May 17th 2018
BRITAIN’S newest mosque has neither a dome nor a minaret. Only a crescent on the gate and a heap of shoes outside the door suggest the pebbledash cottage is any different from its neighbours. Yet worshippers and curious locals peeping in on its first Friday prayers—just before the holy month of Ramadan, which began this week—have no difficulty finding the place. Word travels fast on the Isle of Lewis, population 21,000, a blustery Scottish outcrop which has traditionally churned out tweed and hardy evangelical Christians. The island’s 60-odd Muslims sit cross-legged on the carpet, facing towards the sea and Mecca, 3,400 miles beyond. Aihtesham Rashid, a Leeds businessman who raised funds for the mosque, welcomes the crowd: “There’s plenty of Irn-Bru for everyone.”
The vast majority of Britain’s 2.8m Muslims live in cities; half are in London, Birmingham and Bradford. By contrast, nobody described themselves as Muslim in 4,781 of the 11,000-odd parishes of England and Wales, at the last census. In a further 1,130 parishes, there was only one Muslim in the village. But small numbers have gradually spread across the country. Bradford, where Muslims now make up a quarter of the population, did not have a mosque until 1960. Now, there are perhaps 2,000 around Britain, from Yeovil to Inverness. The census recorded three Muslims on the Scilly Isles. “We’re cropping up everywhere,” says Lutfi Radwan, a Muslim farmer from Oxfordshire.
The first to move to the countryside were entrepreneurs. Most Pakistanis and Bangladeshis who came to Britain after the Second World War were drawn to existing Muslim communities around cotton mills or dockyards. But a few ventured farther in search of profit. Many of the country’s Indian restaurants are run by Bangladeshi Muslims, says Talha Ahmad of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB).
Butta Mohammed, one of the first to move from Pakistan to Lewis, sold clothes out of a suitcase when he arrived in the 1940s. His nephew, Nazir Ahmed, saved enough to open a shop and by the mid-1980s was employing nearly 100 people in a dozen businesses including a cash-and-carry, supermarket and a hardware shop. “I got on very well in life,” he says. Some rural Muslims are doctors or academics tempted by provincial postings, or relatively rich professionals who move to commuter towns.
The newest arrivals have less fortunate backgrounds. The government is resettling Syrian refugees in rural areas as well as cities. One family from Aleppo, who envisaged Big Ben as they flew to Britain, were moved to Aberystwyth. Others were sent to Wiltshire or the Isle of Bute. Six Syrian families now live on Lewis: one man, who lost his daughter and three grandchildren in the war, was joined by his son, who lives in Germany, for the mosque’s first prayers.
The internet makes it easier for far-flung Muslims to keep their faith. Children can use apps to learn to read the Quran, and one twenty something on Lewis watches preachers on YouTube. It is also easier to get hold of Halal food. Some order it online; a Lewis businessman who used to ask a slaughterhouse for permission to kill his own animals now waits for a monthly delivery from Glasgow. Abdul-Azim Ahmed, who has studied Britain’s mosques, thinks rural ones put more effort into maintaining their websites and social-media feeds to find new worshippers.
For Mr Ahmad of the MCB, these mosques reflect a growing confidence among rural Muslims. That they are given planning permission suggests an increasing recognition that “Islam is very much part of British society”. At the Lewis mosque, a uniformed cop helps herself to curry and two women come from a charity shop “to see what’s going on”. One non-Muslim bows her head as the men pray; another presses £5 ($6.75) into the palm of a Muslim friend, saying she was hoping to find a collection plate. John MacLeod, who has written a history of religion on Lewis, says islanders who once protested against Sunday ferry sailings are mostly “welcoming to indifferent” about the mosque. “There’s certainly no sense that overnight we’ll be turned into Islamabad.”