Exeter Mosque: Testament to Religious Harmony in UK
The little room used as a mosque in Exeter back in 1975 has grown and expanded into a beautiful mosque and Islamic cultural center to cater to the increasing number of Muslims in that sleepy university town in southwest England.
The story of the Exeter Mosque is probably the story of every mosque across the UK.
Professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the secretary-general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), talks about that with fondness.
In 1975, he came to Exeter as a young faculty member in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Exeter.
When he asked around for a place to pray for Muslims he found none despite there being a number of Muslims. So he and a group of Muslim students were given a prayer room in the Students’ Guild. They started with five people in their congregation that gradually increased to 20, 40, 60 and even Muslims from neighboring towns joined them. In Eid, they had to find a large plot of land to hold the huge number.
At that time the Muslim community in Exeter was small. They were mainly shopkeepers, restaurant owners and university students. They came together and decided to establish the Islamic center for the southwest and created a committee to work on establishing the center. Ihsanoglu was the President of that committee.
“I still have with me a copy of the minutes of that meeting which took place in December 1976,” Ihsanoglu said.
They started raising funds for the center, and even though he left back to Turkey in 1977, Ihsanoglu was happy to come a year later for the opening of the center when a house had been purchased and converted into the Islamic centre of the southwest.
Thirty years later, as the space became insufficient, the Muslims in Exeter wanted to raise funds to build a mosque. Planning permission was granted in 2000 but raising funds was hampered and construction stalled after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in New York and 7/7 in London. Ihsanoglu contacted Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al-Qasimi, ruler of Sharjah, who generously provided funding that enabled the construction work to proceed.
Imam Mohammed Abrar said he hoped it would attract thousands of Muslims and increase the understanding of Islam in the wider community.
The Muslim community in Exeter and other places in Britain has grown and prospered over the years. They have become successful businessmen, academics and community leaders and reached the highest levels of government.
“I believe that centers like this in Exeter can serve as a role model for community harmony and cohesion both here and abroad and deserves our support,” said Ihsanoglu at the opening ceremony of the new and expanded Exeter Mosque and Cultural Centre recently.
Lord Mayor of Exeter, Stella Brock, acknowledged that the journey of Muslims has not been easy in the past ten years, post 9/11, but there is a need to move forward.
“It is a testament to your faith and dedication,” she said at the opening ceremony. She expressed appreciation of the Muslim community and called for respect of different religions and cultures.
Ethnic Composition of Muslims in UK (as of 2011)
Martyn Goss, the Director of Council for Church and Society (Diocese of Exeter) welcomed Muslims and said he was looking forward to continue working closely with them.The Imam of the mosque and some Muslim youths spoke about the role and importance of the center in the life of Muslims there. It was more than just a space to pray, they said.