An underground car park; the back of a convenience store; beneath a kebab shop. On the eve of Ramadan, SBS News visits some of the surprising places Australia’s Muslims are using to practice their faith.
This feature is part of a special five-part series on religion happening all week across SBS News.
Past the milk and energy drinks, beyond the lollies and phone cards, Zulfiqar Ali Khan has found something more spiritually sustaining at the back of an inner Sydney convenience store.
“Having this place is really blessed,” he tells SBS News of the modest storeroom out the back of the small shop; its floor marked for prayer spaces, one wall lined with religious texts.
“We have to pray five times a day, and it is recommended to pray in the congregation,” says Mr Khan, who was “incredibly relieved” to find the facility shortly after landing a nearby job in procurement.
“Here is where everyone gets together, and we can pray together."
Mr Khan is among almost a dozen devout Muslims who gathered this week for midday prayer - a daily ritual of faith that can be a daily challenge when it coincides with office hours.
“It’s very close by [to work], it takes about five minutes for me to come over here, pray for about 10 to 15 minutes and then to go,” he says.
Car parks to kebab shops
With a dearth of prayer rooms within many city centres and employment districts, Australia’s Muslim community has turned to word of mouth - and social media - to help fellow worshippers find convenient places to pray.
In another area visited by SBS News, resourceful congregants can gather for Friday prayers in an underground car park - the spots otherwise reserved for customers of a cosmetic clinic.
Head in a different direction and prayers are held behind a mechanics garage. In another Australian city, worshippers can gather in the basement of a kebab store.
'We just go there to pray'
For the businesses throwing open their doors, making room available for prayer also means walking a careful line to remain compliant with local planning laws.
In the City of Sydney, where all three official prayer spaces lie on the outskirts of the CBD, the council’s development controls do not specially address prayer rooms.
An existing room being used by staff or visitors to pray would be considered “ancillary use” and would not require development consent, a council spokeswoman said.
“If members of the public were regularly visiting the premises for the sole purpose of prayer it could be considered a change of use to a place of public worship and would require consent,” she said.
A number of convenience stores approached by SBS News were reluctant to promote the space they made available for customers seeking to pray for fear of antagonising their local council or landlord.
“We just go there to pray and practice our religion - that’s all,” one regular attendee said. “There is not many places to pray [around here].”
The challenge of organising prayer facilities in the heart of Australia’s largest financial centre has been long documented by the Sydney City Masjid Committee, which claims to have been “organising prayer facilities for our Muslim brothers and sisters” for two decades.
“However, all these facilities have been temporary, makeshift arrangements, and over the years, many of these facilities were closed down for various reasons,” one of the committee’s Facebook posts read.
Western Sydney University’s Kevin Dunn, a professor in human geography and urban studies, said research had shown religious minorities had experienced bias in development assessments when seeking approval for places of worship.
“In 2008, there were 1621 Christians in Sydney for every church, 3226 Buddhists for every Buddhist temple, and 4331 Muslims for every mosque,” he said. “This reflects a substantive inequality in provision, generating over-crowding and lesser amenity”.
Ahsan Farazi, an engineer by trade who joined Mr Khan at prayers this week, said the group had dramatically scaled back from a larger space nearby after finding that would have been in breach of planning rules.
He described the room on offer now as “a privately organised place”.
“It is in a very small scale; nothing like we what we used to have before,” Mr Farazi said.
“With this sort of little places where only a few people can get together, it brings the heart together, and we communicate [with] each other. That enlightens us."