Friday Prayers at Oulu’s Mosque
The international media is full of reports on the growth of ‘fundamentalist Islam.’ European politicians have expressed particular concern about its rise amongst marginalised Muslim immigrants in countries such as Britain – with its 2005 Islamic terrorist bombings – and the Netherlands where the maker of a controversial film about Islam was murdered in 2004.
Muslims have been widely stereotyped as being ‘fundamentalists’ who believe in barbaric punishments and that all non-Muslims are ‘infidels’ who will go to Hell. There are far fewer Muslims in Finland than in Holland but they are a growing minority in Oulu. I went to Oulu’s Mosque for Friday Prayers to see if these stereotypes have any truth in them.
I was welcomed to the mosque – which meets at 1pm in a converted flat near the railway station – by Dr Abdul Mannan. He came to Oulu from Bangladesh to do a doctorate in geochemistry and is now the unpaid ‘Imam’ of Oulu’s mosque.
I was offered tea by a Somalian refugee before the service began. Worshippers came in throughout Abdul’s sermon from the Koran, which he conducted in English, moving into Arabic to say ‘Peace be upon him’ every time he referred to the Prophet Mohammed. By the end of his sermon, there were thirty-four worshippers - all men as females generally worship separately – and the carpeted prayer room was about as full as it was going to get. The attendees were a mixture of ages and nationalities and speaking to them afterwards I found people from Jordan, Somalia, Pakistan, Morocco, Iraq and two native Finns in their early twenties. In addition, there were a few boys playing at the back of the room where there were copies of the Koran.
Paradise for Believers
Abdul took the Koran literally, claiming that it was ‘science’ and doesn’t need to be updated for the modern world ‘because it’s already been updated.’ The Koran was unquestionably true and Abdul preached that if you follow the Allah, through ‘his Prophet Mohammed’ as set out in the Koran and the ‘Sunnah’ then you are a ‘true Muslim’ and you will go to Paradise on ‘Judgement Day.’ If you don’t, then you will go to Hell though this is all ultimately up to ‘Allah’ because only he can know who is a ‘true Muslim’ and who is not. This was the essence of his public sermon. He then summarised the sermon in what seemed like very good Finnish and then in what I understood to be Arabic.
There are Muslims in Turkey who have recently been arguing that the Koran and in particular the ‘Hadith’ – a book which is believed to encompass Mohammed’s advice on how to live life or ‘Sunnah’ – should not be taken too literally; a common view amongst many Muslims hundreds of years ago prior to the rise in ‘fundamentalist’ Islam. They believe that there’s a great deal in the Koran and Hadith which is politically motivated, of its time or probably can’t be attributed to Prophet Mohammed. Abdul, however, seemed to take a far more literal view.
After the sermon, everyone – who was sitting on the floor – stood-up and got into rows facing east. I instinctively followed. I didn’t notice that they were all standing with their legs apart with their feet touching those of the person next to them. Eventually, a Jordanian asked me in Finnish if I was a Muslim and when I said ‘No’ he explained that ‘It’s not necessary for you to take part in the prayers.’ I sat down on a chair and the prayers began with an Arab – dressed in traditional Muslim costume – standing, covering his ears and praying. People answered with set responses to his prayers.
Then the Imam called out ‘Allah Akbar!’ and everybody in the room prostrated at once in a sign of complete ‘submission’ to Allah. In response to various commands the 34 men got up and then did this again and again. When they had finished, the service was over and I was able to talk to various worshippers
‘Not Real Muslims’
One worshipper from Jordan who had been in Finland for four years told me he came to the Mosque on Fridays ‘because I am a Muslim. It’s a sign of being a Muslim.’ A Pakistani student I interviewed felt the only problem being a Muslim in Oulu was the lack of a prayer room at the university for his five daily prayers
A thirty-year old student from Somalia, who had been in Finland since 1992, was studying biomedical sciences. He claimed that, ‘the West have brought a war against Islam. There is propaganda about Islam in the media and they say that there are ‘moderate’ and ‘extreme’ Muslims.’ He emphasised that it was they who were ‘moderate.’ Those that the west sees as ‘moderate’ are simply westernised and are ‘not real Muslims.’ ‘The West tries to say that all evil is in Islam,’ he continued. And many agreed with his statement that the Mohammed cartoons were ‘deliberate provocation’ which should be ‘a crime.’
Abdul himself told me that the mosque was established in Oulu in 1992 – when he came here with his family – and in 2001 they purchased their current premises. The broader ‘Islamic Society of Northern Finland’ has about 500 registered members. They are from numerous different countries. The group is a part of the “Federation of Islamic Organizations in Finland” in which Abdul is leading figure.
‘God sent the Prophet to all mankind’ said Abdul. ‘Be cosmopolitan . . . but always keep true religion at the front.’ Abdul does some occasional work teaching Islam to Muslim children in the area. He claimed that he stayed in Finland after getting his PhD for family reasons and due to a desire to serve the Muslim community.
‘I offer my thanks to Mr Bush’
In his view, 9.11 was very positive for Islam. ‘I offer thanks to Mr Bush for his propaganda!’ laughed Abdul. ‘People have been more curious. You used to be able to get the Koran in the library! You can’t get it now because people are so interested!’
He emphasised that the Koran ‘is from God’ and therefore the only acceptable way (from God’s viewpoint) to run a country is in accordance with the laws of the Koran. ‘True Islam is the only way,’ he said.
This included propagating ‘True Islam’ and instituting ‘Sharia Law’ in ‘Muslim states’, something which Abdul defended. ‘The cutting off of hands for the thieves is in Sharia Law . . . Sharia is from God and I think God knows which is the right law for humans.’ He also informed me that Saudi Arabia – where strict Wahabist Islam including Sharia is practiced – has ‘a very low crime rate. This is because people are afraid of God and they are afraid of the law.’
‘You will not find them fighting or in bars . . .’
However, he also stressed what he felt was the fundamental ‘goodness’ in Muslims at his mosque.
‘They are good people. You will not find them fighting or in bars or in trouble. They are good for their neighbours and they are good for the Finnish state.’ He felt that Finland was different from his own country because it was less religious and family oriented.
He assured me that whether people went to Hell was ‘up to Allah’ not him and, like many of the worshippers, distinguished ‘True Islam’ from supposedly ‘westernised’ Islam of the kind found in countries such as Turkey. He insisted that woman are not discriminated against in Islam because they have ‘honour and prestige’ and couldn’t understand the fuss about the hijab in countries like Holland saying, ‘It’s nothing new. There are nuns in the West that cover themselves.’