Category Archives: Religion

Abdullah Quilliam and Sufism

Today I received a rarity in the post that was published exactly a hundred years ago: a translated selection of the Ottoman Mevlevi Sufi poet Sheikh Haroun Abdullah’s (c.1556-c.1641) poems by Abdullah Quilliam. Quilliam had it privately published in 1916 under the pseudonym Henri M. Léon that he adopted on his return to England, c. 1909-10. [1] It was dedicated to his daughter, May Habeeba Quilliam, who had died at the age of eleven in May 1908 from diphtheria. [2] The volume was a matter of nostalgia for Quilliam as the translations had been undertaken on those occasions when he had been in Istanbul between 1903 and 1908:

in attendance upon His Imperial Majesty Ghazi Sultan Abdul-Hamid Khan, at the Palace of Yildiz, and form, to me, a souvenir of the many kindnesses I experienced at the hands of my then Imperial Patron, for whom I shall always cherish feelings of affection, gratitude, sympathy and respect. [3]

The introduction which introduces the reader to Sufism in general, the Mevlevi Order, and to Sheikh Haroun’s life and works was composed the following year in 1909, ‘after the [Young Turks] Revolution’, ‘during the time I was living in retirement at Bostandjik’ (which is on the Asian side of modern-day Istanbul). [4] The introduction is crisply written and is, like the book as a whole, evidence of Quilliam’s knowledge of and attachment to Sufism. Here is an example of Quilliam’s felicitous writing on the subject:

The annihilation of self, the entire consecration of the mind and body to the service of Allah, the contemplation of the Divine, and the disregard of the earthly, such is the tariq, the path, by which the Dervish seeks to consummate his union with the One. Everything speaks to him of the Beloved, the Unity. But the mere perception of the Immanence of the Divine, is only the first step in the Way. The End of the Path is only to be attained when the conscious union with the Divine is obtained. The veil which material Nature has placed between the self-knowing part, the Ruh [Soul], and Allah ta’ala must be pierced. The mind must be emptied of all images, of all worldly thoughts, fears, longings, or aspirations, and brought to a realization of the Presence. Then and only then does the nafs [Spirit] find itself alone with Allah. [5]

Was this interest in Sufism more than merely a scholarly one for Quilliam? Was he a member of a Sufi Order? We simply do not know presently. However, two possibilities suggest themselves. Quilliam’s patron, Abdul Hamid, was himself a Shadhili and a devoted follower of Sheikh Muhammad Zafir al-Madani (1828–1903), who taught the Way at the Yildiz Hamidiye Mosque. Abdul Hamid built Ertuğrul Tekke Mosque for his sheikh and the Shadhili Order in Yildiz district, just below his palace, which was completed in 1887. When I visited the tekke in 2008, I was shown the intricately carved lectern and architectural backdrop that Abdul Hamid, trained inter alia as a master carpenter, had carved for his sheikh. Besides the Shadhilis, another possible tariqa that might have been attractive to Quilliam was the Mevlevi Order itself as his dedicated interest in Sheikh Haroun Abdullah indicates. Further research is definitely needed into whether or not Quilliam might have joined a tariqa at any point during his time in Istanbul, the Ottoman territories or Morocco.

Let me end by presenting Quilliam’s felicitous translation of Sheikh Haroun’s ghazal in praise of the Prophet:

So long as the heart doth pulsate and beat,
So long as the sun bestows light and heat,
So long as the blood thro’ our veins doth flow,
So long as the mind in knowledge doth grow,
So long as the tongue retains power of speech,
So long as wise men true wisdom do teach,
The praise of God’s Prophet, Ahmed the Blest,
Shall flow from our lips and spring from our breast,
‘Twas Rasul-Allah from darkness of night
Did lead us to Truth, did give to us light,
Did point out the path, which follow’d with zest,
Leadeth to Islam and gives Peace and Rest,
Praise be to Allah! ‘Twas He who did send,
Ahmed Muhammad, our Prophet, our Friend. [6]

Notes

[1] Henri M. Léon, Sheikh Haroun Abullah: A Turkish Poet and His Poetry (Blackburn: Geo. Toulmin & Sons for La Société Internationale de Philologie, Science et Beaux-Arts, London, 1916), 108pp; Ron Geaves, Islam in Victorian Britain: The Life and Times of Abdullah Quilliam (Markfield: Kube Publishing, 2010), p.259.

[2] Léon, Sheikh Haroun Abdullah, p.5; Geaves, Islam, pp.112, 259.

[3] Léon, p.11.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p.15, with some corrections to the Arabic transliteration. The translations of Arabic terms that are placed in square brackets are taken from Quilliam’s own glossary at the end of the book to preserve his own understanding of these terms.

[6] Ibid., p.81.

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British Muslim Archives: A rare profile of and interview with Martin Lings (Al-Hajj Abu Bakr Siraj al-Din) from 1963

This was published in Muslimnews International, vol. 1, no. 8, Jan 1963, pp.18–19.

Martin Lings interview Jan1963_Page_1

Martin Lings interview Jan1963_Page_2

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Abdullah Quilliam’s obituary of Yahya Parkinson (1874-1918)

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Yahya Parkinson (1874-1918), Scottish Muslim poet, essayist, and critic, was born in Kilwinning, Ayrshire, Scotland, of Irish descent. Born John Parkinson, he adopted the name Yehya-en-Nasr after privately converting to Islam in c.1901 after a correspondence with Abdullah Quilliam in Liverpool. Although relatively isolated in Scotland, Parkinson maintained contact with Quilliam’s Liverpool Muslim Institute between 1901 and 1908 which helped to establish his literary reputation by publishing his early work, after which he developed connections with literary and learned Muslim circles in British India (in Lahore, Calcutta and Rangoon), as well others closer to home in London and Woking, Surrey. His published books and pamphlets included Lays of Love and War (Ardrossan, 1904), Muslim Chivalry (Rangoon, 1909), Essays on Muslim Philosophy (Rangoon, 1909), Outward Bound (Rangoon, 1909) and Al-Ghazali (Woking, c.1913). He was a regular contributor of poetry and prose to a number of journals including The Islamic World (Liverpool), The Crescent (Liverpool), Journal of the Moslem Institute (Calcutta), Crescent (Lahore), The Review of Religions (Qadian, Punjab) and The Islamic Review (Woking). Parkinson worked for nearly all of his adult life as a wool-spinner at the Busby Spinning Company with a two-year sojourn in Burma as a deputy editor of a Rangoon newspaper in 1908-10; ill-health forced him to return to Scotland. With the Liverpool Muslim Institute having collapsed during his time abroad, Parkinson became Vice-President of the British Muslim Society (later renamed as the Muslim Society of Great Britain) run from Woking and headed by Lord Headley. He died in December 1918 after a short bout of pneumonia.

While he achieved some fame within local and some international Muslim literary circles, Parkinson has been largely forgotten until a recent revival of interest in his work among historians including Timothy Winter (Cambridge), Yaqub Zaki (Scotland) and Brent D. Singleton (California). Singleton recently republished a number of Parkinson’s poems in an anthology of poems by Muslim converts during the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, The Convert’s Passion (2009), and a number of them have also been set to music by Abdal Hakim Murad in Muslim Songs of the British Isles (2005).

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Quilliam as Prof. H.M. Leon

 

 

Abdullah Quilliam often wrote under a pen-name in the pages of The Crescent so as to be able to write about prominent members of the Liverpool Muslim Institute, and not least himself, in the third person. After he returned to England from Istanbul in 1909, Quilliam adopted a pseudonym of Prof. H.M. Léon (scholars like Ron Geaves and Jamie Gilham offer a number of hypotheses as to why), and subsequently built a second career in England as a French-born man of letters and polymath. Quilliam’s dual identity was an open secret among the convert community but it was not revealed at his request to wider society. The main vehicle for Prof. Léon’s scholarship in London was the The Philomath, the official organ and journal of proceedings of the Société Internationale de Philologie, Sciences et Beaux-Arts, which Quilliam had founded while still in Liverpool.

Reproduced below is the obituary of and tribute to Parkinson by Rev. E.H. Vicars, almost certainly Quilliam writing under yet another pen-name.

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The issue of The Philomath that features Parkinson’s obituary

The Late John Yehya-en_Nasr Parkinson, F.S.P. – Rev. E.H. Vicars, B.A., F.S.P.

The Société has recently lost a valuable member, through the death of Mr. John Yehya-en-Nasr Parkinson, M.B.A.S., F.S.G., F.S.P. The deceased gentleman being not only a gentleman of scientific achievements, but also a poet of no mean merit.

Mr Parkinson, albeit of Hibernian descent, first saw the light of day on the 17th February, 1874, in the historical little town of Kilwinning, Ayrshire, Scotland. Left motherless when but an infant of scarce seven months old, he was brought up by his grandparents. John was a studious boy and was regarded as the most diligent and intelligent of the pupils in the school which he attended. In 1887, when but 13 years old, he left school and entered a large factory, but continued his studies in the evening, particularly in Scottish history, geography, and astronomy. Three years later, namely, in 1890, his grandparents died, and thus at the early age of 16 he was left to face the world alone. He so ardently pursued his studies in astronomy and mathematics that he was in 1896 elected a member of the British [18] Astronomical Society, and in 1900 contributed some interesting articles to the Ardrossan and Salcoats Journal. He subsequently became a regular contributor to that newspaper. Up to that time young Parkinson had been a member of the United Presbyterian Church, but, hearing of the Islamic movement in Liverpool, in 1901 he opened up correspondence with the Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles (Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam Bey), and ultimately became a convert to Islam, adopting on his entrance into that Faith, the Islamic name of “Yehya-en-Nasr”. Numerous effusions from his pen, from that time, appeared in the columns of The Crescent and the Islamic World (both published in Liverpool) and in other Muslim periodicals. The same year a volume of his poems, entitled “Songs of Love and War”, was published and met with a favourable reception. It was about this period that Mr. Parkinson became a member of the Liverpool branch of the Société, and it was in association therewith that I first had the pleasure of making his personal acquaintance. Theologically we differed widely, but as sectarian matters and political questions are utterly tabooed in La Société, we were able to meet on neutral ground and discuss these great and fascinating problems which the science of astronomy presents to the scientist, and it was always a pleasure to me to hold converse with Mr. Parkinson thereon. He delivered, in 1903, three lectures on astronomical subjects before the Liverpool Branch of the Société, and it speaks volumes for the catholicity of the institution, that the gentlemen who presided thereat on these three occasions were each of different faiths – the Sheikh-ul-Islam being the chairman at the first; Baron S. Benas, J.P. (a distinguished local Sephardic Jew) at the second; and a Christian clergyman (to wit, myself) at the third of the series. It may be interesting to mention that the titles of these three lectures were respectively, in the order in which they were given, “The Solar Orb and Its attendant Planets”; “The Earth’s Satellite”; and “Is Mars Inhabited?”

Mr. Parkinson in 1902 became a member of the Ancient Order of the Zuzimites, and subsequently was appointed a junior officer of the Grand Tabernacle of that organisation, remaining a member thereof until his decease. In 1906 he [19] penned a long epic poem which he styled the Osmanli Nameh, wherein, in imitation of the style of Firdawsi’s immortal work the Shah Nameh, he set forth the glories of the Ottoman Sultans from Osman, the founder of the dynasty, down to Sultan Abdul-Hamid Khan. A copy of this work, in manuscript, tastefully bound, was presented to the last-named Turkish monarch by the Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles, and the poet was honoured by being decorated with the medaille of the 4th class of the Order of the Medjidie, the ceremony of investiture being performed in the lecture hall of the Liverpool Muslim Institute by the Sheikh, in the presence of a large number of Mr. Parkinson’s friends and admirers, utterly irrespective of creed or nationality.

In 1909 Mr. Parkinson accepted an appointment in connection with the editorship of a journal in Burma. He was in India for about two years, and then returned to England, finding that it was impossible for him to work with some of those who had control of such journalistic undertaking.

On his return to England he resumed the previous position he had held at Kilwinning, and remained therein until the date of his decease in December last.

To the end he retained his love and admiration for the Osmanli race, and his faith in the religion which he had adopted. His sojourn in India, however, had not added to his confidence in some of the natives thereof.

By the death of John Yehya-en-Nasir Parkinson, I feel that I have lost a valued friend; the Societe, a worthy man; Science, an ardent student; and the State, a good citizen.

Source: The Philomath (London), vol. 23, no. 264, Jan-Mar 1919, pp.17-19.

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The Perversity of Tom Holland’s Argument that ISIS is authentically Islamic

The history writer Tom Holland has waded into the argument about how Islamic the Islamic State is, originally sparked by an article in the Atlantic. His argument is that their rhetoric is full of pious references to scripture and that they faithfully apply the rulings to be found in the classical jurisprudential (fiqh) texts. In other words, Da‘esh is very Islamic; in fact, Islamic in a way that is too embarrassing for Muslims to acknowledge. Instead, “apologists” apparently muddy the waters by denying that ISIS is authentically Islamic, an exercise that mirrors the futility of the Catholic Council of Trent trying Canute-like to hold back the tide of the Protestant Reformation.

There are at least four reasons why this line of argument is simply perverse and dangerous.

One argument is political. Holland simply takes ISIS’s claim to be Islamic at face value, and buys into their propaganda. In doing so, he thereby gives succour to the narrative that ultimately Islam is the problem, and that the West and Islam are irreconcilable and doomed to remain in conflict. He goes beyond the well-worn language of good Muslim versus bad Muslim of the “War on Terror” years, and is closer in spirit to neoconservative “clash of civilisations” rhetoric (and ironically to ISIS’s bipolar worldview).

Another argument is historical. Holland reanimates the tendentious notion that the history of Islam can be understood through the history of Christianity, almost in a deterministic way. Thus Salafis are Calvinists and Sunnis are Catholics, and neither can hold back the tide of reform, violent or otherwise. Of course this simply elides some important differences. To name two obvious ones, that Islam has no equivalent of the Magisterium, and notwithstanding the Ottomans that Reformation Europe was not subjected to such intense extra-continental foreign invasion and occupation as nearly all Islamdom was during the era of European colonialism. We can enable a more serious debate by recognizing the claim that Islam needs to replay the history of Christianity and of Europe is ideological, rather than dressing it up as serious history.

A further argument is hermeneutical, as Holland’s position does away with any notion of orthodoxy. All Muslims can read the sources and their interpretive literature and stand in equality to them: they can all interpret them and so we cannot privilege one reading over another. But this conflates mundane ability with authority. It ignores the fact that when Muslims read the text they do so as part of a socially-embodied community of believers that worries over its present condition. This community extends into the past by its attachment to authoritative readings, exemplars, institutions, sensibilities, aptitudes and symbols, and it looks forward in arguing over what might constitute the good in the future.

For Muslims, what constitutes the good lies somewhere in the dynamic interplay between Muslim scholarly opinions and Muslim public opinion in general. Each major grouping in Islam has a notion of regulative authority and possesses an orthodoxy that shapes but does not set in aspic the tone and terms of the debate over what constitutes tradition, authority, and the good. On the other hand Muslim publics challenge their respective religious authorities on the grounds of justice, relevance and adequacy, and in the final analysis it is the umma (the body-spiritual of the believers) that regulates what is orthodox through weight of opinion.

In other words, the umma cannot be dictated to from the fringes. And on this basis the fact that a murderous cult has captured territory in Iraq and Syria and claims the mantle of Islamic normalcy and even the caliphate is neither here nor there. Rather the point is that virtually everyone has rejected ISIS’s claim to be Islamic – even other deviant extremist groups such as al-Qaeda have done so. What Tom Holland is doing is denying the right of Muslims to police deviancy and extremism in the name of Islam and is misconstruing the regulative mechanism of orthodoxy itself – Muslim public opinion – as mere apologetics.

The more salient questions that Holland alludes to but obscures are how can Salafism regulate its extreme jihadist elements and how do Sunni Muslims regulate Salafism? This is really another kind of question, namely what kind of regulative health do Islamic orthodoxies currently enjoy? I don’t want to pretend that anything other than a long and detailed reply would do justice to such large questions, and I am only going to provide the briefest of answers here.

I would posit the argument that there is a very loose regulative hierarchy of orthodoxies in Islam (see the attached diagram from S.H. Nasr’s The Heart of Islam, p.111). The Spectrum of IslamDespite their differences, their respective notions of the tradition, authority and the good bear enough of a family resemblance of overlapping congruities to recognize each other as bearers of the same living tradition. This is recognized in a de facto way, in notions like that of the ahl al-qibla or the issuance of Hajj visas in a non-sectarian way (for the most part). There are even convocations, such as the Amman Message in 2004, which provides an example of a relatively rare formal statement of this minimal reciprocal recognition. This particular initiative used the Sunni language of legitimate jurisprudential differing to recognize eight schools as orthodox: the four Sunni, two Shi‘i (Ja‘fari and Zaydi), the ‘Ibadi and the Zahiri (the latter a circumlocution for Salafi).

But it is global and mundane social processes of acclimatization and living together rather than official proclamations alone that would prove more potent. Sunnis could accommodate Salafis if there was greater mutual amity and recognition in everyday interactions along with some reduction in the militancy of Salafi thought and action. More formally, for Salafis the trade-off would be Sunni acknowledgement of them as a discrete school of law, probably to be construed as an outgrowth of late Hanabalism, under which Ibn Taymiyya and his students became primary referents. The prospects for this seem distant but less unrealistic currently than does rapprochement between Salafis and their militants, engaged as they are in a war of anathematization. This hot war of words extends to the Salafi jihadis themselves and the fallout between al-Qaeda and ISIS in 2014; it is always your former allies at the moment of betrayal who are more hated than anyone else.

Having said all this, it must be recognized that the regulative health of Islamic orthodoxy is under pressure from far more than Sheikh Google or Wahhabis, as Holland argues. In no particular order, the disruptive effects of colonialism, the intellectual challenges of European modernity, the rise of Muslim nationalism, the nationalisation of the endowments (awqaf) system that debilitated independent higher Islamic education, the shift to print from scribal culture, the change to promulgated law from law as responsa, the emergence of Islamic movements that challenged the ulema’s role, and general intellectual stagnation, have all been factors in weakening orthodoxy. Shi‘i orthodoxies being both more centralised and less historically tied to imperial state structures have tended to survive the transition to modernity more successfully than Sunni orthodoxy has. Today, both Muslim publics and their scholarly elites are under the continuous pressures of internecine national rivalries and new “Great Game” proxy wars in Islamdom that stoke sectarian conflict more so than it does encourage living together or reconciliation. To my mind, however, any right-thinking Muslim regards the weakening of orthodoxy as a serious challenge and she would regard the giving up any regulative moral role for the umma in policing its militant fringes as suicidal.

The fourth and final argument is contextual. There is a kind of pious thinking on the part of some atheists and believers alike that is wilfully blind to factors like the failure of politics, and the recourse to terrorism and invasion. In a recent interview with Vice, Obama has broken with normal “War on Terror” rhetoric to acknowledge the “unintended” causal connection between the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq and that of ISIS, its bastard child. Yet it’s all about decontextualized ideas with Holland. Years into the War on Terror that’s an unsustainable position for a history writer to take. Seemingly the invasion and occupation of Iraq has less bearing for Holland than it does for Obama. Sustained asymmetric warfare over time creates brutal outfits like ISIS, who have made the propaganda of the vile deed an essential element of their credo. But of equal concern is that we have normalized a continuous state of emergency, a normalization that reduces the Muslim enemy to a subhuman status. There are continuous attempts to make legitimate their rendition, detention without charge or trial, torture, bombing, hunting by drones, and so forth. The massive projection of Western military force requires continuous war propaganda, one strand of which argues that our foe’s enmity towards us lies essentially with his Muslim identity and in nothing else.

By asking Muslims to own up to ISIS being authentically Islamic, Tom Holland is asking us to surrender Islam to ISIS. And that is wrongheaded, dangerous and perverse and serves no good outcome that I can see.

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New Book: British Secularism and Religion: Islam, Society and the State

It’s been a long time since I last posted anything here, and I aim to post more frequently. It’s not as if things of importance aren’t happening in the world.

For the time being, however, I wanted to flag up a new collection that I’ve co-edited with Dilwar Hussain and Ataullah Siddiqui. It’s the outcome of a seminar held in January 2009 on ‘British Muslims and the Secular State’, and is the first collection to my knowledge to focus on this issue. At its heart, it is an attempt to test the implications of two questions through a multi-party dialogue (or ‘multilogue’ for short), as we can see little practical utility in us British Muslims discussing this issue in splendid isolation.

The first question is to explore what religious grounds there are within Islam, and within Judaism and Christianity, to affirm secular liberal democracy.  The book as a whole concentrates upon political rather than philosophical secularism, which, in the twentieth century, many Muslim intellectuals directly equated with the promotion of atheism during the colonial and post-colonial periods. Today in twenty-first century Europe they equate it, and not without reason, with a political attack on Muslim communities and their institutions. Political secularism in a liberal democratic context, on the other hand, refers to (or, more realistically, ought to refer to) the relative separation between state and religion, to non-discrimination among religions and to the guarantees made with respect to the human rights of citizens, regardless of their creed, to which the philosopher Charles Taylor importantly adds the principles of political fraternity and the seeking of harmony.

Unsurprisingly all three discussants tackling this first issue — Abdullah Sahin, Nick Spencer and Norman Solomon — make a careful distinction between what they affirm and support as ‘secularity’, an accommodative arrangement that does not exclude religion from public life and that is committed to democratic inclusion, but are critical of a ‘secularism’ that systematically excludes religion from public life.

The second main proposition looks at the whole issue from another perspective: what reasons might the democratic secular state have to affirm a public role for religion in ways that are consonant with its underlying philosophy. Two respondents — Ted Cantle and Sunder Katwala — assess Tariq Modood’s proposition that the democratic secular state has five reasons to affirm a public role for religion: (i) the truth of religious claims made, subject to robust democratic processes, in policymaking, if not as a basis for a secular democratic state; (ii) the judicious control of violent religious fanaticism; (iii) the social and moral benefits of religious lifestyles upon society; (iv) the recognition of religious identity as a basis for participative citizenship at the levels of individual, minority group and national belonging; and (v) respect for religion as a cultural, historical or civilizational public good. Importantly Modood also points out that there is an important alternative to stricter forms of secularism, seen in France or the United States for instance, which is moderate or accommodative secularism, which is historically the hallmark of northwestern Europe, and particularly of Britain. There is an additional argument Modood makes which is that accommodative secularism better respects the mutual autonomy of politics and religion through ‘twin tolerations’, and so it should therefore be seen as central to liberal democracy. Maleiha Malik closes out the collection by looking at future prospects for the debate on secularism and religion in Britain.

Copies can be ordered from Amazon Marketplace or from Kube Publishing.

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Dilemmas of Authenticity and Belonging

Yahya Birt

It is obvious enough that the debate about the place of Islam in Europe has probably never been so important or sharply contested. The numbers of those who think there can be no genuine or settled place for Europe’s second largest religion seem to be growing; and this sentiment now mobilises politics in many European states, the Swiss vote in 2009 against the building of minarets being a recent example of this politics of fear. The outcome of this vote seems to suggest that if Muslims are to retain a presence in Europe, it should be rendered unnoticeable or even invisible, and that the normal religious freedoms others enjoy are to be especially curtailed for Muslims. Populist politicians like Gert Wilders in the Netherlands can now gain sizeable constituencies by promising to end mosque construction or banning the Qur’an. France, having banned the headscarf from French public schools in 2004, is now debating in 2010 whether to ban face veils from the country altogether, as they are, it is argued, deemed to be incompatible with republican values. Similarly the debate over whether Turkey can be part of the European Union touches upon the very political definition of what Europe is. As the former president of France, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, argued in 2002, Turkey was not fit to be the member of a “Christian club” and, if accepted into Europe, Turkish membership would in any case “destroy the EU” if it went ahead.

Similarly Europe now lives with an ongoing terrorist threat from those whom al-Qaeda inspires to strike in the name of Muslims everywhere. Al-Qaeda operates with a cosmic idea of incessant violent struggle; catalytic acts of political violence, it is believed, will somehow galvanise and unite the Muslim world against the West to restore lost honour and power through indiscrimate carnage as seen in New York and Washington (2001), Madrid (2004), London (2005) and Glasgow (2007). And there have been a number of other foiled plots in the last decade, some dating to even before 9/11. Of course some have been radicalised recent migrants from the Muslim world, but others were European born and bred, and it is around trying to understand how these European Muslims became radicalised that some of the most intense debate about the place of Islam in Europe has raged.

However, I would suspect that even more divisive than the violent fringe have been the political and cultural clashes between liberal Europe and its often conservatively-minded Muslim minorities. Muslim identity politics in Europe can only become widely mobilised across different ethnic, sectarian and class divisions and be able to connect Muslim diasporas with political actors, state or non-state, in the Muslim world for two main reasons. The first cause is a military attack on a Muslim people by a non-Muslim power, where the Muslims are clearly not the aggressors, e.g. the conflict in Bosnia, 1992-95. The second cause is a cultural or political attack on a universal Islamic symbol; this attack is deemed to be a collective insult to Muslim dignity that besmirches the honour of their religion, e.g. the Danish Cartoons Crisis, 2005-8. Both causes relate to the victimization of Muslims, whose pain and suffering because of cultural contempt or political marginalisation plays not only into post-colonial angst and racialized politics in Europe today, but into deeply-felt frustration at the contemporary democratic deficit in the Muslim world and its inability to shape its own future and destiny. Yet what is also noticeable is the very fragility, or thinness, of this universal Muslim identity politics. As soon as any complexity is introduced, such as Muslim-on-Muslim conflict or the public ridicule of any non-universal Muslim taboo, then its appeal and scope is quickly curtailed.

 A similar observation might be made of anything that might be held to somehow undermine the idea of Europe: any universal appeal to a European identity politics must be equally thin to garner together such a diverse constituency of Europeans. At the heart of this European identity politics is cultural uncertainty: an aging continent feels threatened by younger non-European migrants, many of whom are Muslim by faith, and whom it is felt do not sufficiently share Europe’s values; and, as Asia rises and develops multiple modernities, the notion central to European identity that it gave birth a universal and singular modernity appears to be increasingly anachronistic.

So it might be surmised that identity politics is partly based on the anxiety created by the inability to engage with the loss of credible universal narratives. In the case of Islam, European colonialism decisively ended its narrative of imperial and religious manifest destiny in the nineteenth century, and, for the post-colonial Muslim diaspora in Europe, this tension is intensified by the fact of being a European minority of low, or at least ambiguous, social status. This status anxiety is more acute and prolonged that in the case of Europe’s, which has only really slowly developed in the latter half of the twentieth century with the challenges of decolonisation, the rise of America, the divisions of the Cold War, and now the slow shifting of the centre of the world economy to East Asia.

Within a context where many are seeking to diffuse mutually-antagonistic identity politics between Islam and Europe, I want to reflect on one small initiative with which I was recently involved. In 2009, the University of Cambridge won a competitive tender to host a series of seminars to reflect upon “Contextualising Islam in Britain” that was funded by the Department of Communities of Local Government. Inevitably a number of ironic ambiguities were involved in such an unusual endeavour. Why, for instance, would a secular government be interested in Muslim theological reflection as such except for more narrow policy imperatives? How much were the sorts of conclusions sought by government ones of a liberal or progressive bent that were desired and anticipated in advance? How much was the official motivation one that was driven to demonstrate an Islam that was compatible with liberalism, or at the very least could be convincingly shown to be fundamentally harmless and innocuous? How could a small panel of 26 Muslim academics, activists and religious scholars hope to avoid the charge from their own community of promoting their own version of an official British Islam without a proper mandate? And, added to that, what authority or relevance would its deliberations have?  Muslim conservatives might think it too liberal, “Islamists” might think it too politically quiescent, it would be ignored or dismissed by the radicals and wouldn’t most Muslims, holding to an informal and iterative notion of religious authority, baulk at the idea of an official national Islam? Wouldn’t theological reflection in and of itself be overly abstract and divorced from concrete policy issues, e.g. high unemployment, racial discrimination or relatively low educational attainment, that affect Muslim communities in Britain? And wasn’t there a stereotypical element in defining Muslims primarily or even solely in religious terms by assuming that the problems of Muslim communities were best addressed in theological terms?

All those involved were acutely aware of these sorts of dilemmas, which might be summarised as dilemmas of authenticity and belonging. Could such an exercise be theologically serious while not been overly presumptive in the claims to authority that it made? How could such an exercise be more creative and interesting than being a political exercise in reassurance or a plea for acceptance? It is for others to decide how far the “Contextualising Islam in Britain” project succeeded in avoiding these pitfalls; however, a few further reflections are in order.

One obvious irony was that there are few if any comparable platforms, due to internal politics or lack of resources or vision, for sustained reflection on pressing theological issues by such a wide theological diversity of British Muslims, except for official ones. The fact that British Muslim institutions, being perceived as biased in one way or another, would have struggled to collect together Sunnis and Shiites, Sufis and Salafis, liberals and conservatives, and Deobandis and Barelwis (the latter being British Islam’s most important sectarian Muslim division) under one roof. Although an atmosphere of distrust, incompatibility and intransigence was a distinct possibility, and many of 26 participants had not met or worked together before, in practice, a robust but healthy dynamic was established.

In my personal view, the overriding reasons as to why co-operation was easier to sustain than originally feared were threefold. Firstly, the politically parlous public reputation of Muslims sets up an overall context in which intra-faith co-operation becomes more desirable. Secondly, the seminar participants focused upon the theological challenges that faced them all, regardless of their denominational background, which were largely matters of public religion, or the role of Islam in public life, which, as a common circumstance, challenge and opportunity, cuts across other sorts of division. And, finally, there was also sufficient maturity and experience within the group to see such moments of sustained reflection in lives that are otherwise busy and overstretched as rare opportunities that were not to be wasted.

On the question of religious authority, the participants were seasoned enough to realise that as there are many points of religious authority within the Islamic tradition, and that restating Islamic norms is fundamentally an iterative exercise that is ongoing because of changing times and circumstances, the whole exercise was properly framed as opening out the debate and about asking some of the right questions. It was certainly not a series of definitive fatwas that were sought, and no-one claimed either the legal expertise or authority to do so.

On the politics around such an exercise, the participants were clear that a mere reiteration of the idea that Islam is harmless, i.e. that the vast majority of Muslims abjure the violent extremists who misuse the name of Islam, could not be a serious starting point of any sustained theological reflection. Instead, even within a secular Europe, significant parts of which are post-Christian, the idea of religion as a public good, and, within that, the role of Islam as Europe’s second religion, should be further explored and strengthened. There was wide support for Britain’s particular form of secularism, as accommodative of religious pluralism, religious freedoms and of religious institutions, and as providing the overall framework to articulate religion as a public good; however, it was recognised that there were more challenges in framing a positive role for the religious voice within Britain’s traditions of secular public reason and political culture.

The report, in my reading, did recognise that sustained Islamic reflection upon the role of religion in public life within the European context was still in its early stages. The reasons for this were recognised as many and complex but the primary need was to shift the emphasis of Muslim theological languages of public engagement from jurisprudence (fiqh) and legal theory (usul al-fiqh) to become more inclusive of mysticism (tasawwuf), theology (kalam) and philosophy (falsifa). In short, an ethical turn in Islamic public discourses is urgently needed not least because of the widespread misunderstanding of Islamic legalese as a tacit call for parallel legal systems within Europe, but also to reflect more easily an aspiration to serve the common or public good, and not just of the “Muslim good” as it were.

It was recognised that too much emphasis had been put by the Islamic legal tradition on the citizenship contract (ahd, i.e. the duties held by the citizen towards the state), rather than upon the fundamental convenant (mithaq) between humanity and God, that underwrites our inate moral responsibility to each other. It is under this sense of higher ethical purpose that the believer seeks to serve the common good of all through a spirit of service (khidma) and moral excellence (ihsan), rather than a thin legal relationship of citizenship rights. There has been an assumption in Islamic legal tradition that Muslim minority status is a passing and temporary circumstance, which is to be endured through various forms of moral protectionism and community survival. This is wholly at odds with the reality that millions of Muslims have voluntarily and happily chosen Europe as their permanent home to which they belong and wish to make a positive contribution to.  Without this as the basic starting point of any serious deliberation then there is little hope that any amount of reflection will move any of us beyond the politics of fear.

Originally published as “Dilemas de authenticidad y pertenencia“, Akfar/Ideas (No.25, April 2010).

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New Biography of Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam

The first full biography of Abdullah Quilliam, appointed Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles by Sultan Abdul Hamid II in 1893, has just come out. It’s a fascinating read and exhaustively researched and written in an accessible way by Ron Geaves, Professor of Comparative Religion at Liverpool Hope University. It can be ordered online from Kube Publishing, and should be appearing in all good bookstores shortly.

As Professor Geaves asutely, and to my mind correctly, points out, Sheikh Abdullah was a man defined by his twin loyalties to Caliph and Crown. He regarded Abdul Hamid II as the true Caliph, and was appointed by the latter to deliver the weekly khutba before the jumu‘a prayers in his name, which were conducted according to the Hanafi School of Law. An example of one of the Sheikh’s khutbas from 1901 is set out below.

Quilliam was a royalist and a patriot too, as the second text, a special du‘a offered on the occasion of Edward VII’s coronation in 1902, shows. In both cases, he prays that God guides the sovereigns of the world to take care of their peoples, and gives them the wisdom to live in peace with each other, for as they are appointed by God (for He grants dominion to whom He wills), they must rule in a fitting manner. Yet, of course, events were to prove otherwise. If the British Empire had once seen the Ottomans as a counterweight against expanding Russian influence, it increasingly focused on building a grand alliance against the Germans which included the Russians as well as the French and left the Ottomans out in the cold. For a man who saw the world in terms of imperial order, and whose loyalty was for both Crown and Caliph, for the two to have come to blows must have proved to have been highly traumatic (Ron Geaves observes that in some ways it left Quilliam a bitterly disappointed man), and so the prayer that these monarchs pursue the cause of peaceful co-existence must have been heartfelt indeed on his part. Indeed as the biography demonstrates Quilliam’s complicated position of loyalty to the Crown under which he reserved the right to be rigorously critical of imperial government policy of the day on the grounds of religious principle was often misunderstood.

*****

A Jumma [Jumu‘a] Prayer
(as Offered in the Mosque at Liverpool by the Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles)

‘O! One Only and true God, the Creator of the boundless infinity of space who planted in the heavens the respondent orb of the Sun to give us light by day and the fair luminaries of Moon and Stars by night, who in the magnitude of Thy unerring wisdom formed this world from nought and having made man planted him therein, and has sustained and protected the human race from the time of creation until now. We Thy weak and frail servants humbly approach Thy throne to offer adoration, to render thanks for Thy great and tender mercies vouchsafed to us in the past, and to offer our petition for a countenance of Thy Divine protection and blessing. We praise Thee for Thou hast exalted us and our ancestors who have been before us. Thou hast spread the earth as a bed for us, and the heavens as a covering, and hath caused water to descend from heaven, and thereby produced the fruits of the earth for our sustenance. We thank Thee for the revelation which Thou hast sent down to us by Thy holy prophet Muhammad, as a direction to the pious who believe in the mysteries of faith, in order that they may have knowledge of and observe the appointed times of prayer, and distribute alms out of what Thou hast bestowed upon them, and have a firm assurance in the life to come. We also pray Thee to protect and bless His Imperial Majesty Abdul-Hamid II, the Sultan of Turkey, Caliph of the Faithful, Emir-ul-Moomeneen, and Defender of Thy true faith, and all Mussulman Sovereigns everywhere. Guide them with wisdom from on high, so that their official acts may be for the lasting benefit of the people committed to their care. We further pray Thee, O Most Merciful God, to teach us words of prayer, even as Thou taught them to Adam. Illumine our minds so that we perceive at all times what Thou wouldst have us to do, so that whilst on earth we can follow Thy direction, and when our time in this world is past, finally bring us to dwell with Thee in the glorious gardens of perpetual and eternal bliss. And Thine shall be the glory and dominion for ever. Amin.

Source: The Crescent, No.427, 20th March 1901, p.186.

*****

Liverpool Celebrations [on the occasion of the coronation of Edward VII]

The Mussulmans have the honour to be the first members of the inhabitants of the City of Liverpool who celebrated the coronation of the Sovereign of the realms in which they dwelt by a religious service. The True-Believers assembled at the Mosque at nine o’clock in the morning, when, after prayers of four racats [rak‘at] had been performed, His Honour Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam Effendi, Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles, delivered the following special doa [du‘a]:

Bismillah, Arrahman, Arraheem!

O One Only and Eternal God! There is no God but Thee: Thou art the Living, the Self-Subsisting. Neither slumber nor sleep seizeth Thee, and to Thee belongeth whatsoever is in the heavens or upon the earth. None there is who can intercede with Thee but through Thy permission. Thou knowest all that which is past, and art acquainted with all that shall come. None can comprehend ought of Thy knowledge but so far as Thou permittest. Thy sway is extended over the whole firmament, and the earth is but as Thy Footstool. Thou art the High, the Mighty! Thou art the Creator and the Possessor of all things; and when Thou decreeth a thing Thou only saith unto it, Be, and it is.

We, Thy humble servants, believe in Thee, and that which Thou in Thy unerring wisdom hath sent down unto us through Thy holy and inspired prophets Adam, Nuh, [102] Ibrahim, Ismail, Isaak, Yakoub, Moosa, Issa and Muhammed (Thy well-beloved), and to Thee and Thy will are we resigned.

We believe that Thou hast appointed Edward, the son of Victoria, to be King of these realms, even as Thou didst direct and appoint Thy servant Abdul-Hamid to be the Sovereign of the Ottoman Empire and Caliph of the True-Believers. We beseech Thee, O God, to bless he whom Thou has appointed to be the ruler of these realms. Endue him with wisdom and understanding, so that all his official acts may be for the benefit of the peoples committed to his charge. Give to him, O Lord, that wise understanding that he may ever maintain his realm in peace with all Muslim peoples and their sovereign rulers. May he who is to be this day crowned have health, strength and happiness and length of days to declare the goodness of God.

And Thine shall be the glory for ever and for ever; for Thou art the Strong and the Mighty, and there is no other God but Thee!

A prominent feature in the morning’s proceedings was the presence of twenty-five Indian Muslim sailors, who joined their English brethren in their prayers for the King-Emperor. [103]

Source: The Crescent, No. 500, 13th August 1902, pp.102-3.

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The personal isn't always political

Conversion – like my own to Islam – is a deeply personal experience, even if it can have political ramifications.

I’ve been reluctant to write about my own conversion to Islam in 1989: I’ve always regarded it as a personal matter, as something hard to write about without coming across as deluded or pretentious, given the widespread cynicism and lack of interest about religious matters. I’ve also forlornly harboured a hope that after 20 years I would be seen as just another British Muslim, rather than primarily as a convert. On top of that, I’ve always been rather averse to “hard sell” proselytising. Religion is not something one routinely brings up in conversation; on the other hand, if someone is interested, they can always ask.

Conversion is a fascinating phenomenon about which much could be said; however, in my view, it isn’t of interest as an argument in favour of religion itself. I’ve always been unconvinced by the idea that religion can be effectively judged through formal logical argument either for or against the existence of God. I feel my scepticism is reflected in traditional teaching to be found within Islam and indeed other religious traditions. Formal theology only proves the possibility of God’s existence; it doesn’t demonstrate the fact of God as such. So the sages of Islam taught, such as Ghazali, the Persian philosopher and mystic, who lived at the time when William I conquered England. These scholars taught that God’s limitless nature is beyond human language or reasoning to encompass: our arguments or descriptions aren’t even approximations.

The idea that God could be sought through reason alone comes out of a post-Enlightenment view of religion as belief expressed through logical propositions that may either be proved or disproved. Yet, as Ghazali taught, religion’s greatest argument is simply one’s own direct experience of God through prayer and service. Encountering a saint who embodies the religious life at its best is proof enough; in other words, saintliness is its own argument. So the point of logical arguments is simply to open our minds to the possibility that the religious life is neither absurd, irrational nor useless, something that the saint makes apparent.

My own saint – the first person I met who seemed to embody the best in religion – was a wisecracking metallurgist from Lahore. He was an extraordinarily selfless man who was allergic to proselytising on behalf of the faith he felt so profoundly, yet a faith that, despite his reticence, nonetheless radiated through his every act. It took me over three years to get past my own lack of interest in all things religious to ask him about his faith. I was presented with no argument but simply with holiness, with the possibilities of contentment, integrity and wholeness that the religious life offers. More generic reasons for converting came later after stumbling attempts to lead that religious life myself. While the case for the centrality of religious experience is ancient, it is post-modern too. It relativises every story of conversion, rendering it deeply personal and even solipsistic.

Obviously, conversion to Islam has become particularly controversial in the west of late. Converts challenge the received order of things by upsetting boundaries, and are often labelled traitors or, more kindly, as eccentrics. The Elizabethans confronted with Ottoman naval power dubbed such converts “renegades” who had betrayed their country by “turning Turk”; undoubtedly, in the age of al-Qaida, the 21st-century variant is “turning terrorist”. Think of Richard Reid, the shoebomber from London who tried to blow up a transatlantic flight, or John Walker Lindh, the Californian who volunteered to fight for the Taliban, for instance. Yet while a few are drawn to Islam as a vehicle of radical anti-western protest, the timeless truths it addresses still attract those seeking meaning to life.

A few months after I had converted, I remember being rather nonplussed when confronted by an angry young man who demanded that I support the so-called fatwa of blasphemy and summary execution against Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses. “Why should I make this my business?”, I thought, “What has this got to do with my learning to be a Muslim?” Later on, understanding the context in which Islam served as a means of protest for some young British Muslims became unavoidable, but it was never an integral part of the impulses that drove my own conversion, nor do I believe has it motivated others who have found shelter, or for those born into the faith, reaffirmation, within the many-windowed house of Islam. The current level of tension and conflict between two self-styled monoliths, “Islam” and the “west”, makes the mundane truth that Islam is still one of the world’s great faiths rather than some murderous anti-western cult more preposterous than it really ought to seem.

This article first appeared on the Guardian’s Comment is Free on the 20th August 2009.

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Sheikh Google vs Wiki Islam

The digital age is crucial to reshaping religious authority among Muslims today. The mass media and the internet have changed the way in which religious teachings are disseminated and indeed how religious disputes are projected and replicated to a vast audience. This is not new but arose two hundred years ago when the ulema began to write treatises addressed to the literate constituency of the Muslim masses through the medium of print. Since then the ulema, and the reformers who now contest their authority, have cultivated constituencies of opinion through the mass media.

Yet while the disagreements of opinion formers help define the scope of public debate, Muslim publics exert considerable influence too. By asking questions they have the power to set the agenda, while, in preferring one religious authority over another, they naturally reflect the existence of a competitive market for religious ideas. Religious debate is now primarily conducted through the mass media as everyone understands its power to reach millions rather than through the more traditional face-to-face method. This drive for mass access has created a global religious public sphere into which all scholarly and non-scholarly disagreements get projected.

The nature of the mass media has changed for good. Whereas it used to be hierarchical, elitist, linear and declarative, it is becoming individualised, demotic, non-linear, and interactive. In the age of print, television and to a lesser extent radio, there used to be an editorial process and a relatively high economic cost to media exposure, but, in the digital age, samizdat multimedia has become the norm and not the exception. Anyone can now publish and project their views globally. They can claim to speak for Islam, issue a “fatwa”, proffer advice, and provide counselling or spiritual guidance. Religious leaders struggle too to project any measure of decorum or scholarly expertise in religious debate in the new media, for it is difficult to be both player and referee in the same game.

Rancorous dispute has gone from street corner discussions in the early nineties to all being preserved in glorious binary digital code, archived and available for retrieval and redeployment. Electronic fatwas and sermons struggle to define a precise audience; they must ignore any original context of time and place to speak for “Islam” globally, for Muslims everywhere, in soundbite format. This loss of context, allied, to bricoloage culture, is injurious to intellectual expertise, proper deliberation and intra-religious pluralism.

The nightmare scenario is that Sheikh Google will lead the unified madhhab of the virtual umma in which a billion-plus, atomized Muslims project their subjective musings, screaming inanities into the ether in a dialogue of the deaf. Sheikh Google’s umma would be protean, individualised, samizdat, postmodern, unregulated and without any agreed standards in interpretive technique. All differences would become mere subjectivity, reducing everything to the will for recognition manifested as the narcissism of small differences.

Yet is this not a rather dismal prognosis, the bias of the conservative to the peril rather than the promise of the new digital age, predicting chaotic mediocrity rather than creative renewal? Charles Leadbeater in his new book We-Think argues that the better future of the internet lies with its emerging ability to harness mass creativity and innovation if it can garner responsible self-governance.

One success story Leadbeater cites is Wikipedia, a prime example of open-source creative collaboration. In 2007, Wikipedia had six million articles in hundreds of languages; its total cost was 1.5 million and it only had five paid employees. It has a small committed core of volunteers alongside hundreds and thousands of other members of the public. In March 2007, Wikipedia was the eleventh most popular website, the Encyclopedia Britannica, 4,449th. Wikipedia has 250 million words, Britannica, 44 million.

But what of accuracy? Is not Wikipedia the repository of conspiracy theorists, gossips and amateurs as well as experts? A study by Nature magazine surveyed forty two corresponding articles in both and found 162 factual errors in Wikipedia and 123 in Britannica, so the difference is less than we might think. Yet Wikipedia, with greater resources of peer review, has been shown to correct itself more quickly. And it is – unlike Britannica – making the inheritance of human learning available to the world for free.

So rather than Sheikh Google, Wiki-Islam provides a better possible future for Islam online, amenable to its unchurched nature. Creative collaboration between scholars, experts, intellectuals and Muslim publics would allow for the social and intellectual process of ijma and ijtihad to become dynamic, relevant and infinitely refinable. The internet is no panacea: real-world conditions of authoritarianism in the Muslim world, the war on terror and intellectual conservatism may stymie unlocking the true potential of Wiki-Islam. But a crucial first step nonetheless to unlocking that potential is to recognize the collaborative creativity the digital age offers to the Muslim.

Yahya Birt is Commissioning Editor at Kube Publishing and blogs at http://www.yahyabirt.com.

This article first appeared in Emel Magazine, Issue 43, April 2008.

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The Trouble with Shariah

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent intervention on the recognition of Shariah in English law has sent the country into a spin. His address on “Civil and Religious Law in England”, which calls for “interactive pluralism” in law, is far from being a call for legal and cultural separatism. [1] However alarmed the reaction has been, there is simply no question of separate or independent courts; rather, the aim, it seems, is to bring existing informal Shariah courts under the purview of English law.

The main reason for the adverse and fearful reaction is that Shariah is popularly used as a synonym for penal law with its fixed penalties that can involve capital punishment. However, there is no Muslim representative body advocating Islamic penal law in Britain. Furthermore, the term “Shariah” itself is an umbrella concept that includes criminal and civil law, ethics, personal morality and conduct and matters of worship. Thus, due to this semantic confusion, attacks on the Shariah can often be misconstrued by Muslims as an attack upon their core values. More clarity about what Shariah actually means is essential to moving this debate forward constructively.

The campaign for the importation of the hybrid Anglo-Muhammadan law or “Muslim Personal Law” developed in British India and retained after independence, [2] that would be applied separately and uniformly on all British Muslims, has never been a popular option, despite the long drive on this score by the Union of Muslim Organisations, one of the British Muslim umbrella bodies, since 1970. None of the other umbrella bodies has supported the UMO’s campaign for legal dualism.

However, the picture on the ground is more complex and offers more creative possibilities. For some decades now under English civil law, marital and inheritance law and the arbitration of disputes have been judged under Shariah if both parties have freely consented to adjudication on that basis. This has required the civil courts to provide guidance for judges on ethnic minority law and to call upon a roster of Islamic legal specialists, many of them ulema. Where such claims have fallen foul of English law or contravened basic human rights legislation, they have been rejected by the courts. [3] Conversely, we can also note the recent recognition of some aspects of Islamic finance in English law to enable the development of a competitive Islamic finance sector. [4]

Therefore, the question is how much should these cases of arbitration be dealt with by the civil courts and how much by minority courts regulated under English civil law?

Under existing English law, two aggrieved parties are given the flexibility to resolve disputes in innovative ways under the aegis of a third party. The settlement of such disputes must be reasonable and based on the consent of both parties. In this space, minority tribunals like the Jewish Orthodox Beth Din, Somalian customary law and indeed Shariah courts are developing, as well as in business, with commercial arbitration becoming an established practice. In order to ease the burden on the civil courts in settling small claims and disputes, this trend, suitably regulated, has been encouraged in the past. [5]

Some Muslim scholars like Faiz-ul-Aqtab Siddiqui [6] argue that informal Shariah courts should now follow the example of the Beth Din courts. The main Beth Din in Finchley, North London, only deals with cases on the basis of mutual consent. Once agreement is achieved, both parties are obliged under English law to follow the court’s ruling. The Beth Din deals with small claims, neighbourhood, business, tenancy and other such disputes, as well as divorce cases. It has no remit for criminal law, nor does it seek one. The best established Muslim equivalent, the Muslim Law Shariah Council in West London, mostly deals with cases of limping marriages, granting dissolution of the nikah on behalf of wives whose husbands have refused to divorce them under Islamic law. [7]

A further objection raised is that Shariah courts would, even in adopting the Beth Din model, be fundamentally iniquitous, as the state would be viewed as abdicating its responsibility to protect the rights of vulnerable members of the Muslim community. Particular concerns centre on Muslim women. Maleiha Malik has therefore rightly argued that the state should seek to apply all human rights and anti-discrimination legislation rigorously to avoid structural discrimination in the operation of these minority courts of arbitration. [8]

However the Archbishop’s “interactive pluralism” suggests further internal Muslim reflection too. Muhammad Khalid Masud argues that a jurisprudence for minorities (fiqh al-aqalliyat) that still works from a dhimmi template and therefore calls for the application of “differential equality and protection” for Muslim minorities is inadequate. Rather the challenge is to look more widely for a “Muslim jurisprudence of citizenship in the framework of pluralism”, even if Shariah courts are successfully incorporated as tribunals of arbitration. [9]

A version of this article will appear in Emel Magazine’s March 2008 issue.

Notes

[1] The text of the Archbishop’s speech, delivered at the Royal Courts of Justice on Thursday, 7th February, is reproduced at http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/1575, accessed 8th February 2008.
[2] Michael R. Anderson, “Islamic Law and the Colonial Encounter in British India” in D. Arnold and P. Robb (eds.), Institutions and Ideologies: A SOAS South Asian Reader (London: Curzon, 1993), 165-185.
[3] For instance in the case of Khan v. UK (1986), the court rejected the argument, on the basis of a ruling of the European Commission of Human Rights, that setting the legal age of marriage under British law at sixteen was a violation of religious freedom – in this particular instance of the “right” to marry a young women aged fourteen. It was rejected on the ground that the marriage could not be considered as “merely” a religious practice. See S. Poulter, “Muslims: Separate System of Personal Law”, Ethnicity, Law and Human Rights: The English Experience (Oxford: University Press, 1998), 195-236, example given at 218.
[4] Sunday Times, 12th March 2006.
[5] Innes Bowen, “The End of One Law for All?”, BBC News Online, 28th November 2006, available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/6190080.stm, accessed 9th February 2008.
[6] Faiz-ul-Aqtab Siddiqui is currently the Rector of the Hijaz College, an Islamic seminary in Warwickshire, and a commercial law barrister.
[7] See the detailed study by Nurin Shah-Kazemi, Untying the Knot: Muslim Women, Divorce and the Sharia (London: Nuffield Foundation, 2001).
[8] See Maleiha Malik’s contribution in Madeleine Bunting (ed.), Islam, Race and Being British (London: Guardian and Barrow Cadbury, 2005). Maleiha Malik is a leading specialist on discrimination law at King’s College, University of London, and has written on issues relating to minority protection in Europe.
[9] Muhammad Khalid Masud, “Islamic Law and Muslim Minorities”, ISIM Newsletter, 11/02, 17. Masud is currently the Chairman of the Islamic Council of Ideology, an official body that advises the Pakistani government on Islamic issues, and was previously the Academic Director of the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World in Leiden, the Netherlands.

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