In the wake of the Hamas attack on Israel and Israel’s unrelenting attacks on Gaza, around the world people curious about Islam flock to their local mosque.

The Gothenburg Mosque

The Gothenburg Mosque in Sweden has seen an uptick in visitors since 7 October. Credit: Andrzej Otrębski (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Islamic organizations across the globe are welcoming an increase in people coming in to learn about Islam, part of a growing interest in the religion arising from concerns for the people of Gaza.

The new visitors coming through the doors of mosques are compelling these places of worship to ramp up outreach programs and education efforts. Newcomers are arriving to learn more about the faith, sometimes seeking to convert and often searching for community with Muslims during the crisis in Gaza.

“In the past decade, this is perhaps the highest number we’ve seen in terms of interest,” said Shaykh Hosam Helal, an imam at the Islamic Centre of North America’s Canadian chapter (ISNA Canada) based in Mississauga in Ontario, Canada. Helal reported a three to four times increase in mosque visits and inquiries since the 7 October Hamas attack.

Ibrahim Hooper, National Communications Director for the Council on American-Muslim Relations said the rising interest in Islam appears to be mostly driven by people in their teens and 20s.

“We’re seeing mostly young people changing their views,” he said.

Curious about the Quran

Many mosques are receiving heightened requests for their da’wah services, the teaching of non-Muslims about Islamic beliefs.

The British Columbia Muslim Association has seen a growth in demand for its da’wah program. Program staff who previously worked a few hours per week are now working up to five or six days per week, said Mohammad Ali, an imam at the association.

“Gaza has caused greater curiosity in the minds of many to discover Islam,” said Ali.

American mosques are also seeing an increase in visitors. In the United States, the Islamic Society of Greater Houston, the Islamic Society of Boston and the Islamic Society of Wichita have each reported increased traffic since October.

In Sweden, the Gothenburg Mosque hosted 17 school tours in November alone — up from three to four per month prior to 7 October. New visitors are coming to ask about the situation in Gaza, chat with a Muslim and see what a mosque looks like from the inside, said CEO Faraj Semmo. Semmo added that recent interest in Islam contrasts expressions of anti-Muslim sentiment in Sweden following Quran burnings earlier this year in January and June.

Some unwelcome attention persists.

The South African Muslim Judicial Council said they’ve witnessed a rise in mosque visitors across the country in the past two months. Shuaib Appleby, president of the council, said more South Africans are coming to mosques and even taking the shahada, the formal declaration to become a Muslim. More people are attending educational programs to discuss Islamic history and debunk links to terrorism, he said.

“We’re seeing a positive exchange between religions and cultural groupings,” Appleby said.

The Australian Federation of Islamic Councils experienced a 600% growth in website traffic since 7 October. Several mosques across the country are receiving more visitors, and there has been a “huge uptick in interest,” said Kamalle Daboussy, CEO of the AFIC.

Not all responses have been positive, however.

The Khadija Mosque in Berlin received hate speech for the first time following 7 October, and has faced accusatory questioning about its stance on anti-semitism from both the government and German media, said the mosque’s imam, Sharjil Ahmad Khalid.

“The culture of debate is completely different,” Khalid said. In recent weeks, the German government has focused on combating anti-semitism, but Khalid says that Islamic faith has been vilified in the process.

Some link Islam to immigration.

Fazel Ryklief, manager at the Dublin Mosque in Ireland, said the mosque has taken extra safety precautions after receiving threatening emails. Though some have taken the shahada at the mosque in the past few weeks, threats were closely tied to growing Irish anti-immigrant sentiment.

This most recently came to light at a Dublin riot on 23 November, which saw hundreds of people take to the streets to chant anti-immigrant slogans after an Algerian-born Irish citizen stabbed three children and a caregiver.

Many mosque newcomers are seeking a better understanding of Islam, asking questions about the Quran and learning about practices like prayer. People are meeting with imams and joining programs to connect with fellow learners and new Muslims.

At the Islamic Society of Wichita, those visiting for the first time “usually come in with some level of understanding about Islam,” said Maria Omar, office manager of the mosque. People are motivated to learn more, she said. The mosque keeps translated versions of the Quran on hand to distribute to newcomers.

The Clear Quran, an English Quran that is commonly distributed by mosques, has become so popular that a North American organization that distributes free copies to non-Muslims has ramped up its operations significantly. On 20 November, the Al-Furqaan Foundation reported a boost in average orders from 100 per day to 1,000 per day since 7 October.

 “Our biggest constraint has been labour,” said Wajahat Sayeed, president of the foundation, adding that they do not have enough staff to support the number of orders requiring packaging and shipping.

The foundation’s team of 15 Islamic scholars has also experienced a significant increase in calls and emails asking about Islam.

Apart from being a place of worship, mosques serve as an institution for individuals to take their shahada and receive a certificate which is required to visit Mecca, Islam’s holiest city. ISNA Canada reported a two to three times increase in shahadas taken at the mosque since 7 October.

Finding new faith

The Al Furqaan Foundation, which also runs a street da’wah program, has seen an average of five to six shahadas occur every weekend in the past few weeks alone. In Alberta, the Calgary Islamic Centre SW Mosque reported an average of one to two shahadas every week since that time compared to the prior average of one shahada biweekly.

In the months following 9/11, a similar phenomenon of people exploring Islam occurred. Many questioned whether Islam was a religion that promoted terrorism and began to study the Quran and its interpretation. There was also an increase in individuals reverting, the term used for conversion due to the Islamic belief that all people are born Muslim and find their way back to the religion.

Today, the trend is two-fold, with an uptick in interest in the faith happening in real life and online. On TikTok, Facebook and Instagram, people of different faiths or no faith are reading from the Quran and documenting their learning journey. Some also document their real-life experiences visiting mosques for the first time online.

For many, visiting the mosque serves as a way to collectively express their wish for an end to the crisis in Gaza. For Helal, the imam at ISNA Canada, it is a sign of hope.

“[People want] to protect the human rights and dignity of our brothers and sisters everywhere in humanity,” Helal said.

Questions to consider:

  1. Why are local mosques around the world seeing an increase in visitors?
  2. What are people seeking when they go to a mosque who have never been before?
  3. In what ways can religion create community?
Nahid Widaatalla

Nahid Widaatalla is a journalist with a background in public health and health equity. She is currently a fellow in the Dalla Lana Fellowship in Journalism and Health Impact at the University of Toronto.

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