Wednesday, October 18, 2006

On Muslims and Mosques in Cathays

As I was preparing to celebrate the evening Eucharist at St Teilo's last night, a dozen men arrived in church, whose dress declared them to be Muslims of varied ethnic backgrounds. Due to a mix up in their leader's diary they were 24 hours late for a meeting of the local community and police representatives being hosted by the church. There was more laughter than embarrassment at the mistake, and many warm greetings were exchanged, ending with a invitation to the handful of us who welcomed them to visit the local Mosque in Wyvern Road the following night to join the members for their Ramadhan breakfast, or iftar, as it is known, part of their celebration of Lailat al Qu'adr, the 'Night of Power', a vigil celebration which commemorates the descent of the Qu'ran from Allah in the seventh heaven to the first heaven from whence the angel Gibril (Gabriel) dictates it to Muhammad. Matt, one of the churchwardens and myself were free and promised to attend.

I had been to the Wyvern Road mosque once last summer with my wife Clare, when an Open Day had been held. The buildings were once the St Teilo church hall, but were sold off twenty years ago, when the fortunes of the parish took a downward turn. It was good to see it still in religious community use, and indeed to see how international a Mosque it is. Being close to the University, many attendees are students and single, others are settlers of many years standing, local businessman and university people with generations of their own families in the Mosque with them.

We were warmly greeted, and at the end of opening prayers, served with a meal of soup, curried chicken rice and vegetables, followed by a milk pudding and lots of tea. We chatted with various elders from Pakistan, Palestine, North Africa, and interestingly with two students from Azerbajahn, brothers who were both mathematicians and computer scientists. There was even a talk about Lailat al Qu'adr by a teacher from a neighbouring Mosque, possibly an Omani by his dress. Perhaps because it was Ramadhan, when people set aside more time for their devotions, many arrived to pray in non-European costume, making it all the more clear how many nationalities were present, several dozen at least.

By nine o'clock there were more than two hundred men praying the late evening prayer before the vigil proper, and goodness knows how many women out of sight, either on the stage behind a curtain, or out in the back hall preparing meals for all these attendees. Hundreds of Ramadhan breakfasts are served up nightly here, perhaps because this is a Mosque that welcomes many single people. Commonly Muslim families break their fast at home together, so this was something special and pastoral, serving a mobile community - and yes, just as many mobile phones went off during prayers, and suprisingly often, people answered them, even made calls in the prayer hall, despite pleas to switch them off.

Our hosts and those we spoke to were very natural and uninhibited in speaking about matters of faith and the problems all believers in God share due to the modern political secularism that seems to want to problematise religion and religious believers. The teacher who spoke was at pains to remind his audience how much the three Abrahamic faiths share in common, (sounded like one of my sermons!), and how Muhammad demanded that all the prophets of Judaism including Jesus, should be revered for their lives and their teaching.

Whilst we may never agree on the meaning of the life and death of Jesus, with the Qu'ran taking Jesus straight to heaven and effectively bypassing the significance of the cross, their prophetic take on Jesus has value. I remember Walter Hollenweger, professor of mission in Birmingham in the eighties writing about the Qu'ranic view of Jesus, and saying that it possibly lies closer to the view of Jesus which would have been held by some first Jewish believers believers - 'early Semitic Christology' he calls this understanding of Jesus as an anointed prophet of God. The idea of Jesus as Son and Word of God belongs more in the realm of Hellenistic thought. Islam was born among semitic people, even if they aren't so very keen on their Israeli cousins nowadays. I guess we all get to work first with perceptions and ideas we inherit from our ome culture. Question for everyone is: how necessary is it to remain stuck there? How can we move to a new experience of God's truth coming to meet us from beyond, not conjured up within us.

Both Matt and I were presented with copies of the Qu'ran accompanied by an English translation as a memento of our visit. Our hosts asked that we should bring them a Bible, and next day Matt organised a suitable presentation gift purchase. I wish more non-Muslims could have this experience of being welcomed by fellow believers who are thoughful, intelligent and determined to live a godly life in what is for most of them a foreign land. It reminded me of my time in Geneva's international community as a chaplain to an expatriate congregation - thinking of which, in eight years there, I never made it once into the principal Mosque in Petit Sacconnex, despite the Consul's residence being opposite, plus an old people's home where I took communion to an ancient international civil servant for several years. But prior to 9/11, it didn't seem to be such a priority. Pity too, as it was a fine purpose designed building in grey Jura limestone, befitting an international city, not a red-brick seond hand church hall in a Cardiff back street.

Next year, building starts on a brand new Mosque at the other end of Woodville Road from St Teilo's, a multi-million pound project to replace the warehouse building that community presently uses. There's been some controversy and internal division over the new building apparently. I hope this doesn't lead to a characterless compromise construction that looks more like a large lego version of a Mosque than the real thing. Modern computer aided design seems to be producing more and more buildings that look like models of buildings than the real thing. Architectural symbols of faith communities, whether ours or someone else's, should still be substantial contributions to our visual landscape to my mind.

Interestingly enough at the bottom end of Cathays, another group of Muslims has taken over a rather fine former Baptist church, with an ornate frontage, and byzantine like cupolas and portico. When I pass that way it's often busy. With its somewhat oriental facade, it has stuck me that the possibly suits its new owners idea of a sacred place better than its previous owners with their more austere origins. Interesting times!

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