Muslims and British:Reflections

Reflections on British and Muslim

Who is a British Muslim is an easy question: it is anyone who follows Islam and holds a U.K. passport. This is at once the easiest and probably the only workable definition. The more teasing question, which I wish to raise in this article is: what is a British Muslim? The query raises two problems related to belonging. What does it mean to be a British person who belongs to Islam? And, what does it mean to be a Muslim person who belongs to Britain? How do we map the overlap zone in a way that makes sense, and is legitimate, in terms of the co-ordinates of both of these terms?
Clearly, by virtue of the first definition, the British Muslim population, all 1.5 million of it, divides into three groups. Firstly, and least problematically, there are men and women whose cultural formation was not British, but who have migrated to this country. This essay will not touch centrally on their own particular struggle for self-definition, which is quite different to that addressed by converts.
Secondly, there are the children of the first group, and occasionally now their grandchildren. These people are usually seen to be torn between two worlds, but in reality, the British world has shaped their souls far more profoundly then they often recognise. Modern schooling is designed for a culture that puts an increasing share of acculturation and upbringing, as opposed to the simple inculcation of facts, on the shoulders of schoolteachers rather than of parents. Muslims who have moved to this country have done so at precisely the time when British education is also going into the business of parenting; most Muslim parents do not recognise the fact, but Muslim children in this country always have a third parent: the Education Secretary. Even those second-generation Muslims here who claim to have angrily rejected Britishness are in fact doing so in terms of types of radicalism which are deeply influenced by Western styles of dissent. Most noticeably, they locate their radicalism not primarily in a spiritual, but in social and political rejection of the oppressive order around them. Their unsettled and agitated mood is not always congenial to the recent convert, who may, despite the cultural distance, feel more comfortable with the first rather than the second generation of migrants, preferring their God-centred religion to what is often the troubled, identity-seeking Islam of the young.
Thirdly, we have the smallest group of all: the convert or so-called ‘revert’ community. This group is highly disparate, and it is not clear that one can make any meaningful generalisations about it at all. Almost by definition, a British person who is guided to Islam is an eccentric of some kind: one of the virtues, perhaps, of the British is that eccentrics have always been nurtured or at least more or less tolerated here. But the overall pattern is confusing. One can offer certain sociological generalisations about British people who become Buddhists, or evangelical Christians, or Marxists. But the present writer’s experience with new Muslims is that no discernable patterns exist which might shed light on the routes by which people awaken to the truth of Islam. This failure to discern patterns can only be described as lamentable, for were we to discern such patterns, they could immediately be exploited for da‘wa purposes. The most we can say is that a clear majority of converts to Islam in Britain are from Catholic rather than Protestant or Jewish backgrounds. Within this group, in my experience the only clergy that convert are Jesuits; I am not aware of a single member of another religious order that has become Muslim.
Other than this very general and not terribly helpful observation, few patterns are discernable, and our missionary efforts, never very coordinated, flounder accordingly.
But whatever the processes, and we may be wise to accept traditional invocations of divine providence and guidance which transcend and make irrelevant any sociological pattern-finding, this third group among British Muslims confronts certain sharp problems of self-definition. Egyptian, or Indonesian, or Indian Muslims becoming British do so slowly, perhaps over two or three generations. The identity problems can be sharp: in particular, there can be painful challenges to the hopes and expectations of parents. But the process is gentle in comparison with the abrupt jolt, which typically welcomes the convert. The signposts of the universe are not adjusted slowly, but all at once.
The initial and quite understandable response of many newcomers is to become an absolutist. Everything going on among pious Muslims is angelic; everything outside the circle of the faith is demonic. The appeal of this outlook lies in its simplicity. The newly rearranged landscape upon which the convert looks is seen in satisfying black and white terms of Them versus Us, good against evil.
This mindset is sometimes called ‘convertitis’. It is a common illness, which can make those who have caught it rather difficult to deal with. Fortunately, it almost always wears off. The only exceptions are those weak souls who imagine that the buzz of excitement caused by their absolutist, Manichean division of the world was a necessary part of Islamic piety, or even that it has some spiritual significance. Such people are often condemned to wander from faction to faction, always joining something new, in an attempt to regain the initial excitement engendered by their conversion.
Most new Muslims, however, soon see through this. A majority of people come to Islam for real spiritual or intellectual reasons, and will continue with their quest once they are inside Islam. Becoming Muslim is, after all, only the first step to felicity. Those individuals who adopt Islam because they need an identity will be condemned to wander the sectarian and factional hall of mirrors, constantly looking for the perfect group that will give them their desperately needed sense of specialness and superiority.
But actions are by intentions. A hundred years ago the founder of the Anglo-Muslim movement, Imam Abdallah Quilliam in Liverpool, was writing that those British people who convert for Allah and His Messenger, will, by the grace of God, be rightly guided. Those who convert for any other reason are in serious spiritual trouble. Just as the namaz [salaat] prayer is invisibly invalidated if the niyya [intention] at its outset is not correct, similarly, Islam will not work for us unless we have entered it in faith, out of a sincere questing for God’s good pleasure. If things are not going right for us, if we find no delight in our prayers, if Ramadan simply makes us hungry, if we cannot seem to find the right mosque or the right company to take us forward, then we would do well to start by examining our intentions. Did we become Muslims only, and purely, to bring our souls to God? Other reasons: solidarity with the oppressed, admiration for Muslims we know, desire to join a group, the love of a woman - none of these are adequate foundations for our lives as Muslims deserving of Allah’s grace and guidance. Imam al-Qushayri says that spiritual aspirants ‘are only deprived of attainment when they neglect the foundations.’ So we need to look within, and if necessary, renew our faith, following the Prophetic sunna. ‘Renew your iman’, a celebrated hadith enjoins.
So what are we? Statistically, perhaps fifty thousand people. But once we have taken the plunge, and enjoyed the feel of Islam, and come to know through experience, rather than through reading books, that Islam is a way of sobriety, dignity, poise and rewarding spirituality, what exactly is our self-definition? When we meet family and friends who are not Muslim, how do we carry ourselves? Do we treat Islam as a great secret? A discreet eccentricity that we hope people will not be so crude as to mention? Or, on the contrary, something we wear on our sleeves, feeling that it is our duty constantly to steer the conversation back into sacred quarters, confronting people with Islam, that they might have no argument against us at the Resurrection?
More generally, what is our view of the wider world of unbelief, which, despite the breathless predictions of some of our co-religionists, continues to grow more powerful and more prosperous? How much of it can we affirm, and how much of it must we publicly or privately disown?
We can, of course, take the easy way out, and avoid engaging with these questions, by retreating from the mainstream of society, and consorting only with Muslims. But this is not so easy. We need to be employed, since this is pleasing to God; and we need to maintain good ties with our relations, since this is also enjoined in the Sunna. Wa-sahibhuma fi’l-dunya ma‘rufan - ‘Keep company with them both in the world in keeping with good custom’, says the Qur’an to converts who have unbelieving parents. And the Sunna explains that non-Muslim parents have significant rights over their Muslim children.
But more significantly even than this, to solve the problems thrown at us and at our identity by the real world outside the mosque gates, we need to engage regularly with non-Muslim society. But for this, there would be no effective da‘wa. People do not hear the word of Islam, generally, by being shouted at by some demagogue at Speakers Corner, or by reading some angry little pamphlet pushed into their hand by a wandering distributor of tracts. They convert through personal experience of Muslims. And this takes place, overwhelmingly, at the workplace. Other social contexts are closed to us: the pub, the beach, the office party. But work is a prime environment for being noticed, and judged, as Muslims.
There is nothing remotely new in this. Islam has always spread primarily through social interactions connected with work. The early Muslims who conquered half the world did not set up soapboxes in the town squares of Alexandria, Cordoba or Fez, in the hope that Christians would flock to them and hear their preaching. They did business with the Christians; and their nobility and integrity of conduct won the Christians over. That is the model followed by Muslims, particularly the Sufis, down the ages; and it is the one that we must retain today, by interacting honourably and respectfully with non-Muslims in our places of work, as much as we can.
If this is clear, then my initial question still begs a response. What is a British Muslim? What manner of creature is he, or she? The public consensus has clear ideas about other British identities: British Anglican, British Jew, British Asian Muslim or Hindu: all these are recognised categories and a certain community of expected response governs interactions between the majority and these groups. The Anglo-Muslim, however, is not a generally recognised type.
My own belief is that the future prosperity of the Anglo-Muslim movement will be determined largely by our ability to answer this question of identity. It is a question mainly for converts, but which many of whose dimensions will come to apply also to second-generation immigrant Muslims here, who have their own questions to ask themselves and this culture about what, exactly, they are.
To frame a response, I think it is useful to step back a little, and consider the larger picture of Islamic history of which we form a very small part. I mentioned earlier that Islam usually spread through the utilisation of commercial opportunities as opportunities for da‘wa. That picture is one of the most extraordinary success stories in religious history. Compare, for instance, the way in which the Muslim world was Islamised to the way in which the Americas were Christianised. Islamisation proceeded with remarkable gentleness, at the hands of Sufis and merchants. Christianisation used mass extermination of the native Americans, the baptism of uncomprehending survivors, and the baleful scrutiny by the Inquisition of any signs of backsliding. A more extreme contrast would be impossible to find.
Perhaps no less extraordinary than this contrast is its interesting concomitant: Christianisation brought Europeanisation. Islamisation did not bring Arabisation. The churches built by the Puritans or the Conquistadors in the New World were deliberate replicas of churches in Europe. The mosques constructed in the areas gradually won for Islam are endlessly diverse, and reflect and indeed celebrate local particularities. Christianity is a universal religion that has historically sought to impose a universal metropolitan culture. Islam is a universal religion that has consistently nurtured a particularist provincial culture. A church in Mexico City resembles a church in Salamanca. A mosque in Nigeria, or Istanbul, or Djakarta, resembles in key respects the patterns, now purified and uplifted by monotheism, of the indigenous regional patrimony.
No less remarkable is the ability of the Muslim liberators to accommodate those aspects of local, pre-Islamic tradition which did not clash absolutely with the truths of revelation. In entering new lands, Muslims were armed with the generous Qur’anic doctrine of Universal Apostleship; as the Qur’an says, ‘To every nation there has been sent a guide’. This conflicts sharply with the classical Christian view of salvation as hinging uniquely on one historical intervention of the divine in history: the salvific sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. Non-Christian religions were, in classical Christianity, seen as demonic and under the sign of original sin. But classical Islam has always been able and willing to see at least fragments of an authentic divine message in the faiths and cultures of non-Muslim peoples. If God has assured us that every nation has received divine guidance, then we can look with some favour on the Other. Hence, for instance, we find popular Muslim poets in India, such as Sayid Sultan, writing poems about Krishna as a Prophet. There is no final theological proof that he was one, but the assumption is nonetheless n

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