The tiny mosque on the Outer Hebrides serving 60 Muslims

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The rugged and windswept island of Lewis in Scotland’s remote Outer Hebrides is a long way from the holy city of Mecca.

But for Aihtsham Rashid, these two disparate locations will forever be linked.

Rashid’s father passed away after completing the Hajj pilgrimage in 2015 – a moment he says led him to consider the important things in life, including charity work.

In the years since, Rashid split his time between the construction business he founded in the city of Leeds, in the northern English county of Yorkshire, and helping those in need.

When the call came from a friend telling him about a small community of Muslims in Stornoway, the biggest town on Lewis, who were looking to build the island’s first ever mosque, he “dropped everything” to make it happen.

Up until that point, “I didn’t even know there was a Muslim community there,” Rashid told Al Jazeera.

MSP for the Western Isles, Alasdair Allan, left, at the Stornoway mosque alongside local Muslim Mohammed Ahmed, centre, and Aihtsham Rashid, right [Courtesy: Office of Alasdair Allen]

Situated around 55 miles (roughly 89km) off mainland Scotland’s northwest coast, the vast majority of Lewis’ 20,000 population are Christian, and some residents hold on to once prominent Christian traditions such as the Sabbath, which reserves Sundays as a day of rest.

Yet a small Islamic community has called the island home since as far back as the 1950s. The arrival of a few Syrian refugee families taken in by the Scottish government since 2015 has increased the Muslim population.

According to Abdul Ghaffar, who is originally from Pakistan and owns a department store on the nearby island of Harris, there are currently between 55 and 60 Muslims on the island chain that make up the Outer Hebrides. 

But with nowhere to gather and worship, most Muslims had become used to praying and holding religious ceremonies in each other’s homes or in private, Ghaffar said.

That situation promised to change last year when planning permission was granted to build a small mosque on the island for the first time. 

The majority of the island’s residents were supportive of the decision.

I just went to Stornoway to help them out, leave them to it afterwards and let God deal with everything. At the end of the day, we did something good … the world likes it, it\’s cool.

Aihtsham Rashid

Reverend James MacIver of the Free Church of Scotland told Al Jazeera that, although he is a Christian minister, he had no objections to the decision to build the mosque which is a matter of “civil and religious liberty”.

The Muslim community has been part of the Outer Hebrides for around 70 to 80 years, he added, and “always integrated really well.” 

With widespread backing for the development, only one problem remained. 

The small cottage eyed as the site of the new mosque was dilapidated, and the budget was low.

Rashid, who opened a crowdfunding page in April, raised almost 100,000 pounds (roughly $132,500) – double the target, with donations arriving from around the world.

Most of Lewis’ 20,000 residents are Christian; there are around 60 Muslims [Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images]

With a group of friends, he flew to Stornoway, racing against the clock to finish before the start of Ramadan. 

Getting the required materials and Rashid’s network of tradesmen to Lewis were just some of the challenges.

“It’s an island, isn’t it? If you need something you’ve got to wait until it comes,” Rashid said. 

But every time there was a delay or when a new challenge arose “it was like God would send extra help”, he added.

The mosque, which Ghaffar says must be “one of the smallest around”, was officially opened on May 11, just days before the start of Ramadan.

Despite its compact size, it features a prayer room, a washroom and entrances for men and women.

According to local Member of Scottish Parliament (MSP) Alasdair Allan, the project has helped push back against stereotypes of Lewis as a place that is strictly Christian and resistant to change.

The island has, he said, “a long [record] of people with different traditions getting on with each other”.

Among the Muslim community, there are families from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey and Syria, Ghaffar says. The mosque enables them to gather and share in each other’s cultures and traditions.

Since opening, a number of visitors have even travelled to see the mosque from other parts of the UK. 

Yusuf Adam, a 37-year-old accountant from Manchester, England, voyaged the 500 miles to the Stornoway mosque with his wife and young daughter after hearing about it on social media and in the news.

He says he encountered other groups visiting the mosque from Dewsbury in Yorkshire, Glasgow and Manchester. Local residents were welcoming and “really friendly”, he said. 

Worshippers listen to Iman Mufti Abdur-Rahman Mangera as they attend the opening [Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images]

The attention the project received was surprising to Rashid, but he was pleased that it spread a message about the value of charity.

“A lot of people are changing their ways. They want to do charitable work and they want to do stuff like this,” he said.

Just over a month after Stornoway mosque was opened, Rashid is already focused on his next project.

This time, he hopes to raise enough money to travel to Gambia and help repair a mosque and provide aid for orphans and impoverished people in rural villages. 

He hopes the new campaign will receive as much attention as the Stornoway project.

“I just went to [Stornoway] to help them out, leave them to it afterwards and let God deal with everything,” he said. “At the end of the day, we did something good … the world likes it, it’s cool.” 

The Muslim community in Lewis and the surrounding islands, Ghaffer said, is “over the moon” with their new facility.

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