Understanding Islam in London

Story by Kathleen Brody | brody.k@husky.neu.edu

After deciding to take part in the N.U.in program, I eagerly began considering the options of where I would spend my first semester of college. Of the five countries offered, England stood out to me from the beginning. Having already visited London twice before, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what living in the English capital would be like. After all, I had already seen Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, and the London Eye, so I basically had a handle on London, right? Wrong.

It quickly became apparent to me that London was far more diverse than the white, Christian city I had it pegged for. When passing people on the street, I heard foreign languages as often as I heard English. When looking for a restaurant to try, I saw as many places offering Indian cuisine as pubs serving fish and chips. What surprised me the most, however, was that I saw just as many mosques as I did churches.

The more I explored the city, the more I realized how strong the presence of Islam was there. Going to boroughs like Tower Hamlets and streets like Edgware Road and Brick Lane for the first time showed me just how wrong my previous understanding of London had been. Before exploring these areas, I never would have expected to see rows of stores with Arabic writing on their awnings and curry restaurants as far as the eye can see.

I began to develop a much deeper understanding of the religion and culture I had seen around London when I started taking a class called “Islam and the West”. While learning about the theology of the religion and the politics of Middle Eastern countries provided me with a foundational understanding of Islam, going out and exploring London as a class was what helped me to learn the most about the religion.

My class and I were welcomed with open arms at mosques and Islamic community centers around the city, where we spoke with local leaders about the religion and the importance of these places of worship. Our first visit was to a new and beautiful community center in South Kensington called the Ismaili Centre, not even a block away from the Natural History Museum and Imperial College. There, we learned about the small Shia Imami Ismaili branch of Islam and the history of the building. On our tour of the center, we stopped in each room to learn about the meanings behind the smallest of details, from the geometric patterns on the ceilings to the colors of the tiles. Across the city in east London, we visited the more modest Suleymaniye Mosque, where I donned a headscarf for the first time and sat quietly as I watched a group of men pray together. While these two places of worship were very different, each were filled with peace and love.

After Islamist extremists took citizens hostage and conducted suicide bombings and mass shootings in Paris this past November, London was on high alert. I overheard people on the tube speaking about the attacks, saying that London had changed negatively as a result of immigration, and that the growing presence of Islam was a threat. My heart sank. I thought about the many conversations my peers and I had in class and in the mosques and community centers that we visited.

“I should not have to apologize for the heartless actions of those who manipulate and taint the same teachings of Islam that bring most Muslims peace and joy,” said Fahim Mazhary, a leader of the Al-Manaar Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre.

I took what I learned in London with me as I traveled around Europe during the rest of my time abroad. On my way to each new city, I was excited to be surprised by each culture and to meet people with stories that would only further open my mind. In an increasingly globalized world, where religious, ethnic, and racial identities transcend national boundaries more than ever before, I’m so glad to have spent a semester in London. I never would have known before living there that the city would teach me so much about diversity and tolerance through a new understanding of Islam.