It’s a tough time to be a British Muslim right now. Islamophobia – even when it isn’t being spouted by the Tory party – is rife. A survey this summer revealed that 31 per cent of the population believe Islam poses a threat to the British way of life and hate crimes between 2018 – 2019 have risen by 10 per cent, with 156 of the 1,630 hate crimes registered in March 2019 alone; defined as Islamophobic.
We visited one of the largest mosques in western Europe to meet three young imams who have grown up in an age of rampant Islamophobia and asked the question: what is it that makes a modern young man dedicate their life to their faith in this climate?
Noor Hadi, 22, Farhad Ahmed, 28, and Sabah Ahmedi, 25, are part of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Baitul Futuh Mosque in south London. We meet on a rainy day and they are keen to break misconceptions about Islam.
Noor Hadi, 22: “People were always asking what my religion was about … and I didn’t have the answers.”
Noor Hadi was the head boy at his imam training college but had you told 15-year-old Noor that he would be head boy of anything, he would have laughed in your face. “I was never that kid before,” he says, smiling shyly and nursing a wrist injury from lifting weights, “I even changed the way I dressed. I went from hoodies and tracksuits to a suit or something more formal.”
Today Noor exudes Head Boy material; smart, shy, a little quiet. Teenage Noor would never be in the sweater and shirt combo I see him in today, but he would be at the mosque. The mosque was Noor’s second home, where he found a sense of community, played basketball and chilled with friends. He credits it with keeping him away from a more troubled path, something he was exposed to throughout his youth in south London.
“I actually had a few friends who joined gangs,” he explains, “It was really scary seeing your friends do that. They thought it was cool, but of course, they could have just had nowhere to go. For me, I had the mosque.”
Despite this, it never occurred to Noor to become an imam. His parents were certainly shocked when, at sixteen, he turned to them and announced his career aspiration. “I think they were concerned about my ability to do it! They were like: ‘You’re not going to drop out, are you?’”
The training is seven years long, and incredibly intense. Noor compares it to being in the army – “without learning to shoot people, of course” – for the way it reshapes you, disciplines you. So, why put yourself through that, I wonder, and at such a young age?
He blames a growing conflict in him at the time, a disconnect between the growing public view of Islam, and his lived reality of it.
“I grew up right in the aftermath of 9⁄11, so I had to deal with so many things like kids coming up to me and saying ‘I’ve seen this on the news, is this what your religion teaches?’. But it lingers in the back of your head, these massive headlines and scary news stories when you are just a kid.”
Noor was used to fielding questions about his faith, growing up as the only Muslim kid in his Catholic primary school and the only Muslim on his basketball team; “I could never just be ‘Noor’ I had to be ‘Noor: the Muslim Guy.’
“They would always ask me, ‘Why does your mum wear a towel on her head?’ or ‘Is Islam really violent? Does it teach you to be violent?’ Everyone thought I knew all the answers to all these questions, but I didn’t. That inspired me to go out and get them.”
Becoming an imam was Noor’s way of feeling qualified to defend and explain his faith to others, at a time when Islam was in need of some thoughtful PR. He’s delighted to have that now, freshly graduated, and to be able to head out and address misconceptions; from accusations about terrorism to female oppression. Though it still saddens him to know these misjudgements exist, he feels empowered by his role. He says he enjoys telling people about the pledge young Muslims make to be loyal to their country, how the global Ahmadiyya Muslim Community has never had a single case of extremism, and how they open up the mosque to everyone in the local area and beyond, to include everyone.
“Recent stats show people think that Islam is incompatible with British society. But there are also really high stats on how many people have never spoken to a Muslim person before, or who have never learnt anything about Islam,” he says, “That’s the work I am keen to do.”
He’s even reached out to his school friends – of mixed religions, genders and backgrounds – who have come to hang out with him at the mosque. “I’m like – ask me those questions about being a Muslim now! I’m ready!”
Farhad Ahmed 28: “My faith helped me through some really tough times.”
“If we call ourselves Muslims in Pakistan we can go to prison,” Farhad Ahmed tells me. He is more thoughtful and serious than his fellow imams this morning, but then so is his story.
Farhad and his family left Pakistan when he was nine, fleeing the persecution of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community after laws were passed, refusing to recognise them as real Muslims. I tell him I had never heard of this – an educational deficit – but Ahmed agrees it’s a rarely-told facet of Pakistan’s recent history. “In 2010, about eighty people were killed in an Ahmadiyya mosque bombing back in Pakistan. It’s a direct result of that law.”
Moving to south London, on the cusp of his tweens, was tough for Farhad.
“You can feel left out if you have just moved somewhere. But we had a really strong community spirit in Tooting,” he explains. “We used to go to these community halls and learn our faith but also play football and cricket and make friends like any normal kid, even with kids outside of the Muslim community — just by playing sport.”
Like, Noor, Farhad was privy to the gang violence, both say was rife in their local areas. Both never participated, but Farhad in particular, experienced the direct consequences of that world. “I knew a lot of boys at my school who got involved in gangs,” he explains. “There was one kid I knew – I think he was selling drugs but I’m not sure what the exact story was – but one day another gang came and killed him in his own home. He was only fourteen.”
The incident hit Farhad hard, but only served to support his decision to keep away from that path, a decision he felt was always influenced by his faith.
I say I think it’s no coincidence that Farhad decided to become an imam, shortly after the death of his school friend. “As a teenager you obviously go through a big stage of questioning about your faith,” he agrees, “But what was important for me, and helped me through that period was my faith and the tightness of my community.”
He always knew he wanted to do something in the service of others but he, much like his parents, assumed this would be in the form of a doctor. They were shocked when he announced, aged fifteen, that he wanted to be an imam, but were ultimately supportive.
They understood he wanted to plug the gap he saw between the peaceful, community-driven Islam he was raised with and how the rest of the world perceived Muslims; as a violent threat: “I just felt, at that time, especially with what was happening with Islam and the perception of Islam globally, that having young imams reaching out and working with the community, was the best way I could serve others.”
“My friends definitely thought it was weird though,” he laughs. “But they get it now. I love what I do so much – it’s like loving football and getting paid to be a footballer. It’s the best job in the world.”
Sabah Ahmadi, 25: “I want people to know that I am a Muslim, and I am a loyal Londoner.”
I’m warned before Sabah arrives that he’s the “cool” one, and he’s certainly a ball of energy. Was he this cool as a teenager?
“I don’t think I’m that cool now,” he replies. “I was your average jack-the-lad, I was titled as a class clown in my Parents Evening. I was always up for a laugh –t as I am now really.”
A jack-the-lad and class clown would not seem your immediate candidate for a life of religious servitude and even Sabah can’t tell you why he woke up one morning, in the first year of his A Levels, and decided to become an imam. Up until then, he wanted to join the police force.
“My father is a sergeant in the Manchester police force and my mum is a primary school teacher and they gave me a massive sense of the importance of community and of giving back,” he muses, “So I knew I wanted to serve the community in some way but becoming an imam was the path that life took me down.”
After a gruelling seven years of training, Sabah moved to south London from Manchester with his wife and baby daughter. His young family knew that life as an imam could take him anywhere across the world. They learnt this the hard way, his daughter was born seconds after Sabah landed from a work trip to Africa.
“I got on the train straight away to Manchester. I don’t think I have ever had that journey go so fast I was just so, so happy,” he beams. “I remember I bought this huge block of Galaxy chocolate and I just started sharing it with a stranger sitting opposite me and I told them all that I had just had a daughter and I was ecstatic.”
That sense of reaching out to others exudes from Sabah. Of all the imams, he seems the most fired up about connecting with other communities and promoting positive stories about Islam. He even has an Instagram account @theyoungimam which gives glimpses of the day-to-day reality of life as a British Muslim.
“As an imam, I think it is important to open up the doors to our personal and professional lives, to help people understand more. To show that we are regular people; we have normal days, we go to the gym, we have families, we see friends,” he explains, and feels – with Islamophobia rife – it’s more important now than ever. “If I’m not going to defend my religion, why should I expect anyone else to? We are at a time now where we need to educate people, and we need to connect on our common denominators because we do all have them.”
He works a lot with the press team at Baitul Futuh Mosque and recently sent out 5,000 emails to journalists asking them for coffee. He wants them to be able to ask their questions – no matter how un-PC they may think they are – so he can help correct misconceptions. I ask him which are the most common. Besides questions on extremism and violence, he says it’s about women.
“People ask me if I force my wife to wear a headscarf,” he raises his eyebrows and laughs, “I get people have this idea that Muslim women are oppressed but I always say, ‘my wife is a very independent, formidable woman and she does what she wants. Don’t ask me why she wears it, ask her. I do not speak for my wife.‘”
Sabah’s mission to open up the realities of Islam is clearly something he is fiercely passionate about. I tell him he should start a podcast named after the subject of his 5,000 emails “Coffee with an imam“.
“Genius. Would you be my first guest?” Anytime, Sabah.