As the sun began to set on the evening of the 21st day of Ramadan, the call to prayer rang out from the Mubarak Mosque in Tilford in anticipation of the arrival of the caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim faith.
The Mubarak Mosque is one of the largest mosques in the UK and serves as the global headquarters of the Ahmadiyya community, of which there are an estimated ten to 20 million members worldwide.
But on a rainy Wednesday evening in the quiet Surrey countryside, I was privileged to join just 100 or so men and young boys who live on the site of the former Sheephatch School in Tilford for their evening prayers.
We remove our shoes at the entrance to the mosque – noticing as I place my shoes on the rack that very few others have laces; a practical decision considering Muslims pray five times a day – and venture inside.
The younger men and boys kneel at the front while the older men (and this journalist) take a seat at the rear.
We sit in front of six large white tents where devotees of the faith are spending the final ten days of Ramadan living and sleeping inside the mosque to be closer to Allah, a practice known as the ‘itikaf’.
One such devotee, Atta Quddus from Farnham, is performing his second itikaf and says the practice gives him a feeling of “spiritual elevation”.
Before long, we are joined by the caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim faith, His Holiness Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, whose presence is a source of great excitement and reverence for the community.
The caliph, dressed in his traditional white robes, led the prayers with a calm and peaceful demeanour, his voice echoing throughout the mosque as he recited verses from the Holy Quran, inspiring the congregation to stand, bow, kneel and recite verses in return.
There are pensive pauses between verses during which only the gentle rustle of coats and an occasional cough can be heard, and even for an outsider, it is a hypnotic and deeply moving ceremony.
It strikes me that by praying facing Mecca, everyone, including the caliph, faces the same direction – giving the ceremony a sense of equality.
And it is a far more casual occasion than I anticipated, with many of the worshippers retaining their winter coats and baseball caps – as well as more traditional topi headwear and Afghan caps.
Everyone wears a facemask inside the mosque, with the exception of the caliph.
After the prayers, the worshippers – who have, with exception of the children and those who are ill, not eaten or drunk anything since before sunrise – depart the mosque feeling inspired and uplifted to enjoy their Iftar meal.
I am invited to do likewise with my hosts Abrar Ahmad Baig and Atif Rashid, and as we sit down to a delicious meal of rice, lamb curry and (I think, for my benefit) pizza, Abrar and Atif share their experiences of Ramadan and the importance of community during this holy month.
“It’s a time of reflection and spiritual growth for us,” said Abrar. “We fast from sunrise to sunset, but it’s not just about abstaining from food and drink. It’s about controlling our thoughts. When we can’t eat, it forces us to think about other things and people.”
Atif added: “Ramadan is also a month of spiritual training. We cannot argue with anyone, can’t swear – it’s about self-discipline and self-restraint.
“It teaches you how you should live throughout the year – it resets you as a human being. It makes us think about how we interact with people on a daily basis, and brings us closer together.”
We also talk about fasting and the Ahmadiyya faith, and I leave feeling that I have witnessed something really rather special, and thank my hosts for giving me a better understanding of Ramadan – and another delicious meal!