In Our Holy Ground by John Morgans and Peter Nobles, the two ordained priests present a personal and historical account of Christianity in Wales – from Celtic expressions of the faith to more recent nonconformism. The peculiar paradox of modern Wales, however, is that for a nation so strongly associated with Christianity, it is, according to the 2011 census, the least religious part of Britain: nearly a third of people declared they had no religious identity. The census is not conclusive of course, as academics like Linda Woodhead and Grace Davies have argued; falling numbers of religious identification can conceal the new ways in which religious belief and practices are expressed, often consciously resisting categorisation.
Statistics also have a habit of ignoring diversity and differences in favour of a broad generalisations. Christianity is still vibrant in Wales, along with many other religious groups, some small in number, but nonetheless calling Wales home. Better understanding Welsh mosques is not only something that can shed light on the highly politicised issues of radicalisation, terrorism and Islamophobia – but help us better understand contemporary religion and the Welsh society in general.
Muslims settled in Wales over a century ago, first through the sailors and lascars in the various docklands of South Wales, as well as more educated elites from colonial India, and more recently, post-war migration from South Asia. The first Muslims in Wales were men seeking to make a living in world of the British Empire. Most returned back to their country of origin, but some didn’t, instead opting to make a new life abroad. As single men married and established families, the need for a place of worship became more strongly pronounced, as places to instruct their children into their faith as well for gathering.
There are about 57 mosques in Wales. A handful more if you include temporary prayer rooms or properties rented for a few hours a day, a handful fewer if you exclude spaces primarily intended to be for learning rather than prayer. One of the most challenging things to communicate to outsiders is how diverse mosques are.
There are, for example, house-mosques. Converted residential places of worship, often serving a local and immediate congregation who walk to the mosque, they’re naturally small, and provide only the most basic of services. Perhaps it is more accurate to call these ‘prayer rooms’. Then there are purpose built mosques, of which there are only a small number in Wales. Examples include the South Wales Islamic Centre and Noor al-Islam Mosque in the Docks of Cardiff, both descendants of Britain’s third earliest mosque built on the former Peel Street. These mosques are larger, and serve a gathered congregation of the immediately local as well those based further away. Alongside prayers, they offer classes, wedding and funeral services, and more general pastoral support.
Other mosques are converted former churches or community centres. This includes some of Wales’ largest mosques, such as the Wrexham Islamic Cultural Centre, and the Dar ul-Isra Muslim Welfare and Education Centre. These places utilise their available space dynamically, with Scouts Groups and exercise sessions, libraries and interfaith events, and a focus on relationship building with local politicians and community groups.
The spectrum of mosques therefore ranges from small functional spaces, comparable to the local chapel, to larger mosques providing a range of community services, comparable to the cathedral. There is also a project spearheaded by the Muslim Council of Wales looking to establish a dynamic and large community centre, akin to the eid gadah of South Asia, a centralising space providing services unable to be provided by other mosques. The project, if successful, will become the largest Muslim community centre in Wales and the South West. Looking beyond the structures of traditional mosques is something the Crescent Centre is also attempting to do. Run by largely white British converts out of a space in Meanwhile House, Cardiff, the project seeks to ‘cultivate an indigenous expression’ of Islam, one ‘in tune with the culture, traditions, and history of the people of Wales’. It has held movie nights, social meals, and invites speakers and poets as part of its activities. Many mosques, in their early establishment, reflected the cultural and ethnic heritage of their founders, though increasingly a multi-ethnic and young British Muslim population has forced mosques to move away from any mono-ethnic and mono-cultural foundations. The Crescent Centre can be seen as a response to this history, seeking to establish a space more reflective of white identity.
A very common question is around the religious identity of mosques. Do they hold denominational identity? The answer is unfortunately complex. A significant challenge in communicating the reality of British mosques to the wider public is that mosques are not run top-down, hierarchically, as an Anglican or Catholic church might be. All British mosques are run by their congregations. A mosque relies on its worshippers for the financial capital to buy and maintain the building, and the religious authority of imams is an authority by consent of the congregation. In practical terms, this means that the average mosque is rarely easily reduced to a single denomination identity, instead reflecting the diversity of Welsh Muslims in general.
Welsh mosques are diverse, dynamic, young, and growing. I suspect, however, that their significance will only become more important in the future. The current crisis of British politics, of polarised ideological debates between right and left, of a disengaged electorate as well as an increasingly resurgent far-right and white supremacist movement, is leading both Wales and the world into uncertain times. What we can be sure about is the importance of civil society during times of crisis. Mosques, churches, and religious groups are integral parts of the civil sphere, creating networks and relationships beyond the state, and creating spaces for social change. Wales may be less religious than 100 years ago, but it is also incredibly more religiously diverse, and the next 100 years will be shaped by this diversity.
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