21 December 2022
Muslims in Britain
When I was writing and speaking about Muslim identity in the 90s, the term ‘British Muslim’ (as distinct from ‘British Islam’ which was seen to go much further in engaging not just the believers, but also the religion with British culture) was challenging enough for many. It was heavily contested back then and few people embraced it with confidence. It’s great to now see so many people use this term with ease and comfort. The notion of being British Muslims came after the idea of settlement began to take hold in a community that had arrived in the 50s and 60s, when the first generation initially held on to the ‘myth of return’. The shattering of this idea of return in the late 1980’s allowed for a new discourse of being rooted in Britain. And while the language of ‘British Islam’ was uncomfortable for some in the 90s, groups such as the Islamic Society of Britain started to confidently use the term from the noughties.
But this was not the first time that Muslim rootedness was expressed on British soil. The presence of Muslims goes back centuries and one can see the development of communities in Liverpool, Woking, Cardiff, London and other cities that are over a 100 years old, as this photo from the archives of the Woking Mosque shows a gathering of the community in the early 1900s:
They may not have used the term, but in essence this was an expression of a very British Islam. So what does this term mean? Well first of all, technically speaking there is only one faith called ‘Islam’, it is a universal and global religion followed by over a billion people. But there always have been very different expressions and interpretations of this faith.
Islam, just as Judaism and Christianity, began in the Middle East and all three religions have spread over the world. Religion cannot be observed as an abstract set of values devoid of location and lived culture, it is really practiced through a cultural prism. So wherever Islam has spread it has grown in that place shaping, and being shaped by, the environment. Lived Islam has always existed as an interpreted phenomenon (rather than in its abstract, essential form).
This is not only in matters such as the design of mosques, Imam al-Shafi’i (d. 820) famously felt the need to re-write sections of his fiqh (jurisprudential / legal) works when he travelled from Iraq to Egypt. Thus a principle in fiqh states that the ‘fatwa changes depending on the time and place’. This time and space dimension has always been a part of our tradition, though perhaps less emphasised in the modern era with the rise of globalisation. We also have consideration for ‘urf (customs of people) in the legal process of some schools of jurisprudence. An extreme neglect of local customs, cultures and traditions (often due to a stream of foreign funding) can lead to a sterile and globalised ‘McDonalds’ version of Islam where beauty, originality, creativity and authenticity give way to a ‘fast-food’ brand of religion that is neither tasteful nor nourishing for the soul.
British Islam is thus shorthand for a naturalised, normalised and ‘embedded’ interpretation and expression of the values and principles of Islam that takes the local context into account in a serious way. This is an age-old venture, and those who speak for this stand on the shoulders of huge giants in both the depths of our tradition as well as in the modern era.
This ‘contextual’ way of thinking about Islam is thus not new, even if the language is. I like to think of the context at two distinct levels:
- The Deep Context – the history and philosophy that lies behind any given society.
- The Everyday Context – the lived culture, the things that make each country or nation subtly different from others.
Just as Muslims drew upon the heritage of Greek philosophers, they learnt from Byzantium, China, India and Persia and this thirst for knowledge made a Bedouin culture blossom into a world civilisation that gave humanity so much in mathematics, philosophy, science and other branches of knowledge. So much so, that as far as England the impact of Arabic numerals and words such as sugar, cotton, canon and alcohol (taken from Arabic) persist. So if we have in the past, why not now? Why not draw upon the European heritage of Descartes, Locke, Kant, or the more recent philosophers of our age? (Though to be honest, based on my visit to the seminaries of Qom, Iran the Shia tradition deals with this much better than Sunnis). It is only when we draw deeply from the intellectual heritage of our context that we can allow Islam to grow an indigenous presence and set roots. Unless we know the history of Europe, and feel it in our bones, we can never truly anchor ourselves. We may well know about Colonialism and neo-Colonialism, but we are no longer ‘over there’; from ‘here’ what do Magna Carta, the Reformation, Westphalia, the struggle for Universal Suffrage or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights say to us?
In trying to describe British Islam, it may be helpful to say what I envisage British Islam is not. It is not an Islam devoid of spiritual or religious content, for it goes without saying that spirituality forms the core of any religion, the beginning and the end. It should not be an Islam that is completely disconnected from the body of the ‘Muslim world’ as that undermines the idea of a community of faith, however much our emphasis and priority should be to build for a future in Britain. It is not a ‘government controlled Islam’, as the development of a wholesome citizen involves the ability to hold power accountable and in a secular society the boundary between state and religion should be respected. Nor is it just a liberal vision of Islam either (as much as that may be my personal inclination). Muslims could just as much draw upon Strauss or MacIntyre to influence a conservative tradition, as much as they draw upon Locke or Rawls for a more liberal one, for example.
This diversity leads me to some of the aspects that may feature positively in British Islam. Aside from the obvious and fundamental aspects of worship, charity, spirituality, family, etc., one would hope that it:
- Would be pluralistic and inclusive as our fiqh tradition aspired to be (and indeed recognise that not everyone will agree with the notion of a British Islam).
- Is also inclusive in engaging seriously with the fact of Muslims being less than 5% of the population of this country. How does this 5% relate to the 95% and how can it engage with them in meaningful terms with solidarity, love, companionship and service? Because if this is ‘our society’, then we are talking of ‘our people’, our ummah (as the Prophet described the diverse community of Medina).
- Would value the autonomy and agency of the individual, on the one hand, and maintain the importance of a ‘community’ of believers, on the other. For ultimately we can only stand in front of God as individuals to account for our own choices but live our faith in communion with others in this life.
- Would be at ease with the application of reason (aql) in order to establish a creative dialogue with an inherited legacy (naql). Whatever knowledge we possess can only be the result of processing by the human mind. As Imam Ali taught that the Qur’an does not speak, it has to be read.
- Rejuvenates a Muslim discourse on ethics and moral philosophy, which has sadly been diminished by our emphasis on fiqh and law. Some of this could be claimed through a stronger emphasis on the objectives (maqasid) of the law.
- Would aspire to defend the open society, where freedom is valued. Because freedom (and free will) is at the core of our creation as human beings and is a divine gift (Qur’an, 2:30). Without the freedom to do wrong, one can never truly choose to do right.
- Would see the pursuit of fairness, justice (adl) and excellence (ihsan) as its over-arching approach and internalise the Human Rights paradigm as its own, such that every single one of God’s children can be treated with dignity and equality simply by virtue of being human, a fact that stands before any other aspect of our identity.
- Would above all emphasise mercy, compassion and love as the core features of how one engages not only with the divine, but also with the whole of creation, such that our aspiration is always to be in a state of inner calm, peace and balance within ourselves and with the world around us.
I’m sure there could be many other features to British Islam. One would envisage that as British Islam develops, Muslim identity itself would evolve to a more confident state, where it is no longer necessary to describe ourselves as ‘Muslim’ citizens. Not that our faith should become unimportant, but that it no longer needs to be so abnormal as to be stated and explained. We don’t describe David Cameron as a ‘Christian’ Prime Minister; we simply know that he is Christian.
And finally one would hope that Muslims could one day see beyond their own needs, concerns and plight. We were not placed on this earth to merely look after ourselves. So, despite facing difficulties, even persecution and enmity, the task is to be of benefit to people around us; to bring peace to others, not hatred and anger and definitely not violence. The Qur’an declares, “…let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is closest to piety…” (5:8). The Prophet Muhammad also taught, “Shall I tell you of something that is better than fasting, prayer and charity? It is mending discord between people. Beware of hatred – it strips you of your religion.”
The process of adaptation described above has occurred throughout Muslim history wherever Islam has travelled to. It is only natural for a religion to acclimatise; otherwise it is destined to remain a foreign and exotic phenomenon. If we truly believe that Islam cannot be monopolised by East or West (as the analogy of the light of God is given in the Qur’an (24:35)) then we must allow it to now grow naturally in the soil of this green and pleasant land.