Thought for the Day - Abdal Hakim Murad
On a recent trip to Indonesia I was able to visit one of the most curious religious buildings I have ever seen. This was a Chinese temple, filled with incense and pictures of dragons, dedicated to a fifteenth-century admiral, worshipped as a god by many local Chinese. What makes the shrine particularly interesting is that the admiral concerned, a flamboyant eunuch by the name of Cheng Ho, was in fact a devout Muslim; and the temple’s core is Islamic. So in the easygoing way of Javanese religion, Buddhists, Taoists, animists, and Muslims, worship together in the space, and seem to have done so peacefully for centuries.
Let us shift our attention, now, to the stadium of Blackburn Rovers football club. Situated in an ethnically diverse city, the club’s management in 2008 decided to open the first multifaith prayer room in a Premier League stadium.
Blackburn Rovers is ahead of the game, but only just. A new report from Liverpool University documents the astonishing growth of multi-faith prayer facilities across the country. There are now one and a half thousand of these, at hospitals, offices, universities, and motorway service stations.
The report notes the challenges brought by this architectural expression of our multifaith reality. Different religions require different paraphernalia. And what to do when holy days or prayer times clash? Who exactly should be in charge? What architectural or decorative norms are appropriate? Who chooses the books on the shelf?
For Britain, unlike Indonesia, this kind of thing is uncharted territory. But the doubling of such spaces in barely ten years suggests, to me, two interesting and hopeful things. Firstly, the religions seem happy to come together to share a sacred space. Usually when I visit these places they seem to breathe an atmosphere of seriousness and mutual respect.
Secondly, this architectural boom might challenge a few generalisations about Britain becoming irreligious. Buildings which in the past never contained a prayer space – such as shopping centres, or football stadiums – are now sprouting busy prayer rooms, despite declining attendance figures at more conventional places of worship.
There could be many explanations. But Muslims, I believe, need to be respectful of this. Some of our fundamentalists seem to crave separation, not togetherness. But the Indonesian example shows what we have historically been able to accommodate. And whenever I pass St George’s Chapel at Heathrow, I remind my fellow-travellers that many Muslim countries venerate St George as a saint. St George’s tomb in Aleppo, Syria, decorated by verses from the Koran, is visited by Christians and Muslims alike. When faith claims to value hospitality, why should we find this sharing of space threatening, or even strange?