The Austrian Consul, Agal & Christmas

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No, it’s not Edinburgh Central Mosque’s Lawrence of Arabia. It’s actually Mr. John Clifford, Honorary Consul of Austria for Scotland who came to visit us today. You’re probably wondering by now: how on earth do the other parts – the Agal and Christmas fit into the picture? Well, it goes like this. John called us sometime midweek describing a “ring” worn around a “headscarf” and was seeking advice on how to acquire one.

“Could you please send us a picture John so we can see how we can help?” was our reply. “I might as well send you a picture of the king of Saudi Arabia, he wears one.” John’s words cleared up all the haziness for us. Straight away, I said: “John, you want an Agal.” To his relief and my convenience, I had an Agal lying around in my office drawer. “I even had the full robe! We made an appointment for the Honorary Consul of Austria to come in and pick up this distinctly Arabian package. No questions were asked over the phone, but of course, I was dying to find out more about this rather interesting request.

This is where Christmas comes in! And we found the story quite touching and moving. John has been invited to a Christmas event, and instead of attending with the prescribed Santa hat, he thought why not add a touch of authenticity and creativity by adopting – as close as possible – the mode of dress of the people of the region that the Messiah Jesus was born in! Now, of course we were going to welcome John with Arabian coffee and have a good chat especially when he just shared his idea.

John has a keen interest in interfaith, and this wasn’t the first time he would cross the borders of two or more religions. He shared with us that last year, he actually gave the grace at the 73rd annual dinner of the Consular Corps in Edinburgh borrowing from the Muslim tradition. The public reaction, he told us was of course very mixed, but the Austrian Ambassador in London loved it because he, as then Head of Cultural Affairs in Austria actually organised the celebrations of the centenary of Austria’s official recognition of Islam as a religion in 1912 – Europe’s first country to do so.

We went on to discuss contemporary European politics, Brexit, immigration and the challenges facing our communities. In this world of complex problems, we need to be able to come together, learn from one another and see the things we share. The meeting was therefore a highlight of our day, and we certainly hope for further occasions where we can come together and learn more from one another. Nice one John of Arabia!

The Power of Youth: Addressing our Human Social Challenges

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When you start a week discussing youth issues at a local governmental level and then actually have some twenty plus youth coming to your space to provide, as well as benefit, from your services, that’s not a bad week at all!

On Saturday night, the 10th December, two residential care officers from Edinburgh City Council brought five ‘unaccompanied minors’ to our Youth Chillout Session. They were helping to settle them, so they came to see what facilities we had to offer. All five had been through the Calais Jungle before being finally given resettlement leave by the UK Home Office. “They have all been through a lot!” the officers remarked a number of times. They were in the process of ‘assessing’ before being allocated foster families to help their integration in Scotland.

It is a new case for Edinburgh’s City Council and they are certainly learning as they go along. Language and cultural barriers were key obstacles. “We spend most of the day with them using sign language” said Karen. It was therefore to the relief of both the officers and kids that they walked into a place mingling with youths who spoke their languages and came from their countries of origin. One of the children the officers were really worried about started to come out of his bubble. “He eats just chips” Karen’s motherly tone asserted.  The sight of her face lighting up as the young man tucked into pizza with the others was simply breathtaking! The children were however well mannered the officers outlined.

Karen and Niko however had years of experience working with youth. We were interested in the broader picture and wider challenges facing Scottish society, and especially Edinburgh. We were taken aback hearing how kids “thrived” and “blossomed” in Care instead of their homes because at least they were secured a safe space and three meals a day! Deprivation in households was a major problem affecting the welfare of children. A city where children cannot attain their full potential because of poverty should concern us all because they are the future generation.

The exchange made us ask: how could we contribute our quota to solving these social problems whether it be a result of the migration crisis or problems entrenched within Scottish society? What could we offer to help the city especially when it appears that the council is scaling back on some of these projects? The officers highlighted fostering and mentoring as two key areas which the Muslim community can help with. We can certainly help with things like language, diversity and cultural sensitivity insights for both council and would-be foster families to aid the long-term relationships being forged. Whatever the case, we want to be a partner in creating safer more cohesive communities because a city where all children can reach their full potentials is a gift to the whole world not just to Edinburgh.

Caritas Award Students from St. Augustine’s School

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This afternoon (11 December 2016), our Imam and Aid worker held a meeting with five zestful young people from St. Augustine’s High School. The Head of the school’s RE department and the Caritas co-ordinator got in touch with us when one of the pupils asked about the possibility of getting involved in Mosque activities as part of their Caritas Award. “The Pope Benedict XVI Caritas Award encourages and promotes the ongoing faith journey of young people. It recognises that some are already active and committed within their homes, schools, and Faith communities and it invites others to respond to God’s call of love. It supports and celebrates the faith witness which young people give within their communities. The Award had 3 elements: Theological reflection, 20 hours of loving service within the pupil’s Faith Community and 20 hours of loving service within St Augustine’s.

So today, our Aid worker and Imam met with the enthusiastic students. We outlined from the start that we wanted this to be a mutually fulfilling venture: we wanted to learn from them as much as we hoped they would gain insights from their involvement. We discussed their interests and passions, trying to match them with the various areas of work the mosque conducts:  Foodbank, Youth Chillout, Health & Wellbeing focus group, Mother & Toddler group, Gardening, New to Islam Support Circle, The Mosque School – Arabic madrasah for kids 5-12yrs, Mosque Tours/visits, Social Media engagement, Foundation Islam Course, Student of Knowledge Course, Adult Arabic Course – Level 1A and the various collections/activities which take place after the Friday congregational prayers. We told them that we didn’t just want to be ticking boxes here, rather “loving service” has such depth to it that it had to be linked to doing something one was passionate about and deeply cared for. The youth are our future, and we want to listen to them so that together we can walk along the journeys they take to fulfill their talents and ambitions.

What do we Teach at our mosque?

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We teach a living, breathing Islam. We know the importance of building one’s faith and religion upon good, constructive foundations which come to life in everyday reality. This is why we decided to provide structured courses of learning to the already existing circles of study at the mosque.

sisters-tuesday-circle-beforeThe ‘Sisters’ Circle’ had been running for over a decade – maa.shaa.Allah! In recognition of the importance of women and education, the mosque consulted the sisters to see how the circle’s framework could be adapted to offer a structured programme of study to the sisters.

We came up with ‘Foundation Islam’ – a course of study combining flexibility and practicality with progression. Students are offered four-week courses on the essential Islamic sciences: Aqidah (Creed), Fiqh (Jurisprudence), Tafsir (Qur’anic Exegesis), Hadith, Sirah (the Prophetic Biography) at gradual progressive stages. Each course is assessed at the end of the four weeks before a new module is introduced. This enables the students to learn in manageable bite-size chunks as they build on their knowledge of Islam. Although the modules build on one another, breaking them into four-week chunks grants students the flexibility to join and rejoin the programme at any point since there is no ‘long-haul’ study. You get from the overall programme the number of courses you consistently attend!

sisters-foundation-islam-2We have so far covered two courses: the first was the ‘Methodology of Seeking Knowledge’ and the second – which we have just concluded – was ‘Introductory Aqidah’. The sisters sat their assessments this evening and the main picture of this post shows them taking in some calories before the test.

The test is of course not mandatory, but we believe that learning should be assessed for both the student and teacher’s sake. A bit of cake always helps! The next course of study is ‘Living Islam in the West: Challenges & Opportunities’. Since we started the ‘Foundation Islam’ course for women on Tuesdays at 6.30pm, the men requested a similar programme. We responded by offering them the ‘Student of Knowledge’ class on Thursdays at 6.30pm. The course content and design is the same for both.

We want to create a community of knowledge through creating a ‘living breathing’ study programme which can be accessed by anyone from anywhere. In beginning to achieve this, we plan on compiling the notes of study, sharing them online and editing them as we go along. Please stay tuned.