Several UAE mosques now offer sermons in English for non-Arabic-speaking worshippers, writes Erin McCafferty
It's 12.30pm on a Friday during Ramadan. Despite the searing Abu Dhabi heat, outside the Maryam bint Sultan Mosque people are gathering to pray. Man after man methodically removes his shoes and bows his head in deference outside the entrance of the mosque. As they gently pull open the heavy wooden door, a waft of cool air greets them, and the weekly sermon, broadcast on a loud speaker and heard for miles around, begins.
It's a scene that takes place at every mosque throughout the UAE during the Holy Month of Ramadan and, indeed, every Friday throughout the year. What marks out the Maryam bint Sultan Mosque, however, is the fact that its sermons are in English.
This is the same sermon that is heard throughout the UAE - the text of which is published days before on Tuesday or Wednesday on the Abu Dhabi Awqaf website of the UAE Department of Islamic Affairs. It can be downloaded, not only in Arabic but in English, Urdu and Malayalam - a fact that speaks of the different nationalities of practising Muslims that now live in the UAE.
While the Maryam bint Sultan Mosque is the only Muslim mosque catering to non-Arabic speaking Muslims in the UAE capital, in Dubai it's not unusual to find sermons broadcast in English. There are a number of mosques doing this from time to time.
One of these is the Abdulrahman Al Siddiq Mosque - commonly known as the Palm Jumeirah Mosque. Here, Ali Sekhr regularly translates the Arabic sermon ("khutbah") into English.
"I download the text from the website of the Department of Islamic Affairs in advance and translate it," explains the 55-year-old building surveyor, who is a devout Muslim. Sekhr was born in Morocco but lived in the UK for 27 years before he came to Dubai seven years ago. "We are supposed to learn from the sermon and therefore it's important to understand it," he says. "The word for prayer in Arabic, for example, is 'salah'. This comes from the word 'salat', which means 'communication'. The whole point of the sermon is to communicate."
Passionate about Islam, Sekhr is eager to pass on his understanding to others. Islam is one of the main reasons he moved to Dubai. "To live in a Muslim country is a dream for all Muslims who take their faith seriously," he says. "Here, there are many venues in which I can pray, and I can always take Friday off work to go to the mosque. It makes practising my religion easier."
Although born Muslim, Sekhr only began to take his religion seriously 15 years ago. It was during Ramadan that he underwent an epiphany of sorts.
"It was the year I turned 40," he recalls. "I'd started to pray on my own at the time, but something was missing. I felt I needed to pray with other people. I remember walking into a mosque in Regent's Park in London and feeling suddenly overwhelmed with joy," he says. "There were so many people there, all of them praying, and the atmosphere was very spiritual. It suddenly struck me that that is what I'd been missing.
"My father has always been a very devout Muslim," he continues, "but as a child he pushed me more to be academic and successful in my career than to study the Quran. That day 15 years ago, however, I felt connected to Allah and I realised that I needed to catch up with my study of Islam. For me, it was the moment that everything changed."
From then on, Sekhr was determined to study Islam as much as possible. He spent hours listening to tapes and reading as much material in both English and Arabic as he could lay his hands on.
On coming to Dubai seven years ago, he started to attend a mosque in the Springs area, and soon realised that many of the people attending didn't understand the Arabic sermon. As a result, he started taking it upon himself to translate the sermon into English each week. "I did it simply to help others understand," he says.
Sekhr has continued to translate the Islamic sermons, and these days he often stands in for the imam at the Abdulrahman Al Siddiq Mosque on a Friday, in which case he will deliver the sermon in English.
He points out that close to 75 per cent of the local population here are non-Arabic speakers and therefore there's a need for sermons in English, as well as other languages.
"The congregation in the Palm Jumeirah Mosque reminds me a bit of London," he says. "There are people from all over the world - Europe, the US, Russia, the Philippines, Eastern Europe, Pakistan and Kazakhstan are just some of the countries that spring to mind, and many of these people don't speak Arabic."
He continues to study Islam and hopes to become an imam. "Not many of the current imams here speak English," he says. "It's my dream, however, to one day become one, but I have many more years of study ahead of me."
For the moment, he feels privileged to be in a position to help others to benefit from the teachings of Islam. "Life is a test and everything happens for a reason," he says. "We can rarely see these reasons at the time. That is why we need Islam to help explain our lives. It teaches us that everything is being recorded and that we must be patient in order to survive the test of life."
Another who takes pleasure in helping to explain the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed is Dr Mostafa Kamel, who can be found every Friday in the New Muslim Centre, located beside the Masjid Bin Hamoodah in Abu Dhabi.
"I'm very privileged to be in this position," says the 30-year-old marketing manager for a pharmaceutical company. "I'm grateful to be able to help others, but the help does not come from me. It comes from Allah."
Kamel speaks fluent English and Arabic, and was raised in Alexandria, Egypt.
Both his father and mother taught Islamic studies when he was a child. As a result, he has studied the teachings of Islam all his life; he moved to Abu Dhabi six years ago. "Part of my role in the New Muslim Centre is to help explain the sermons," he says. "I come here every Friday during the year and more often throughout Ramadan and sit with people who are looking for an explanation of the sermon. I advise them how they can apply the teachings in a practical sense to their everyday lives. It is essential that we as Muslims strive to have a good connection with Allah," he adds. "Because within that context, all problems are solved."
He says that he's seen an increase in the number of new Muslims in Abu Dhabi in recent years, and many of these people do not speak Arabic "Things are really changing," he says. "There are Muslims now from all over the world and many have questions about Islam."
Ramadan, he says, is a particularly busy time for him. "Not only are there more people attending the mosques at this time of year, but more are willing to look for advice during Ramadan and people feel connected to Allah. It's a time when we're no longer working on autopilot and we can focus on the purpose of life. That's why many people come to the New Muslim Centre at this time of year."
His colleague, Dr Nasser Raeiles, is the administrator and publicity officer at the centre. He agrees that people need to understand what is being said in the sermon. "It is, of course, very important that people understand the sermon and receive guidance from it," he says. "That is part of the reason we have the centre. We have people of every nationality coming here and especially during Ramadan. We are open from 9am to 2pm and 5pm to 10pm every day during Ramadan. We aim to help as many as possible and everyone is welcome," he smiles.
Ali Zayed is one Abu Dhabi resident who attends the Maryam bint Sultan Mosque every day during Ramadan. A civil engineer who has lived in the city for 13 years, he comes from Palestine and likes the fact that the sermons are often in English.
"I think there should be sermons in both English and Arabic. A lot of different nationalities come to this mosque and many of them only speak English," he says.
Khalid Al Hammadi agrees. "It's hard to find sermons in English in Abu Dhabi," says the 21-year-old, who is an engineering student and lives near the Abu Dhabi mosque. "I listen to both Arabic and English sermons," he adds. "And I think it is great that they are broadcast in both."
Leena Fahri attends the ladies' section of the mosque. She also believes that it's important to have sermons in English. "It makes sense," says the 30-year-old housewife from Egypt. "There are more and more Muslims in Abu Dhabi who don't speak Arabic, and they should understand what is being said. It is a sign of our times."
The Maryam bint Sultan Mosque is in Abu Dhabi's Al Bateen area, just off 9th and 32nd streets
The New Muslim Centre is located beside the New Medical Centre Hospital in Abu Dhabi
The Abdulrahman Al Siddiq Mosque is past the entrance to Frond H on the Palm Jumeirah in Dubai
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