By Idris Tawfiq
Regent’s Park Mosque in London, or London Central Mosque as it is more properly known, played a major part in my journey to Islam. It was the first mosque in the UK that I visited. It was there that I attended the Islamic Circle every Saturday afternoon to learn about Islam. And it was at this mosque that I declared Shahadah. London Central Mosque was also part of my first Ramadan as a Muslim and, subsequently, the scene of my first Muslim `Eid.
When someone is new to Islam, everything about it is both fascinating and, at the same time, strange. New Muslims want to do everything right. They want to perform the Prayers properly and they want to perform the ablution before Prayer in the right way. In fact, they want to know absolutely everything about the religion that has changed their lives and brought them such peace.
I remember during my first Ramadan, for example, going to Regent’s Park Mosque for some of the Prayers and being very conscious that I should perform them properly in front of other Muslims. Of course, as you become more accustomed to the practices of Islam, what other people think about how you are performing the Prayers becomes quite unimportant. You grow into being a Muslim. But, at the beginning, many new Muslims don’t know many people at the mosque, so they are cautious about how to act.
My first Ramadan had been a special time. Fasting from dawn to sunset was totally new. Breaking the fast at a prescribed time was also new. In England, of course, Friday is a work day, not a holiday, and since I was teaching at a school, it was never possible to attend Friday Prayers. As a result, visiting Regent’s Park Mosque to pray with other Muslims during Ramadan was especially meaningful.
Just when I thought I had understood Ramadan and got into the rhythm of fasting and praying, the holy month was over and it was time for something else that was new: `Eid al-Fitr. Of course, in those early days I was reading avidly to learn more and more about Islam, so I knew that `Eid al-Fitr was the feast of breaking fast. It was the feast to celebrate the end of Ramadan. No number of books, though, can replace the experience of `Eid. It was to be a learning experience and also another opportunity to grow.
Just before talking about the `Eid, we need to realize that in the UK there are a large number of religious and ethnic groups. These different groups have come to tolerate one another over the years and some people even speak of the UK as a multicultural society, where different cultures and traditions feed into the mainstream, enriching society as a whole. Whether this is true or not, not much allowance is made for Ramadan. UK Muslims fast and pray while the rest of society goes about its business, rushing around with little thought of the eternal. What a shock the `Eid was to be!
I left home in what seemed the middle of the night and took the underground train to Baker Street, the closest station to Regent’s Park. I had been told that Muslims dress in their best clothes for the `Eid Prayers, so I had put on a suit and tie and polished my shoes until I could see my face in them. It was a very cold morning, so I also wore a new coat. How surprised I was with the sight when I reached Baker Street Station and began the short walk to the mosque.
Walking in throngs in the same direction were Muslims of every nationality, each in their own traditional dress. There were Arabs and Turks, Indonesians and Malays, Nigerians, Pakistanis, and Bengalis. In fact, it seemed as though every race on earth was represented. Young children, quite obviously in brand new clothes, clutched the hands of mothers and fathers. Elderly grandparents in their best attire, perhaps reminding them of a childhood in some foreign land, walked proudly by their side. It was an amazing sight. What was even more amazing was that British policemen were stopping the traffic so that this rich assortment of Muslims could cross the street to get to the mosque.
I had never seen so many worshipers in the Prayer hall. There were quite literally thousands, with mats outside for thousands more. In fact, the `Eid Prayers were staggered over different “sittings” to accommodate all those wanting to pray.
Remember, I had never before been able to attend Friday Prayers in congregation, so this was the first time I had seen so many Muslims gathered together to pray. It was such an inspiration to be present and to know that Allah had called me to be a part of this great Muslim nation.
The Prayer hall was filled to capacity. My heart was full of emotion as the imam called out for the first time ” Allahu Akbar,” and all the worshipers repeated after him. I was at first disappointed that the khutbah (Friday sermon) was given in Arabic, since I couldn’t understand a word and I wanted to understand everything about Islam, but it was repeated in English and I ate up every word.
When the Prayers were finished there was a lot of handshaking and embracing. As-salamu `alaykum (peace be upon you) and `Eid mubarak (happy `Eid) could be heard from every corner. To add to the festivity of the occasion, everyone present was given the gift of a package of books about Islam, presented by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I still treasure those small books as part of the journey which led me to where I am today.
I traveled back home feeling good, and had breakfast with my Muslim neighbors from Egypt. The children couldn’t contain their joy at showing off their new clothes. Their mother, already busy in the kitchen preparing for a festive lunch of lamb and rice, came out only briefly to exchange `Eid greetings, before going back to her kingdom of pots and pans, ready to serve a lunch fit for kings. The father of the family was so proud of his wife and children and so gracious in welcoming me into their home, another expression of the brotherhood of Islam.
Policemen directing traffic and cars stopping for the thousands of Muslims to cross a London street is one of my memories of that first `Eid. I also came away with two very distinct feelings. The first was a slightly sad feeling that I didn’t know many Muslims yet and still felt rather alone in my new faith. The second feeling, though, was an overwhelming feeling of celebration. As part of the great community of Islam, we had all fasted together for the sake of Allah. Now, together as a community, we were rejoicing and thanking Allah for all His blessings. My first `Eid as a Muslim was therefore special. It was an experience of all I had come to believe: that Islam is the world’s natural religion and that it knows no boundaries of race. Al-hamdu lillah (praise be to Allah).