Journey to the Heart of London / Islam

August 2021.

Cambridge Central Masjid. Photo Creds: Moosa Alam, Allah hummabārik.

Yesterday I went on a long walk, from my home in East London (well, more specifically: where East– begins to coalesce into Central-. Literally: one side council flats, the other side yachts and such) all the way to London Central Mosque: a gorgeously-designed (Masha Allah) masjid on the corner of Regent’s — one of the larger (complete with its own quintessentially Bri’ish backstory) parks that make up part of this blooming wonderful city.

Recently, I have been trying to walk (far) more. If there is a longer route that can be taken from a certain place to a destination, I have been trying to favour it. Stairs, also. Generally, by nature, I am somewhat ‘lazy’ though.

Yesterday I went by myself. Without Tamanna, for example, since a relative of hers had just gotten married. In Bengali tradition, the day after weddings, the bride’s side tends to take food over to the groom’s, for breakfast (‘Nasta’). And yesterday, I had worn my hiking boots: I am trying to wear them in more, in preparation for the mountain-hiking trip I am going on (Insha Allah) in T-minus six days. These boots are laced on the inside with wool; they are sort of camel-coloured.

I walked through Wapping, and by the river. Thames, that is, of course. Tower Bridge. And then it had begun to rain and rain, as it does. Past scores of sightseers; tourists, visiting families. Concrete buildings, decorated with carvings; professionals in fitting Central-London-style attire. Car-after-car roads: like abacus beads, one by one. And passing all these Monopoly streets, just like I’d done while walking with Tamanna the other day [approximately 18km in one day, that day, I think. Masha Allah: a record for me, probably]. Fleet Street. Marylebone. Strand. Past sites that have known, and have been the sites for, all sorts of stories; the circular blue plaques affixed onto the fronts of some buildings, for example, saying that ‘the first ______ to have _________’ or similar had lived here at some point.

It is amazing to think that, while many marvel at the landmark that is Tower Bridge, as a singular example, for example; how it is such a famous symbol of London: it is only a matter of footsteps away from me, and I do think I often take such facts for granted. Sometimes, I have found myself wondering if I would prefer to live in a place like, say, Edinburgh in Scotland. But such an impulse would be rooted in lust: in a fundamental unknowing, mystery, distance and distraction, a narrowing to mere snapshots and aesthetics in opposition to the (holistic and true) love I know I have for (especially this part of) London, Masha Allah.

London is a city in which, even in its current, ‘modern’, post-Dickensian form: it is almost easy to find a rat or two, here or there. Dead or alive. Spillages, including of the… acidic upthrow variety. Overly-fancy signs showing the ways to… underground toilets, no less, in the middles of frenetic streets. Things like this, you know?

To get to the masjid, I used Google Maps. And on the way, I listened to a handful of (informative YouTube videos as) podcasts; I thought about random things — ‘over’-thought, even, by some definitions, understandings. And I realise how much of a blessing it is, Masha Allah, to be able to be comfortable in one’s own solitude.

Well, it never quite is true, pure solitude. Because Allah is always with us. And the people we love, and are loved by: there are forces that, though not quite visible, are as real as gravity, perhaps, is. They tether our hearts to others’. Inextricable, practically. And, on the way to my destination yesterday, I had been in the process of sending a voice note or two to my friend Tasnim. When: an old woman whom I had just walked past… blurted out a swear.

I wondered if she had meant to direct it towards me. But I looked at her, and at her raincoat (I think it was) and her trolley (you know: those tall rectangular ones with the waterproof covers. Memories of going to the frozen fish shop in Shadwell with my nan) and excused her on the potentiality of… senility or some such.

A little later on, past eateries (London’s Prets, and Eats, and Leons, probably, and some more Mediterranean-style ones, and cafés with their characteristic antiquated wooden tables, and all the rest) and the theatres that make up Drury Lane: a man — a grown man — angrily shouted some things in my face, in some other language. Unprovoked; just barking, and I greatly suspect that it had been on account of my apparent Muslim-ness. Some eight years ago or so, perhaps (my first steps into early adulthood; a time of all-time high, so it very much felt, in terms of anti-Islamic sentiment here) I very much used to fear incidents like this. I: half-hypersensitive, probably, and half-quite its opposite, I think. The truth is, as a visible Muslim, even in big, diverse London: you may get looked upon, and shouted at (and, in some cases, even physically attacked, unfortunately) as though you are some sort of monster. Indecipherable, undesirable, uncannily ‘human-but-also-not’, and a threat. However, I will not apologise. I’m willing to engage in discourse; I do love conversations, even challenging ones. Yet… there’s something kind of quite… off-putting, maybe[…?] about being yelled at by a complete stranger, out of the blue.

‘Oppressed’, also. The scarf atop your head, perhaps: an emblem of their notions of ‘backwardness’; a reason for their fear, and some challenge, maybe, to their ‘values’. So much so that… it might warrant a forty-year-old-looking man approaching a twenty-year-old woman in order to angrily and aggressively shout in her face. I’m telling you, though: yesterday, and I am not sure if it had been because I had been distracted by the (gorgeous, Masha Allah) rain, and by the ‘podcast’ I had been listening to… I just did not care. This thing happened, and I mentally acknowledged it, and then walked away from it like nothing really had. No anxiety; no urge to argue or respond. I am trying to be a better Muslim, Insha Allah, and today I came across the following Qur’anic Ayah again:

“The true servants of the Most Compassionate are those who walk on the earth humbly,

and when the ignorant/foolish address them improperly, they [only respond with] ‘peace’”. — Qur’an, (25:63)

I think it took me around two hours to get to the masjid. Past Temple, and Bank; souvenir shops, and supermarkets. The Indian High Commission building. All the ‘bigger’ things, and the ‘smaller’ things, which, by no means, are less ‘important’. Into Regent’s Park, and past flocks and flocks of geese and birds. Prim patches of flowers, here and there, and something of sunshine, and activity, almost everywhere. And, at this point: this wannabe-adventurer had been hungry. And so I went to the little light-blue-coloured café that sits on the side of the lake. ‘The Boathouse Café’.

Much to my surprise, [time seems to be going irrevocably quickly, these days… or months…] it has been roughly a-whole-year-and-a-half since the onset of the Corona crisis. And these days, when I walk into cafés or shops, it is not always immediately clear as to how stringently they are upholding the rules pertaining to face-covering and QR-code-checking-in and all.

I walked into the café, and I, being the socially awkward person I (often think I, even though people often tell me otherwise) am, had been unsure as to which side of the canteen to stand on. Even in spite of the arrows (stickers) on the ground, providing those answers.

The last baguette that had been waiting for me on the tray: egg-and-cress. Get yer protein; get some greens. Cress tends to remind me of the earlier stages of Primary School: planting cress in transparent plastic cups, using cotton wool instead of soil. Good times, good times, as the colours of nostalgia would have me quite ardently believe.

Drink: it had been between (‘organic’, ‘farm-pressed’, I believe) apple juice, and hot chocolate. I went with hot chocolate. The two baristas at the counter had been so very friendly. Just like the two women, the other day, at the new quiet (just how I like it, a lot of the time) ‘Chocolate Ice Café’ near where I live: they had referred to me as “darling”, and in my view, anybody (i.e. women) who habitually calls other people “darling” or “sweetheart” or “babe” or “my love” is… good vibes, Masha Allah.

I would say that places are made up, for the most part, by people. And both places and people are defined mostly by their essences/’ethos’. This café had been quite a nice one, Masha Allah. A nice scattering of picnic tables outside. A nicely, welcomingly, simple arrangement of places to sit inside, too, overlooking the tranquil beauty of the lake. And I quite like it when sunlight trickles, at once serenely, and brilliantly, into places. The essence of this place… content-seeming, with its baristas interacting with their customers very… humanly, you know? Not with that nervous, speedy, machine-like sort of attitude, which seems to… plague certain parts of London. We are human, and not mere ‘robotic corporate workers‘.

Nearby, a family, ostensibly from some Arab country, had been sitting together, conversing in Arabic. Oh, I can’t wait to learn more Arabic, Insha Allah. What a gorgeous, gorgeous language, Masha Allah. The one that had been chosen by Allah, and with such excellent reason, without a shadow of a doubt, to be the lingua franca of Islam.

I didn’t quite mean to ‘eavesdrop’ on this family’s conversation yesterday, however my phone had been on about 1%, I think. So I settled on… just eating. No listening to/watching things on my phone. And, although the bulk of their conversations had been (at present, though such things do give me little bits of motivation to learn further, Masha Allah) indecipherable to me, I understood some words: ‘arooz’, which means ‘rice’ [and the Spanish word for ‘rice’ is practically the same as the Arabic!]. ‘Lahm’, which means ‘meat’. ‘Dajjaaj’, which means ‘chicken’.

It was an excellent cup of hot chocolate, Masha Allah. In a white paper cup. Delightfully frothy, and I could see the delicate and artistic little chocolate swirls sitting nicely on the milk. [One of my favourite things to do with my eight-year-old brother Saif, these days, is sitting, with cups of hot chocolate together, while it rains outside. It’s nice when it feels like there’s less to be distracted by; I feel it makes the more valuable stuff appear far more prominently, in our hearts and minds, as it should. Like the other day, when we used a shopping app (since it had been pouring outside, that day) to order some chocolate, in order to make some hot choc.]

While walking to the mosque (whose minaret I noticed, standing tall in the near distance) I did not know where the entrance might be. I’d been to this particular masjid probably… four times, roughly, in my life. Once: with an Islamic summer school, at age seven or so, on a trip. I think I’d lost my gold bracelet or something there, then: I think I put it on some side, before doing Wudhu.

And then, again, after a day out, with my family, and my nan, and my uncle’s family. Boating, I think it had been. And something has tended to pull my heart towards mosques, and towards certain ones in particular. Mosques in Turkey: the elegantly hidden-away ones, with the simple beauty, and the calligraphies, and all that of ‘rugged’ cobblestone charm. There is something so undeniably beautiful about simplicity. Elegance. Remove whatever does not matter, and then the important things are made to stand out far more, Masha Allah.

And I visited this masjid some years later: again, and then again, during some particularly difficult times, in this life of mine. Just to sit, and to feel things, and to contemplate, and to talk to Allah. And to read a little, and maybe to talk (not ‘serendipitously’ per se, but Qadric-ally) to some other people who might also be there. Yesterday, I asked two fellow Muslim women (who looked like they’d been around my age) where the entrance is. They showed me the way; we walked together.

Homelessness is a major issue in this city; if you go to Central London, you can truly tell. Outside the mosque, somebody had been begging. And one of the women I had been walking with – Zena is her name, as I later learned – gave the woman some money, in such earnest. Zena seemed very passionate about the masjid, and about being Muslim; during our conversation on the (short) way there, she brought up something her uncle had taught her, from Surah Nisaa’ in the Qur’an.

As it had turned out: Zena and her friend Davina (whose Muslim name, she told me, is ‘Aafiyah’, which means something like ‘health’ and ‘security’ in Arabic) are fairly new Muslims. [However, this does not mean that Islam is any less theirs too. We had talked a bit, about things like this, yesterday. Davina thought that born-Muslims are ‘luckier’, for example because we’re less likely to have experienced much of Harām. Reverting Muslims, though: they begin on a fresh, clean slate, in terms of sins/unfavourable pasts].

I think Zena had said that she’d accepted Islam in January: born to a white British mother and an Egyptian (nominally Muslim, but not practising) father, she’d started watching videos about Islam, and her eyes, she said, would start flooding with tears. There was something so pure and sincere about her, Masha Allah. A gentle but determined determination; a softness of heart, a rather strong Cockney accent, and she is seventeen years old. She had made plans, also, to take Davina to a Shaykh that day (yesterday) in order to acquire some sort of certificate of new Muslim-ness. Having good friends with pure hearts and good intentions for you: absolutely an unmatchable blessing.

Davina is of a Jamaican background. She accepted Islam on Eid-ul-Adha day, this year (so, only about three weeks ago). I think Zaynah’s journey into Islam had been fuelled by curiosity, perhaps. Davina’s story in this regard really took flight when something major, and majorly difficult, had taken place in her life. Something that distractions could not fix for her, or grant relief from. Her brother and sister-in-law had already accepted Islam. And I think it had been the inherent appeal, the pure simplicity, of Pure Monotheism that had brought her here, Masha Allah.

Zena said that she feels at home in the masjid. You can easily just… nap, in mosques, for example. And there is something about Islam that always feels like ‘coming home’ after a long and difficult day. Putting your head down on the ground, before your Creator, and there you find peace. [And direction, and purpose. Structure, hope, meaning and virtue, and all the other abstract and necessary things that we, as beings, seek]. Davina and I talked about the difference between, say, many Catholic buildings [I’d passed by St. Paul’s, for example, on the way there. And I’ve seen other Cathedrals, including the Sacré-Cœur (‘Sacred Heart’) in Paris] and… mosques. Something that is uniquely appealing about Islam is this profound simplicity, clarity. The ability to have an unobstructed bond with your Creator; unpolluted. Carpet, ground, a few inspired wall designs here and there. And hearts at peace.

Talking to Zena and Davina inspired me. Davina has already memorised Surah Fatiha, she said (Masha Allah). And Zena: Surah Fatiha, Nās, Falaq and Ikhlās, I think she said. “Allah SWT defo made us meet intentionally”, as Davina said in our conversation over text, today. I agree: these things do not happen ‘by chance’; not at all. And I would like to introduce both of them to chicken tikka biryani (and the mosque and its surroundings in Whitechapel – a big part of what constitutes my ‘home area’) sometime soon, Insha Allah.  

Zena, and her purity of heart, sincerity and outgoingness, Masha Allah. An ability to engage with others practically seamlessly; she went to the bookshop within the mosque, and bought a prayer mat, and a travel one, and some Qur’ans, for her friend. She told me about another time she had come to the mosque; the love she has, for Salāh, and the guilt she feels, whenever she slips into sin (as all humans, by nature, do from time to time). She told me about a certain difficulty she had faced, and about how she thinks she should be more grateful, regardless.

And Davina: I also rather like it when people have a certain kind of calmness to them, a demonstrable… groundedness that tells me that they probably have interesting and ‘deep’ minds, Masha Allah. An evident (relative) lack of… feeling intimidated by silence, for example. Different hearts, and their manifestations in the forms of smiles, are beautiful and valuable in their own unique ways, Masha Allah.

Less of the less important stuff; more stuff of value. Like good food, and how good things come to those who… work on exercising noble restraint, and: go without, for a while. And wait. And rely on Allah on these journeys of ours, like there is absolutely no other way to Truth, Beauty, and Goodness (because there isn’t).

Yesterday, a Moroccan sister who had been sitting near us asked me if I, too, am a revert Muslim. This is an interesting question for me. I was born into a Muslim family, with religious (Masha Allah) grandparents. On my mum’s side [I don’t believe that piety/character-based goodness is necessarily lineage-based but] I come from a ‘clan’ of ‘Pirs’, i.e. ‘important-in-a-religious-sense’ people, apparently. Apparently, on my mum’s side, our ancestors are from Yemen. My nana’s mother used to teach Qur’an; she had been a woman of devotion, Masha Allah. On my dad’s side: my grandfather worked in Saudi Arabia for a while, and probably learnt some more about Islam while there. My eldest maternal uncle really came to Islam, I think, in his twenties. He started reading, and researching; I think one of his favourite speakers had been Dr. Zakir Naik.

My mum started observing the Hijāb. She started attending mosque circles. She gave me Islamic books. I went to a fun summer scheme, in Shadwell: they took us to the park, and to Regent’s Mosque, among other activities. Another summer school at the East London Mosque, where we would paint canvases, and print T-shirts, and learn lots. Weekend classes; trips, with them, to the farm, and to museums. What else, what else?

What the month of Ramadān brings with it; spending time at Nanu’s, and talks by Nouman Ali Khan. Taraweeh, sometimes, at ELM, and what the streets of this part of town feel like, then: so peaceful, and so alive with heart and soul, Masha Allah, Allahummabārik. Ranga Mama, and our ‘philosophical’ conversations, over Ifthar tables, for instance. [“They’re debating again!” although now we… actually seem to agree on things. What a change.]

My aunt (‘Sweetie’ is her ever-used nickname from us) might have been the first one, after her father, to really come to Islam ‘for herself’, inspiring her siblings by example. She started taking Mazhar and me to events run at her secondary school in Whitechapel (which would later become our secondary school too, as Allah’s Qadr would have it). We went to… an Eid event or two, at Trafalgar Square [‘Eid in the Square’]. The ‘Global Peace and Unity’ events, at the Excel Centre (where I saw Zain Bhikha, and one of my role models of choice, then: Yvonne Ridley. But I had been too shy to speak to them) among others. Dinners and Bazaars and the like.

It has to speak to your mind and heart, for it to feel vitalised, activated. Sweetie became really involved with the mosque; I grew up with her friends as my aunties. A lovely bunch. Like Habiba Khala, the Scouts’ leader, and Zubaydah Khala, and Munira Khala, the funny one (who once, I remember, had fastened her headscarf with a paperclip, no less).

My nan’s mother had seven kids, Masha Allah: six girls, and one boy. Then they had their kids. Like… Sunia and Tania Khala, who came here as teenagers, from Italy. Jeba Khala (who does work at a lab, and as a fundraising coordinator at Human Aid, Masha Allah). Habi Khala (a beautiful person, Masha Allah, who passed away at the age of twenty-seven. Unexpected, as many turns of life are, and a shock to our systems; it forced many of us to rethink things). Gulshan and Gulraj and Guljar Mama, whom and whose families I don’t (at present, at least) know that well. Nishat Khala, who I thought was fun and interesting, and who encouraged me to pray with her those times. Babli Khala, who married a Palestinian man, and who sometimes speaks to her kids in Arabic. Shibu Khala, and one of her kids’ friends’ parents, who had asked her about Islam. And much more.

When I was about five years old, I went to Saudi (Umrah) for the first time. Mazhar, Safwan and I wore Islamic attire. Playing with Beyblades we’d gotten, out of crisp packets, there. We played with plastic cups, and with other children, even if we did not quite speak the same language. Toys from the markets, like car games and Barbie heelies. I got myself locked into the toilet somehow [classic me]. Safwan and I had also been too lazy to walk, so… the adults had hired a wheelchair for us to sit on, while they wheeled us around. Things like this.

And I think this is why I always come back to listening to (Surah Rahman in particular, by) Sheikh Sudais. It reminds me of that time, in Saudi.

Lima Fufu, in Bangladesh, who inspired me in terms of religion too, Masha Allah. We would cook over fire together; love the animals, and the rain. I very much love the stars too (hence how much I love the planetarium in good old Greenwich). My friend Tamanna, who would invite me to Islamic events and circles; her mum (Rufia Khala) giving us black messenger ‘Madrasah bags’. Qur’ans, and index tabs, and pound shop stationery [pound shops are great]. Tee’s Mahmuda Khala, and how she’d taught me how ‘Īmān is something that tends to fluctuate’. Mahmud and Hasanat, and their family: the four cousins, at school. Hadi, ‘the religious one’ (Masha Allah) at primary school, and Naymur, the same thing, in his own way, at secondary. Miss Shamima. Foyzul’s sisters from next door. Sumaiya Soni (who lived four doors down from me, and who had inspired me to start wearing a headscarf). I miss her; she still lives there; we should have Biryani together sometime. She is Gujarati, and she would bring her mum’s Biryani in to our primary school, on food-sharing party days. Delicious to the power of ten, Masha Allah.

Qur’an in the morning; a post-Fajr du’a, in Year Six, that Allah grants me a good day today. Things like this. The coming-into-understanding that this life is struggle; seeking ‘spirituality’, which people intuitively know to do. Yet, many do not quite know even how to define this ‘spirituality’ that they seek. Something ‘larger than ourselves’? Something – someOne – greater: the One who created us.

‘Intellectual’ and ‘academic’ journeys, too, and the realisation that… sometimes, merely collecting ‘knowledge’ as though it is merely some ‘collector’s item’… deadens the heart, and threatens to remove from it light, and life, and, perhaps even love.

Oak Education, and Al-Azhar Academy, behind East London Mosque, and then there was also ‘Aspire’. When Sweetie had taken me to Black Stone (the bookshop) that time, when I was twelve. And I chose that book to buy. In times of difficulty, also (exams, and other emotional difficulties) we Muslims tend to rely on Allah, and ask Him for help. Like what Sitra I think it had been (someone I met at sixth form, and who is a friend from our Khayr Circle) said the other day: these times are when our Īmān seems to grow. Muslim YouTubers, like Dina Tokio, Adam Saleh, Subhi Taha. And now: Saajid Lipham, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf and Abdal Hakim Murad, and the like.

Questions, questions, questions.

And the incomings of answers. Naajiyah, Aya (who is from Morocco and Spain) and Aissatou (whose family is from Senegal, and then they moved to Portugal). When Nazma experienced that change in her life, and so did Samme, I think. Miss Ahmed, and our almost-daily Wudhu-room conversations. Dr. Shah. Faaizah, and coming to learn more about Sufism [I believe Islam had come to Bangladesh, mainly perhaps, in the form of Sufism: at times this seemingly becomes kind of syncretic, I think, with elements of Islam, and of pre-existing South Asian religious traditions… I would simply say that I am a Sunni Muslim. And/or just Muslim].

When Sweetie had accompanied my friend Zulaika and I to the sixth form I was going to attend, which is in Westminster, right near St. James’s Park. And she prayed in one of the language classrooms, where there had been a prayer mat. Just like how she had prayed on that mountain, in Switzerland. And then I met Safiya. And a lot of Arab people [in my head, I thought a lot of them look Bengali. Because we Bengalis are a diverse-looking kind… So when people say that I look Middle Eastern/North African… I have kind of been thinking the opposite. Certain Iraqis, Moroccans, etc.: ‘they just look so Bengali!’] and such. Fatema. Tasnim. A girl from a Hindu family, who had converted. White British people who were very interested in the Middle East, and by extension, in Islam. Umamah. Zaynah. The girl who had walked into the school library wearing a Jilbāb: sagacious-seeming, Masha Allah. And trusting in God, and fearless. Muslims who were (and are) very knowledgeable, Masha Allah. And kind, and uniquely interesting. Challenges to faith, also, and how they had been overcome. Crises of mental health, an Islamic bookshop. A period of gradual reconnection with my ‘endz’ and people. Coinciding with a period of pandemic. Madani School, and all these teachers (Masha Allah). Like Miss Maryam, and Ma’suma, and Samaiya, whom I so love (Masha Allah, Allahummabārik). Social media, YouTube. Various people, and what it had been Qadr, and in my Rizq, for them to teach me. And still, the journey continues… to continue. My road has led to… right here: where I am right now.

And now I’m adulting and everything, Allahummabārik.

So many people; so many stories, and subtleties and complexities and uniquenesses to them; so many ways of sharing goodness, and of being influenced by and inspired through knowing them. In whatever way, and for whatever while. An amazing thing about Islam is its vitality, and how it speaks to the mind and heart, and invigorates the soul, Masha Allah. It is alive, and well, and a sacred flame that will illuminate darkness, and which will be passed on, to whom God Wills, and which will refuse to be burned out.

Hey: did you know that this life is hard: have you noticed this yet? That there are no heavens, here on Earth? Moments of rest and/or satisfaction and ease. Yet, most of it is… toil and incompleteness, and continual struggle.

Still, you are capable, and you are not, by any means, ‘alone’ever and we’ll get through this together, Insha Allah. Looking for something; we’ve finally found it, right here.

And it’s true that through Allah’s Wisdom,

people change people. Secret of life.

Be in this world as if you were a stranger or a traveller along a path. [Hadith, (Bukhari)]

Some questions for you:

From one of the halls at the local girls’ Islamic school.

What is it like, to live where you live? Has this place always been ‘home’, for you [i.e. ‘endz’]?

What is your story, in terms of Islam [even if you are not a Muslim yourself]?

What is a random happening from your week, this week, which meant something to you [however ‘small’]?

Is there something that happened in your life, which made you reconsider how you look at things?

Who has been important, on your Islamic journey?

What is something that you are struggling with, at this moment in time?

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