South Asia in Southall


Chief Editor Amer Safir, London, UK

A diverse and vibrant community comes together in unity and harmony

Tucked away to the west of London is a district which many around the world have never heard of, called Southall. With a majority of its nearly 70,000 residents – almost 76% – being South Asian, Southall reflects the diversity of the subcontinent, with 35% of people being Sikh, 24% Muslim, 18% Hindu and just under 13% Christian. It hosts one of the biggest Sikh gurdwaras outside of India and one of the most significant Hindu temples in the UK. Southall Broadway, the main high street, is filled with colourful Pakistani- and Indian-style clothing shops, restaurants serving South Asian cuisine and a multitude of Sikh, Muslim, Hindu and Christian places of worship. It’s no wonder that the district is famously dubbed ‘Little Punjab’.

It was here in Southall in February that the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community inaugurated its first purpose-built mosque in the area. Although establishing themselves in Southall in the 1960s, the Ahmadi Muslims here are few in number. The worldwide head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba), formally inaugurated the mosque and delivered a keynote address to the cream of Southall’s religious leaders and government officials. I had become friends with some of the Sikh and Hindu leaders in attendance at this event and after His Holiness’ (aba) faith-inspiring address, I approached my new acquaintances who expressed to me why the speech of His Holiness (aba) was so important for Southall.

Yet just a few decades ago, the circumstances in Southall were quite different to what they are today. Racial tensions had engulfed Southall and incidents of violence between Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims were on the rise. The Independent newspaper reported on 27th January 2002:

‘A spate of attacks [in Southall] within the Asian community has increased fears that tensions are rising between Sikh, Hindu and Muslim groups in Britain in the wake of the World Trade Centre attack on 11 September last year. The Commission for Racial Equality now plans to intervene after several incidents this month, including the murder of a Pakistani restaurant owner by a Sikh gang and an unprovoked attack by Pakistani youths on three Sikh boys in east London.’

Fast-forward almost two decades, and the adherents of these religions are now united, and problems have been relegated to the past. They spoke affectionately about one another and were at pains to tell me that those past incidents did not reflect the majority sentiment. Not only were bygones, bygones, but rather they had formed a vibrant multi-faith organisation to demonstrate their solidarity and harmony. What had prompted such a radical change? And more importantly, how was this relatively tiny mosque important to a district already replete with a multitude of vast mosques, gurdwaras and temples?

My journey to Southall would revolve around a visit to the largest gurdwara in the UK and an important Hindu temple. Many from the Sikh community knew very little about the beliefs of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, yet they developed new friendships and would welcome the Caliph with great warmth. Many of the Hindu leaders had met His Holiness (aba) on several occasions and greatly revered him. I was able to capture these contrasting journeys of some of the Sikh and Hindu guests who would attend the event and what it meant to them.

Largest Gurdwara in the UK

A week earlier I had travelled to Southall in the lead-up to the mosque inauguration. I had arranged to meet with the Joint General Secretary of the Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha Southall, Navraj Singh, and with Umesh Sharma, Chairman of the Hindu Council UK, of the Shree Ram Mandir.

What was my purpose in visiting them at the gurdwara and the temple? One of the main reasons was to provide an opportunity for Navraj and Umesh to briefly outline the key tenets of the Sikh and Hindu religions respectively. The Founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as), the Promised Messiah and Imam Mahdi, had said that all major religions that have spread far and wide and whose adherents are in the millions were true in their source. Many Muslims also greatly revere Guru Baba Nanak as a noble saint and Krishnaas as a prophet of God. Therefore, the founders of all major religions are worthy of respect, and to dishonour them in any way would be a serious transgression. Indeed, he emphasised that conferences should be organised where different religious scholars are provided a platform to explain their beliefs without reproach, in order to increase mutual tolerance and understanding. This is how we can ensure peace in the world. This is how we can prevent conflict, as tensions are heightened when religious sentiments are hurt by mocking founders of other religions.

With this golden principle in view, I first sat down with Navraj to discuss more about the Sikh faith and the upcoming mosque inauguration. He mentioned to me that he was not too familiar with the doctrines of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community; I explained briefly its beliefs and showed a picture of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as) on the inside front cover of The Review of Religions, which I gifted to him.

The Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha Southall consists of two gurdwaras in close proximity to one another. The Park Lane Gurdwara, while the smaller of the two, is still large and holds huge significance to the Sikh community. The larger gurdwara on Havelock Road is the biggest gurdwara in the UK and both sites combined see 15,000 people visit per week. Entering the gurdwara we removed our shoes and also placed a cloth that was provided over our heads as a mark of respect, and which is required to enter a gurdwara. Removing shoes before entering is a custom that is also practised at both Hindu temples and Islamic mosques.

What Does the Sikh Religion Represent?

In terms of the Sikh faith, I began by asking Navraj what the purpose of a gurdwara was: ‘In the gurdwara we hold our holy scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib Ji. They were written by the Gurus and we revere them as the Word of God. People come here to listen to pray and show their respects.’

Visiting the main prayer hall, there was pin-drop silence from worshippers, who sat on the ground cross-legged, or walked to the front to bow down in prostration before the holy scripture and offer tokens of respect or donations for the upkeep of the gurdwara. Although men and women are separated on either side of the hall, Navraj explained to me this is not a strict requirement of the Sikh religion. Music plays an important role and different groups sing songs of prayers of the Gurus and their teachings using traditional Indian instruments from a slightly elevated stage at the front. In between musical scores, various learned members deliver religious lectures from the podium. The centrepiece in the main hall is the Guru Granth Sahib. ‘In the main prayer hall is a takht or throne,’ explains Navraj. ‘On top of the throne we place the Guru Granth Ji. We don’t call it a book. We would go to a library to get a book. For us, our enlightener, our Guru, are the words in the scripture, not the paper or the binding.’ Punjabi is the language used for religious services and as I walked through the gurdwara, Punjabi lessons were in session and hundreds of young Sikh children were being taught how to speak the language.

What about the belief in a higher being – what was the Sikh concept of divinity? Navraj replied: ‘Sikhs believe in One God. There is only One God, One Lord and He is a Universal Creator. In the Guru Granth Sahib we find many names of God and we believe there are many ways to God but ultimately He is One. The title we use for God has four syllables, Waheguru. This translates as “the Wonderful Lord”. In the Guru Granth Sahib we even know God as “Allah” and “Bagwaan” and so forth. The word “Sikh” simply means “disciple” and therefore a Sikh is a student of the One God, a learner, a seeker of spiritual truth and knowledge. Therefore, it is our way of life that makes one a “Sikh”’.

I asked Navraj about the Founder of the Sikh faith and the first of the ten Gurus, Guru Baba Nanak. Navraj explained: ‘Guru Nanak was born in 1469 and whilst all our Gurus are important to us, he is our founding Guru. He holds a very important place in our hearts and minds and in our spiritual way of life. He taught Sikhs about the Oneness of God. When he came, he saw many incorrect practices such as the caste system and so he taught us against castes. Don’t gamble, don’t steal and don’t take what doesn’t belong to you. He taught to uplift women to be equal to men.’

The turban and beard is, of course, a clear identifier of anyone from the Sikh faith and holds deep significance, as Navraj continued, ‘It is our identity. In a crowd of thousands the turban can be seen. We also believe Moses (as) wore a turban and had a beard, as did Jesus (as) and the same we find in Islam. Just like a policeman has an identity with their uniform when they go out to enforce law and order, we wear a turban and beard to signify we will help dispense justice.’

The 5 Ks are also an important pillar of the Sikh religion, given by the 10th Guru, Guru Goband Singh Ji Maharaj. They are visible articles of faith which a Sikh person outwardly displays. Navraj outlined: ‘The 5Ks are Kesh, uncut hair; Kangha, a small wooden comb for the hair which we are supposed to use at least twice a day; Kara, an iron bracelet which, being circular, represents God is immortal whereas we as humans are mortal; Kachera, a 100% cotton tie-able undergarment; and Kirpan, a sword large enough to defend oneself.’ Navraj explained to me why Sikhs wear swords: ‘Some people see a weapon as a dangerous thing. Even a chair can be dangerous if banged on someone’s head. For us it represents justice that we will give up our life and time for humanity or to stand up for the oppressed.’ Navraj related that Sikhs are vegetarian and do not drink alcohol.

But what about the area of Southall? He told me that Southall is ‘hugely significant’ for Sikhs. Generations of their parents and grandparents had settled in Southall and formed strong Sikh communities. ‘One of the great things about Southall is that it has become very multicultural. It is very significant how we all get along – the mosques, gurdwaras and temples. I’ve been in Southall 30-35 years and I try to serve the community as much as possible.’

I was also shown around the gurdwara by a young Sikh called Onkar Singh. We sat on the floor together over a meal in the communal kitchen called the langar which is an intrinsic part of any gurdwara. Onkar told me that all the food was being prepared, cooked and served by volunteers and the kitchen was open to anyone to come and have food. I mentioned to Onkar that the Founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community had also established a langar, in the early days of which his wife would prepare meals for guests herself. The langar is also a very important part of mosques and centres of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.

Onkar also explained that there are ten Gurus in the Sikh religion and the 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, decided that after him the Sikh scripture would form the ‘eternal guru’ for Sikhs. Sacrifice is an important aspect for Sikhs as well. Sikhs had faced persecution on many fronts and this developed a spirit of sacrifice and resilience. As I also introduced aspects of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Onkar was very keen to come to the mosque opening, and later he would come and experience a unique incident, which I will relate further on.

When I returned to Navraj, I asked him what he was looking forward to about the upcoming mosque opening by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community: ‘It is such a privilege and honour to be invited to this event. The Ahmadiyya Community are one of the main heartbeats of Southall. In terms of the mosque, it’s amazing what you can do with a small space. The Ahmadiyya Community has only enriched Southall even more. We will have representatives from the gurdwara at the event and we are looking forward to it.’

A Hindu Temple and Their Reverence for the Caliph

In the following days I met with Umesh Sharma, Chairman of the Hindu Council UK, at the Shree Ram Mandir (temple) in Southall. In addition to removing shoes, I was requested to wash my hands before entering the main section of the temple. In addition to Umesh, at the temple was Anurag Sood, Convener All Religions Goodwill Committee, from Hoshiarpur, India. He told me he had come all the way from India simply for the mosque opening and to meet His Holiness, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba), with whom he felt a special connection. ‘As soon as Umesh told me about the mosque opening in Southall of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, I immediately booked my ticket to come here.’

During a previous visit to India, His Holiness (aba) had kindly accepted a request from Anurag to visit his home and this had been an unforgettable experience for him, and he was visibly emotional when describing it to me.

But more about that later. For now, I was to learn more about Hindu beliefs. ‘Shree Temple is one of the oldest temples in London, established in 1969. We are known for our interfaith activities and [are] head office of Hindu Council UK,’ explained Umesh.

How would Umesh describe the Hindu religion in a nutshell? ‘The Hindu religion is a way of living. In a very short way, I could describe it as a righteous path we have to live in our lives. For most Hindus, it is to do your duties in a way you are not harming anybody, you are not deceiving anybody and do all your work serving your God.’

A delegation met with His Holiness Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmadaba in Islamabad, UK. From left to right: Fateh Dahri from the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community’s India Desk; Umesh Chander Sharma JP, Chairman of the Hindu Council, UK; His Holiness Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmadaba, Worldwide Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community; Anurag Sood, Convener All Religions Goodwill Committee, from Hoshiarpur, Punjab, India; and Jai Sharma, President Shree Ram Mandir Southall and Secretary, National Council of Hindu Temples UK.

I asked Umesh about the scriptures of Hinduism and the source material: ‘The beauty of Hinduism is a person who spends all his life studying Hinduism can learn something new, and someone who doesn’t know how to read Sanskrit can also follow it. Our main two books are Geeta and Shree Rama Indi. Geeta tells you how to live life in a disciplined way, and the Shree tells you about human relationships and how to treat others.

What about the Vedas? ‘There are four Vedas which indicate various teachings in life, such as economics, science and so on.’

‘It’s very simple prayers we normally use that we ask of our God. That we should be guided to the righteous path and we are given wisdom to do good things and refrain from bad deeds. When people come to the temple they donate according to their wishes. But other people bring sweets or other tokens. We offer it to our gods and then distribute them.’

As a former mayor of Southall, Umesh is well placed to explain more about the area: ‘People living here in Southall feel as part of a family. No incidents happen here anymore [relating to racial tensions]. Here within a one-mile radius we have about forty places of worship including churches, mosques, temples and gurdwaras. I also run the inter-faith council which we, as various religious communities, have formed ourselves here in Southall. We meet regularly and everyone is friendly to one another.’

Umesh and Anurag were eager to share their sentiments regarding the Caliph. It was clear they had immense respect and reverence towards him. They both had met His Holiness (aba) many times before and were left deeply impressed by his knowledge and spirituality. They took out their phones and with great pride showed me pictures they had taken with the Caliph. I could see the excitement and endearment in their eyes describing their past meetings.

‘The Caliph is a source of positivity and inspiration. He doesn’t even need to talk, just his Darshan [seeing him] will set you on the right path!’ exclaimed Umesh. The Ahmadiyya Community’s motto of “Love for All, Hatred for None” is so inspiring. The Community show their example in day-to-day life. They have earned their respect in society by actually doing what they say.’

I asked Umesh to tell me more about the Caliph from his many experiences: ‘I have seen His Holiness[aba] speaking in many gatherings with world leaders and senior representatives. His Holiness (aba) would forecast things years ahead… At the time no one could imagine such a turn of events. But his predictions were right. He also told the world leaders that they should act on their words. He doesn’t like when someone doesn’t do something they preach!’

Anurag told me he lived in Hoshiarpur, which is approximately 60 kilometres from Qadian. Hoshiarpur holds immense significance for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community as it was here where Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as) retreated for 40 days in intense prayer and fasting, and where he received glad tidings of a magnificent sign for the truthfulness of Islam.

‘I feel blessed, my family feel so blessed, and I have no words to express my joy and thanks to His Holiness (aba). It is God’s wish. In 2004 or 2005 in the UK, I interviewed His Holiness (aba) as a journalist. I asked His Holiness (aba) when he would visit Qadian. And I requested that whenever you do come, please visit us in Hoshiarpur, upon which he graciously agreed. This interview was published in our newspaper which has a circulation of more than one million. When His Holiness (aba) visited India, he came to Hoshiarpur and blessed my house by visiting it for perhaps one-and-a-half hours or even more.’

Since both guests had a close connection with the Caliph, I asked how they would describe him. Anurag, visibly emotional, told me:

‘His Holiness (aba) is a godly man. He is Khalifatul Masih V. He really is a godly man. As His Holinessaba has said, if people in the world don’t pray, then destruction is imminent on the horizon. He said only prayers can save the world. But my opinion is that prayers of divine personalities like His Holiness (aba) are much more effective. We can say His Holiness (aba) is a spiritual world leader to guide all of humanity. Your community says “Love for All, Hatred for None”. If we study, we see that every religion says “love of humanity” and so on. Hindu teachings all have this. But the teachings of His Holiness (aba) and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community are very much relevant today and that is the need of the hour. If we don’t follow “Love for all, Hatred for None,” this world is going to become a very nasty place… Whenever you meet His Holiness (aba), it feels like you are meeting a godly man. Whenever he talks, the whole room fills with energy. He is always smiling, always giving positive thoughts to everyone. He has thousands of visitors yet I have never seen him tired. You know, this energy only comes from Allah the Almighty – God.’

At Darus Salaam Mosque

On the day of the event, 23rd February 2020, in addition to numerous other guests, I noticed my new friends Umesh and Navraj had been seated at the main table. Onkar and Anurag were seated at tables near the front.

In his address to inaugurate the Darus Salaam Mosque (Abode of Peace), the Caliph started by saying:

‘Though our Community has been established in Southall for around sixty years, previously we did not have a proper mosque and so the local Ahmadi Muslims had to worship and hold their events in a converted house, which was used as our local centre for many years. Consequently, today is a day of great happiness for us and our hearts are consumed by gratitude to Allah the Almighty for enabling us to build this mosque. At the same time, we extend our heartfelt appreciation to the local council, officials and residents. Whilst Southall has a large South Asian population, the number of Muslims living in this area is around 25% of the local population and amongst the Muslim community, the local Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is very small. Thus, we are extremely appreciative and grateful for the support and generosity of the local community. If we look at Southall’s history, in decades past, there were periods of racial tensions and rioting yet, generally speaking, the Southall community has been a positive example of a multicultural society underpinned by mutual respect and courtesy. It is a community in which people from a multitude of ethnicities, religions and beliefs are living harmoniously alongside one another. Therefore, as I have said, after expressing gratitude to Allah the Almighty, it is incumbent upon us to thank the local people and communities – be they Sikh, Hindu, Christian or any other – for their grace and open-heartedness and for fostering an atmosphere of harmony and cooperation between the different groups living here.’

His Holiness (aba) further stated that respect for others was a fundamental teaching of Islam and said that upon migrating to Madinah, the Prophet of Islam, the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa) established a covenant of peace known as the ‘Charter of Madinah’, in order to uphold freedom of belief and to ensure the continued peace and prosperity of that multicultural society.

‘The Prophet of Islam (sa) was elected as the Head of State. In this role, he spared no effort in ensuring that the rights of all peoples and communities – no matter whether they were Jews, Christians or tribal people who followed their own customs – were upheld and protected.’

He continued: ‘The Founder of Islam (sa) always abided by the terms of the covenant and instructed the Muslims to do the same. Not once did he abuse his authority or violate the terms of the agreement in any way. Nor did he ever manifest any form of injustice or discrimination towards the other communities or show any form of bias or favouritism towards the Muslims. He treated non-Muslims with compassion and was sensitive to their needs and traditions.’

His Holiness (aba) outlined that true worship of God demands adopting the attributes of God Almighty, Who is the Gracious and Merciful and the All-Forgiving.

‘Only if Muslims fulfil the rights of others, only if they are gracious, benevolent, kind and forgiving, can they fulfil the rights of the worship of God Almighty.’

He continued: ‘Indeed, the Holy Qur’an has declared that the prayers of those who do not fulfil the rights of mankind will never be accepted by God Almighty and, to the contrary, will prove the means of their destruction… Let it be clear that it is the religious duty of every Muslim to fulfil the needs of humanity and to treat every person, irrespective of their caste, creed or colour, with grace, love and affection.’

His Holiness (aba) said that the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community strives to instil these values within its members and said that ‘serving humanity is the hallmark of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.’ ‘Without question, bringing relief to others and alleviating the physical and mental suffering of mankind is an integral part of our faith. Allah the Almighty has instructed us to cleanse our hearts of all forms of negativity and ill-will towards others and to be ever ready to serve mankind and to fulfil the needs of those who are suffering or deprived in any way.’

His Holiness (aba) drew attention of the audience to the various humanitarian projects of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, such as the establishment of schools and hospitals across Africa and other under-privileged parts of the world.

‘Serving humanity and striving to alleviate the sufferings of other people goes hand in hand with our duties to worship God Almighty.’

Speaking of the role of true mosques: ‘Muslims must use their mosques to foster peace and to develop a spirit of love and sympathy within society and this is why Ahmadi Muslims across the world raise the slogan of “Love for All, Hatred for None”. These are not empty words, or a statement designed to impress non-Muslims but are a manifestation of Islamic teachings and a true reflection of the noble and blessed character of the Prophet of Islam (peace and blessings be upon him).’

Concluding his address, His Holiness (aba) prayed for the local community and said: ‘I hope and pray that the people of this community will always focus upon upholding those common human values which unite us all. I pray that Southall will always be seen as a symbol of peace and harmony and an example of a diverse society in which all people live together with mutual respect and consideration for one another’s feelings.’

‘I pray with all my heart that this mosque proves to be a beacon of light for the entire community and serves as a symbol of unity, togetherness and peace. Ameen.’

A Surprise Meeting

At the event Onkar had mentioned to me how he was impressed by so many youth of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community managing the various responsibilities. Most of all, after the speech of His Holiness (aba), Onkar said he was deeply moved by the address and by the aura of the Caliph. ‘Can I please meet him as I have a very strong desire to do so?’ he asked me. I initially said it would be difficult as it was a very tight space, and the Caliph was about to leave. ‘I really want to meet him before I go, please try. I was deeply impressed by his address and I feel the need to meet him. There was something about his person.’ By now, the Caliph was already heading out the door having gifted everyone on the main table with a gift bag. Onkar was insistent he had to meet the Caliph. We therefore rushed and as the Caliph exited the building, he began speaking to one of his aides. Onkar and I caught up and with utmost respect, a humble request was made for Onkar to have the chance to meet His Holiness (aba). His Holiness (aba) very kindly agreed and even took a photo. Onkar was very pleased and kept mentioning this moment was a huge honour for him. We later visited the mosque and I proceeded to describe the various features and methods of worship in Islam.

A Special Meeting Leaves Emotional Moments

A few days after the event Umesh and Anurag were graced with a private audience with His Holinessaba in Islamabad, Tilford, Surrey. They both had called me several times to ensure I also came there to meet them after to capture their sentiments after the meeting. I was truly astonished by their comments after.

Anurag told me: ‘I have no words to express my joy, my feelings when I met His Holiness (aba). It was as if I had attained some satisfaction. We are really transformed to another world. When you are in the presence of His Holiness (aba) you feel yourself energised. It feels as if our grief and sorry, everything has vanished. He is the only light who is to guide the world, who is to take the world out of the present-day turmoil. I am sure that his prayers will be heard by Allah the Almighty. I am very much sure that his prayers will never go unanswered and peace will be established in the world because of him.’

Umesh told me: ‘Today’s world is filled so much with all these problems and tensions and wherever you go you are not certain which is the right path. So when we were coming to see His Holiness (aba) I had the feeling we would get all the solutions to these problems which are very big for us. As soon as we see him our tensions are gone. We are full of blessings and got reassurance that these problems are nothing. While these godly messengers are here to guide us we should not worry and we should listen to what their teachings are.’

A week after the event I returned to Southall and sat with Navraj to ask him how the event had been.

‘It was inspirational when you meet a figurehead so important to others. There is an inspiration about someone who can teach, educate and lead. You saw that through his speech in terms of how he carried himself and shared the message of Oneness and how we should come together as a community. Unfortunately, people have a perception in society, so it’s great when you educate and learn from these things. It builds stronger bridges and you can actually see unity in action the way the Caliph gave a message of bringing the community together.’

Southall is a melting pot of different religions and cultures which has successfully established a harmonious multi-faith society. I am particularly thankful to my new Hindu and Sikh friends who were so welcoming and extended much warmth. The visit of the Caliph touched many hearts from people of all different religions. In this way, the Caliph personally lit the light in this mosque which it is hoped will become a beacon of light for Southall.