How Big is the Muslim Congregation? 24 October 2017

Traditional Christian groups are facing “alarming decline”, according to the current affairs programme Y Byd ar Bedwar. The story is the latest in an almost regular news story of declining number of Christian attendees. The story isn’t so black-and-white, while Christian weekly attendance is dropping, it is part of a wider shift in religious practice in Britain, and Christianity will certainly remain part of the religious landscape. Likewise, the drop in Christian figures doesn’t herald a secular future either, as minority religious groups are growing dynamically.

Muslim congregations in Britain are one example of a congregation in an apparent period of growth. Records of mosques in Britain are incomplete, but where records exist, there is a suggestion that there are increasingly more mosques, presumably serving a growing congregation. Mehmood Naqshbandi, for example, records 1825 mosques in Britain in 2017, compared with 1640 in 2015, a growth of 185. In terms of registered mosques, with more official status, the figure is likely much lower, between 850-1500 according to a 2010 estimate by Sophie Gilliat-Ray and Yahya Birt. The question of how many mosques is predicated upon “what is a mosque”? Do prayer rooms or small converted terraced houses count? Does a space hired occasionally constitute a mosque? What about the increasing number of Muslim schools and seminaries, which may have space set outside for regular prayer and host a congregation who worship there – should they be included? The answers to these questions are varied, and a consensus is some way off, but the growing number of Muslim institutions (mosques or otherwise), and the extensions to existing mosques to increase capacity, all speak to a wider number of Muslim worshippers.

This growth in mosques does not necessarily translate into a growth of congregations however. Statistical figures or estimates on Muslim congregation sizes are sparse. A 2015 survey indicated that 60% of British Muslims visit a mosque once a week (see ICMUnlimited’s “C4 / Juniper Survey of Muslims”). However, as the survey focused on Muslims living in areas where at least 20% of the population are Muslim, these are likely inflated figures (since such places are more likely to have mosques within walking distance). If we accept these figures as indicative (with a dose of scepticism) then 60% of Britain’s 2.6 million Muslims attending a mosque at least once a week would translate as an overall weekly congregation of 1.6 million Muslims, dwarfing Anglican figures of 765,000 weekly congregants.

To add to this, a survey from 2005 indicated 930,000 Muslims attended a mosque at least once a week, though, once again, the data needs to be approached with caution. The research was conducted by a Christian faith-based polling company and released as a “call to action” for Christian groups. I am also unable to access the survey’s methodology thus can’t assess the reliability of the data. The narrative behind the release of the data gives cause for skepticism. A contrasting survey, conducted through YouGov, indicated 48% of British Muslims never attend a mosque (Wells 2006), which does not tell us much about congregation sizes, but raises the question of how many British Muslims are part of a congregation at all.

In Wales, a more meaningful estimate of a congregation can be given. There are, give or take, 57 mosques in Wales. Some of these aren’t full-time mosques, but they have a congregation (especially important in rural areas or places with a smaller Muslim population). Others are schools, or small prayer facilities at a university, but again, the presence of a regular congregation makes them of interest. Based on a survey of imams and the physical capacity of Welsh mosques I undertook between 2015 and 2017, there is a regular (weekly) mosque-going congregation in Wales of 19,300. That is out of a total Muslim population of 46,000 according to the 2011 census (most likely an under-count, and now six years out of date).

These weekly congregants are based predominantly on attendance of the Friday jummah prayer, where congregations are most distinctly measurable (many Muslims, for example, may worship at and attend several different mosques, and so congregational overlap is common). Basing on jummah estimates also favours male attendees, making the estimates largely but not exclusively, male – a split of about 75% male and 25% female.

These congregation estimates can only tell us a small amount about Muslims in Wales. Some congregants may only attend the Friday congregation, whereas others attend almost daily. Muslim children will largely be absent from the Friday prayers, attending education, but will regularly attend the mosque for “Sunday School” type education in reciting the Quran and the basics of worship. Increasingly mosques are also innovating with new activities, from Scouts Groups to Mother and Toddler sessions, as well employment workshops and exercise classes, that mean the simple indicator of weekly attendance should be taken with a grain of salt.

About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

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