They came in their tens of thousands, Muslims and non-Muslims alike to bid a final goodbye to three men cut down protecting their local community at the height of last weeks riots. As the bodies of Haroon Jahan, Shahzad Ali and Abdul Musavir were brought into Birmingham's Summerfield Park for a public funeral prayer this afternoon, the crowd surged forward, some of them chanting “Allahu akbar” (God is greatest).
It is a little over a week since the three men from the ethnically mixed suburb of Winson Green were killed as a car driven by suspected looters ploughed into a crowd of Muslims who had gathered to guard a nearby mosque and businesses. Four men have so far been charged with murder.
But for the remarkable reaction of the men's families – who immediately called for calm and restraint – the tragedy could have spiralled into tit-for-tat retaliatory violence in Britain's second largest city.
Instead the anger and outrage that stalked the streets immediately following the murders was replaced with sombre reflection and solidarity that has spared Birmingham any further violence.
Officials said an estimated 25,000 people gathered just a few hundred yards from where the three men were killed today for a public prayer service before the families retired to a private burial at Handsworth Ceremony.
Unlike Sunday's service, an impromptu memorial event organised by different sections of the Winson Green community, yesterday's ceremony was distinctly Islamic. Worshippers segregated themselves into male and female sections as the salat al-janazah – the Islamic funeral prayer – was broadcast over loud speakers.
Yet to the sides of the park hundreds of non-Muslim locals also turned out to show their support.
“I wanted to come here because I am so sad, sad deep within me,” said Adele, who came to Birmingham from the West Indies when she was 18 and has lived in the area for five decades. “Those boys could have been anyone of our kids. They were protecting their families, everyone has a right to do that.”
Denise Moyce, 42, came down to the park with her 12-year-old daughter Lucy. “My husband used to work out at the gym with the two brothers Shahzad and Musavir,” she said. “He couldn't be here today so we came down. It is appalling what has happened to their families, it's a tragedy that has hit the area hard.”
Among the Muslim worshippers, many described the day as happy one because of a firm belief that the three men, who had died protecting a mosque in the holy month of Ramadan, were martyrs who are guaranteed a place in heaven.
“These three men are shaheed,” said 50-year-old Mohammad Khalid, using the Islamic term for a martyr. “They went out to defend their community. There was no selfish gain in what they did. That is what jihad is really about.”
Others heaped praise on Tariq Jahan, the dignified father of Haroon whose repeated calls for calm within hours of his son's death helped avert a further disaster.
“Huge credit must go to Tariq,” said Mohammed Ahmed, a 41-year-old estate agent from nearby Edgbaston. “He instantly managed to dispel the anger. He showed us that if a man who has just lost a son can show such restraint, such forgiveness, then so should we.”
Many in the crowd wept openly as Sheikh Muhammad Ali Yaqoubi, a Syrian-born Islamic scholar who is highly respected among British Muslims, gave a speech eulogising the three men.
“Writers write with ink on pages to advocate Islam,” he said. “But these three men wrote with their blood in the annals of Islam. On that blessed morning, these martyrs sacrificed themselves in defence of our community, to defend their family members, to defend their homes. They made themselves an example of what a Muslim should be and what Islam is.”
Outside the petrol station on Dudley Road where the three men were killed, an enormous shrine of flowers and candles has since sprung up. Many locals have used a condolence book at the foot of the shrine to share how the tragedy has effected them.
“I still look at my phone, thinking you're going to call me,” wrote Afzal Khan, a friend of Haroon. “I still can't delete your number because I think you are out there somewhere. I'm man enough to admit that I;ve cried most nights, just like all the boys. We never thought one of our boys – our little brother – would go.”Reuse content