2 min read
The month of Ramadan is not far now and the practices of Muslims during this time can be intriguing to many non-Muslims who are unfamiliar with the Holy Month.
During this time our faith becomes more visible to our friends and colleagues as we fast, spend more time in prayer or quiet reflection, and politely turn down invitations to lunch. This can in turn prompt questions from our more curious friends and workmates. Ramadan can present a golden opportunity to discuss our faith with people who are not familiar with Islam.
Approaching this from a personal perspective could be the most effective way of conveying what Ramadan is. It might be a good idea to consider what Ramadan means to you in relation to your faith. What benefits do you get from observing it? How does it affect your perception of the world, your sense of self, and your faith? And what advantages could it have to everyone, irrespective of faith?
Many aspects of Ramadan are hugely beneficial to all human beings. Many people practice meditation in various forms and the psychological benefits of it are similar to the quiet reflection that many Muslims undertake during Ramadan. Fasting teaches us time management, self-discipline and reminds us of the value of food. Giving during Ramadan can be very rewarding and focuses our minds on those less fortunate (and in turn, how fortunate we are).
All of these things are relatable, regardless of faith. Speaking about them can convey the many benefits of Ramadan and increase understanding. And as we know, understanding breeds acceptance and reduces ignorance, which can only be a good thing.
Try inviting people to iftar to break the fast together. Extend an invitation to celebrate Eid.
Ramadan is a great time to consider the wider community and to share our faith and festival with everyone who wants to join in the fun. Many will admire our dedication to our faith and the unity between Muslims in the UK and around the world who are observing Ramadan together.
And together, irrespective of faith, we are stronger. United, we have a brighter future ahead of us.
Voting: not only is it halal, it may be fard!
4 min read
A general election is probably not far away and it seems like a tiresome debate that even today, some (albeit very few) people argue that it is haram to vote (at all), or vote in a ‘non-Muslim system of governance’. There is no doubt that the vast majority of Muslims and the ulama regard voting as an important and recommended act of citizenship, if not a mandatory (wajib) action. This must be our starting point, even if we are to engage in a discussion to look at the counter arguments that may advocate abstention from voting.
Aside from reminding ourselves of the need and importance of voting, it is also worth saying that Muslim leaders and charities need to provide mature guidance that doesn’t bleed into simplistic partisanship. Our religion has to be bigger than any one political party and rise above partisan concerns, respecting the genuine diversity amongst Muslims about the key issues of the day. It is only natural that as Muslim settle and become part of this country, that diversity will organically settle across the political spectrum, despite the origins of an immigrant community.
So back to the objections. The most vocal opponents of voting have been the Jihadi groups, Hizb al-Tahrir and some of the extreme Salafi movements. (Although it is interesting to note that Hizb al-Tahrir did in fact enter the electoral process in 1954 and 1956.) The reasons for opposition seems to be that somehow voting constitutes a form of polytheism (shirk billah), (by interfering with God’s authority to rule), as God, not the consensus of people, is apparently the ultimate source of legalisation and sovereignty (hakimiyyah) rests with God.
There is also the argument that if a political system is ‘non-Islamic’, then one cannot share in the ruling of the system; that rule by other than God’s revelations would be tantamount to wrongdoing (fisq), injustice (zulm), or even disbelief (kufr). This argument is not restricted to the state level, but is also used in the context of, for example, a university student union.
Shaykh Rachid Ghannouchi of Tunisia views such ideas as the misunderstanding of both voting (democracy) and Islam. Shaykh Rachid clarifies that the sovereignty of God cannot mean that God comes to earth to rule. On the contrary, the sovereignty of God implies the ‘the rule of law’, a cornerstone of modern democratic states. For him, the idea of submitting oneself to the sovereignty of God is actually a liberating one; to remove the possibility of despotism, the totalitarian and arbitrary rule of another human being.
The maxim (qa’idah) of fiqh, “if you cannot change a situation in its entirety then you should not leave it in its entirety” is important here. Secondly, another maxim, “choosing the lesser of two evils” is also cited by Muslim scholars, as well as the case of the Prophet Yusuf (as) ruling in Egypt within a non-Muslim system. Scholars also mention the Negus of Abyssinia ruling by Christian laws and Imam Ibn Taymiyah states regarding this:
“We know definitely that he could not implement the law of the Qur’an in his community because his people would not have permitted him to. Despite that, the Negus and all those who are similar to him found their way to the pleasure of God in eternity although they could not abide by the laws of Islam, and could only rule using that which could be implemented in the given circumstances.”
A further argument is mentioned by scholars as being the Hilf al-Fudul (the Virtuous Pact), to which the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of God be on him) was party. And also the fact that the Caliph Umar ibn Abdul Aziz found himself in a situation in which he was ruling over the Muslims as a monarch. A situation that befell him by right of inheritance and not one that he agreed with morally. However, he tried his best to make whatever changes he could, rather than abdicate it altogether.
Perhaps the clearest contemporary statement for voting comes from a fatwa of Shaykh Taha Jabir al-Alwani in the US:
“…it is the duty of American Muslims to participate constructively in the political process, if only to protect their rights, and give support to views and causes they favor. Their participation may also improve the quality of information disseminated about Islam. We call this participation a “duty” because we do not consider it merely a “right” that can be abandoned or a “permission” which can be ignored.”
Related to the subject of voting, people sometimes ask, if Muslims can live outside ‘dar al-Islam’ and take up citizenship of a non-Muslim state? The simple answer from the scholars is an emphatic: yes!
The concept of dar al-Islam and the other related descriptions of space such as dar al-harb or dar al-kufr were deduced through scholarly opinion and not directly from the Islamic texts. As all such human endeavours they are subject to change and replacement as the circumstances change. Many of today’s scholars have challenged these notions and have argued that they are no longer relevant. Close examination of the older scholarly views show that factors such as security, protection of ones faith & intellect and protection of one’s property & family were seen as the paramount reasons for the prohibition of living outside dar al-Islam. In the modern age when there is no single area that can be called dar al-Islam and you can find that some Muslims have to seek asylum in western nations for their safety and religious freedom – it seems irrelevant to even debate the issue. Furthermore, scholars have talked of citizenship being a contract between an individual and the state and have emphasised its legality. Voting is the manifestation and duty associated with that legal, binding contract.
We can fulfil this duty by being confident, upright individuals, good family members, fully engaged in society and by living our religious and spiritual values to the full, so that we are an example to others. Islam is not a religion of isolation and Muslims would see if they view their teachings seriously and comprehensively that its basic purpose is to create justice and peace between people. The private values that people posses must influence our public behaviour and social justice is a paramount concern. And we also need to look beyond our own needs and rights, which are important, to realise our role is to be of service (khidmah) to all the people around us, our people.
A more detailed coverage of these discussions around voting can be found in a booklet published here: http://ibrahimfoundation.com/IbrahimFoundation_PoliticalParticipation
Reformation or reform?
3 min read
Many have called for a Reformation within Islam. But what does this mean? Is it a meeker, milder and cuddlier brand of Islam – and will we get that through a Reformation? In Europe it led to a tremendous amount of bloodshed and upheaval – the 30 years war for example – and a long-standing tension between Catholics and Protestants. Some of the more literalist and fundamentalist Christian views stem from the reformed end of the spectrum.
This year marks 500 years since Martin Luther sparked off the Protestant Reformation by nailing his Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg. There are at least four important concerns that lay behind this European history: i) the ‘protest’ against the abuse of power and authority of an institution; and related to that ii) a resentment of the hierarchy of the Church and the potential for abuse by that; iii) the desire to make scripture more accessible to the masses; and iv) an emphasis on the importance of the individual (in front of God).
Whether coincidence or cause, the Reformation was occurring alongside the emergence of modernity and while there are some connections with specific concerns of Muslims in majority countries and the diaspora, there are clearly significant differences between the dynamics of Europe 500 years ago and the Muslim experience today. The Reformation (as distinct from the idea of ‘reform’) is a European, Christian, Protestant experience and while it can speak to the Muslim experience, it will have severe limitations and cannot be simply ‘copied’. But the four concerns mentioned above (whatever their actual outcome) seem entirely laudable and would resonate with Muslims.
And some of them do relate to the need for change and reform, even today. Contrary to what some may assert, it could be argued that reform lies at the heart of Islam. That Islam itself was a reform movement that tried to rebalance what it saw as either the excessive legalism or monasticism of other ways of life, or social, economic and political injustice around Arabia. Muhammad (s) himself was thus a reformer, one who driven by an immense connection with those on the margins of society.
Islam has always had its own intellectual and spiritual tools for renewal and rejuvenation. Historically, during more confident times, reform was seen by Muslims as a constant process. Critical thinking, challenging the status quo and learning from others was a hallmark of Muslim civilization. Something that led to great discoveries and major scientific, mathematical and philosophical contributions. Islam borrowed heavily from the Greek philosophical tradition and many of the early kalam (theological) debates were a natural consequence of that. And yet that energy and vitality of thought appears to have become diminished in the Muslim world over the last few centuries.
In more recent times Muslim intellectuals that identified this deficit have been calling for a renewal of Islamic thought. Iqbal’s ‘Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam’ (1930) is just one example, but earlier demands by Afghani, Abduh, and others – in Shi’i, Sunni, Salafi / Sufi circles have urged on the call for a movement of renewal and reform. Far from seeing the idea of reform as something alien to Islam – as some Muslims may assert – the notions of reform (islah), renewal (tajdid), rebirth (ihya) are essential underpinnings of Islamic thought. Islam has relied heavily on intellectual tools such as ijtihad (creative thinking to deal with new challenges), aql (reasoning) and mantiq (logic) to build on a rational and ethical edifice. The science of maqasid (looking for the higher objectives and purpose) and an emphasis on ethics allow Muslim jurists to escape the trap of the literalist, who in following the text blindly can start to deify it (and thus entirely miss the point of it). The second caliph, Umar, when faced with a situation where he felt the literal application of an inheritance formula from the Qur’an would lead to injustice simply adapted it to what he thought was a more ethical and equitable arrangement.
If Islam is to retain any relevance to new generations; if it is to be for the here and now; if it is to meaningfully touch the lives of those on the margins of our society today, there is an urgency to energise the spirit of reform and to confidently reclaim its usage (of course with erudition and scholarship) whatever the critics may assert in the name of a misplaced notion of static tradition, or a nostalgic call back to the 7th century.
7 min read
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.