Friday, 20 January 2012

The Forgotten Revival

Opening of Peel Street Mosque

For those familiar with the history of Wales, the phrase 'Welsh Revival' of 1904-1905 evokes very poweful images.

It describes an era of intense religious fervour amongst Welsh Christian communities. The revival began with smaller movements in towns such as Ammanford but soon spread until all came to a climax in 1904 as key preachers, notably Evan Roberts, went on tours across Wales. Roberts and others spoke
powerfully about the importance of repenting all sin, publically professing their faith in Christ and opening oneself to the transformative power of the Holy Spirit. It is estimated that over 100,000 converts were received during the period of a single year into Welsh churches, including greater religosity and piety among pre-existing congregations.

The Welsh Revival was an important part of Welsh history and takes it takes its place in a backdrop of other Christian revivals in Britain and Europe during the ninteenth and twentieth century.

There is however a forgotten revival, one that is not included in the history books but still shaped the future direction of Wales powerfully.

It is however an Islamic Revival, that swept across South Wales during the 1930s-40s. It was led by a single man, Abdullah Ali al-Hakimi, and its influence is still important today.

Cardiff during this era was a bustling port city, one of the largest in the UK. The first million pound cheque in the world was written in Cardiff's Coal Exchange, evidence the the size and importance of the port. Thousands of Muslims working on ships found themselves in Cardiff, sometimes for short stays and sometimes for longer. They would be in between employment on ships - usually as firemen. Some decided to abandon the difficult life at sea and make a home in Cardiff. Most of these Muslims lived in the Docks area which became known as Tiger Bay. They came from diverse regions of the world, Somalis, Indians and Malays. By far however the largest contingent came from Yemen, specifically the Aden.

The adherence of these men to their faith however was something that concerned the religious leaders of the time, and so Shaykh Ahmed ibn Mustafa al-Alawi sent his student Shaykh Abdullah Ali al-Hakimi, a Yemeni scholar, to Britain to address the issue.

In the space of a few short years, Abdullah Ali al-Hakimi successfully transformed the local Muslim community in Cardiff (and to a certain extent, South Shields, Liverpool and Hull). He established a mosque at Peel Street (perhaps the first in Wales), regular Quran study classes for children and adults alike, created a number of welfare services for the local community and he negotiated the establishment of the Wales' first Muslim burial site in Ely - something the Muslim community in South Wales still benefits from.

Al-Hakimi's work also extended to the wider community. He had a close relationship with politicians, the media and local leaders from other faiths, holding annual dinners where he would bring them all together. His diplomatic success is demonstrated by the attendance of the Mayor of Cardiff at the re-opening of Peel Street mosque after it was destroyed in the Blitz of World War 2.

Kevin Little, a social scientist, carried out a survey of Loudon Square in 1944, a key area in Tiger Bay. He describes the Muslim community below: -
“Mention should be made again of the strong body of Islamic faith. The adherents of this creed not only carry out their religious and ritualistic obligations with more fervour than the rest of the community, but are correspondingly surer both of their creed and of themselves. The various prohibitions enjoined by the prophet are on the whole rigorously observed, as are Ramadan and other fasts and festivals. In the celebration of the latter, ritual dress is worn by a large number of the Arabs and other Moslems”

This description is one that stands in contrast to the Muslim community prior to the arrrival of al-Hakimi. There is much more detail still needed about his life and works, and how his influence still survives in Cardiff today.

I hope that through my PhD I can discover more about the man and mission of Abdullah Ali al-Hakimi, the leader of an Islamic Welsh Revival.

PS: If anyone has any information about al-Hakimi, photos, stories or even hearsay, I would very much appreciate it if you could contact me : - sope2c @

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Imam Bashing

An interesting article caught my eye today, covered by the Daily Mail and The Times (behind a paywall) regarding comments made by Ahtsham Ali, an advisor to the Prison Service.

The article contend that Imams, poorly trained, out of touch and incompetent are causing young Muslim men to turn to crime.

I have great respect of Ahtsham Ali, both in his role as advisor to the Prison Service and his work with the Islamic Society of Britain. I do however consider his comments ill-judged.

To be an Imam in Britain today is perhaps one of the most challenging careers an individual can embark upon.

Consider first that the role of the Imam has changed dramatically in recent years. In countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, the Imam's duties are to lead the prayers, deliver the sermon, teach basic Arabic and perform a small number of rituals.

In Britain, for a few reasons, the Imam's responsibilities are larger and greater than ever before. From the religious perspective, they are expected to fulfill roles usually occupied by professionals in other spheres. Thus the Imam must now be aalim (scholar), mufti (judge) and da'ee (preacher) all at once. They must provide pastoral support to their congregation, not only perform marriage and divorce cermonies but offer counselling and therapy. If only it ended there - as the Imam must also be a youth worker. Engaging with the young, able to understand and provide guidance on the issues they face.

And if this wasn't enough, increasingly the Imam must now also be the external representative of the Muslim community. They must meet with other religious leaders (both Muslim and from other traditions), attend public meetings and local council consultations.

And if this didn't seem daunting enough, there is the burden of admin work. Ensuring the day to day running of the mosque continues. Opening and closing the mosque, enusring parking doesn't get out of control, managing accounts and expenditure.

When interviewing an Imam for one of my Masters degree assignments, the Imam shared how he often found jobs for unemployed members of his congregation and helped them apply for it. A second Imam told me how he would walk the streets near his mosque on bonfire night to ensure none of the local Muslim children set off any fireworks.

Challenging job by any standards. Add to this the fact that most Imams get paid less than the cashiers at Tesco, and yes, you have a serious challenge on your hands.

This is why I am never happy to see what can only be described as 'Imam bashing'. Sometimes it is a careless comment in a conversation, other times, such as now, it is on a national newspaper.

Imams and the institutions that educate them are responding to the new challenges of religious leadership in Britain.

British Dar al-Ulooms (Houses of Learning) are establishing relationships with higher education bodies to ensure a holistic and accredited educational experience, turning them into fully fledged theological colleges.

Initatives such as the Cambridge Muslim College, brainchild of Timothy Winters (aka Abdul Hakim Murad) offers Imams a Masters degree in what can be described as Islamic contextual theology.

The Dars i Nizaami (perhaps one of the most widely-used syllabi for Imams) is being updated with modules on counselling, youth work and pastoral care.

Also, projects run by the Muslim Council of Britain and the Muslim Council of Wales deliver leadership, management and organisational skills to Imams to assist them in their duties.

I do not ignore the fact there are Imams out their unfit for their positions, sometimes with absolutely zero Islamic education. Yet are these prevalent enough to qualify blanket statements on our Imams?

I am humbled by the tireless efforts of many Imams in Britain who dedicate themselves to a career which is challenging, poorly paid and often attracts scorn and criticism. We are blessed that they commit themselves to their duty not for public gratitude but for the pleasure of God.