09 April 2024

A visit in Ramadan
to a mosque in
a former chapel
and school in Norwich

The Ihsan Mosque in Chaplefield East, Norwich, in the former Saint Peter Mancroft School (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

The Muslim holy and fasting month came to an end today (9 April 2024). During our visit to Norwich two weeks ago, I visited the two cathedrals, many churches and the principal synagogue. I also had an opportunity to see the Ihsan Mosque in Chaplefield East, a four- or five-minute walk from Saint Giles House Hotel, where we were staying.

The Muslim community at the Ihsan Mosque in Chaplefield East, is made up of about 150 men, women and children from a wide variety of backgrounds. But the majority are British-born converts to Islam, making it the only continuous, indigenous Muslim community in Britain.

The mosque also claims it is the first mosque in Britain established and owned by British converts to Islam, although this claim might be contested by the Shah Jahan Mosque on Oriental Road, Woking, which was built in 1889 and is the first purpose-built mosque on these islands. Its founding figures included the Budapest-borb orientalist Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner (1840-1899) and the Irish peer Rowland George Allanson Allanson-Winn (1855-1935), 5th Baron Headley, who were early converts to Islam in Britain.

Nevertheless, these claims are important elements of British social history. Significantly, they also point to the only known expression of an Islamic way of life whose roots are in this country.

From the street, the mosque looks more like a church or chapel. In fact, the building was built in 1876 as a school called Saint Peter Mancroft School for Boys. It was part of the Parish of Saint Peter Mancroft and it stood beside the Saint Peter Mancroft Chapel-in-the-Field Congregational Church.

Since the mid-20th century, the building had a variety of uses, including a scout building and a discotheque.

The early members of a new Muslim community in Norwich began renting the building in the mid-1970s to use as a mosque. An Egyptian businessman who visited Norwich in 1977 was impressed by the community and decided to buy the building on behalf of the community with money he inherited from his mother. His only request was that the mosque be named after his mother Ihsan.

The community says it is growing rapidly. It has a healthy relationship with the wider community of Norwich, resulting in a steady flow of people becoming Muslims and joining the mosque. It has a busy programme of activities, including the five daily prayers, Sunday gatherings, open days, markets and seminars.

A 50-minute documentary film produced in 2016, Blessed Are The Strangers, tells the story about of this small but influential community of Muslim converts in Norwich, their British and Caribbean roots, and their beginnings in west London in the 1960s and early 1970s.

The community has made many contributions to Islamic literature both classical and contemporary, from a translation of Kitab Ash Shifa (The Book of Healing) from Arabic into English, to discourses on economics and psychology.

A key figure in the story of the mosque is the Scottish playwright and actor Ian Dallas (1930-2021), who embraced Islam in Morocco, changed his name to Abdalqadir as-Sufi and became the student of Shaykh Muhammad ibn al Habib.

He gathered a small group of followers who formed a small community in Maida Vale, west London, before trying to build a self-sustaining, Muslim village in Norfolk until their dilapidated Tudor mansion burned down.

By 1977, they had bought old church school building in central Norwich, converted into a masjid known as Ihsan Mosque and that is still in use today, welcoming hundreds of worshippers.

A second strand in the community traces its origins back to Brixton in London in the 1980s, when a growing number of people of Caribbean descent were embracing Islam.

The mosque they set up in Brixton was taken over by an extreme cleric, Abdullah el-Faisal, by 1991. He was ejected in 1993, was later be jailed for soliciting murder, and was deported from Britain in 2007. His followers issued death threats to the mosque’s founders for resisting his teachings.

Many of the founders, wanting to protect their faith, families and lives, moved to Norwich at the invitation of Shaykh Abdalqadar as-Sufi. Their move contributed to the growth of a multicultural Islamic society in Norwich, with Scottish, English, North African and Caribbean roots and cultural influences.

The 2016 film is not just as a historical documentary but also leaves viewers wondering why the Norwich Muslim community is unique, rather than the norm. Instead, as one reviewer points out, many communities talk of Bengali, Pakistani, Arab, Turkish and Somali mosques in Britain, even though Islam in theory is a way of life open to all.

As well as the Ihsan Mosque near Chapelfield Gardens, Norwich has mosques in Dereham Road, Rose Lane and Aylsham Road, and a community centre in Sandy Lane.

Norwich Central Mosque and Islamic Community Centre in Aylsham Road opened in July 2020, but was firebombed days later, leaving the community traumatised. In the aftermath of the attack, the Conservative MP for Norwich North Chloe Smith visited the mosque.

As part of its community outreach efforts, the East Anglian Mosque and Community Centre in Rose Lane has hosted open days. Nonetheless, the Muslim community in Norwich remains small and often feels it is geographically isolated from larger communities in Birmingham, London and Yorkshire.

Blessed Are The Strangers from C>MEDIA on Vimeo.

Daily prayer in Easter 2024:
10, 9 April 2024

Dietrich Bonhoeffer questioned the proper role of a Christian in the midst of political turmoil … he is remembered in the Church Calendar on 9 April

Patrick Comerford

This week began with the Second Sunday of Easter (Easter II), sometimes known as ‘Low Sunday’ (7 April 2024). The Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today (9 April) remembers the life and witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), Lutheran Pastor and Martyr.

Throughout this Season of Easter, my morning reflections each day include the daily Gospel reading, the prayer in the USPG prayer diary, and the prayers in the Collects and Post-Communion Prayer of the day.

Before this day begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

3, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

The life and witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) is remembered in the calendar of Common Worship today

John 3: 7-15 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 7 ‘Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ 9 Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ 10 Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

11 ‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’

The New Synagogue in Berlin … when synagogues throughout Germany were set on fire in 1938, Dietrich Bonhoeffer declared: ‘Only those who cry out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chant’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945):

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), who is remembered in Common Worship today, was born into an academic family. Ordained in the Lutheran Church, his theology was influenced by Karl Barth and he became a lecturer: in Spain, the US and, in 1931, back in Berlin.

He opposed to the philosophy of Nazism, and was one of the leaders of the Confessing Church, a movement which broke away from the Nazi-dominated Lutherans in 1934. Banned from teaching, and harassed by Hitler’s regime, he bravely returned to Germany at the outbreak of war in 1939, despite being on a lecture tour in the US at the time.

His defiant opposition to the Nazis led to his arrest in 1943. His experiences led him to propose a more radical theology in his later works, which have been influential among post-war theologians. He was executed by the Nazi police in Flossenburg concentration camp on 9 April 1945.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (seventh from left) among the ten martyrs of the 20th century above the West Door of Westminster Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers (Tuesday 9 April 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is the ‘Certificate in Youth Leadership Programme in the West Indies.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by the Right Revd Michael B St J Maxwell, Bishop of the Diocese of Barbados.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (9 April 2024) invites us to pray:

Lord, we pray for efficiency in promoting and presenting the modules of the certificate programme to effectively equip and prepare participants for the exercise of youth ministry and leadership within their parishes and dioceses.

The Collect:

Almighty Father,
you have given your only Son to die for our sins
and to rise again for our justification:
grant us so to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness
that we may always serve you
in pureness of living and truth;
through the merits of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Lord God our Father,
through our Saviour Jesus Christ
you have assured your children of eternal life
and in baptism have made us one with him:
deliver us from the death of sin
and raise us to new life in your love,
in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit,
by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Additional Collect:

Risen Christ,
for whom no door is locked, no entrance barred:
open the doors of our hearts,
that we may seek the good of others
and walk the joyful road of sacrifice and peace,
to the praise of God the Father.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued Tomorrow

Patrick Comerford’s sermon in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, on 5 February 2006, marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was published in ‘A Year of Sermons at Saint Patrick’s, Dublin’ (pp 19-22)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org