A new photography essay by Shyamantha Asokan explores Britain’s new generation of imams – young Muslims who are breaking with traditions, setting up gender-equal mosques, counselling their congregations on how to deal with Islamophobia, preaching via YouTube, and more.
These imams are a window into fast-evolving and much-debated ideas around British Muslim identity – many of the imams disagree with how the media portrays young Muslims, and this series aims to give them a voice. The series includes female imams, converts, and imams who are setting up their own prayer spaces, as well as imams at established mosques who hail from families containing generations of imams.
On why Shymantha chose to pursue this project she says:
“I love using photography to tell the stories of people from minority communities, those who usually fall outside mainstream media coverage. Back in 2016, I met a dynamic imams in London who were in their twenties – I started thinking about how this set of young British Muslims was doing exciting and innovative things, and yet very few people seemed to be talking about them and hearing their stories. I was also struck by how the imam’s role, which many people think of as very traditional, was in fact changing rapidly. And so I started travelling across the country to photograph and interview imams in their 20s and 30s. It took 18 months for the series to come together, and a lot of that time was spent gaining people’s trust.
“The imams I met were a window into many of the issues facing British Muslims today – they talked to me about helping their congregations cope with Islamophobia, creating gender-equal mosques, challenging what their elders expect of them, and of course using social media. Many were second-generation migrants who’ve now reached adulthood and are taking over their community’s leadership roles from the older generation. They were also a highly diverse group with diverse views, including imams who were more traditional. I really hope people of all faiths will learn something from this series. I’m hugely grateful to every imam who’s taken part.”
When you’re based in your community, you’re able to find the people who need you. Some of the people in this area are asylum seekers from countries like Eritrea and Sudan. When they come to the mosque, they find comfort – people gather and you feel like a family. All the children here come and talk to me. When the imam is young, they can relate.
When I’m with my friends, we play football, go for a meal, go for a walk – the same things as everyone else. I’ve got non-Muslim friends too, who I’ve grown up with, lived on the same street. They laugh about what the media says about Muslims.
I didn’t plan to be an imam. After university I was planning to go to Dubai to work as a sports coach, but things changed as soon as I walked into this mosque. I was never sure about moving abroad, to be honest. Because you’ve built up everything here – it’s your community and your home.”
“I’m a reluctant imam! One reason is the negative stereotypes about imams – that they’re
old- school, strict, unengaging. I’m not any of those things.
I studied at a Darul Uloom [Islamic seminary] in Blackburn and I’m now a PhD student. I’ve been an imam for a year. My local Muslim community had been praying at someone’s house, but then someone bought a shop and gave us this flat above it. The community asked me to lead the prayers. I do it for free because I have a passion for it.
Quite a few younger imams are setting up their own prayer centres. A lot of mosques are run by older-generation Muslims with a world-view that they’re determined to hold onto, even when it doesn’t work anymore. For example, the issue of women’s limited access to the mosque. We must give more involvement to these sisters.
When I do the morning prayer, I also do a 10-minute class. Everyone has a busy day ahead and they need to get to work. So my class is three points, boom boom boom, and we’re done. We’re a bunch of young professionals working together for a common good. We’re living in a very interesting time. Young Muslims are trying to work out a British Islam.
“I stopped going to my mosque when I was 14. I was quite rebellious back then – I never did my homework and I spoke back to all my mosque teachers.
When I look back now, I can see why I did those things. I didn’t connect with what I was
learning – I felt like women’s roles were quite defined and men were almost free to do what they wanted. I just knew, from a very early age, that God doesn’t discriminate. If she has created everybody, then she understands everybody. So I started to study Islam for myself and that’s when things opened up for me.
I didn’t choose to become an imam – it chose me. I attended an IMI event and I was blown away by it, so I attended more and slowly they asked me to do things. But I don’t see myself as an authority figure and I don’t think imams should be put on a pedestal.
And yes, I referred to God as ‘she’. God isn’t a ‘he’ or a ‘she’, so why not use both pronouns? Why is there such an uproar about it?”
“When ISIS emerged in 2014, my friends and I wanted to raise our voices, to make sure
people didn’t think this represented Islam. So we made these t-shirts, with the hashtag
#NotInMyName, and I tweeted a photo of us wearing them. It went viral.
I think whenever there’s divisive rhetoric then it’s important to build bridges. I went on an imams’ delegation to Paris after the 2016 terror attacks, and a group of us recently did a campaign in Luton where we gave out roses to non-Muslims. But I also think there’s
sometimes an unfair pressure on the Muslim community. Integration is two-way. It’s not
about just putting one religion on the spot.
I often see an identity crisis in young Muslims. For kids whose parents came to the UK as
economic migrants, this is the only country they know – they might be of Pakistani heritage but they’ve never been there. And then far-right groups and the media tell them they don’t belong in this country and they’re not integrated. So are they British or Pakistani? Neither?
My father is an imam and when I was younger I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it. Being an
imam is 24/7. Someone could ring you at 9am or 10pm: someone is having marriage
problems, someone is ill, someone needs a funeral. But then I realised why people do it – for the peace and happiness you feel when you help someone out. It’s something else.”
“After I finished secondary school, I was just hanging around and getting up to no good. Cars, selling drugs, fighting. Maybe it was just because of a lack of opportunities. My
mentality was: I don’t care if I die.
My family’s from the West Indies – my father’s from Jamaica, my mother’s from St Kitt’s. I was born in Manchester and we moved to Oldham when I was eight. I was always curious
about Islam, from Malcolm X and hip-hop culture as well. People like Mos Def and Tribe Called Quest would speak about it.
When I was 19, I went to a bookshop and bought a Quran. It opened my mind to a lot of
things. A year later, a Muslim missionary knocked on my friend’s door when I was there – the house was next door to a mosque. If you want, you could say it was chance. But we
don’t believe in chance, we believe in predestination. I formally declared my faith with him there and then.
I gave up alcohol, gave up drugs, changed my diet, got married. My mind was clearer, more focused. More peace of mind, peace of heart. I’m now a freelance imam, you could say – I teach Islamic studies, lead prayers when the regular imam is away, and run a website called FiqhAnswers.com where Muslims can send in questions about their faith. There’s a lot of trash and incorrect opinions online. I wanted to counter that. If I hadn’t accepted Islam, God knows where I’d be: in prison, dead, I don’t know.”
About the exhibition:
The series will be on show at Rumi’s Cave, London NW6 5HH, for 1-22 November. Rumi’s Cave is a new two-storey arts and community centre run by a collective of young Muslims.
Shyamantha Akosan is a British writer and photographer who focuses on immigration and BAME communities (after almost a decade working as a journalist in the UK, the USA, Nigeria, and India). Her work has appeared in the FT, the Economist, the Washington Post, Reuters, Monocle, and Buzzfeed. She’s also been commissioned by charities such as Refugee Week and Medecins du Monde.
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