Muslims are rightly proud of the diverse global ummah, but we should be more willing to embrace the diversity of the British Muslim communities, and channel it to drive forward new ideascontinue reading
Outside of the period of hajj in Makkah, the UK is home to the most diverse Muslim community in the world. The extraordinary mix of ethnic origins and opinions from across the theological spectrum make it a unique moment in the history of the Muslim world, representing a microcosm of the diversity that Islam has always aspired to.
Islam and Muslims have travelled fluidly through history – across the Arabian Peninsula on horseback, by boat along the Eastern coasts of Africa and across to India and into the South Indian seas. It was often trade, by sea, or across the Silk Road, that flung Muslims eastward to China and Indonesia and west towards Morocco and Spain. In fact, records of the slave trade to the Americas suggested that Muslims had made it across the Atlantic long ago.
The re-drawing of national boundaries, wars, post-colonialism and the ease of travel and communication which have been the driving forces of the twentieth century, have once again shuffled Muslims around the world. Their movement has been mostly into Europe and North America, and nowhere has this redistribution and melting pot of Muslims been more apparent than in the UK.
In 2001, the British census estimated that there were 1.6 million Muslims in the UK, a number which is now forecast to be close to 2 million. This makes Muslims the second largest faith group in the country, and Muslims make up more than half of the non-Christian faith community. Almost three quarters of Muslims in the UK are from an Asian ethnic background. Those from Pakistan make up 43 per cent, from Bangladesh 16 per cent and Indians and other Asians make up 14 per cent. We probably could have guessed that. But did you know that 17 per cent consider themselves to be from a ‘white’ background, whether that is White British, Turkish, Cypriot, Arab or Eastern European? And did you know that 6 per cent of Muslims are of Black African origin, from North and West Africa, particularly Somalia.
We also know that all these figures are out of date, and show little of those of Middle Eastern origin who have joined us on this green and pleasant land in the last few years. If you haven’t spotted your country on the list, then you make up that great overlooked fact of British Muslims – that they come from all the blessed corners of this God’s great earth.
But so what?
First, it is important to take note of these astounding facts. We live in an historic time and place for Muslims. We have more ideas, cultures and perspectives in a concentrated space than ever before, to inspire, motivate and produce more than ever before. If ever we were to create something overwhelming, tumultuous and inspirational, then the time has never been more ripe. The great age of Muslim learning flowered because minds were open to new ideas, perspectives and cultures. Thinkers would wait eagerly for new books and learnings to travel across the ethnicities and languages of the Muslim world.
Islam is also about appreciating different people and knowing them. The Qur’an is quite clear about this, and Muslims love to quote that Allah created people into “tribes and nations” so that we may “know each other”. We take positive pride in the diversity across the global Ummah. We claim that we love all our brothers and sisters, and that we feel their pain, wherever and whoever they are! Of course, this statement of bravado only lasts as long as we don’t have to go to a mosque that ‘belongs’ to those of a different ethnicity. As long as we don’t have to marry them. As long as we don’t have to have children with them. As long as we don’t have to work in communities together. There are exceptions, but they are relatively few.
We will protest vehemently for the Palestinian cause, and we may deplore the terrible situation in Iraq, but do we know any Palestinians or Iraqis here in the UK? It is easier to care for those thousands of miles away, then to look after those on our doorstep.
Nowhere in the world do we have more opportunity than in the UK, to put into action the ethos that the Prophet taught us – to treat all human beings as equal in worth, and to appreciate our variations and differences. At no time in history have we had the opportunity to infuse so much culture, so many ideas and so much vivacity into the future of Muslims.
History will judge us harshly if we remain enclosed in our ethnic and ideological bunkers. Our future generations will be even less forgiving if we fail to create the magic of cultural fusion and intellectual development that history has shown is in the DNA of the Muslim spirit.
This article was published in The Muslim News
Statistics quoted can be found in greater detail at the National Office of Statistics
If there is one thing that Shahzad Aziz does not want us to forget, it is that people in the Middle East are human beings too. A successful professional, Aziz throws in his job to engage in a once-in-a-lifetime journey through the Middle East, chalking up visas to two thirds of the Axis of Evil on the way. The result is a personal reflection on the reality of the human voices hidden beneath the political rhetoric and media hype about the erroneously named ‘Clash of Civilisations’ and the ‘War on Terror’. He names his book with the curious title In the Land of the Ayatollahs: Tupac Shakur is King. He needs the lengthy title to capture the contradictions and complexities of a region that is caricatured as full of fist-waving mullah’s and miserable oppressed women in long black cloaks.
The book is part travelogue, part recounting of opinions of the people he meets on his journey, and part analysis of the complexities of the confused relationships between the dominant world powers and the Middle East. It takes time for Aziz to find his rhythm, as he tries to balance the narrative of his own travel experiences, the opinions of those he meets and his deconstruction of a kaleidoscope of issues ranging from the Arab-Israeli conflict to American corporate imperialism.
The book is a well-articulated example of the range and depth of issues that burn in the hearts of many Muslims. Aziz is fully in his stride as he outlines his own historical analysis of such topics, and his ability to convey his opinions and rationale shines. You may not agree with him, but as a voice reflecting many unheard young British Muslims, his discussions must be taken seriously. Where the book struggles is in conveying the travel experience that the reader longs for. Why does he not meet any Ayatullah’s in Iran despite the name of the book? Why does he not visit the mosque of Sayeda Zainab in Damascus, despite that being one of the great draws of the city?
Aziz is personable and reflective, and his sheer enthusiasm and dedication to his task will carry you through the book. For Muslims, this book will give voice and clarity to the questions they are asked. For everyone, Aziz offers the chance to create a personal connection to the smells, images and sounds of a world that is full of people just like us.
Shahzad Aziz talks to Spirit21 about his book, In the Land of the Ayatollahs.
The travel writing market has an explosion of books. What did you think your book would add to the discussion about the Middle East?
In the Land of the Ayatollahs is a series of honest reflections written from the viewpoint of a Muslim from the West as he travels to the Muslim heartlands in the East. The ‘journey’ from Tehran to Jerusalem is indeed physical, but also intellectual and personal. Writing in the style of a travelogue, I use my travels as a canvas to explore issues as diverse as globalization and identity, to the War on Terror and of course, the Arab-Israeli conflict.
You also covered topics like the Salman Rushdie ‘affair’, and the need, or otherwise, for a Reformation in Islam. Why did you think this was relevant to a book about the Middle East?
One of the central themes of the book is to try to explain why the Muslim world and the Western world can see the same event or issue so differently. In this respect the Salman Rushdie Affair provided me with a really good prism in which to explore this issue. It also allowed me to put forward to the Western reader a critique of the Satanic Verses novel.
The issue of whether Islam needs to go through a reformation is also very emotive. To some, simply asking the question is offensive and blasphemous. To others, it is the answer to many of the problems within the Muslim world today. During my travels it was a topic that came up over and over again. I knew that if I overlooked such an important topic, then I would compromise the integrity of my project and my intentions in writing this book in the first place.
What was the thing that most surprised you during your travels?
Wherever we may live in our global village, the 21st century human being is a multitude of complimentary and contradictory identities – identities that we create and nurture ourselves and others which are imposed upon us, whether we like it or not. To the Arab and Israeli border police I possessed all the hallmarks of a sophisticated jihadist terrorist and therefore needed to be temporarily detained and interrogated, but to the shop sellers in the bazaars and souks of the Middle East, I was a dopey Western tourist, who was there to be fleeced.
Spirit21’s readers are an adventurous bunch. What one place in the Middle East do you recommend to them as a must-visit?
Esfahan in Iran is a truly beautiful city, Muslim architecture at its best. Damascus in Syria is also an amazing city. In fact just thinking about it makes me want to go there.
How do you hope people will be inspired by your book?continue reading
I didn’t set out to inspire people. If there is one point I wish to make, it is to undermine the, ‘them and us’ and ‘with us or against us’, discourses. Thankfully, the world is an infinitely more complex, diverse and sane place than that being advocated.