By ALISON BELLAMY
With a large headscarf packed in my handbag and some colourful socks on, my Catholic family and I set off for our first ever visit to a mosque, as part of the nationwide #VisitMyMosque day .
When the event appeared on my Facebook news feed, I thought I would attend and take the kids along. There were no regulations outlined on the advert, so we turned up, not really sure what to expect, but were looking forward to the promise of refreshments after the tour.
My husband’s only visit to a mosque was when he helped to build an £8m extension on one in Halifax, as he works in construction. He marvelled about the marble interior and said it was one of the plushest builds he had ever worked on.
One child moaned and groaned, but she does about everything, and the other was immediately excited to find out about this other world, the one we live so close to but somehow feel quite separated from.
On arrival at the Madina Masjid in Batley, a crowd was gathering in the bustling reception area. We were met by a friendly volunteer from the local Islamic Trust, who patiently explained that we must take our shoes off.
This caused much excitement for our daughters who giggled uncontrollably before I warned them to behave. I asked if anyone had ever stolen any shoes, as expensive trainers and leather boots piled up. The volunteer laughed and said never.
I asked our guide to explain why people had to take their shoes off. ‘Well,’ he smiled, ‘It is because of the luxury carpets, but also as a symbol of cleanliness, we do not want to bring anything unclean into the mosque’. He then showed us the washrooms where the men must wash their hands, arms, head, face, neck and feet, at least once a day, and usually more if they attend further prayer times.
We didn’t have to get washed. I noticed that the other women visitors were taking delight in the novelty of covering their heads.
He then showed us the microphone where the call to prayer is made. He explained that they could not make the call out loud in the community for fear of disturbing the neighbours; therefore many Muslims have a domestic receiver in their homes.
A group of about 30 visitors sat at the back of the mosque as the 1pm prayer started. It was fascinating to watch the men bowing down, kneeling and even a tiny boy toddler joined in.
It was a regimented routine which lasted 15 minutes. Each person had their own prayer space on the carpet, and then they all moved forward to the first few rows, for the official praying.
We were then shown round the huge neighbouring Madressah Islamiyyah, with room for 800 pupils. I was pleased to hear there was space for girls here. This is where young Muslims attend, some for two hours before school and usually two hours after school. It seems like a lot of hard work for the youngsters.
We heard that the main aim is to learn Arabic and the Quran. Some pupils will go on to become scholars who learn by heart the teachings of the Quran. We heard some young boys reciting passages and were also told how they enter competitions nationally to compete for prize money, as they are tested to recall certain verses.
I was surprised to see there was barely any furniture in the building as pupils sit on the floor and use a small bench to lean their books on.
It was genuinely fascinating. During our visit, I scanned the other people in our group and saw a few peace loving, probably left-wing families with kids, two vicars, a Police Community Support Officer, complete with bright stripy socks, some councillor types and a few interested people who looked like they enjoyed museums.
Afterwards, we indulged a feast of tasty Asian food and mingled as people asked if we had any questions, as they had done throughout the tour. I did ask where the women prayed but our guide said unfortunately there was no space for women at this particular mosque, but there were rooms at other mosques. The importance of community cohesion was mentioned too and I think this day has helped towards making a positive start.
I also spoke to a woman wearing a niqab, with only a tiny slit showing her beautiful eyes. She assured me it was her choice to wear it and without prompting said that ‘no man had forced her to put it on,’ she said she had only been wearing it for a few months. I felt glad it was her own choice and would have liked to talk to her for longer about her life.
It was overall a positive, successful experience. The tireless work, which goes on within the Muslim community, is just astounding.
I felt I had received a privileged glimpse into another world. Our daughters agreed that it seems like a lot of learning work for the youngsters and were talking lots about the carpets and how funny it had been to hear the little boys reciting Arabic. They tried to copy what they had heard and were wondering about how the short letters could last for such a long time and why they boys sung them with such a tune.
At the end our guide said that we were welcome anytime, not just on an open day, to call in and look around.
There are dozens of mosques in the former West Yorkshire mill town where I live. I’ve walked past them countless times, and often wondered what happens inside.
It was an amazing insight into what happens behind those walls. They don’t have to remain a secret, but I think much work needs to be done by many to get to know and make friends with their neighbours, whatever their faith, politics, or skin colour might be.