The Muslim people of Cambridge, UK, have been waiting over a decade for their first purpose-built worshipping quarters.
According to Tim Winter, founder of Europe’s first eco-mosque, his 1,000-person capacity project will be ‘worth the wait’ by the time it opens to the public in spring this year.
British-Muslim Winter says the opening will be ‘quite a milestone’ for the local Muslim community. The flaxen-haired, milky-skinned founder converted to Islam almost 40 years ago, taking the Arabic name Abdal Hakim Murad. His day job is lecturing in Islamic studies at Cambridge University, but his other passion is the mosque.
He tells Arabian Business: “Cambridge has an extremely diverse population, thanks to the presence of the university, which is a global hub attracting students from around the world.”
Winter also points out that Cambridge has educated many future leaders for Muslim countries, including the current UAE Ambassador to the UK, Sulaiman Al Mazroui.
He says: “Cambridge is strategically important for the Muslim world community and clearly it’s vital that there is a local religious infrastructure in place which gives Muslims a spiritual home during their studies.”
According to the latest census, Cambridge is home to around 8,000 Muslims, including students, locals and Syrian refugees. The British Muslim population overall grew by 60 per cent to almost 2.8 million between the 2001 and 2011 censuses.
Winter points out: “The growing number of Muslims, together with high levels of religiosity, makes it essential to build mosques that are fairly large and capacious structures.”
The academic insists the new opening will represent the ‘beginning of a new era’ for this large and dynamic community. “Taxi drivers, professors, medics and scientists – everyone tells me that they can hardly wait!” he says.
Cambridge currently has five mosques, but none is purpose-built and all are too small. Just over a decade ago, Winter established the Cambridge Mosque Trust (CMT), a registered charity dedicated to raising funds to build a mosque that was fit for purpose.
The trust acquired a one-acre site for £4 million in Mill Road, an area of Cambridge with a significant Muslim population. The council granted planning permission and an international architectural competition was held to find the right design. A jury chose a blueprint by London architects Marks Barfield, the high profile firm behind the London Eye.
The new mosque is planned to be entirely reliant on green energy with an almost-zero carbon footprint. The mosque showcases a number of green technologies, including photovoltaic arrays which heat water, plus rainwater harvesting, air source heat pumps, passive ventilation, and grey water recycling.
“There are many Muslim-owned companies in the sustainability sector, and these have been wonderfully helpful,” says Winter. “For instance, a British Muslim company donated and installed the entire solar array on the roof of our mosque.”
According to Winter, the world’s religions teach moderation in consumption and a reverence for the holiness of the natural world. He says: “We are on earth to worship God and to understand and love each other, not to ‘shop till we drop’. So religions need to be leading the charge on behalf of the bruised and damaged ecosystems of God’s earth.”
Does the eco-mosque send a wider message to the Muslim world about the importance of sustainability? “Yes,” says Winter. “Muslims are particularly aware of the ecological crisis.”
The leading Muslim scholar of Indonesia, Huzaima Yanggo, recently directed a thousand green mosques to run on sustainable principles. The Moroccan government is encouraging mosques to use solar cells to reduce their carbon footprint. In the UK there are various green mosque schemes which provide advice on energy efficiency.
Winter says the Muslim world, which is located mainly in hot countries, is likely to be devastated by global warming and rising sea levels unless consumption declines and green technologies flourish. He explains: “So this is not an option, but a survival matter for Muslim communities globally. We have to phase out hydrocarbons, and switch to sustainable energy, particularly wind and tidal power.
“Architects need to work with rather than against local climatic realities: no huge glass windows in tropical climes, for instance. Materials need to be locally and sustainably-sourced. All this is in keeping with Islamic teachings, and many mosque sermons are now insisting that this is one of the great spiritual and moral challenges facing us not only as believers, but as shared inhabitants of a planet where global warming will respect no national barriers.”
The eco-mosque will not only be a place of prayer but also a space for teaching and welcoming people of all faiths. Its non-secular and non-political vision has helped the project – which is thought to be worth around 15 million – to secure very generous donations from around the world.
Winter says: “We have supporters in every Gulf country who continue to support us and promise to continue to give even after the building is complete. We have received generous donations from the very wealthy Muslim community of Hong Kong. We have supporters in Brunei and in Malaysia. But our majority donors are in Turkey, including private companies and public agencies such as the Directorate of Religious Affairs.”
The Cambridge Mosque Trust also holds regular online sales of Islamic Art, with pieces donated by leading artists around the world. The CMT also produces CDs and downloadable Islamic song and video products which are providing another useful revenue stream.
The founder says there has been ‘intense interest’ from so many stakeholders ahead of the official opening in spring. Some of these are the international donors and religious leaders, but there are local supporters, including municipal and university leaders, architectural experts, and scientists interested in the green technology.
Winter says: “People are always the greatest delight and the greatest headache! In Cambridge we have Muslims from around sixty different nationalities, and many have very distinct and strong opinions about mosque design, gender separation, food served at festivals, the content of sermons, and styles of religious life. Sadly we can’t please all the people all of the time.
“However Muslim worship is thankfully very unified across the world, so there should really be no controversy. And our mosque is non-sectarian: Sunni, Shia and Ibadi Muslims will all be very welcome, and the building contains no symbols or books which might be divisive or alienate anyone. After all, the Arabic word for a large mosque, jami, literally means ‘inclusive’. That is a principle which in our divided and confused times we are all asked to live up to, whatever our personal preferences.”
Winter says, quite simply, the new Cambridge mosque represents a 'step change' in the quality of mosque construction in the UK. “We want to give people a mosque experience that reflects the upwardly-mobile reality of Britain’s Muslim community, inspired by the design values not only of traditional British and Islamic buildings, but also by the new Muslim confidence, which insists on quality and beauty as indispensable features of a house of God.”For all the latest business news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.