I absolutely love living in the Southside of Glasgow. We have a friendly rivalry with the West End, which has a reputation of being posh, while we are a bit run down. But the truth is, the Southside is becoming more and more wonderful: quirky, cool, and with each new grassroots/local shopaholic/or cafe that opens, it feels more and more like Portland to me.
That said, I barely get out of my little corner of the Southside, so today I was pleased to take a walk to visit a friend on the other side of Queen’s Park. These neighbourhoods are full of lovely late Victorian buildings – my friend just moved into a wonderful semi-detached villa – and no shortage of fantastic wee churches. Along the way, I wandered by one one that seemed closed up, but as I walked back I noticed the front doors open wide, and it seemed work was being done, so I donned my architectural historian’s hat and wandered on up.
I was greeted by a young man who said it was ok for me to have a peek and, as I turned towards the church hall proper, notice a room that had been turned into a library, and an office with another young man, who also said I could open the door and peek inside. It was then that it dawned on me, between his attire and the signs asking me to remove my shoes, that this was no longer a church. It was being transformed into a mosque.
Before I say what happened inside, a bit more on the building itself, courtesy of some quick google-style research. It is a Grade B Listed building, originally the Crosshill Victoria Church and Hall, built by John Bennie Wilson, 1891-3. Wilson was an apprentice to John Honeyman of Honeyman and Keppie, and later worked in the office of John Burnet, so he has a wonderful Glasgow pedigree! The building is now the Masjid Al-Farook Muslim Community Centre of Glasgow.
Two other young men were working inside the former church hall, this time very obviously Muslim in their more traditional attire and long beards. One of them smiled and asked if he could help, and this time I offered the ole ‘I’m an architectural historian…’ speech. He very kindly welcomed me to remove my shoes and come in and look around. He explained some of the ongoing restoration work they were doing, talking a little about the fundraising and support they had from the council. He also spoke passionately about the beauty of the building, commenting that the Christian and Muslim faiths had many commonalities which made these churches perfect for their use. As he explained the transformation of the space they had been working on for the past 5 years, I thought about the ways in which many Anglican churches of this period had very little in the way of overt Christian symbolism – something that was viewed as rather ‘Catholic’ in nature. Such spaces, with their beautiful but more geometric and non-iconic decoration would indeed provide an easy transition. Plus, with dwindling congregations, many of these small churches have been forced to close, so it is wonderful that it is seeing use related to its religious purpose.
Although my guide was clearly of Middle Eastern descent, he spoke with what I’m fairly sure was a Northern Irish accent, and it was a lovely combination. Here is where my musing reflects my own cultural biases and prejudices, I’m sure. While I certainly feel I am far more educated on the truths of Islamic faiths in relation to many conservatives, I do often wonder how I might be treated as both an American and a woman. I have gone into local shops where men refused to look me in the eye, and have also witnessed some less than chivalrous behaviour on buses.
But today, as my architectural curiosity led me to stumble into what I later learned was the 2nd largest mosque and Muslim educational centre in Glasgow, I was treated with warmth and kindness. I felt very welcome in fact, and this lovely young man told me that I could come by whenever I wished to see their progress. He was also interested to learn more about the building, should I discover anything. If I seem surprised at this reception, it is only a reflection of my own ignorance, and rather ridiculous notions and fears that have rubbed off on me in our paranoid society. But it was a wonderful moment, and really it was only upon reflection that I wondered if anything I had done was disrespectful, because if I did, these gentlemen did not seem to notice or overlooked my ignorance.
As I left, and was thanking them, the young man from the front office came out and handed me three books. I noticed immediately one was the Qur’an, and to my surprise, I was rather touched. I thanked him for the books, even as somewhere in my brain I noted that if someone had pressed a bible upon me, I probably would have been annoyed (and I recognise that seems unjust, but that one is based on experience rather than blind prejudice). But somehow, I don’t know… I suppose because of those prejudices I noted above, I was very pleased that in this action, they were saying I was welcome, and it felt more like a kindness somehow than an attempt at conversion.
It wasn’t until I left that I looked at the other two books. The one on the truth about Jesus is particularly interesting, written by someone from the University of Wales. I’ve only given it a glance, but it states that its goal is to show how Jesus was an important figure in both these religions. I suspect it is being handed out with a goal of conversion, but I’m interested to give this a further look from a scholarly point of view. The other one, on fasting, I am telling myself is due to Ramadan coming up, and not because he thought I could lose a few pounds!
I love the fact that my curiosity over an old church led me to have this unexpected encounter with a kind young man from a different culture, and let me learn a little more about the rich tapestry of my community. And maybe a little more about myself, too.