Stornoway's Muslim place of worship has been built in time for Ramadan
UK's northernmost mosque opens on Scotland's Outer Hebrides
As millions around the world prepare to fast during the holy month of Ramadan, spare a thought for the Muslim community in the Outer Hebrides, a small island chain off the northwest coast of Scotland.
In June, the islands experience an average of 18 hours of daylight, meaning those fasting only have six hours during the darkness in which to eat and drink. But more importantly for the small Muslim community in the Hebrides, until very recently, they had no place in which to worship.
Having fought for years to build an Islamic centre, last year planning permission was granted to redevelop a small derelict building in the town of Stornoway, on the Hebridean Isle of Lewis, into a mosque.
On Friday, days before the start of Ramadan, Stornoway mosque, the northernmost mosque in the UK, was officially opened for prayers all thanks to the efforts of builder Aihtsham Rashid and a dedicated team of volunteers who renovated the building in less than a month.
Mr Rashid from Leeds, northern England, raised thousands of pounds in donations from across the world to renovate the mosque via a successful crowdfunding campaign.
In an emotional speech at Stornoway mosque’s opening, Mr Rashid welcomed Muslims and non-Muslims alike at a ceremony with food donated from Inverness mosque (now the second northernmost mosque in the UK) and of course, plenty of Irn Bru.
“Four weeks ago, when I came this place was a derelict building with no roof, no water and power had only just arrived,” Mr Rashid said. “But I decided that no matter what happens, I’m not going to leave until this masjid [mosque] is built, unless it is in a body bag.”
Miriam Amjad, who was born and brought up in Stornoway, is relieved the mosque has finally been opened. For years she and her husband Khalil, who own the town’s Bayhead Gift House, had hoped to convert the building into a place of worship. Until now the community had to make do with making minor repairs to keep the building standing because they were lacking in funds, manpower and planning permission to do the full redevelopment.
This meant Muslims on the island had to carry out religious ceremonies such as funerals in private homes.
“We had to wash the deceased in a garage,” Mrs Amjad explained. “There’s facilities here now so if there’s a death then washing would be done from the masjid.”
Washing the deceased is an important ritual in the funeral process and must be done in a certain way. Stornoway mosque has its own small mortuary so bodies can be prepared for burial.
The last person in the community to pass away was Mrs Amjad’s mother. The washing process had to be done in the hospital, where she said the facilities to prepare a body for an Islamic burial were “inadequate”.
“Her funeral was done from the retirement home,” said Mrs Amjad. “We felt our house was too small to accommodate all the relatives and the local people that came.”
Mrs Amjad, who has lived on the Isle of Lewis all of her 60 years, and her husband, who moved from Pakistan 36 years ago, are prominent members of the small Muslim community in the Hebrides that began arriving in the 1940s and 1950s.
While the Islamic population in Scotland is expected to almost double in the next decade, according to research led by the University of Edinburgh’s Dr Khadijah Elshayyal, numbers in the Hebridean council ward of Eilean Siar had been dwindling. The latest census data from 2011 said there were 61 Muslims living in Eilean Siar out of a total population of over 27,000.
But more recently six Syrian refugee families, fleeing war in their home country, moved to the northern Island of Lewis and Harris, boosting the Muslim population and increasing the need for a mosque.
Many of those who attended the mosque’s opening had done so in support of the refugees, including Martin Gaughan, a volunteer who teaches English to some of the Syrians and helped with the building’s painting.
“These people have suffered terribly. I think it must be really difficult moving from Syria to the Outer Hebrides so I just came here because I wanted to make them feel welcome and feel part of the community.”
Also in attendance was Reverend Terry Taggart, who is the minister of nearby Episcopalian church, St Peter’s. Having met some of the Syrian families, Rev Taggart wanted to celebrate the transformation of the formerly derelict building with them.
The Hebrides have a long religious tradition and the more populated island of Lewis and Harris is dominated by Presbyterian churches. Church attendance is much higher at an estimated 40 per cent in comparison with around 7 per cent on the mainland. The tradition of observing the Sabbath is one held in high regard by many islanders while church services are given in both English and Gaelic.
Given the conservative traditions on the island, there was a huge amount of press interest in how the community would react to the opening of a mosque.
And while the majority of islanders accepted the building, a breakaway faction of the Calvinist Free Church of Scotland, known as the Free Church Continuing issued a statement condemning the mosque as a “most unwelcome development”.
While the Free Church Continuing piqued the interest of the media, on the whole islanders and non-Muslims were more curious than critical about the mosque. Some of them even donated to the building of the project.
Reverend James Maciver, who is minister of the largest church on the Isle of Lewis, the Free Church of Scotland Stornoway, disagreed with the Free Church Continuing and said it was the church’s job to accept freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.
Rev Maciver began speaking out about the Free Church’s acceptance of the mosque after his name was falsely attached in a media report to something the Free Church Continuing had said.
“This island has traditionally had a reputation for hospitality, understanding and warmth,” he explained.
“That has come across now not just from us as a church but from others who want to maintain the warmth and hospitality that island people are known for.”