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Living In Non-Muslim Society

By Shaykh Mohammad Akram Nadwi, Oxford


I apologise for the delay in responding. I have been travelling recently and busy with preparing a lecture where I went. I returned on Tuesday of last week and had other commitments to catch up on first .

I have known you for some time, and your work with the Muslims in this country. I feel confident that I am addressing a brother in religion, a co-worker striving for the same goal, and a friend. Accordingly, I am comfortable sharing my thoughts with you, and quite confident that you will decide in a good way, and for the right reasons, whether and how far to share these thoughts with others.

bismi-llahi r-rahmani r-rahim

Allah has said explicitly that He does not love those who say what they do not do. This is not an expression directly conveying His anger, but anger is perhaps implied; in its explicit form, the expression conveys Allah’s disappointment with His creatures when they do this, even though He has granted them the faculties and capacities to avoid such behaviour. And Allah’s disappointment is, at the least, a stern warning. The generality of the expression means that it is addressed to all, not just to, for example, poets and politicians.In other words, it does not matter that the people who say what they say are speaking beautifully and sincerely, and that they believe that they really mean it. The reality is soon evident that they do not mean it, since their actions do not (or, very soon, will not) conform with their saying.

That is why it is important for us to speak, whether in private or in public, with a firm grasp of the realities within which we are speaking. It is important also to know the difference between making a public gesture, taking a public position, and taking an action. A gesture is like a picture of a position, a pose; an action is not like that, it is connected with its consequences. Responsible speech and responsible action are the kind that think clearly about consequences, weigh the benefits and harms to all concerned, and allow that, in certain situations, not-speaking or not-taking-action may bring less harm or more good. Irresponsible speech and action are of the kind that do not concern themselves with their consequences (especially for others); they are oriented to, perhaps even motivated by, feeling good about oneself at the time.

The realities to be considered here are, broadly, two matters:

(1a) The Muslims who live in this country are not here as conquerors; rather, they are here because they find here refuge from persecution or other negative conditions in other places, or because they find economic comforts and advantages for themselves or for their families which they cannot find in other places. For many (not all) of these Muslims, it is quite possible for them to live in other places, but they have no intention of doing this; whatever the motivations for leaving this country, their motivations for staying outweigh them. That is the reality of what they do, whatever the reality of what they say.

(1b) The Muslims in the UK are divided among different groups (by language and origin, by sect or school, etc.) and much more strongly identity-conscious than they are Allah-conscious. (We can, if we wish, put this more kindly by saying that their Allah-consciousness is experienced and expressed through their group belonging. But the outcome is the same, whichever way you put it.) It is accordingly not difficult, for whoever wishes to do this, to give favourable publicity, prominence and power to one group at the expense of another. Similarly, it is not difficult to build up a negative public image of one group at the expense of some other group. In short: because the solidarities of the Muslims in the UK are not based on their Allah-consciousness, they are weak and their weakness is easily exposed and exploited. They cannot be persuaded to take action together; they are united only when action is public gesture, for example when protesting against desecration of essential symbols of Islam. The enemies of the Muslims (whether in the UK, or in the countries governed by Muslims), who pursue their enmity with intelligence, do not encourage such desecrations, indeed they make great show of regretting and condemning them as “unacceptable”.

(2) The non-Muslims who enjoy power in this country say that (however it was in the past) they now wish to build a diverse, pluralistic, tolerant society, where people are accommodating or “soft” towards their differences in all public (i.e.shared) spaces, even if, in their privatelives they take a“hard” line on one issue or another. The reality of what they do is quite different. The reality is that all spaces, including private family lives, are made to conform to the ethos of the shared public space through the processes of mandatory education and the highly controlled effects of the mainstream media, in which I include the fashion and entertainment industries. (This public pressure is one of the reasons why minority groups, including Muslims, protect themselves by hardening their group-identities. Because being Muslim is a component of the group-identity, they think protecting that identity is also protecting their being Muslim – sometimes, in some respects,this is indeed the case, and I therefore do not criticise this behaviour generally; every instance of this should be assessed and addressed individually.)

Now, reading the paper you have kindly shared with me in light of the realities I have just mentioned, I have the following comments:

The paper is a mixture of a statement of beliefs (a sort of `aqida) and a statement of political positions in respect of specific issues like sexuality or hijab. If I have understood correctly, the purpose of the paper is that the UK authorities should know what “mainstream Islam” is – something that will be conveyed by having signatures on the paper – and then they will not be able to label certain attitudes or behaviour as “cultism” or “extremism” or some such.

First, we should ask whether we are likely to get the signatures of enough representatives from all the many groups of people in the UK who call themselves Muslims (it is not practically relevant whether they have a right to call themselves Muslims or not). For example, given the weight of group-identities in how Muslims in this country choose to act, will the Barelwis sign if the Deobandis do? Given, major rifts and enmities, will the Isamilis or the Ahmadis sign, if the Sunnis do?

Second, given that at least some groups will not sign, what possible incentive can the UK authorities have to recognise this statement as “mainstream”? We might be able to demonstrate, at best, that this statement is what the large majority of those who call themselves Muslims agree on. But that large majority is still only a minority in the UK, and unless they have some sort of concentrated political or economic power (in the way that, it is alleged, the Jews in the UK have), the authorities have no incentive to accord them “mainstream” status.

Third, even if, for some advantage that they see in it, the UK authorities do choose to go along with the self-description of some Muslim groups as “mainstream”, what difference can that possibly make to the realities that I described in (2) above – the pressures to conform to the “modern” ethos?

I presume the idea is that, if the authorities agree that “this is what Muslims generally believe”, somehow, given the official legal protection for freedom of religion in the practised constitution of the UK, speaking up in favour (for example) of hijab and segregated education or speaking up against (for example) homosexuality will be legally protected. In point of fact, “human rights and equality” as now defined, which are more securely protected than freedom of religion (a mere sub-clause in human rights legislation), will always win out in any confrontation between the two. For reasons of public peace and order, the authorities will always seek to avoid any such confrontation; but if it happens, “human rights and equality” will always be publicly backed as against what “Islamophobic or homophobic skinheads” and “Muslim fanatics” insist on taking public positions about, or (from the authorities’ viewpoint, much worse)that they insist on taking vigilante action about.

Fourth and finally, even supposing that this statement could be recognised by the UK authorities as “mainstream Islam” – perhaps in practice, if not openly and formally – would this be a victory for us, would it even mean security for us and what we believe? My feeling is that there is indignity and dishonour in Muslims appealing to non-Muslims to confer on them, or confirm for them, the authority of what they believe. I am very uneasy when Muslims-as-Muslims play the part of needy victim, unable to cope with the realities they face, and turning to their declared enemies for protection and compassion. (This posture should not be confused with a Muslim, or any other subject of a political power, having a specific grievance against someone – including officials of the political power – and seeking redress of that specific grievance. For example, Muslims’ homes, schools, shops, places of worship or community centres, have a right to be protected against attacks, insults, surveillance, etc., and it would be right to seek legal redress.)

My conclusions, in sum, are:

1. This paper will not elicit a unified response from the Muslims in this country. It may, possibly, by declaring a position, provoke efforts for other groups to define themselves differently even if for no better reason than to prove themselves different. (`Aqida statements are almost-invariably assertions of group belonging, and invariably provoke counter-statements – sometimes, the same positions arranged in a different order of priority are enough to establish a “group”. It does not follow that mis-spoken or erring beliefs should not be corrected; it simply means that the correction need not take the form of a formal `aqida.)

2. The very fact of this paper, as well as its particular content, will harden the attitudes of cultural superiority in the UK majority and confirm them in their determination to “sensitively” contain or disrupt and degrade the Muslim minorities.

3. Therefore, my hope is that my brothers and sisters in Islam will prefer positive action with sabr (patience and perseverance) to a gesture that may turn out to be at best ineffective and, at worst, counter-productive.

4. Let me end with an example of what I mean by positive action with sabr. I imagine myself in the role of a teacher in a school (let it be an Islamic school) in this country. I am bound by the duty to abide by the laws under whose protection I live to teach a particular curriculum and to inform pupils of the dominant ethos – for schools do not only impart information and skills, they also socialise, that is, enable pupils to conform to what the society expects of them and thinks is good for them. Accordingly, I will inform them of the fact that, in the UK, it is now lawful to have homosexual desires and above a certain age it is lawful to indulge those desires in practice; furthermore, the law requires that homosexuals may not be harassed or in any way intimidated just because they are different from the majority heterosexuals, and that the law gives to all citizens the same rights in matters considered to be “personal lifestyle choices”. But I must also, as a Muslim teacher, tell them that Islam, like other religions, views homosexuality with horror, calls it a dreadful sin and also, when practised, a serious crime, for which — if it can be proven (it rarely can) – there is specified in Islam (again, as in other religions in their past) the particularly horrific punishment of public stoning. I am also bound to explain that in Islam sexual desire is connected to the duties of marriage and the raising of children; those duties test and discipline that desire, so that it matures, through all the various hardships and consolations of family life, from a crude, selfish appetite to affection, trust and companionship and mutual dependence. Also, the physical and psychological constitution of human beings benefits from the interplay of the differences between male and female, of the different (typically, but not always, complementary) ways in which male and female both express love and authority.Wilfully to deprive children of this benefit is a kind of abuse of their rights to normal physical and psychological health. The practice of homosexuality is the opposite of all of that, and those who engage in it are specially vulnerable to promiscuity and ugly expressions of sexual desire, because that desire has been detached from the responsibility of family life. When it is detached like that, sexual desire becomes more intense and more important than it really is, or than it needs to be, and it is accordingly more difficult to satisfy.I would conclude that, for Muslims committed to living their lives as Muslims, homosexuality is not “a personal lifestyle choice” that is allowed by the laws or traditions of Islam. Nevertheless, they are living under laws that do allow that and, therefore, they must speak and behave in ways that recognise that fact, however strongly they feel about it. It can help to explain that self-righteousness is abhorred in Islam; even as people are punished for crimes like adultery or homosexuality, the Sunna forbids any sort of gloating behaviour; rather, what is commended is to believe that the sin/crime being so punished is expiated by that punishment; and moreover, to experience the horror of the punishment is to be reminded of the need for vigilance about oneself, repentance and seeking forgiveness for sins disclosed or yet hidden. It is not impossible to live in a Muslim-majority where certain sins go undetected or unreported and therefore unpunished, and yet find consolation in the certainty that Allah is an unfailing witness and unfailing judge. That is not at all the same as living in a society where those sins are called virtues or at least normalities; nevertheless, the same consolation is available – there is no benefit in jumping and downabout it, shouting and waving one’s arms.

The same sort of teaching of the status quo in the UK and the teaching of the Islamic traditions can be imagined for hijab and segregation, for the relationship between crime and how to deter people from it by associating it with deformity and humiliation. …

Good teaching entails understanding the arguments for and against particular positions. Sabr is entailed because, in the absence of coercive legal powers or the force of consistently observed social convention, we are obliged to rely upon the persuasiveness of our teaching and our lived example. This means we have to be more consciously reliant on Allah, more self-critical and less self-righteous, more intelligent and precise in our understanding of what we believe and how we live by it. In contrast to the claims of modern capitalist societies, whose norms and behaviours are self-evidently life-destructive (and their outcomes very expensive to counter and control), believers have every reason to be hopeful, even confident, that, in eventual outcome, the lifestyle commanded or commended in the Qur’an and Sunna, will be seen to be the most compassionate and the most beneficial for human well-being. But to justify and be worthy of that confidence, Muslims, in our situation, have actually to live that lifestyle, not to declaim their attachmentto it.

And there I will stop, in good hope that you will forgive any impropriety in this letter –none is intended — and that you will understand that my reasons for writing it are also motivated by love of my religion and the desire to serve it and its people in the best way that I know how.

All praise and thanks are due to Allah who is best aware of what is right and good for us, here and hereafter.