17/10/2016 08:02 BST | Updated 18/10/2017 06:12 BST

What Is Religion?


"What is reli-gion?" Shaykh Babikir asks, his thick Sudanese accent curling the word out over his bottom lip.

"Man creates religion to suit himself. But it is nonsense, there is only one God."

I expect him to say "Allah", but he doesn't.

"To be spiritual, is to be a human being. It is to recognise the homeless person begging you in the street, who you think smells of sweat, alcohol, urine... So what! We all stink, we are all filthy. You think because you shower and put on your perfumes, you are clean?" He laughs. "We are all the same."

I sit in his audience of 30 young leaders from many faiths and none. Despite our differences, we are united by one belief: We are all connected. It's a Thursday night and despite a long days work and an even longer week, we've all willingly made the pilgrimage to Willesden Lane, North West London.

We sit in the round, bums on the floor of Rumi's Cave, a community hub founded by Shaykh Babikir, and grown with love by spoken word artist Sukina Douglas. This is the first field trip on our leadership programme, 'Sacred Activists', devised by St Ethleburga's Centre for Reconciliation and Peace.

I am one of the ones without a religion. I identify myself, when asked, as spiritual, but not religious. In fact I have always viewed organised religion with suspicious eyes. As a child I attended a Church of England primary school, but at home my mother told me I was a pagan and highlighted holes in the bible stories I had been fed that day.

An astute child, always older than my years, I was barely in the junior yard before the penny dropped. I was here because it was the best school in our locality and education is freedom.

The spoonfuls of Christianity stuck in my throat like lumps of lard. The unquestioning faith of my teachers, in stories which I knew could not be true, caused confusion and mild distain. Perhaps at the time I was missing untold nuances of their faith and beliefs, restricted by the set curriculum and school mandate. Or perhaps there is still a small part of me that wants to be able to respect them as my earliest mentors, and in order to do so I feel the need to create some common ground, real or imagined.

It wasn't long before I was watching The Craft on a weekly basis, changing the word God to 'Manon' in assembly hymns, and attending church with 666 scrawled along my arm under my school jumper, in a desperate attempt to mark myself as separate.

After primary school I never really mixed with anyone who strongly identified with a religion. Most of my friends were like me - spiritual rather than religious. Others were agnostic, or staunchly atheist. Religion and spirituality weren't topics of conversation we often broached. Far less often than say politics, love, or our plans for the weekend.

As I sit in Rumi's Cave it dawns on me that this is the first time I have engaged with the Muslim faith and I have little to no reference points. Of course I have dismissed the hatealism in the press as Islamophobia, but I have never felt welcomed in to form my own understandings of the religion.

In fact I've often felt the Muslim community to be somewhat distant, closed, and have wondered if this is a reaction to experiences of Islamophobia, or if Islamophobia is in some ways created by a lack of understanding and connection between Muslim and non-Muslim communities; or perhaps both are true. As I listen to my Muslim peers speak, I am surprised to hear that even they have found it hard to connect to their own religious communities through traditional channels.

"The mosque has always felt very cold to me"

"I think because we go mosque to pray so often, it feels like it has a revolving door sometimes. People go in, pray, leave. There isn't the sense of belonging that I want."

Sukina Douglas project managed Rumi's cave in its early days and has invited us here this evening. She listens with an empathetic heart before responding, "Often we [women] would try to perform at Muslim events in the community and we would be told 'you can, but you can't have music', or 'you must do poetry only, but he can sing', or 'you must stand behind this screen when you perform so you cannot be seen'. We were like do you want us here or not?"

Sukina was born in Bristol to Jamaican parents and raised in a Rastafarian inspired environment. But in 2005 she converted to Islam and embraced the Sufi path four years later. When she started hosting events at Rumi's cave, one of her main motivations was to create a space where Muslim women and men felt welcome.

"It was led by women, so it had that feminine energy about it, fairy lights and nice decorations," she smiles, "sometimes a brother would come in and say 'Am I allowed in here?'. But everyone was allowed. That was one of Shaykh Babikir's earliest teachings to me, we never turn anyone away."

Despite Rumi's Cave providing a sanctuary to the community, welcoming people from all walks of life, regardless of religious background or otherwise, and providing food to those experiencing homelessness, Sukina and the team faced some resistance from the local Muslim community.

"Sometimes people would come in and say 'What are you doing?' 'You can't host Friday afternoon prayer here, that is what the mosque is for.' So we would try to engage them in what we were doing and explain why we felt we had to do it."

I'm inspired by Sukina and by Rumi's Cave. I feel at home here and I know I am amongst friends, though we've barely met.

If I'm completely honest I have always held preconceptions of the Muslim faith as being restrictive, especially for women. And as someone who values freedom to such a high degree, that has never sat well with me. But in Sukina and the other young Muslims here this evening, I have found people who are redefining what it means to be Muslim for them, by living their faith the way they want to. It feels brave and empowering. It feels new, progressive and exciting.

I feel welcome here. I am coming away knowing that I have Muslim friends now. And that their religion does not define or restrict their faith. I am coming away knowing that at our core we believe in the same things: love, peace, justice, freedom.

Sukina and Shaykh Babikir have grown a space that is led by women, but also crucially supported by men. A space that welcomes absolutely everyone, whilst centring around Muslim teachings; which I find moving and relevant. In fact as I continue to listen to Shaykh teaching, I begin to think he sounds mostly like a socialist and I wonder if he has ever crossed paths with Jeremy Corbyn? I think they would get on.

"The best of human kind are those who are of benefit to human kind." ~ [Daraqutni, Hasan] Hadith

I meditate on Shaykh Babikir as he concludes our visit with a prayer. As he speaks he glows. His words are pure intentions from the heart. He manifests love as he sends out good wishes to various members of the community. As he prays for those of us on this leadership programme I feel his warmth envelop me. Every ounce of his being wills good things out into the world. He finishes in arabic and the words sound to me like the most beautiful music.