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Islam: The truth beyond the myths and misconceptions

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Recently I was invited to the Baitul Futuh Mosque in Morden, South London. Situated on the side of the busy street it’s hard to miss - the palace-like features and grand architecture cast a shadow over the town.

Built in 2003, the mosque is the biggest in Western Europe. It was opened in 2003 by his Holiness Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, who is the current Caliph and spiritual leader of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. 

Baitul Futuh Mosque in Morden, South London / Image Credit: Ruby Naldrett

Exploring other cultures...

I grew up in a small Christian community, which has been under Conservative leadership since before I was born (with the second most votes going to UKIP). Anything I learnt about other religions was brief and passing during a RE lesson at school, with a teacher who also taught several other subjects. 

So, everything I learnt about religion - consciously or subconsciously came from the negative stereotyping of older people around me and the sensationalist headlines in the British press.

Since moving to London and becoming more submerged in other cultures I have become a lot more tolerant and open-minded of the people around me. Growing up all I knew about Muslims was what I saw on the news - all these people were killed in New York and London because of a group of them, so they must be bad right? Wrong. I couldn’t be more wrong, and I am truly mortified for ever thinking differently, but to lie and say I have always been “woke” would be untruthful, and this is a negative ideology that has been born through the Twitter ‘cancel culture’. 

 

St Michael's and All Angels church, Southwick, West Sussex / Image Credit: Robin Webster

Meeting with an Imam...

I’m met by Imam Noor Hadi, who is dressed in a trench coat and smart trousers, and already banishes all the pre-conceptions of what I thought an Imam might look like. He’s chatty and friendly, greeting me like an old friend and inviting me into his place of worship. Everyone I meet during my time in the mosque gives me a smile and a nod of respect. 

At just 23 years old, Hadi explains to me how he grew up in this mosque, seeking refuge after school, where classmates didn’t always understand his religion. The mosque was a home away from home. He explains: “From a very young age I was fortunate enough to grow up around the mosque environment, other than praying there I also made a number of lifelong friends and learnt how to play basketball! Those were some of the most peaceful and tranquil moments of my life.” 

Imam Noor Hadi and his Holiness Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad /
Image Courtesy of Noor Hadi

Becoming an Iman and dealing with prejudice...

So, why did he choose to become an Iman, especially as such a young man? “Growing up I felt I was having to answer many questions and negative stereotypes regarding my faith and Islam as a whole, which as a child would make no sense to me. This conflict between witnessing such peace and calm at the mosque and then being bombarded with abhorrent and bizarre questions at school and work environments, such as ‘does Islam condone terrorism?’ was the first step to wanting to become an Imam. In my mind, I knew my religion was beautiful, but I was unable to answer the questions I was faced with.”

It wasn’t just prejudice from his classmates that Noor had to deal with: I vividly remember sitting in a biology lesson in college; the teacher asked the class what their thoughts were in regard to what they wanted to do in the future. At the time, though I was unsure, I raised my hand and said, ‘I would like to become an Imam.’ The response I was given made me finally decide that this is something I wanted to do. Hearing my answer, she responded saying ‘are you sure, isn’t that a bit absurd, extreme even?”

It was the support from the people at the mosque that got Noor through these uncomfortable times: After this incident, I was very fortunate to meet the community’s spiritual leader, who showed so much love and care. Knowing that being an Imam would be a way to help him with his work, serve others and spread the true peaceful teachings of Islam was the very reason why I decided to become an Imam.”

Common misconceptions about Islam...

These misconceptions about the religion are often put into our minds as young children, with the media having a lot to answer for. For years there’s been an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality, but in the same way that all Christians are not responsible for the actions of the Klu Klux Klan, not all Muslims should be villainised because of one group of radicalised extremists.

I ask Noor what he thinks the biggest misconception that society has towards Islam: “There are many common misconceptions about Islam," he says. "To narrow it down to one, sadly, can prove to be very difficult. Some common misconceptions are that Islam supports terrorism, oppresses women, supports honour killings and forced marriage. Others go as far as to say that Islam and democracy are incompatible, that Muslims want Shariah law in Britain and Muslims don't value freedom of religion nor believe in Jesus.

“All of these are very untrue representations of Islam. The community has been working hard to dispel these and other myths about Islam. We make an utmost effort to educate every single member of the community, so they become ambassadors of the beauty of Islam to the wider members of the public.” 


The men's prayer area at the mosque / Image Credit: Ruby Naldrett

Gender equality...

The idea that women and men aren’t equal in the eyes of Islam could not be more untrue. The women at Baitul Futuh have just as an important role to play as the men. I meet one of the female leaders giving a young girls school a tour around the mosque, and I’m given hope for the future when one of the young girls smiles broadly and raised her hand: “Islam means peace”, she says. 

The mosque has a separate area for men and women, but this isn’t a form of segregation, in fact, the women here like to pray together – away from the men. It’s a time to be around their sisters, daughters and friends, and they, of course, have a good old chat once the praying is over.

We strongly believe that both genders should be given equal access and equal space within mosques,” explains Noor. “In essence, we believe this promotes and supports the empowerment of both men and women and enables them to thrive within society.” 

Adversity as a young Muslim man...

I breach the topic of adversity, something I, as an able-bodied white woman, rarely face. White privilege is being talked about in the open more recently, but it’s still somewhat of a taboo subject. Have you ever had somebody openly choose to not sit next to you on the tube because of the way you look? This is something Noor has faced multiple times.

There are times where I feel someone may avoid sitting next to me on public transport, or awkward stares whilst shopping with my mum or sister. Checking the news or social media on a day to day base can sometimes also become exhausting, especially when stumbling upon terror attacks which have nothing to do with the peaceful teachings of Islam.” However, in his job as an Imam Noor has decided to take the negativity and make it positive.

For example, after the Westminster terror attacks, he took to the streets wearing a shirt that read ‘I’m a Muslim, ask me anything’. “I take confrontations or other such incidents as an opportunity to break down stereotypes and engage in a dialogue which would otherwise never have happened,” he says.

He’s clearly an incredibly strong individual, making it his mission to better educate people on Islam as a religion. He is brutally honest with me, and we talk openly for hours about his life inside and outside the mosque. I meet his brother, who works in the mosque’s own TV station (it also has its own radio station, a library, a restaurant and a shop) – there’s a sense of family here that you can feel from the minute you walk in; a warmth from the people who have suffered from so much unnecessary hatred.

A few days before my visit was the Christchurch shooting; a few days later mosques in Birmingham were vandalised. It hurts my heart that these kind people have to face this. I want to help but I’m not sure how. So I ask Noor what can be done to educate people better on the true side Islam – the one we don’t see in the red-top newspapers. 

“We can better educate people about Islam by first creating a more trusting and mutually respectful environment of shared human experiences," he says. "When this happens and people come to know about who Muslims are and what we represent it will dispel many of the fears and concerns of the people. Muslims should be a walking-talking portrayal of the beautiful teachings of Islam. The media plays a huge role in shaping public opinion; we need to see more positive coverage of ‘good’ stories about Islam and Muslims.” 

Noor is right, the negativity surrounding the religion is almost entirely in our hands to change - and if this article and my visit to the mosque open the eyes of just one person, then it's done its job.

Lead image credit: Ruby Naldrett




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