and Wales

[2] Various MCB web pages, e.g. http://www.mcb.org.uk/comm_details.php?heading_id=32&com_id=10

[3] Affiliates are listed at http://www.mcb.org.uk/affiliates.php, and included 447 entities in May 2006, of which 175 are masjids.

[4] Affiliates were previously listed at http://britishmuslimforum.org/bmf_members_full.php and included about 337 organisations in January 2006, of which approximately 200 are masjids. (As also with the MCB, quite a few other organisations counted are actually co-located, in effect being double-counted).