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Superb course well delivered. Would have liked one more day!

Participant, church group, Birmingham

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Contextualising Islam in Britain: Exploratory Perspectives

    By Policy Research Centre / Centre of Islamic Studies, University of Cambridge
Released: 6th October 2009

Project Leader, Professor Yasir Suleiman

Click here to download the report

This report records the proceedings of a series of symposia led by the Centre of Islamic Studies, University of Cambridge, along with Universities of Westminster and Exeter. Along with representation from the Policy Research Centre, the symposia brought together nearly 30 Muslim scholars, intellectuals, social scientists and activists, from a wide range of theological strands of British Islam, to debate a complex set of issues pertaining to the everyday life of British Muslims. At the core of the discussions is a philosophy that Muslim practice, as a robust set of traditions, can and must adapt to different geographical locations, cultural norms and contexts in order to remain dynamic and relevant. Islam represents a universal body of ethical teachings that are brought to life in real everyday contextual situations that will change with time and place. It is argued that this “is an ongoing process that started in the earliest period of Islam…” (p. 19).

The Foreword by Mustafa Ceric, Grand Mufti of Bosnia, notes that the report addresses questions such as: “What does it mean to live fully and faithfully as a Muslim in a multicultural society such as Britain? What can Muslims contribute to discourses about pluralistic society and human rights, which are such a central part of the contemporary British and wider European contexts? What does Islam have to say about pressing issues in current debates that concern wider society, such as shared values and participative citizenship?”

Ceric goes on to argue that, “This report tackles these issues with great wisdom, boldness and insight. Always starting from the moral and spiritual vision of the Qur’an, the group asks how this vision can inform and enrich the modern British context. They express a strong and enduring commitment to pluralism…”

While the report is at pains to emphasise that it is not a forum for issuing legal verdicts (fatawa), nor that its deliberations should be seen as the final word on any subjects tackled, it provides interested onlookers a fascinating window into a robust yet remarkably open discussion between divergent views that at times strike important chords of resonance. It represents the first public debate of this nature and quite boldly tackles a series of controversial points.

In a similar vein to the seminar held by the Policy Research Centre (January 2009) on British Muslims and the Secular State, the report affirms support for secularism: “Secular law in Britain provides for religious freedom and protection against discrimination. History shows that in religious states, the power of religious authority becomes hegemonic.” (p. 28)

It also suggests that in order to enhance the conversation in a plural secular context, a more inclusive language is necessary: “While everyone has the right to use religious language in the public sphere if they wish, it may be wiser to move to a public language that is more inclusive and appropriate.” (p. 30)

The dichotomous vision of dividing the world into Islam and non-Islam is strongly criticized:  “It is also important to move away from the terminology of the ‘dar al-Islam’ and ‘dar al-harb’ dichotomy, which is not rooted in the Islamic texts and is not appropriate for a modern, globalised world.” (p. 36) And this is twinned with a strong appreciation of British society and the “existence of justice, security and the freedom to practice one’s religion. Britain ranks very favourably against these criteria, certainly more so than many Muslim-majority countries.” (p. 36)

On gender equality it is emphasised that: “Islam forbids abuses and crimes such as forced marriages of men and women, domestic violence, female genital mutilation and so-called “honour killings”, and teaches the equality of all human beings regardless of gender. Islam puts no limitations on the roles that women should be able to play in any particular field of employment, for example as government Ministers or in any other arena of leadership.” (p. 75)

There is also a very clear and robust line affirming freedom of religion: “It is important to say quite simply that people have the freedom to enter the Islamic faith and the freedom to leave it.” (p. 75)

On the broader issue of human rights, while some discussants felt that aspects of human rights need to be reconciled with Islamic values, others “stressed that the human rights discourse should be seen not as a Western product which needs to be reconciled to Islam, but as a part of human heritage to which many people, including Muslims, have contributed. World conscience came together after World War II and the Holocaust, one of the most dreadful events in history, to create a universal declaration of human rights. Muslims were integrally involved in developing that language…” (p. 46)

The project leader, Prof. Yasir Suleiman, mentioned at the launch: “in time, it is hoped that this will lead to the development of a virtual ‘House of Wisdom’, providing space for discussion among both Muslims and non-Muslims on how Islam should function in modern Britain and contribute to wider society.”

He also stressed “the research project was funded by the Department for Communities and Local Government but remained independent of both Government and the Universities involved”. Minister for Communities, Shahid Malik, also speaking at the launch, said: “This is a ground-breaking report from a wide cross-section of British Muslim scholars, academics and community leaders. I hope that this report by Cambridge will inspire wider debate from communities across the country on the values that we all share.”