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Last Updated: Friday, 9 December 2005, 18:16 GMT
Laptop link-up: A day at the mosque

What does it mean to be Muslim - and what happens at mosques?

Amid widespread interest in Islam, the BBC News website hosted a live laptop link-up from one of the biggest mosques and community centres in London.

See a 360-degree view of the Al-Manaar prayer hall.

Al-Manaar Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre in West London is a centre used by 5,000 people a week. Many just come to pray in the mosque that takes up a quarter of the building.

But the centre also runs a huge range of cultural, social and educational projects for both the Muslim and wider local community.

The centre was officially opened by the Prince of Wales in 2000.

The BBC's Dominic Casciani kept a diary of the day's events, including an explanation of the week's most important event, Friday prayers.

Readers sent their questions for people - listed on this page - or general questions for members of the congregation.

We spoke to a wide range of people during the day and asked them about the attraction of Islam - and how they feel amid the current climate.

Read on to find out how the day unfolded.

1800: Wrapping up

Most people have gone home - it's the end of a long and busy day at Al-Manaar. The work however does not stop for some. The office assistants are still beavering away - and also debating some of the questions sent in by BBC users. The director, Dr Abdulkarim Khalil is dashing to a meeting elsewhere. The final prayers will take place at 7pm - before the cycle begins again in the morning.

Dr Abdulkarim Khalil - a final question for the director

Susan K Kelly in Blackpool, UK, asks: "Do you feel that you have enriched the life and culture of the indigenous British people? If you feel that you have could you please explain how you feel this has been achieved?"

Dr Khalil says: "I feel that our centre and its Islamic ethos is enriching society, perhaps in a limited way because we are a relatively young organisation.

"We believe we contribute to understanding by helping British society understand Islamic values, for instance through our cultural awareness training and activities such as art exhibitions and performances here and in the wider community. Earlier this year we had a week-long major exhibition on Islam which attracted a lot of interest from non-Muslims, especially schools.

"Just through the centre's existence and community youth work, we believed we have had some impact, although limited, on reducing crime and anti-social behaviour in this area.

"Islam has a very strong emphasis on family values. Society benefits if we bring up our children with strong understanding of what is right and what is wrong. I believe this is something our society needs because of the materialistic environment in which we live."

1700: A nice cup of tea

Councillor Nick Paget-Brown, a senior Conservative councillor from the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea pops in for a cup of tea and a hello with Al-Manaar's management.

He's in charge of thinking of ways of getting the borough's communities to talk to each other and a big fan of the work at the centre.

"When the council gave its backing to the centre we did so because we hoped to achieve something beyond just religion. The faith is the business of the worshipper - that's not our place. But we hoped we could do something more for the community in terms of helping people become active citizens.

"I think that this kind of community building depends on rethinking assumptions - think less about services for individual ethnicities and more about services that help people take a stake in their community. An important part of life is to be a contributing member of your wider community."

Dr Abdulkarim Khalil answers some of your questions

A question for Al-Manaar's Libyan-born director from Chris Goodman in Portsmouth. Chris asks how Dr Khalil would about a 'Christian Council of Libya' being set up in his home country?

Dr Khalil says: "Being a Muslim, I have an obligation to respect people of other faiths, especially those we know as 'people of the book' - Jews and Christians. As it happens, Libya does not have a Christian community as such. But if there were one, I would have no problem with people setting up their own organisations which fulfil their aspirations - that is their natural right to do so. It has happened in other Arab countries, such as Egypt and Jordan."

Paul Martin in Dallas,Texas, asks what activities take place in mosques which equate to events in Christian churches, such as fund raising for charity and opening their doors to the wider community.

Dr Khalil says: "Regular fund raising events take place in the mosque, especially in the month of Ramadan. Last Ramadan we raised about 20,000 for good causes around the world, including relief for the earthquake victims in Kashmir, money for orphans and widows in Palestine, rebuilding of families in Bosnia and so on.

"We are also involved in many very small causes close to home, including recently providing the food for an Eid celebration for a woman's refuge in London [Eid is the festival at the end of the month of Ramadan].

"Our mosque is used for lectures, workshops dealing with social issues like drug abuse, family breakdown and the inter-generational gap and health awareness.

Just this week we have had the health services here giving flu jabs and information sessions on homecare for the elderly." "Our mosque is registered with the authorities to receive casualties in the event of a large civil incident, such as a major fire. We're part of what's known as the civil defence strategy for this part of London."

1600: Education, education, education

Education is a key element of what happens at Al-Manaar - and one of the largest elements of this is the City Circle club on Saturdays.

The club helps children and students from age eight to 18 get through their exams. City Circle is a network of professional people, many of them top executives, which aims to better the position of Muslims in society.

Galib, one of the volunteer teachers, jokes that his three hours a week with the kids has helped keep him sane in the very mad world of investment banking.

"We say in Islam that Allah will never change the condition of people until they change what is in themselves," he says. "Education is right at the core of Islam - the chance to learn and understand both yourself and the world.

"A lot of the kids we teach - Muslim and non-Muslim are from very deprived areas. The only way that you break out of that is by working very hard at school and getting the chance to go to university."

A slight victim of its own success, the club is running out of space with 160 students now taking part and 50 volunteer teachers. There are great hopes to expand the scheme further, with two satellite schools in the East End and south London.

Aicha Manakova

Perhaps the most unusual email of the day. Aisha Zouaoui asks: "I have been searching high and low for a translation of the Koran in the Czech language."

Aicha says: "There is a translation of the Koran in Czech - but I converted in England so have it in English and Arabic. But I do know of a website www.islamweb.cz which has contacts for the mosque in Prague and Brno. There's also a discussion group for Muslim sisters."

1500: Angry young men?

Yusuf Dergoub works on the London Underground - he's one of the electricians who keeps the entire network going - or at least tries to keep it going. A young man, he's got a small Islamic-style beard and sometimes dresses in fairly traditional Moroccan/Arabic clothes.

He's angry because he feels some people now look on him as a terrorist suspect. Unsurprisingly, while he wants to talk, he is reluctant to be photographed. The media have damaged the position of Muslims in British society, he feels.

Since the bombings journalists have come and gone from outside Al-Manaar and many of the congregation feel depressed with the way they have been treated. Many other mosques around Britain feel the same way.

"The media sometimes says the things it wants to say but blacks out the things that it does not want to talk about," says Yusuf.

"I'm British and was born in the East End within sound of the Bow Bells. But the way the media portray me I'm made out to be something different. All I am trying to do is follow something that I believe to be true."

1430: Ask the imam

Sheikh Mansour Al-Ahmad answers some of your more theological questions

Cath Davis, Leigh, United Kingdom, asks if Muslims are required to convert people of other religions to their faith.
Sheikh Mansour says: "A Muslim has no duty to convert anyone to their religion - but they have a duty to ensure that his religion is properly expressed to others. He has no right to compel others to do as he does."

Tim Smith, United Kingdom, asks what Muslims would think about councils banning the word Christmas out of fear of offending Muslim residents.
Sheikh Mansour says: "I am shocked - I had not heard of this happening. This shouldn't happen. Every faith has its special occasions and we must all recognise this and respect one another."

Tanya Savrimootoo in London asks about verses of the Koran which detail horrible punishments for unbelievers, such as burning and so on. Tanya asks what is the imam's stance on these verses and how they are used by extremist groups.

Related questions from other readers ask about whether or not the Koran should be read literally or interpreted.

Sheikh Mansour says: "I am a Muslim and therefore I believe that non-Muslims are unbelievers. But that is the way with every religion - Christians will feel the same about me, they will regard Muslims as unbelievers. "The Koran is the word of God as revealed to the Prophet. But the verses of the Koran cannot be simple cut out and misused on their own - they have to be seen in context of the whole - and in how they relate to other verses."

Matt in England asks what Muslims think of Jesus.
Sheikh Mansour says: "Jesus is one of the five great prophets along with Noah, Abraham, Moses and of course Mohammad. You cannot be a Muslim without believing in Jesus. The difference is that we see him as a prophet, not the son of God. We believe that the original scriptures of the old and new testaments were revealed by God - but over the ages they have been changed by human hand."

John of Kings Lynn asks about relations with Jews.
Sheikh Mansour says: "It's a very big question. Jews for centuries lived in peace with Muslims - there are tales of Jews coming to seek refuge in Islamic lands. But the creation in 1948 of a Zionist state complicated things.

"I believe that the two can live in peace - but at present not in a natural state. If the weak people, the Palestinians, are forced to do something they oppose, it may work, but it cannot last if it is unnatural."

1330: After prayers

Many people regard their local mosque as central to their daily life - and it's a place where they can discuss important issues.

Eman: "Don't make assumptions"
Sadeq is a Muslim chaplain who works in hospitals. "There is a good atmosphere here at Al-Manaar," he says. "I am from Morocco and I miss some of the things of home - this place is like a warm house to me." Ali Sharif, 23, said he felt the mosque was "part of my family".

Rizwan Mirza is a solicitor from a Pakistani family. He says that Al-Manaar is different to many mosques because the congregation is so mixed. He says the media need to rethink how they talk about Muslims.

"You can agitate people or be conducive. I'm not saying that the media should not do its job, it just needs to be more responsible about what it said about Muslims."

Eman, a 21-year-old student, says she and her friends feel the rest of society completely misunderstands Muslim women.

"The image that's portrayed of Muslim women is completely wrong. I'm not oppressed, I'm not forced to wear things like my hijab. It's my decision and people have to learn a little bit of respect. And I'm not going to be changing."

1300: Friday prayers

Some 1,500 people have come to prayers, it's packed out in the main hall. Younger men rushing from work are the last to enter, sometimes after prayers have begun.

Sadeq, a volunteer, welcomes worshippers to Al-Manaar
The Imam explains in his sermon that the world is governed by rules of physics that allow planes to fly. We do not question the natural rules that run the world, rules created by god.

A good Muslim should remember always that there are also moral rules that guide their daily lives - rules that require them to do good and forbid evil. He said this should be at the core of their thinking every day.

The sermon is followed by prayers. The ritual itself is simple affair which creates an enormous sense of unity between those taking part; they stand shoulder to shoulder, bow, kneel and prostrate together in time. Often children sit at the back and follow their fathers and older brothers in the actions.

1215: Prayer times

Friday prayers are starting shortly - the most important part of the week for a mosque. Many of you have asked questions about how the prayer times are fixed and what happens if a Muslim misses a prayer?

Sheikh Ahmed Dahdouh says: "The prayer times relate to the position of the sun - when the sun is directly overhead, then it is time for the midday prayers. When the shadows double in length, then it is time for the "Asr" afternoon prayer. There is flexibility - these are recommended times for the start of prayers and the worshipper have a period of time in which to complete them. Prayers can also be combined, such as when people are travelling. If someone misses a prayer, we say try and pray as soon as possible."

Homework club

It's been a busy morning from Dr Abdulkarim Khalil. Along with the centre's imam Sheikh Ahmed Dahdouh, he has been finalising a schedule for speakers at the Friday sermon for the coming nine months.

On top of that, the pair have been discussing a separate weekly lecture series on key Islamic issues, such as the life of the Prophet Mohammed, the meaning of the Koran and key areas of Islamic jurisprudence, the code of behaviour within the faith.

But on top of this, he is finalising a funding bid for Al-Manaar's homework club. This runs on Saturdays from 10am and up to 160 students take part. The programme includes one-to-one tuition and coaching through a network of 50 volunteers. Subjects include English, Maths, the sciences, French and IT, all to A Level standard.

Questions of identity

A lot of the questions you are sending in relate to the idea of identity - questions are being asked throughout Europe about the position of Muslim minorities in western societies.

George Madden, Birmingham, United Kingdom asks: "Would you say you are Britons who happen to be Muslims, or Muslims who happen to live in Britain? Which is more important?"

Rupe Parnell, United Kingdom, asks: "For those in the panel who have British citizenship: Which do you see yourself as primarily - British or Islamic?"

And Francois Apollon, Marseille, France, says: "Which is paramount - Islamic law and all that it requires of a Muslim, or, the secular laws of the nation you reside in?"

Saleha says: "I'm British and a Muslim, both at the same time, side by side - on top of all that I was actually born here.

"I don't feel that there is a problem with being both at the same time because what you describe yourself as depends on the circumstances. Professor Tariq Ramadan [Swiss thinker on Islam] says that if you are a poet and a vegetarian, you say you are a vegetarian at a dinner and a poet at a reading.

"I think people may ask these questions because they think there is a problem with loyalty - it's the question related to terrorism. They're asking where you loyalties lie - your religion or your nationality. Yet I see no problem with being Muslim and British."

Questions for Aicha Manakova

Anne in Birmingham asks:
When we see pictures on the television of people praying in mosques we only ever see men. Why are there no women? Where do Muslim women pray?

Aicha says: "Muslim women do pray in mosques - but they don't want their bodies to be seen as we do not want everybody to see our shape. Women who pray in mosques will mostly not want to be filmed."

Tony Nolan in London asks:
Why do converts to Islam change their name to something Arabic sounding? Is this a requirement of Islam?

Aicha says: "It's not a requirement of the faith - but in my case it gave me an identity that expressed my Muslim character which is something that was important to me. My original name was Martina - a third century Christian saint. Aicha was a wife of the Prophet."

An inspector calls

Inspector Tim Harding of the Metropolitan Police is a regular visitor to Al-Manaar. He's the head of a team of officers charged with creating "safe neighbourhoods", a Met strategy to create confidence on the ground and bring people closer together.

His team include community support officers, constables, a proactive crime team, sergeants and other officers involved in crime prevention and intelligence - working out where the criminals are. One of his PCs is a Muslim, as are a couple of his community support officers.

He is trying to find ways of building ties with the young and diverse congregation at Al-Manaar which includes people from many different backgrounds - North African, Middle Eastern, Somali and so on.

"It's very important to make these links because we're trying to provide a police service for all of them," he says

"A lot of crime happens that we don't get to hear about - such as hate crimes based on faith - we need to know about this so we can deal with it. We've started looking at third-party reporting so that people can confidentially speak to people here if they don't want to talk to us directly."

Insp Harding says neighbourhood work doesn't make the headlines - but is increasingly crucial in the wake of the London bombings.

"The situation has made life a lot harder, without a doubt," he says. "The work we did prior to 7 July meant we had a lot of trust with the centre and with older generations. We need to work harder with the young people because many feel a huge pressure on them. We have to keep plodding on."

10:00: A new day

Al-Manaar opens its doors at 6am for the first prayers of the day when a caretaker and imam open up the hall for up to 150 people.

It's a quiet time of contemplation, not least because it's so early in the morning. The day starts proper after 9am when many of the staff start arriving.

This morning work has however come to a complete stop. The key members of staff are crowding around the computer screen in the office looking at the questions coming in from the public about the centre and Islam.

John Emmett of Leighton Buzzard has asked an important opening question:

"Are Christians allowed into Mosques as bystanders/observers, provided they act with respect and dignity - and respect dress rules etc? As a Christian myself, and having visited many parts of the Persian Gulf on business, (where I have been excluded from Mosques) I think it would be a good way encourage understanding of different beliefs."

Abdulkarim Kubica

"I can't speak for mosques elsewhere abroad - but there would be no problem with someone coming in to our mosque; people can come in and sit behind and watch and listen during prayers - this is how some people come to Islam."

"We're a founder member of the Forum of Faiths in this area - it's a representative body which includes the Church of England, Catholic Church, the Jewish faith, a Sikh Gurdwara temple and Buddhists. We focus on issues such as inclusion and standing together for the common good. We share knowledge and understanding for common goals."

Mosque basics

Mosques rarely, if ever, shut. Muslims are expected to pray five times a day - and prayers can be made anywhere as it is a simple ritual of following a number of sequential steps.

But if they can make it to a mosque, then they will go because the prayer hall is a place of coming together - but also somewhere they see as a simple space where they can think about their faith.

While mosques can be incredibly ornate buildings, very often it is the prayer hall that is the simplest area. There are no seats as prayer begins when worshippers stand shoulder-to-shoulder together in the hall and face in the direction of Mecca.

An imam is the leader of prayer who stands at the front of the worshippers. Traditionally, anyone can be an imam but a general requirement is that the individual can recite Quranic verses to a high standard.

Prayer halls are usually segregated: there are separate halls for men and women, although if there are not separate halls, there are rules which allow both sexes to share the same space.


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