Last summer, if you could call it that, I headed down to Plymouth, invited there by an organisation with an interesting acronym, PIETY, short for Plymouth Islamic Education Trust, the Y added on presumably for completion. It was here I think that I discovered the real beginnings of what might be termed a "British Islam".
We're hearing a lot these days about "British Islam", and the need for a British Islam, but I'm not quite sure what it proponents exactly expect it to be! I know for sure some of us really don't feel happy about this appellation, and consider it fundamentally divisive. There is only one Islam, one Ummah, and all attempts to divide us along nationalistic lines opposes the Divine will.
I have never understood it quite like that. Perhaps because I'm a white British convert I've never felt some sort of conflict between my "Britishnesss" and being a Muslim. I still consider myself "British", but coloured with dye of Islam. As I understand it the divine guidance did not come to change everything, to wipe the slate clean and start again, but rather to correct the errors and mistakes and keep and encourage the positives in any given individual or culture.
It also seems a truism that "character" of Islam as practiced in Malaysia for example is very different in the character of Islam in Saudi Arabia, or Morocco or Nigeria and so on. In fact we can notice a difference even within a country between the people of the country side and the town, rich and poor and so on, partly because the culture in which each group operates is distinct and thus inevitably the aspects of the religion they emphasis is different. Although on occasions one section may claim a purer form of Islam than another, in general it is all Islam, only people's cultural habits are different. Of course we do not mean to deny that culture can also negatively affect the correct application of the divine guidance, and this also must be weeded out and guarded against.
It is an interesting issue to explore: What is culture?
It seems to me that in part at least, culture is a type of survival strategy that humans develop in response to a particular environment. Certainly people's character, both individually and collectively is influenced by climate, geography, language, the animals they care for, the dwellings in which they live etc….That inevitably means that different cultures will give more emphasis to some aspects of any moral or religious system than others. As a small example, punctuality and cueing might be identified as two practical aspects of British culture, thus a British Muslim following "British Islam" would inevitably take the matter of punctuality very seriously, and might argue that this is an Islamic virtue that should be imbibed within every Muslim. Muslims should keep their promises, and agreeing to meet at a certain time is a promise that should be fulfilled, and failing to do so is sign of hypocrisy. Also the performance of regular prayers with a defined time frame for example, should teach us this virtue. In fact one of the committee members of PIETY, originally from Egypt, was pointing this out over dinner. However, as I made clear, most Muslims (and Egyptians) run by the infamous IBM system. We do not mean here of course International Business Machines, but in fact the other IBM, Inshallah Bookra Maleesh! (God willing, tomorrow, it's OK!)
So to me "British Islam" seems to mean a practice of Islam that is sensitive and relevant to the culture of Britain, imbibing its positive aspects and perhaps somewhat accommodating (although not accepting) of some of its negative ones. Combined with this there is a sense of civic duty, and commitment to improve and better society through positive and pro-active contributions within the frame work of that society and its cultural norms. To translate that into normal English "behave well towards people, treat them the same way you would like them to treat you, and do something to make the world around you a better place." I don't think anyone, Muslim or not could disagree with that!
One of my long standing gripes with the Muslims here in the UK is how vigorously they hold on to practices, traditions and attitudes that are so foreign and completely unsuitable to the prevalent culture. It seems to me that this is one of the biggest factors in making Islam here in the UK seem strange and foreign, and is the cause for much hostility. The ideal situation, it seems to me, is that Islam should be an intrinsic part of life here in the UK, and that this would be the most effective way for Muslims to live and to influence society in the most positive manner.
I'm always looking for anything that might fit this vision of "British Islam", and by and large I've been disappointed. Either we become so assimilated that we loose our Islam, or we hang on so tightly to our culture we might as well still be in a village back "home", because we don't even look as this place as home! Then there is a whole generation that seems "confused", neither here nor there, torn between this and that! Where then is the ideal mizan, or balance!
Plymouth is home of Europe's largest naval base and it is here that Sir Francis Drake, in one of the iconic moments in British history, stoically insisted of finishing his game of bowls whilst receiving news of the arrival of the Spanish Armada. It is the "capital" of Devon and Cornwall and there is something quintessentially English about this town. Arriving at the venue for my lecture I was delightfully surprised to come to upon an array of Muslims from different parts of the world, and also, more significantly, a similar array of non-Muslims including the local MP, councillors, health service, church and police. Further more, their familiarity with each other seemed to be based certainly in some cases on long term friendships and acquaintances. It seemed that here at last was a Muslim community that really was part of the community, or certainly was fairly close to that.
A lot of this, as if often the case, had to do with the hard work and efforts of a few individuals, who I should add, did not fail in respect to their duty of hospitality towards me in the least. I also wondered if the fact that at least several of the committee members had English spouses might have something to do with it!
I was so inspired by this that when one of the leaders of the community asked me to come with him to Kuwait to try and raise money for a building they desperately needed, I actually agreed to take some time off in Ramadan to do that, that is how much I felt a centre like that needed help! During the hectic trip we only managed to raise enough money (£40,000) for PIETY to put down the deposit on an ideal building close to the centre of town. Up until this time they had been holding jummah and eid prayers in various hired locations around town, and the Quran and Arabic school was similarly being shifted from venue to venue, and it was becoming harder and harder to find suitable places as the needs of the community grew. Furthermore, the local authorities were relying on PIETY members as advisors in a range of issues, and were begging for them to establish a physical centre from with they could liaise and help provide services on a wider scale. Part of the challenge for the local authorities is linked to influx of large numbers of refugees and immigrants arriving there in recent years, and PIETY's diverse community was clearly a rich resource to help access them, and PIETY members have proved more than willing to help.
PIETY is not without problems and challenges that beset any group of people trying to work together but the ambitions and aspirations of PIETY are vast for such a small and under resourced community. Physical wealth is not what they have been blessed with in abundance, but enthusiasm is there aplenty. This is why I am taking the step to appeal to you my dear reader to help make this project of PIETY's mosque and community centre a reality, and to help make their dreams come true. Most of us dream of wealth and an easy life (I'm not saying that the brothers and sisters in PIETY don't either) but their dream right now is for a place where they can worship Allah, learn their deen, and interact with the wider community. Their enthusiasm for this is a joy to see, but it is quite possible that without your help they will loose the building. This community, it seems to me, and Allah knows best, is worth our investment. The cost of building including some essential work that needs to be done to make it usable is around £500,000, and alhamdulillah they already have a pledge for £200,000 but the condition is that the Muslims of UK have to raise the remainder. That is why they are asking 3000 of us to give a mere £100. And they have a deadline, the 16th January 2008!
It would be a shame on us to let such potential go to waste, so on their behalf I'm appealing to you to dig deep and give whatever you can, and I feel sure that this will reap great returns in this world and the next. I've invested my time and money in PIETY and will continue to do so, inshallah. I advise you to do so to, because if PIETY is the future face of Islam in UK, we really have something to look foreword to.
You can donate by ringing this number: 0845 4590141
or on-line at www.pietyuk.org