I saw several other men walking up the stairs so I followed them. At the top of the stairs I caught a glimpse of the large main prayer hall.
I could hear a man speaking in German, as if he was delivering a religious talk or lecture. It was religious because in between sentences of German, he would quote the odd Quranic verse or hadith (Prophetic saying) in Arabic.
I took my shoes off and put them on the shelves then entered the carpeted prayer hall. The mosque itself was unremarkable, nothing out of the ordinary.
It was early afternoon. Some men were praying, others were reciting the Quran. A few young men in a darkened corner of the prayer hall were having a nap.
I looked around the hall and then in the direction of the speaker when suddenly I had to double-take. “Did I just see a blonde haired young woman sitting at the front of the mosque?!”
There was not just one head of blonde hair, there were several. Along with a few brown and black and red.
A man, the speaker whom I heard, dressed in a shirt and trousers was standing speaking in fluent German. He must have been in his late 30s.
Around him was sitting, on the carpet of the prayer hall, a large group of teenage boys and girls who must have been around 14 years old. They looked relaxed, as if they felt welcome in this place.
They were mainly white skinned, but a few of other races too. Dressed in jeans, tops, no shoes, they looked like typical teenagers of that age. All were captivated by the smiling, funny, charismatic speaker.
Every few sentences the group of teenagers would burst into laughter at something that the speaker said. One second he was holding up a copy of the Quran, then another second he had a prayer mat in his hand.
It was a strange sight. I had seen schoolchildren come to a mosque before but not in the main prayer hall and definitely not girls without headscarves sitting in the men’s prayer hall.
My first thought was that perhaps they were Muslims, the children of Bosnian refugees. Bosnian Muslims are also white skinned Europeans with blonde hair and blue eyes.
I had certainly seen plenty of them in mosques in Bosnia. But even there, men and women prayed in separate quarters of the mosque.
A few minutes later, the speaker finished what he was saying and invited the group of teenagers to leave.
They all got up, walked to the back of the hall, collected their coats and rucksacks and left the prayer hall, stopping to collect their shoes on their way out.
Moments passed and then I heard one of the most beautiful adhans (Muslim call to prayer) that I had heard in a long time. At the end of the call to prayer a man came out of a room next to the prayer hall.
He was dressed in a long robe and on his head was a red “Azhari” hat characteristic of Muslim scholars who have graduated from Cairo’s Al-Azhar University. He walked to the position of the imam and began to lead the prayer.
He was the same man who had been addressing the group of teenagers a few minutes earlier.
After the prayer finished I made my way to the canteen downstairs where I filled up on a fresh cooked halal meal of lasagne, Turkish pastries and kebabs.
While I was sitting eating alone at a table, I saw the imam walk into the canteen, dressed back in the shirt and trousers I first saw him in.
I went up to him and introduced myself as a visitor from London who was in Hamburg for a few days. I asked the Turkish-German man if he was the main imam at this mosque. “I am,” he replied.
“Who were those children upstairs?” I asked him.
“Germans,” he replied. “They came by appointment from their school. Every day I have a different group, sometimes as young as 4, sometimes teenagers.”
He then took out his phone and began to show me some photographs of German schoolchildren visiting Hamburg Central Mosque.
“You could never do this in Britain,” I told him. “In Britain, most of the mosques are run by traditional people from south Asia, Pakistan, India, etc. In those countries, women don’t exist, and definitely not in mosques.”
“Women are not welcome in most mosques in Britain,” I continued. “And if there is a place for them, it’s a small, smelly, dark room next to the toilets. We are trying to change this.”
I then asked him if his mosque or his community had faced a backlash or any hostility following the then recent Berlin Christmas Market attack.
This was when a Muslim man drove a lorry through a market of men, women and children, killing scores in the process. I wonder if he thought that Allah would be pleased with him if he did this?
My cousin’s daughter and her husband were almost victims of this man. They were in the exact same area a few minutes before the attack.
The imam replied, “No. We have a good relationship with everyone in this community. We did not face a single act of hostility following that attack.”
I asked him whether it was only this mosque that invited Germans to visit. “Most of the large mosques in Germany do this on a daily basis. Our mosques are open to everyone.”
As I walked back to my hotel I reflected on what I had seen. What a genius, I thought to myself.
Instead of recording Prevent-funded rehearsed video adverts that interrupt Islamic YouTube videos and preach against “extremism” and “terrorism” this imam was making a difference in a positive, unapologetic way.
One day, when those teenagers grow up, if they ever read or hear stories that Muslims are bloodthirsty terrorists who hate everything and everyone, maybe they will remember that funny imam who invited them into a mosque and made them laugh?
They might think, “But I’ve met Muslims, I’ve even been inside a mosque and seen how Muslims pray and worship. Thanks to that friendly imam who once invited us into a mosque when we were kids.”
Read my story and why I blog here.
Enter your email address in the mailing list form below so you do not miss any of my blog posts.