Prayer and prejudice: Shropshire mosque opens its doors
It once stood as a detached house in the middle of Craven Arms set down amongst the rolling Shropshire hills.
It still looks that way, but Noor House is actually the main mosque for south Shropshire and north Herefordshire.
In the main room, prayer mats are laid out pointing south east, out across the verdant hills towards faraway Mecca.
Five times a day the congregation use them for prayers, and on Fridays, the holy day for Islam, nearly 50 people will pack into the room to pray behind the mosque’s imam Sohayb Peerbhai.
Sohayb, 41, has been the imam since 2011 and runs the mosque with his wife Asiya who is an alimah, or female scholar.
The mosque is participating in the Visit My Mosque day on March 3, which Sohayb hopes will help give local people the chance to see and understand what happens inside.
“The mosque is not something which is dedicated only to Muslims or about one culture, it’s about all the community,” says Sohayb.
“We want people to feel it is their mosque, it is the mosque of Craven Arms. You may not worship in there, but it is your mosque.”
Being an imam in in a rural area carries some different challenges to those who reside in more built up urban centres. One such challenge is the distances that have to be travelled for the sparse congregation – including to deliver funerals, as in Islam people must be buried as soon as possible after death.
“We serve a large portion of the Shropshire hills. We have members of our community that come from Church Stretton, Ludlow, Knighton, Clee Hill, Cleobury Mortimer and Hereford, as there’s no mosque in Hereford,” said Sohayb. One of the most testing situations is rural funerals. In Islam people must be buried as soon as possible, and Sohayb has to travel for many miles and hours across Shropshire and beyond to make sure people are correctly treated. We can not ignore someone who has had an experience of death, and the mosque has to act and travel.”
Some Muslims may feel they face an uphill struggle to dispel myths about their worship.
“There are a lot of stereotypes around Muslims because of the general atmosphere around us,” says Sohayb. “People wonder what happens in there. What do they teach? What’s the ideology? Is there brainwashing? Are they teaching children something they shouldn’t be? Come and have a look and talk to us.”
The more understanding people have of Islam and of the mosque, the more harmony there is in a community, believes Sohayb, who also visits school to spread his message.
“We are accepted into the community, most definitely, but there is a minority of people who choose not to accept us,” he says.
“The element of racism is most definitely there. It might be silent, but it is there. Sometimes we are seen as ‘the others’, ‘outsiders’ and ‘foreigners’. Offensive words might not be used, but the body language and the approach is definitely ‘those people they are different’. Most accept us though, and acceptance does take time.”
Sohayb became an imam after studying for six years at Darul Uloom Islamic college in Greater Manchester. He says there is a lot of pressure on young Muslims in the 21st century.
“It is difficult, that goes without saying,” he says. “Temptation is most definitely there.
“At 20 to 25 years old when temptations are high and you want to live a free life without mountains of responsibility. It is far more tempting to be away from religion. It hits you when you want to do what your colleagues or social mates are doing. You want to be in the social crowd.”
Many, he says, are struggling with their identity. Terrorist attacks have brought about a rising tide of hostility, while he worries that Islamophobia is whipped up by the national media.
“There are two ways of looking at it,” he continues. “You have youngsters who are good Muslims trying to practise their faith and find spirituality.
“On the other hand you’ve got media hype and because of that Islam is getting tarnished and you have those thinking ‘we can’t be dealing with this, it’s too much for us’.
“It can be something as simple as a security check at an airport where a Muslim is stopped because of appearance or their names. They have their passports checked and rechecked, they are body searched. It’s humiliation and demoralisation and they choose to be more Western in their dress code, not to come to mosque and choose not to be Muslim any more.
“But on the flip side you get people who become more rigid in their mentality because they feel this is more of a war against us. It becomes an us and them mentality. The majority of Muslims just try and ignore everything and carry on living the way they do, and that’s what we do, we just carry on.”
Umar Hussain is another scholar at the mosque, and moved to Craven Arms from Birmingham as he enjoys rural walking and cycling. He says it is the responsibility of the religious leaders to make sure they offer guidance to those who are struggling with their identity.
“Sometimes when a young person has a general issue and they become more religious, but they go online and see extremism or something along those lines,” he says. “The imam every so often will address the community and let them know that’s not part of Islam. We’re not going to sugar coat it, there are Muslims that are extreme, but it is not religion that pushes them to do it.
“In fact religion goes the opposite way and says you will be held accountable and that there is no justification. We can’t monitor what goes on online, but we can monitor what goes on in the mosque.”
“The main idea behind visit my mosque day is to break down barriers and give people an insight into what happens,” says Umar.
For more information please visit cravenarmsic.org.
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