Integrity & Integration: Islamic Humanism & Muslim Cultural Literacy in Britain

Wandering Lonely in a Crowd: Reflections on the Muslim Condition in the West by S.M. Atif Imtiaz

Kube Publishing, 184 pp, £ 7.99, 2011, ISBN: 978 1 84774 024 3

This review and all images © Copyright 2013 & 2014 by Adnan Ashraf.

The minarets of a mosque in Tooting, south London

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

At “Towards 2035: The School of Tomorrow,” an all-day international conference on pedagogy held in Lahore in December 2005, Jonathon Power, an internationally syndicated columnist on international affairs (with the International Herald Tribune for 20 years), mentioned (during a panel at the conference) that he had just visited a madrassa for the first time in Lahore. In his opinion, students there spent too much time studying theology, but the gracious people who showed him around the school were far-removed from the stereotypical clash of civilizations, which at the time of the conference, was still a lively media meme. Power’s take-home recommendation was that Western thought should be studied in contemporary madrassas as it was in Islamic institutions during the Middle Ages. Ironically, scholars, teachers and students who actually teach and study at madrassas were not in evidence at the conference. Yet, the idea itself has found a home, not in Lahore, but in England amongst Dar al-Uloom graduates studying at the Cambridge Muslim College, whose academic director I had a chance to speak with in London in February 2013.

The crossroads in front of Tooting Broadway tube station, south London

S. M. Atif Imtiaz is a doctor in social psychology and the author of Wandering Lonely in a Crowd — Reflections on the Muslim Condition in the West (2011). Under founder Abdal-Hakim Murad, he works as the academic director of Cambridge Muslim College. The College’s mission is to enroll motivated madrassa graduates and to help them achieve literacy in the philosophical, political, religious, and artistic ideas that define Britain, where as imams they will be addressing and advising Muslim communities and British Muslim youth. Dr. Imtiaz, whose previous intellectual work is consistent with this mission, is directly engaged in shepherding these madrassa graduates through their one-year diploma in Contextual Islamic Studies & Leadership, a course “designed to help those who already possess significant training in the Islamic sciences to develop, articulate and implement their knowledge effectively in Britain today.1”

Muslim students at madrassas in Pakistan have far less of a need for the Western intellectual tradition since they are generally studying sacred knowledge as a personal obligation and to qualify as teachers and imams in Pakistani villages, towns and cities. On the other hand, English-speaking graduates of similar institutes in the UK, who intend to work here, are likely to find it essential to understand how and where the Islamic tradition converges with and diverges from the Western one. This is where Cambridge Muslim College comes in.

As Imtiaz tells me, the College has a final year module on modern British intellectual history, including key thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries. “What I say to the Dar al Uloom students who come there and say, ‘Well, why are we doing, you know, John Stuart Mill, and Charles Dickens, and Bertrand Russell, and George Orwell?’ And the reason why is because if they’ve come to the college, then they’re…going to engage with wider society; so, when they engage with wider society, they’re going to come across these intellectual histories, which will impact into many conversations. So, if they don’t have the understanding of the origins of those discussions, where it’s Orwellian, or an atheism coming out of Bertrand Russell, or a feeling for poverty that comes out of Dickens, then all these things will impact them, so they need to become aware of that, and when they become aware of it, they become more free, if you like… or able to converse, able to know who they are and why they’re located where they’re located, and then to converse from that position2.”

The River Thames, viewed from the Shard, London

Imtiaz’s book, Wandering Lonely in a Crowd, is a collection of essays, articles, lectures and short stories of varying lengths and written in different registers designed to speak to distinct segments of a British Muslim readership. Its scope extends far beyond the would-be imams of the UK and includes the young and old within, and also outside of, their spheres of influence.

Specifically, Imtiaz focuses on “the constant pulling and pushing…the oscillation between the exacerbation and the reduction of difference — the dialectics of the endogenization of ‘otherness’ – and the consequences of this upon those who are represented as ‘other’” (ix). As its central question, the book asks, “If the transformation of immigration policy, the cultural history of representation, the intellectual-social context of a society in flux and international politics have all served to render the unfamiliar even more unfamiliar, then the question is how should those that seek to resist this process respond?” (xii)

In other words, there are, or were, ‘four key factors affecting the present for British Muslims, which include this history of interaction going back hundreds of years, and include recent political problems like 9/11 and the Middle East, and include the transformation of immigration policy, and these four heavy factors from the past were impacting Muslims, such as teenage immigrants who reached Britain in the eighties, nineties, or early 2000s and who already felt unfamiliar here; and, these factors made them feel even more unfamiliar. There are more Muslims in Britain who will have felt othered through these factors. Many of them will have wanted to resist the process of othering by somehow responding, whether to a racist comment, or through organized political struggle, or through establishing an organization, or writing an article’3.

Imtiaz’s book is primarily addressed to them or, perhaps I should say us. Wandering responds to the predicament of being a Muslim in modern Britain. Its narrative begins with 9/11 and ends with the first presidential election of Obama. Across nine chapters, it addresses themes of integration, community cohesion, terrorism, radicalisation, cultural difference, multiculturalism, identity politics, and liberalism, arguing that British Muslims should move away from identity politics towards Islamic humanism. Due to the author’s background, one might fear an unremitting onslaught of academic jargon and arch intellectualising, but Imtiaz’s clear prose and logic and varied rhetorical styles are mostly agreeable. Readers with a background in social psychology and related disciplines, and an interest in the Muslim experience in Britain, Europe, and to a lesser extent the United States, will likely find that Wandering speaks most directly to them. In the United Kingdom, I would recommend this book to all professionals responsible for services to Muslims, including educators, healthcare and medical staff, government policy-makers, executives responsible for public security, media executives, and policy-makers in the travel and hospitality industries. The book should also be of interest to all British imams, all Muslim cultural producers and scholars, and all Muslim postgraduate students in Britain.

London Bridge

The first chapter of Wandering might come as a surprise. Written in the form of an unedited first reflection, Imtiaz responds here to the representation of Muslims after 9/11. He is, as one might expect, critical of representations in the media, in academia, and in feminist and human rights discourse. In posing the question, ‘What is worse? The loss of language or the loss of life,’ this chapter seems to have suggested that secular hegemons killing innocent people abroad are not better off than being dead themselves, for they have lost their language, the ability to rationally and intelligibly convey meaning, as is evidenced by the dominance of false semantic glosses such as the euphemistic phrase “cycle of violence” that Imtiaz notes was “used repeatedly by the US State Department over the last year” to describe the Palestinian / Israeli conflict (22). Imtiaz considers the ramifications of this conflict, echoing the widely held view that the true nature of the so-called “cycle of violence” is closer to unilateral assaults on the Palestinians whenever it suits the objectives of their politically, economically, and militarily dominant counterparts. “No right, no wrong. No strong, no weak. Only a ‘cycle of violence’” (22). The implication is that anti-Muslim hegemons mask their oppression with such phrases, and make it seem that Muslim complicity is an essential ingredient in violence brought upon them (in occupied Palestine, in Afghanistan, in Iraq) from outside, and that a crusade is not taking place.

Imtiaz’s attention to this semantic slippage is interesting. Among the sacred objectives of Islam are the preservation of life and the intellect, and language would be included with intellect.

By semantically misusing his language and so losing it in a way, a rhetorician oppresses himself. Is his abuse of language not in his political interests? Is deception not part of war? Is the deception of the rhetorician then an instrument of war, and those deceived, by rhetoric, prisoners of war who, in order to maintain the integrity of their own language (and intellects), must disabuse themselves of misleading rhetoric? Could this essay and book be instrumental in facilitating this?

Regarding a misrepresentation that has been common in mainstream media, of Islam being inherently violent, Imtiaz points to the characteristic restraint shown by the Muslim mainstream in responding to anti-Muslim oppression locally and globally during the 20th century. While some have described such restraint as miraculous, Dr. Imtiaz argues that, “It is not a miracle that we have not become terrorists; it is simpler than that. Islam prevents us from doing so.” This straightforward and easily verifiable assertion4 has more resonance than many critiques of media misrepresentation of Muslims, coming as it does from a commentator who understands not only the media and politics, but also the multiple dimensions of the religion he practices and is therefore in a position to write about.

It should be noted that some of this book’s observations, in 2013, may have limited applicability. Written in 2002–2003, chapter two — “The Muslim Condition” — is an essay on the central aspects of the challenges that Muslims in Britain have faced in the post 9/11 environment.

It seeks to provide an outline for a response that distinguishes between Muslim identity politics and “Islamic humanism.” When I asked what he meant by the word humanism, Imtiaz clarified that he was not talking about secular humanism and explained that by Islamic humanism, he meant “essentially a form of social being or interaction in society where people are very gentle, I suppose, with each other, you know, based upon some kind of literary culture. In northern, urban industrial or post-industrial contexts, that’s very hard.” He contends in chapter two that Islamic humanism may help British Muslims best in navigating out of perilous waters like those in which they found themselves after 9/11, which occurred soon after the riots in northern England. During that period, he explained to me, British Muslims were worried about the potential for further rioting and, since there was a known “jihadi element” in British society, they were worried about terrorist attacks as well. This element, he suggested when we spoke in mid-February 2013, had since been greatly reduced. Weeks later, the public slaughter of a British serviceman apparently occurred in South London at the hands of a murderer spouting “jihadi” rhetoric, making Imtiaz’s prescription for “a form of social being or interaction in society where people are very gentle…” all the more attractive.

Other conclusions still apply outside their original contexts, and with rigorous research as their basis, remain compelling in 2013. “As the media is the main source of public knowledge about Islam and Muslims,” Imtiaz observes, “we Muslims have little influence or control over what is known about us. In this sense a cultural objectification of Islam and Muslims has developed when in fact it is cultural inclusion that is required.” British Muslim communities face four options in his analysis — assimilation, isolation, emigration, or integration — the last of which requires developing a language with which the Muslim community can engage with the British working and middle classes. Since Muslims have to be integrated into British society and cannot do this by themselves, the British people, he explains, need to be persuaded to integrate them, and persuasion is the realm of culture, not of law and rights.

Inside Shah Jehan Mosque, Woking, England

This chapter also provides rational guidelines for Muslims considering alternative career paths. Dr. Imtiaz highlights that institution-building and investment in cultural capital are required in order to follow career paths more deserving of our life commitment as Muslims. “By this I mean the whole cultural nexus: scholars, intellectuals, historians, artists — that provide some substance, explanation, meaning and expression in a deep and relevant manner, in mass culture and in high culture, to a Muslim presence in Britain.” He concludes that “we need to change our manner of engagement from a language of identity-based rights towards one that seeks to further human conversation, to extend human sympathy, and this can only be done through a nonideological Islam that ignores the daily media frenzy — that is through deep religion, by means of an inside Islam.”

Chapter four, “Making Religion Relevant,” is a speech given at Cambridge Muslim College on how the training of religious scholars requires a consideration of the variety of formative influences that their congregations experience. Dr. Imtiaz’s questions about the aspects of European thought that imams should learn are pithy, punchy and precise. His tone conveys a sense that the problems of communities and their myriad individuals can be exhaustively sliced, diagnosed, and effectively treated. This elicited some skepticism in me. Perhaps it was amusing to witness a Western-educated intellect engaging with these problems at all. For example, Imtiaz explains that when a Muslim becomes successful, often there arises the question of what to take forward and what to jettison, commonly concerning liberalism (relating to notions of personal freedom, human rights, and gender relations) and science (relating to lay perceptions of materialism and the philosophy of science itself). One’s achievement in a middle-class cultural context leads to a cultural integration that can include an interrogation of one’s beliefs. Imtiaz wants to know “How many imams are able to answer questions like ‘Can individualism be a basis for law in Islam?’ and ‘How can religion as a body of knowledge claim to supersede science and its achievements?’ Imtiaz has a lot of intellectual challenges for imams operating in the Western context, and his rational expectations for a fully-functional Western imam when contrasted with the mundane limitations of most real people results in a perhaps unintended irony. Indeed, somewhat few in number are the beacons in the Western Muslim community who combine a strong grounding in the traditional Islamic sciences with uncompromising practice and a penetrating view and understanding of the modern and contemporary worlds.

overground rail ticket

In his analysis of South Asian Muslim identity types in Bradford, England, Imtiaz deploys the terms “rude boys, coconuts, and extremists.” “Coconuts are those who are brown on the outside but white on the inside” (Imtiaz, 85). He writes that “the terms are pejorative because identity is mutually contested,” which he might have elaborated upon. Even so, his understanding of the socioeconomic factors contributing to the interests, habits and life trajectories that individuals of this sort have in common should enlighten imams and others whom such youth might turn to for counsel. If Imtiaz’s typology is necessarily reductive, his social psychology approach is complemented by the way he portrays British Asian youth in “A Marcher’s Song,” where dialogue and narrative description flesh them out as unique characters.

The Shard, London

Chapter five, “Seven Faces of Freedom,’ is an imagined speech given to the fictional “Anglo-Liberal Fellowship of the South” on the relationship between Islam and humanism. Its point of departure, however, is the link between liberalism and freedom; it argues that Islam is neither inherently anti-liberal nor anti-freedom, per se. In brief, the feeling of freedom itself, or (in academic lingo) “the phenomenology of freedom,” is the first of the seven faces identified by the author, which he associates with the spiritual lightness of being provided by religion and the Sufi tradition.

Pieces from the V & A Islamic art collection

Second are creativity and originality, exemplified by Islamic traditional arts and crafts — the culture’s contribution to beauty in the world. Here, Imtiaz articulates concisely the distinction between the originality that is valued in secular arts, and the Islamic purpose of returning the human to his Origin: “being connected to the Origin of all through which all creativity can then be expressed” (93). This is more important than “being original, constantly refreshing oneself or one’s views” (Imtiaz, 93). With this formulation, he cites What is Sufism?, a book by the late Muslim author and Shakespeare scholar Martin Lings. Imtiaz’s formulation is consistent with Islamic traditions like the famous hadith إنَّ الله جميل يحب الجمال, “Allah is beautiful and loves beauty,” and recalls to mind verse 156 of the Qur’an’s sura al-Baqara, الذين اذا اصابتهم مصيبة قالوا انا لله وانا اليه راجعون (“Who, when a suffering visits them, say: We certainly belong to Allah, and to Him we are bound to return” (tr. Mufti Taqi Usmani)5. As legislated in the Qur’an and taught by the Messenger ﷺ, Islam in practice means submitting to the Divine Will, in the individual and congregational act of worship for example, through supplication and prayer when one’s heart and attention are directed to Allah and to the remembrance of His Generosity in bringing one out of nonexistence into the countless blessings of existence. “This is the freedom,” Imtiaz continues, discussing creativity and originality, “of the religious imagination and it is this freedom that has given us Islamic art — a sign of the beauty that lies beyond” (93).

Somewhere in England

Reflecting on the British context, Imtiaz suggests that such beauty can also be manifest in the good manners (or adab) that characterize Islamic humanism. This emerges when he mentions a sixth face of freedom, “liberalism as humanism, embedded in cultural practice,” which he describes as “the liberalism of the literate culture, of scholars, poets and intellectuals, of love, kindness and thoughtfulness. This is the genteel liberalism of humanistic culture” (Imtiaz, 97). Invoking Andalusia, the poetry of Mevlana Jalaluddin al-Rumi, the Sufis of Delhi and Damascus, Imtiaz shows that historically and culturally, this face of freedom has been known to Muslims, noting that “as the collective Muslim soul delves deeper into its own cultural archive to discover and then appreciate a humanism of its own, then it will begin to discover a long lost friend — and like Rumi after Shams Tabrizi — then manifest the obvious beauty within itself and then to others. This is a form — an expression — of freedom as well but one that remains in the main a potential for the Muslim soul” (98).

London Central Mosque

“So,” I asked him. “What do you mean by it ‘remains mainly a potential’? Are you saying it’s not being realized?”

“I think certainly for the UK,” he said. “I think the reason why people are very interested in, say, translations of some of Chishti’s sayings, for example, or some of the translations that come out of the Shadhili tariqa, you know, they’re interested because they see this as a possibility — but not one that’s being realized.”

“See what as a possibility?”

“This culture of, essentially…tasawwuf. So, the reason why I’ve mentioned that there is because when the issue of freedom comes up then one notion of freedom is this kind of tolerant, open culture, which Sufi teachings did contribute to in various parts of Muslim history, and it’s one which was literate, urban… so the people who I referred to there are, you know, the people seeking that; and, they see it as something that’s not quite realized yet. I think a lot of the Islam that’s emerging today involves a wide variety of kind of expressions, one of which is this, but which is not really realized in Bradford, or Birmingham, or South London for example; I think some people are experimenting.”

“For example?”

“I think some of the northern communities; the social factors mitigate against a humanist kind of culture.”

“Yeah, can you define what you mean here by ‘humanism of its own’? What do you mean by humanism?”

“I don’t mean like a secular humanism that prioritizes the individual against every one else.

What I mean by Islamic humanism is essentially a form of social being or interaction in society where people are very gentle, I suppose, with each other, you know, based upon some kind of literary culture. In northern urban industrial or post-industrial contexts, that’s very hard.”

“Like Keighley.”

“Well, like Bradford, Keighley, Oldham. Where unemployment is high, it’s very hard to develop…”

“The challenges of making a living can interfere with that.”

“You know the book The Ulama of Farangi Mahall, by Francis Robinson.”

“What’s it called?”

“The ulama of Farangi Mahall, which is a madressa in Lucknow, in India, and he describes this very interesting community there, of scholars, around which was a very kind of soft, gentle approach: people of culture, literature, arts.”

“Do you think Zaytuna College is an example of this, sort of, materializing?”

“It’s an institution, but it’s going to take a lot of hard work and a particular social, local circumstance to allow that particular community to develop. I think we’re seeing the beginnings of it in some areas. The fact that, you know, Fons Vitae can publish a translation from a 13th or 14th century Sufi, and it gets sold out very quickly in these industrial cities speaks volumes for it, doesn’t it? There is a demand for it; I think people still aren’t actually implementing it, or aren’t able to practice it in that kind of community.”

“You mean being the subjects of such stories rather than the readers of them.”

“Yeah.”

“And you’re speaking specifically of the anglophone world.”

“Yeah, I don’t know enough about what’s happening in other parts of the world to be able to say whether it’s there or it’s not there.”

Taking seven aspects of freedom into account, Dr. Imtiaz concludes that “a liberal Muslim culture is certainly possible in the abstract and in reality” (99). This effectively silences the common claim to the contrary and establishes a new point of departure for further discussion.

Cricklewood, north London

To sum up its main point in my view, Dr. Imtiaz’s book promotes historical Sufi models for the Islamic humanism that he thinks, potentially, could lead the British Muslim community into a more socially integrated present, but the Muslims who would engage with wider British society must also take the steps necessary to become culturally literate. The author convinces with his suggestion that the inclusive national conversation that one can imagine and, perhaps, in some spaces see emerging from this prescription is where the British Muslim community needs to go.

1 http://www.cambridgemuslimcollege.org/studying.html, accessed 8 September 2013

2 The attention given (in a chapter of Imtiaz’s book) to one particular European (though not British) thinker might be tempered, I would think, on the basis of the book Man and the Universe, in which author Dr. Mostafa Al-Badawi, a consultant psychiatrist and one of the world’s leading translators of Arabic texts on Sufism, advises that: “Theories such as Freud’s, which contradict the Islamic perspective outright, are to be rejected wholesale.”

3 This is paraphrased from my conversation with the author.

4 See http://www.masud.co.uk/ISLAM/misc/defending_civilians.htm, accessed 8 September 2013

5 https://read.quranexplorer.com/2/1/286/Usmani/Mishari-Rashid/Eng-Pickthal-Audio/Tajweed-OFF

“Integrity & Integration” © 23 September 2013, by Adnan Ashraf.

Near Garratt Lane in Tooting, south London, where the reviewer resided 8/2012 to 8/2014 الحمدلله رب العالمين

Author of Journey Beyond the Great Tree (Adnanashraf.com) & Editor at Zaynabbooks.com. Blessed to have resided in six different countries with my wife.