BahaiNews -- The Times - At Your Service Faith

January 25, 2003

At Your Service

OF THE 180,000 people who live in Luton, around 20,000 are Muslims. There are five mosques in the town but the largest, in a predominantly Muslim area, is the Central Mosque. The foundation stone was laid just over 20 years ago, and it is the third largest purpose-built mosque in Britain.

The building is dominated by two prayer rooms, each of which can hold around 500 people. Downstairs the mihrab (the niche in the wall indicating the direction of Mecca) is bookended by cupboards of Korans and pictures of the first mosque in Mecca. The main room upstairs is dominated by a large chandelier within the dome and a mihrab surrounded by lights of yellow, red and green. There is a faint smell of perfume.

Today the subject of the sermon is the haj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca which will be made in the middle of February by as many as 22,000 Muslims from Britain. Around 100 people will go from Luton.

The majority of people in this community are from the Indian subcontinent, and especially Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. (The sermon is in Urdu.) “They started to arrive in Luton in the late 1950s and 1960s,” says Akbar Dad Khan over a rather hot samosa. “We started this mosque project in the late 1960s. In the early 1970s families with dependent children started to arrive so we needed a bigger place. Without any assistance from anyone we embarked on building. The major force was strong belief and determination.”

It was during this period that the mosque began to establish strong relations with the Roman Catholic church near by. “We said Friday prayers there and the community remains eternally grateful for the co-operation they showed towards us,” says Khan. Today the mosque is part of Luton Council of Faiths, a multifaith initiative which began in 1997 and includes Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Jewish, Jain and Baha’i representatives.

The members of the Council of Faiths are in regular contact with each other, meeting every three months, and try to be first on the scene when there is an emergency. “It provides a forum to discuss misunderstandings,” says Khan. “Through Luton Council of Faiths we have built trust among various people of different faiths, and that must be a good thing.”

For the past two years, for example, Muslims have gone to church services at Christmas, and Christians, Sikhs, Hindus and Jews have visited the mosque at the end of Ramadan. This was his idea. “The Muslim community has been going through a difficult time since September 2001,” he says, unprompted, “but we are making efforts to promote understanding.”

Luton was the focus of media attention in 2001 when three Muslims from the town were believed to have died fighting for the Taleban. “It still remains a mystery where those young people are,” he says. “During that period Luton was portrayed as a hotbed of extremism but that is not the real picture.” He continues: “You will find extremism in all communities.”

While other towns with large ethnic minority populations have experienced tensions in recent years, Luton has not. “That is not because everything is fine,” says Khan, “but because here we have a much better understanding of the situation and instead of rioting we get on our bikes and look for jobs.”

Last week’s At Your Service should have named the lay preacher as Alison Lovelock. We apologise for the error.

A five-star guide

VENUE: Luton Central Mosque

IMAM: Masood Akhtar. He is fluent in English, Arabic and Urdu. “He was a lecturer in Pakistan before we were able to poach him”

ARCHITECTURE: Two storeys with brick exterior, a green copper-clad dome and a 25m minaret. The design came from Regent’s Park Mosque

SPIRITUAL HIGH: The near silence within the mosque after the community had dispersed

AFTER-SERVICE CARE: Lunch with Akbar Dad Khan from the executive committee at a halal café across the road

©Copyright 2003, The Times (London, UK)

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