A couple of weeks ago, Aihtsham Rashid was standing in front of a derelict building in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, considering the scale of the task of turning it into the first mosque in the Outer Hebrides.
“This could take years,” the Leeds-based builder told crestfallen members of the town’s tiny Muslim community as they gazed at the crumbling walls, sagging roof and broken windows, and weighed up logistical problems of supplies and labour.
But at the end of last week, five roofing contractors wearing hi-vis jackets emblazoned with the words “Stornoway mosque team” were hammering nails into new joists and beams. This week, plumbers, plasterers and electricians will arrive on the island. New windows still encased in packaging are stacked up on the floor, waiting to be installed. A prayer carpet has been ordered.
Money and support, both moral and practical, have poured into the project after Rashid set up a crowdfunding appeal. Donations from around the world have pushed the sum raised so far well past the £50,000 target. Professional builders and tradesmen assisted by local residents, some also juggling their regular jobs, are working from 8am to 8pm, seven days a week.
Now, Stornoway’s Muslims – a few dozen people out of about 8,000 in the town – are hopeful that the mosque will be ready for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which begins in May. “It’s a big challenge to get it done in time for Ramadan, but we’ll do our best. Some things are out of our control, but now we have millions of people praying for us. It’s got a lot of momentum,” Rashid tells the Guardian.
Muslims have lived in Stornoway since the 1950s, adapting to an island on which the Sabbath is still observed and churches retain considerable influence. Back then, some became travelling salespeople; they lugged suitcases along roads winding through peatlands and past small lochs to offer fabric and other goods door to door, until they had enough savings to open shops and buy homes for their families.
But they never had a place of worship. Instead, prayers were held in people’s living rooms and the bodies of the dead were washed in garages. It might be several days before an imam could come from the mainland to say funeral prayers.
Over the years, some Muslims left the island for work, to join children and grandchildren who had settled on the mainland, or to be part of a bigger mosque-based community. But since 2015, the dwindling numbers have been boosted by the arrival of several families fleeing the civil war in Syria. The need for a mosque took on a renewed urgency.
The community bought a derelict building in the town, and planning permission to turn it into a mosque was granted last summer. But little headway was made until a friend of Rashid’s visited the island a few weeks ago.
“I got a call from this guy and he said, ‘You’re needed up here.’ I had to ask him where Stornoway was, I had to look on a map,” says Rashid. “I packed my bags and got on a plane, two planes. I took one look [at the building] and thought, ‘These guys need some help.’”
Rashid runs a construction firm that specialises in new-build properties but also has experience of building mosques. As well as raising money for the Stornoway project, he has negotiated discounts on supplies and called in contractors. “Suppliers have been very cooperative. Most of the people helping to build the mosque are non-Muslim,” he says.
The response of other Stornoway residents has been mostly encouraging, according to members of the Muslim community. A woman turned up at the site this week with a cheque for £500. “This goes a long way to show the love and support we have been receiving from the people of Stornoway,” the mosque team tweeted.
No members of the local Muslim community wish to be quoted directly or named, saying they want to get on with the project quietly and peacefully. Some are especially wary of the media, which they say has tried to stir up divisions in the town over the mosque and has routinely misrepresented Islam.
The only strident opposition has come from the Free Church (Continuing), a small breakaway from the Free Church of Scotland. It describes the mosque as a “most unwelcome development” in a statement issued last year that speaks of “the oppression of Christians and the reduced status of women under Islam”, and of “militant Islamists or ‘jihadists’”.
The church’s response to the mosque was guided by the biblical commandment to love God, says Greg MacDonald, moderator of the Outer Hebrides presbytery of the Free Church (Continuing). “On the basis of this biblical teaching we object to the promotion of all false religion, including the promotion of Islam through a mosque in Stornoway. God’s right to be worshipped by his creatures in the way he requires must take precedence over any other supposed rights,” he tells the Guardian.
In contrast, James Maciver, a minister with the Free Church of Scotland, the biggest congregation on the island, says he supports Muslims’ right to worship. “They have always been regarded by the local community as people who’ve contributed to the local economy and integrated well. I don’t remember any animosity towards them. Outsiders may have got the impression that the Christian community here have resisted the mosque, but that’s not the case,” he says.
“I come at this from the point of view of liberty of conscience, freedom of religion. I don’t personally see Islam as the way to salvation, but they have a civil right to a place of worship. I have no right to come between someone’s conscience and their god.”
Two Syrian women have been welcomed at his church’s parent and toddler group, Maciver says. “Local people simply take the view that their faith is their business. No one wants to disturb the peace.”
Back at the mosque building site, work will begin on the interior once the roof is weatherproof. The prayer room will have a women’s section, ablution facilities will be installed and a separate mortuary will be created.
Plans are already under way to invite Stornoway residents to the mosque for tea, to give people an opportunity to ask questions and get to know their Muslim neighbours better. “Christianity and Islam have very similar values, the same values in fact,” says Rashid. “Once we have finished building, we will have an open-door policy. Everyone is welcome.”