Mosques in Western Europe

Oxford Islamic Studies online, July 2014

Stefano Allievi

Western Europe, Mosques in

Using an extensive and commonsense criterion, the term “mosque” is used here to refer to all places in which Muslims believers gather together to pray on a regular basis. This definition appeals to the principal function of a mosque: the collective prayer, and its public role. It does not necessarily imply specific architectural characteristics (a minaret, a dome, a crescent moon) that may exist or not, given the fact that the Islamic presence in Europe constitute a minority that only recently appeared in the public space, is not always established and institutionalized, and is not always accepted on an equal basis compared to other religious minorities.

Types and Uses of Mosques

Within the category of “mosques” one can differentiate three types: Islamic centers, masjids, and musallas. These three categories often overlap, and their borders are not always evident; they thus constitute differentiations at the empirical level, more so than distinctions in principle.
“Islamic center” here refers to a place of a significant size that plays, in addition to that of prayer and worship, a number of other social and cultural functions (e.g., Qurʾān school; meeting place for adults, women, and converts; conference location; and other educational and cultural activities), including activities of institutional and symbolic representation for Muslims in a certain area, at a provincial or regional level. They are present in capital cities, and only in major cities might there be more than one. Often, but not always, they have visible architectural elements of a mosque.
Another category is that of ad hoc, or purpose-built, mosques: the masjids, which are not differentiated, in Europe, from the jami, given the fact that most mosques fulfill both the role of Friday and weekday worship. Masjids may overlap with the previous category of Islamic centers, but there are many ad hoc mosques that are not organized and structured as Islamic centers, and their main activities are just prayer and teaching.
The third category—by far the most numerically significant in all European countries—is the Islamic musalla, or prayer room. These are places that may be located in industrial buildings, warehouses, former shops, or apartments, and they variously defined in the literature as basement mosques, house mosques, backyard mosques, or prayer halls. They serve to host the activity of prayer, but more often other activities are performed there (e.g., Qurʾān schools and other educational events). Within this category one can also find ethnic musallas, attended by members of only one ethnic group, usually on the grounds of language (non-Arabophone ethnic groups, for example). Some of the prayer halls are Sufi zawiyas, belonging to mystical brotherhoods, which sometimes also have an ethnic-linguistic specificity, or they may belong to minority Muslim groups (Shīʿī, Ahmadiyah, etc.). These three categories of prayer halls tend to be semi-closed: in principle they are open to any Muslim, but in practice they are frequented only by those belonging to a specific group.
Some musallas may be temporary, either because they are shared with other activities (such as may occur in universities, hospitals, airports, sports centers, or immigrant centers), and thus serve as a prayer hall only at certain times or in some periods of the year, or because they are situated in temporary gathering places (such as holiday destinations that attract Muslim workers only at certain times of the year, or rural mosques, where seasonal workers are employed in agriculture).
Most mosques play complex and varied roles: religious, social, cultural, political, and economic. Other activities often take place around a mosque, including halal butchers, ethnic shops, phone centers, import-export activities, and ethnic-religious libraries. Furthermore, at a local level, mosques are often community centers and represent an interface with ethnic, national (linked to the countries of origin), and transnational networks (religious and political).

Historical Evolution

The most ancient mosques of Europe are located in Andalusia and Sicily, which have been under Muslim domination, and in the areas once under Ottoman rule (in eastern Europe and the Balkans, from Bulgaria to Greece), which in part later came under the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Bosnia). Some are also linked to the small Tatar presence in Finland, Lithuania, Poland, and Belarus, and, in a more recent past, were originated by commercial and mercantile interests (in ports, such as in the United Kingdom), military factors (e.g., the presence of Muslim units in the Prussian army), or colonization, where the presence of soldiers from former colonies in national armies also played an important role (in France, Great Britain, and the Netherlands, in particular).
However, the modern and contemporary history of mosques in Europe is linked to immigrant workers coming from Muslim countries. Often the first prayer halls appeared in the districts where immigrants lived, or in their workplaces. A later stage, roughly coinciding with the end of the 1970s and the 1980s, depending on the country, was marked by the gradual spread of prayer halls, partly because of a growing awareness of the fact that what was perceived as a temporary migration was becoming a permanent long-term migration. Such awareness owes much to the economic downturn caused by the oil crisis of the early 1970s, and the simultaneous approval in those years of immigration laws that were progressively more restrictive (as a result of which immigrants had to decide either to stay or leave), and in part to the gradual growth of nuclear families, the presence of second generations, and the need to educate them religiously.
These grassroots mosques, being created from below and self-financed, are the result of a significant effort on the part of immigrants (almost exclusively men), who often embody a model of patriarchal-father in crisis and feel the need to transmit their cultural and religious experiences to the next generation. Often they are founded by a single ethno-national dominant group, which, language permitting (in the case of Arabs, for example), is open to other users, having a board or committee in which the main origin is clearly evident, often for a long time.
The gradually increasing number of these mosques is the result of the increasing concentrations of Muslims, and of their ethnic and linguistic differences; political and religious differences, too, have led to the multiplication of prayer halls, with a certain effervescence and vitality, but also with a high mortality rate resulting from a lack of resources and prospects, as well as bad planning (sometimes including the promise of external funding that never arrives).
At the same time, in capital cities in particular, large purpose-built Islamic centers have been constructed. These are often financed with external resources, often with the support of the Rabita al-alam al-Islami (the Muslim World League), under Saudi control. The ambassadors of Islamic countries are usually represented on the boards, but the control is almost always in the hands of the financing body. Other transnational Islamic bodies intervene with funding, and national organizations such as the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (Diyanet Işleri Türk-Islam Birliği, or DITIB) in Germany, or the governments of the countries of origin. Some of the more active have been, in different periods, Egypt, Morocco, Iranian institutions promoting Shīʿī mosques, and others.
With regard to geographical location, but with the partial exception of the large Islamic centers, mosques have been mostly located in the industrial suburbs, where it has been easier to find buildings of sufficient size to adapt to their purposes at an affordable price, or in ethnic neighborhoods, and on the outskirts of the cities.
It is worth noting that in Europe there is a general trend towards a kind of Westernization of mosque functions. On the one hand, they carry out functions that, in the countries of origin, they usually do not perform, such as the celebration of weddings and funerals, or social gatherings based on language and ethnic groups. On the other, mostly as a result of pressure from the host society, the mosque ends up being treated as a kind of church, with the imam considered a priest or a pastor, and the imam or amir of the main Islamic center itself seen as a kind of bishop, representative of all Muslims. Moreover, the entry into the mechanism of religious welfare typical of various host countries, applied to preexisting religious minorities, gives the staff of mosques and the mosques themselves roles and a stability that they did not have, often forcing the pace of institutionalization mechanisms that would have occurred slowly if processes were left to their own internal dynamics.

Some Empirical Findings

While it is relatively easy to calculate the number of Islamic centers, purpose-built mosques, and major prayer halls, the calculation of “hidden” and temporary mosques is inevitably more complicated, and often not that accurate. Some local and national studies exist, but very few comparative works and estimations have been produced.
The accompanying table (taken from Allievi 2010) presents figures for the number of mosques in the main European countries.

Source: Allievi, 2010.
Country Population (millions) Immigrants (millions) Muslims (millions) Percentage of Muslim population Mosques Presumed Muslims per mosque
Germany 81.9 7.2 3.2–3.4 4.0 2,600 1269
France 65.4 4.9 4.2 6.5 2,100 1571
United Kingdom 61.8 (ethnic minority origin) 4.8 2.4 3.9 850–1,500 2824-1600
Italy 60.2 3.9 1.3 2.2 764 1702
Spain 46.2 4.5 0.8–1 2.0 668 1347
Netherlands 16.5 3.1 1 6.1 432 2315
Greece 11.2 1.2 0.2–0.3 2.2 < 400 625
Portugal 10.7 0.3 0.04 0.4 33 1212
Belgium 10.6 (underestimated) 1.0 0.4–0.5 4.2 330 1364
Sweden 9.4 1.2 0.4 4.2 > 50 8000
Austria 8.4 0.9 0.3 3.6 > 200 1500
Switzerland 7.3 1.3 0.4 5.4 > 100 4000
Denmark 5.5 0.5 0.19 3.5 115 1652
Finland 5.4 0.09 0.04 0.7 30–40 1143
Norway 4.9 0.6 0.12 2.5 120 1000
Bosnia and Herzegovina 3.8 1.5 40.0 1,867 803
Europe 16.79 10,989 1528

If we do not include Muslims and mosques of Bosnia and Thrace, in which Muslims constitute a historically stable and institutionalized presence and are not the result of immigration (which would also be true for the small Tatar minorities and a few others), we obtain the figure of 15,170,000 Muslims and 8,822 prayer rooms, corresponding to one prayer room per 1,720 potential Muslims.
These figures—probably comparable to those of the places of worship of the major religions in many countries, both Christian and Muslim—are sufficient to affirm that, in quantitative terms, there is no problem of religious freedom and freedom of worship for Islam in Europe. However, conflicts over mosques attest that, in qualitative terms and in frequent specific cases, things are not so simple, and social, cultural and political dynamics show significant degrees of refusal.
The number of purpose-built mosques in respect to the analysis of the degree of acceptance of Islam and Muslims is important. It is obviously not surprising that the countries that have the most, for the reasons mentioned before, are Bosnia (1,472 out of 1,867 are purpose-built) and Greece (almost 300, and almost all in Thrace, out of almost 400). But there are also almost 200 in France, 100 in Holland, approximately 150 in Great Britain, almost 70 in Germany, and many also in Belgium. Many others are under construction, with the highest rate, possibly, in Germany and France.

Symbolic Battles and Territory

Although forms of discrimination on the basis of religion are never completely absent, in no country and in no other case has the opening of places of worship taken on such a high profile in the discussion in public space as the question of mosques and Islamic places of worship, even in countries where such conflicts were previously unknown and mosques were already part of the landscape. These disputes are not limited to the establishment of places of worship; they also include the question of their visibility in European cities, through issues regarding the building and even the shape of minarets (as in the Swiss referendum in November 2009, which approved the ban of minarets in the country with 57.5 percent of votes nationwide, and the majority of votes in 22 of the 26 country’s cantons), the broadcasting of the adhan, the call to prayer, as well as the problem of Muslim cemeteries.
Mosques are, among other things, a symbolic issue that concerns, materially, control over territory. At the same time, and in the same sense, resistance to them becomes a very concrete and material sign of dominance and power. Several different variables come into play in this sphere, including the actors deemed to be legitimate, their strength, the resistance of social actors already present (their “culture,” as it is often called), and their respective forms of legitimization and expression of their own beliefs.
Conflicts concerning mosques involve many actors, including local populations (through public protests, demonstrations, collection of signatures, petitions, or simply meeting and encounters); Islamic associations directly involved in the project (and others, which can be in competition among themselves and in opposition to the project); the main ethnolinguistic groups present; local, regional, and national institutions; political parties, both majority and opposition, at the local level, but also nationally (especially when political entrepreneurs of Islamophobia get involved); other religious groups, both the local majority group and the various minorities, which intervene in various ways; the local and national mass media; and intellectuals offering legitimation to one or the other position.
Opposition to mosques can be attributed to material reasons, such as a fall in the value of property; fear of increased traffic and parking problems; loss of peace and quiet; fear of increased crime and greater numbers of unwelcome persons; fear of violence, incidents, and Islamic fundamentalism; fear of invasion of public spaces (courtyards, pavements, parks, playgrounds) on Fridays and other Islamic holidays; and other social priorities in the area. But they often overlap with “cultural” reasons, such as the foreignness of Islam to “our” culture; defense of women’s rights; reciprocity; and “non-integrability” or incompatibility of Islam with Western, European, or Christian values. While reasons of the first kind may be (but are often not) empirically based, and as such may be constructed discursively, those of the second kind are used to target not the single mosque, but Islam itself, with each reinforcing the other.

The Rejection or Acceptance of Islam and Muslims

Conflicts over mosques and minarets are the result of a more general climate around Islam and attitudes toward Muslims in Europe, which can be influenced by transnational issues— such as Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism (typically the 9/11 example), wars in various parts of the Islamic world (Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.) involving Western countries, persecution of religious minorities in Muslim countries, and so on—and by internal factors, such as the demographic growth and the increasing visibility of immigrants and ethnic minorities (not only Muslims), the economic crisis, the presence of political entrepreneurs of Islamophobia, and so on. Opposition to mosques appear often as the simple application to mosques of the classic syndrome of “NIMBY” (not in my back yard), which can be the result of a theoretical acceptance of the principle of freedom of religion, but not of the place. Reasons of this kind, in most cases of conflict, pertain more to the declared than to the real motivations of opposition. More often, in the case of mosque conflicts, a complex mix of NIMBY syndrome and cultural rejection takes place.
Conflict is also subject to different phases and paths, following the situation in different countries. Mosque conflicts have not been equally spread among all countries, and in some of them, after a peak phase, one can observe a more frequent acceptance of mosques. This can be observed also in the more frequent presence of an explicitly Islamic architecture (both traditional and contemporary) in many European cities. This can mean that the refusal of mosques can be a transitory phase, and that conflict is, from a certain point of view, a step in a process of acceptation.


Local or NationalS Interest

  • Beinhauer-Köhler, Bärbel, and Claus Leggewie. Moscheen in Deutschland: Religiöse Heimat und gesellschaftliche Herausforderung. Munich: Beck Verlag, 2009.
  • Bombardieri Maria. Moschee d’Italia. Bologna: EMI, 2011.
  • Coleman, Lys. Survey of Mosques in England and Wales. London: Charity Commission, 2009.
  • Duthu, Françoise. Le maire et la mosque: Islam et laïcité en Ile de France. Paris: L’Harmattan, 2009
  • Leggewie, Clause, Angela Joost, and Stefan Rech. Der Weg zur Moschee: Eine Handreichung für die Praxis. Bad Homburg: Herbert-Quandt-Stiftung, 2002.
  • Maussen, Marcel. Constructing Mosques: The Governance of Islam in France and the Netherlands. Amsterdam: Amsterdam School for Social Science Research, 2009.
  • Ternisien, Xavier. La France des mosques. Paris: Albin Michel, 2002.

General Situations

  • Allievi, Stefano. Conflicts over Mosques in Europe: Policy Issues and trends. London: Alliance Publishing Trust, 2009.
  • Allievi, Stefano, ed. Mosques in Europe: Why a Solution Has Become a Problem. London: Alliance Publishing Trust, 2010.
  • Cesari, Jocelyne, ed. “Mosque Conflicts in Europe.” Special issue, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 31, no. 6 (2005).
  • Metcalf, Barbara Daly, ed. Making Muslim Space in North America and Europe. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Architectural Issues

  • Erkoçu, Ergün, and Cihan Bugdaci, eds. The Mosque: Political, Architectural, and Social Transformations. Rotterdam: Nai Publishers, 2009.
  • Roose, Eric. The Architectural Representation of Islam: Muslim-Commissioned Mosque Design in the Netherlands. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009.
  • Welzbacher, Christian. Euro Islam Architecture: New Mosques in the West. Amsterdam: Sun, 2009.