Visit My Mosque (VMM) day has generated some considerable interest in the mainstream media with regards to Muslims in the UK who are, by now, used to receiving negative press having done so over the past decade. At the same time that President Obama visited a mosque, sadly the first visit during his presidency, this new initiative by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) is an attempt to show everyone "how Muslims connect to God, communities and neighbours around them".
This year's event on 7 February in over 80 mosques across the country was attended by many local people, many for their first time. The popular LBC Radio, hosted by veteran broadcaster Tim Marshall, devoted an entire hour to discuss the initiative on 5 February.
Some pertinent questions and scepticism came through LBC's phone-in discussions; including 'why only 80 out of 2,000 mosques were participating'? The reality, sadly, is that of the estimated 1,200 to 2,000 mosques in the UK the majority are small prayer places, some in the corner of a housing estate or others simple makeshift temporary places of worship meeting the needs of a few local Muslims. Many are not MCB affiliates.
Indeed, in our post-modern secular society we all have to improve our religious literacy. As one of the most successful pluralist and inclusive developed countries in the world, our knowledge and understanding is sadly limited.
Mosques and prayer places in many faith traditions are grass-root independent religious institutions that are run to serve local communities and cater for their spiritual and basic religious needs. The word Mosque is an Arabic one which means 'a place of prostration' and as in most religious cultures, it is sacred. Mosques, by nature, are open to all; they provide adherents with a spiritual sanctuary. Unlike some other religious places, no mosque keeps a register of its congregation.
The Mosque Open Day (MOD) has been a common feature in some big mosques across Britain for some time. The country's largest and London's oldest, the East London Mosque, has been opening its doors to non-Muslims for the past two decades in an attempt to "promote a better understanding of Islam and what goes on inside the building". This year's VMM Day attracted more than 250 non-Muslims from many backgrounds to this historic building.
For the past few years, since the MINAB (Mosque and Imams National Advisory Body) published its Mosque open day guide, many mosques have been trying to professionalise their activities, including encouraging visits from people with religious or non-religious backgrounds. The MCB itself launched an initiative to transform British Mosques nearly a decade ago with a view to improving their capacity and sustainability. The programme was run for two years with around 100 mosques across the country.
One of the primary tasks the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) undertook when he migrated to Madinah was to build a mosque that became the centre of Muslim spiritual and community life in early Islam; the Prophet's mosque is still a centre of spiritual solace to millions of Muslims. With that tradition, Muslims build prayer places wherever they live. Mosques, as prayer places and community hubs, are an essential feature for Muslim community life. A mosque demands from Muslims a high standard in its service so that it can create a sense of community belonging and civic responsibility amongst people around it.
The ritual congregation prayer in a mosque is its main function, but this is only one aspect of its multi-disciplinary functions. A successful mosque should be a buzzing centre of community, social and cultural life - a seat of learning, a focal point for social interaction with other people, a site for medical and social care and a venue for bereavement as well as festivity and celebration.
Most mosques facilitate supplementary schooling for young children to learn basic Arabic to recite the Qur'an and lead ritual prayers, as well as counselling by Imams on Islamic issues. Small and makeshift mosques have limitations in physical space, resources and basic staff; many are only open during the prescribed prayer times.
The Muslim community is diverse and still evolving. Some are prosperous, others are struggling, and some face multiple social issues. One certain fact is that the community is facing challenges from a continuous negative portrayal from the media which is not being helped by the actions of a small minority from within.
Mosques can really play a better role in giving confidence and skills to their congregation to address some of the issues. The growing number of talented Muslim men and women in the community is still an untapped resource that needs to be harnessed to run mosques effectively. This is absolutely vital to improve the conditions of the Muslim community and allow for better interactions with the wider society and bring communities together.
A key characteristic of a Muslim is to strive for excellence and not to be content with the status quo. It is time to bring young people with innovative ideas to transform the effectiveness of mosques. This is the best way to help change the dynamics of the Muslim community. Mosques can really play an ingenious role in paving the way of Muslim civic participation to create a better Britain.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is a noted civic leader, intellectual-activist and commentator.