by Dr Paul Ahmed Keeler

The World of Islam Festival was unprecedented in scale and participation; a dozen major exhibitions, held in the most prestigious venues including the British Museum, the British Library, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum and the Hayward Gallery, assembled 6,000 manuscripts and objects from 250 public and private collections in 32 countries; a Quran recital held at the Royal Festival Hall; 20 concerts at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Rooms and Horniman Museum; 23 seminars and over 100 lectures taking place in universities and learned societies; a series of 6 films produced, broadcast on the BBC twice during the Festival, and over 50 books published. A comprehensive press and media coverage ensured the Festival took up centre stage during the three months from April to June 1976 and received global attention. The Festival was inaugurated by Her Majesty the Queen, and the Quran Exhibition was opened by His Eminence the Sheikh Al Azhar. 

Since the 40th Anniversary event at SOAS I have been asked on several occasions if the Festival of 1976 could be done again today. I believe there are two critical differences between the UK of 1976 and the UK of today which preclude that possibility. The first is institutional. In the early 1970’s scholars in the universities, curators in the museums and librarians in the libraries ran the show. As a young man in his twenties I could ring up a curator or even the director of a national institution and within two weeks I could be sitting in front of him or her making my pitch. Scholars, curators and librarians had time to think and could take the initiative. It is incredible, looking back, to see how quickly during 1972 and early 1973, I was able to seed the projects which three years later produced the Festival. We were very fortunate as at that time there were outstanding officers at the Arts Council of Great Britain, which played a key coordinating role, leading to an unprecedented collaboration between the institutions. This was further fostered by the Festival Trust after it was set up in October 1973 to coordinate the whole Festival. The freedom that the institutions enjoyed allowed for an amazing manifestation of creativity which was further enhanced by the enthusiasm engendered in taking part in a great collaborative event.

During the last twenty to thirty years the way cultural and educational institutions are run has been completely changed. The corporate structure of business has been imposed upon them. This has spawned layers of management in an attempt to control everything, including the future by subjecting everything to “risk assessment”. Under this new regime, it is the god of the bottom line that rules. The scholars, curators and librarians cower under this growing and alien weight of administration. Time seems to have evaporated, and just getting an appointment to meet someone is a challenge. The distrust and fear that is endemic in the corporate world is now infecting the cultural and educational spheres. In such an environment it is hard to imagine how it would be possible to recreate the Festival of 1976.

The second reason that makes it impossible to envisage such an event taking place now, is the change in the political situation and the perception of Islam over the last forty years. In 1970, when the Festival was conceived, Islam was not an issue in the West. It was known that it was a religion, but the idea that there was a cultural world of Islam spreading from West Africa to China was non-existent. The world was divided between Arabs and Persians, Indians and Pakistanis, Malays and Indonesians, and was defined by the nation state. In early 1972, I approached the BBC with the proposal for a series of films on the world of Islam. They had enjoyed a global success with “Civilisation”, a 12 part series devised by Kenneth Clark, and were looking for ideas for the next blockbuster. My proposal, after careful consideration and several meetings, was turned down. The reason given was that there was no interest in the subject, nobody knew or cared about the world of Islam, it was a non-starter for television viewers. Instead they chose a series on British architecture. However, the reception from other major cultural and educational institutions was very positive. By the middle of 1973 the Festival had been deeply rooted in the institutions and was perceived as a cultural event of national importance that would be inaugurated by Her Majesty the Queen, who had already been pencilled in for the occasion. And then in October 1973 the price of oil quadrupled and the Festival Trust was able to raise the money required to create the most comprehensive event of its kind ever held in the West.

In the 1970’s we only had to deal with the residual historical prejudices which were attached to Islam and had faded to a large extent. The Festival came out of a blue sky, or as the Americans say from the left field. It was rooted in the cultural establishment, and supported by governments who did not affect the cultural programme because it was set by the time they became involved. In this auspicious environment we were able to present our vision of the beauty and unity of the cultural world of Islam. Today, global warming and Islamic terrorism are seen in the West as the two greatest crisis facing humanity. The world of Islam has been rent asunder. In 1976 there was little knowledge about the world of Islam, now it is permanently before the public, and images have been set in the imagination that are a terrible travesty of the glorious truth of Islam. In such an atmosphere of conflict and disintegration the World of Islam Festival of 1976 could not have been realised. Today, however, if we are to penetrate the thick layers of confusion, distortion and prejudice that swirl around Islam, we need an initiative that presents a far deeper and more illuminating understanding of the beauty and unity of Islam and its glorious cultural manifestation in history.


Ahmed Keeler was born in 1942 and christened Paul Godfrey. He was brought up during the 1940s and 50s in a conservative, upper middle-class, Anglo-Catholic family. He belonged to the last generation that was educated to serve an empire which, however, was in the final stages of dissolution. On leaving school he became deeply involved in the cultural movements of the 1960s that were in open revolt against the society that had nurtured him. A chance meeting with a master musician from India introduced him to a wonderful new cultural realm; in response he formulated and organized The World of Islam Festival that took place in London in 1976, was opened by Her Majesty the Queen, and was the most comprehensive exposition of Islamic culture ever to have taken place in the West. Six months before the festival opened he embraced Islam. He has spent his working life since the festival in establishing and engaging with projects that explore and present Islamic culture as a holistic environmental manifestation. Residing in Cambridge for the last 22 years he has had a profound impact on a number of students passing through the University. At a time of growing instability he is now lecturing and participating in seminars encouraging us to judge the success of human culture through the criteria of Mizan, which is at the heart of the Islamic unfolding.

Ideas Hub: The Problem with the Marrakesh Declaration, By Michael Mumisa (Shaykh)

The Problem with the Marrakesh Declaration

By Michael Mumisa (Shaykh), Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge




In January this year (2016), the “Marrakesh Declaration on the Rights of Religious Minorities in Predominantly Muslim Majority Communities” was launched in Morocco amid much fanfare. It was described as a response to the persecution of religious minorities by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Key among the declaration’s proposals, and as a solution, was the development of constitutional laws based on the objectives of the Charter of Medina “in countries with Muslim majorities.” It was also argued in the same declaration that “the United Nations Charter and related documents, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), are in harmony with the Charter of Medina.” If this is indeed the case, then why not just call for the strict implementation of the UDHR in all Muslim countries?


When I first heard about the Marrakesh Declaration, I did not pay it any attention or bother reading it because I knew what to expect.  This is not the first declaration of its type.  After much campaigning against the UDHR by Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan and Pakistan on grounds that it did not reflect the diversity of UN member states in terms of their histories, cultural traditions and religious beliefs, member states of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) adopted the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI) in 1990. It still remains the only Muslim declaration which has been formally endorsed by almost all Muslim governments. However, it is also a very flawed declaration which was not designed to protect fundamental human rights.

There has since been many similar Muslim or interfaith “declarations” including the “First Alexandria Declaration of the Religious Leaders of the Holy Land” in 2002 which, like the Marrakesh declaration, brought together Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians, activists and political leaders to declare their “commitment to ending the violence and bloodshed that denies the right of life and dignity” in Israel and Palestine.  Yet today, relations between Arab and Jewish communities are at their lowest point. Similarly, in March 2014, Egypt’s Grand Mufti Shawki Allam, alongside Al-Azhar University and representatives of a few NGOs, launched the “Alexandria Declaration on Women’s Rights in Islam”.  However, none of all these declarations has so far resulted in concrete positive measures to achieve their stated goals. Instead, they have unwittingly provided PR cover to the various governments and religious establishments which signed them in the worst violations of Islamic principles and fundamental human rights.


It was only after I had been asked for an opinion on the Marrakesh Declaration that I decided to study the documents’ contents. It is our duty and responsibility as scholars not to be seduced by the usual razzmatazz that often accompanies the launch of such declarations, and to be able to see through the PR hype. Since what follows is not an academic paper but a think piece for publication on an academic site accessible to general readers, I am going to dispense with the usual academic conventions and analyse the Marrakesh Declaration documents with a non-specialist audience in mind.

Some of the documents are freely available on the Marrakesh Declaration’s official website. As someone who has always been suspicious of translations, I decided to closely read the original Arabic documents alongside their English versions, and here is what I discovered:


  • There is what is described as the “Executive Summary of the Marrakesh Declaration on the Rights of Religious Minorities in Predominantly Muslim Majority Communities”. This is available in English (2 pages), Arabic (2 pages), Dutch (3 pages) and Italian (3 pages).
  • On a different page, on the same website, there is what is described as a “Booklet”. It is available in Arabic (32 pages) and English (16 pages). Oddly, the “Booklet” is not the original version of the declaration. It is Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah’s lecture notes. The lecture notes of the other speakers who attended the Marrakesh conference are not included in the “Booklet” or anywhere on the official website.


The original version of the Marrakesh Declaration upon which the “Executive Summary” is based was not available online. On 23 April, I sent an email to the organisers of the Declaration asking whether it existed. I finally received a copy of the original Arabic declaration on the 1st of May. After studying all the documents, it is clear that Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah’s lecture notes (the “Booklet”) form the basis of the declaration. This brings us to his “Booklet”.


The English version of the “Booklet” is described as an “Abridgment” of the Arabic “Booklet” and, as such, significant sections which are found in the Arabic version have been edited out of the English version, or have not been translated. This is understandable.


The sections edited out of the English version include an important but brief discussion on the basic principles of Islamic jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh) well known to students of classical Islamic law and Qur’anic hermeneutics. There is also a section on traditional definitions of Jihad, ahl al-dhimma and jizya. The key hermeneutical principle discussed in the section on usul al-fiqh in the Arabic “Booklet” concerns the intertextual unity within the Qur’an, hadith corpus, and intertextual relationships between different parts of the Qur’an, hadith and other texts. It emphasises the need to meticulously study and examine all texts and sources on a topic in their original Arabic, and the relationship between them, before rushing to conclusions. Genuine scholars (al-rasikhun), argues Abdullah bin Bayyah, pay special attention to this important research method.  On the other hand, the “juhhal” (dunderheads), a term used by Abdullah bin Bayyah in the Arabic “Booklet” (p.12), engage in selective reading of sources to support their positions.

While the methodological point that Abdullah bin Bayyah makes in his lecture notes is known to any student of classical Islamic disciplines, it has surprisingly been missing in all the publications produced in Britain, for example, among government sponsored Muslim groups and think tanks claiming to be committed to the fight against extremist ideologies. We have recently seen the proliferation of mediocre reports, documents and policy papers on aspects relating to Islam and Muslim written in a manner that betrays a shocking ignorance of the key Islamic sources and texts on the subject. The worst offenders in this practice have been among the self-styled “imams” and “shaykhs” working on the government’s Prevent programmes. Perhaps this is why Abdullah bin Bayyah prefers to use the term “al-rasikh”, not merely an “alim”, to describe the ideal scholar who is intimately familiar with the intertextual interrelationships between various texts.


Unsurprisingly, the methodological point highlighted by Abdullah bin Bayyah is also missing in the conceptualisation of the Marrakesh Declaration itself! The Declaration is primarily focused on the Charter of Medina as “the best suited primary basis for the institution of citizenship.” It is a selective reading of historical sources which betrays a careless approach to the Sira (biography) of the Prophet of Islam. And here lies the crux of the problem. Thus, we have the highly curious situation of a group of Muslim scholars meeting in Marrakesh to call for the adoption of the Medina Charter as a source of Muslim constitutional law in response to the brutality of ISIS, about two years after ISIS invoked the same Charter of Medina as a basis of its own constitutional proposals, producing horrific results!


The Charter of Medina is without doubt an important historical document. I teach it to my students as an example early Islam’s pluralism. However, the fetishisation of its contents (not the processes that produced it) as the basis of Muslim constitutional law among modern Muslims is part of the reason why Muslim countries whose constitutions are supposedly based on “Islamic principles” can still claim to believe in the Charter of Medina while at the same time producing laws which violate its general principles (kulliyyat).


For me, the most important lesson modern Muslims should learn from the Charter of Medina is not its contents, as the Marrakesh Declaration and similar proposals suggest, but the processes that produced such contents. Although the Charter of Medina makes references to God, it is a product of deliberations, consultation and consensus between the various communities of Medina, not of divine revelation. In that sense it is a purely secular document. It did not fall from heaven like the tablets of Moses as mentioned in the Qur’an and the Bible, nor were the contents of the Charter revealed to Muhammad through Gabriel. Thus, the real general message (kulliyyat) of the Charter of Medina is that modern Muslims should be able to develop their own constitutional laws through deliberation, consultation and other democratic processes without the need to invoke divine revelation.


The Marrakesh Declaration entrusts that responsibility into the hands of “Muslim scholars and intellectuals around the world to develop a jurisprudence of the concept of citizenship”, with the Charter of Medina and “Islamic tradition and principles” as the basis.  This is based on the assumption that Muslim jurists around the world reading the same Charter and “Islamic tradition” will produce the same inclusivist meanings needed for a modern age. As someone trained and qualified in classical Islamic law and jurisprudence, I know too well that this is a fantasy.


For example, how would Islamic jurists reading the contents of the Medina Charter in Mauritania, Pakistan, Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Afghanistan, to mention only these few countries, interpret article 14? It states that:


“A believer will not kill a fellow believer for the sake of a disbeliever.”


How might jurists working within the Shafi‘i, Hanbali, Shi‘a Imamiyya and Zahiri schools of Islamic law interpret the clause while developing their “jurisprudence of the concept of citizenship” as proposed by the Marrakesh Declaration? For centuries, Muslim jurists and traditionists (hadith scholars) have debated (without coming to any agreement) what article 14 of the Medina Charter means.  They wanted to know whether this meant that a Muslim could not be punished for killing a non-Muslim citizen living under an Islamic jurisdiction, if the life of a non-Muslim citizen was worth that of a Muslim and whether the blood money paid for killing a non-Muslim citizen should be equal to the blood money paid for killing a Muslim. According to Shafi‘i, Hanbali, Shi‘a Imamiyya and some Maliki legal traditions, article 14 meant that the death penalty could not be applied upon a Muslim found guilty of murder if the victim was not a Muslim.


On the other hand, classical Islamic jurists operating within the Hanafi school of Islamic law strongly opposed this interpretation on grounds that exempting a Muslim from punishment for killing a non-Muslim citizen undermines the very concept of justice enshrined in the kulliyyat (universal principles) of Islam. They argued that according to their reading of Islamic texts, Islam makes no distinction between the life and property of a non-Muslim and that of a Muslim. Moreover, the Prophet Muhammad famously said:


“Whoever harms a non-Muslim citizen, I shall bear testimony against him on behalf of that citizen in front of God on the day of judgement?” (This tradition was narrated through various chains of transmission, some of them stronger than others)


Thus, if the Prophet promised to represent a non-Muslim citizen against a Muslim on the day of judgement it suggests that their blood is the same/equal in the eyes of God and the law.


We can see from the above brief discussion that having a text as the basis of law, and a group of jurists “entrusted” with the responsibility of interpreting that text, does not guarantee equal rights and justice for all citizens.


The approach adopted by the Marrakesh Declaration is part of a post-9/11 trend which saw Muslim organisations and communities adopting sophisticated public relations strategies which involve emphasising and focusing on disseminating the “positive” or “inclusive” meanings of Islamic texts while avoiding any public discussion on the “problematic” or “exclusivist” ones. While this approach may have been successful in presenting a “favourable image” of Islam to “outsiders” and the media, it has at the same time been alienating young and inquisitive Muslim men and women who feel that their Islamic scholars are failing to engage directly with the primary texts and sources of Islam in a manner that interrogates and enriches the received tradition while producing new meanings informed by people’s lived realities, here and now. Only Islamic feminist scholars of Qur’anic and legal hermeneutics have felt the fierce urgency to engage directly with both texts and the readers’ lived realities (al-waqi‘). A good example of this is the recently published book entitled Men in Charge? Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition (2015). There are other numerous examples.


The Marrakesh Declaration is based on the assumption that relations between the various communities of Medina which signed the Charter of Medina remained the same. In fact, war did eventually break out between the signatories of the Charter. Anyone who studies the Qur’an, the history of the Medina Charter and other early Islamic sources will find that while the Qur’an adopts what appears to be a firm and uncompromising stance against the Quraysh Arab tribes of Mecca who were at that time engaged in war against Muhammad and his followers,  its position towards the ahl al-kitab (People of the Book) reflects the shift in relationships between the Prophet, his early followers, and the 7th century Jewish and Christian communities with whom they came in contact in Medina and surrounding areas.


The idea that the contents of the Medina Charter should form the basis of Muslim constitutional laws and concepts of citizenship in modern Muslim states predates the Marrakesh Declaration. It has been a recurrent theme in twentieth century Muslim political theories. In the aftermath of the so-called “Arab spring”, it has become a favourite topic of discussion and debate among some Islamic scholars.


In 2010, Rached Ghannouchi, founder and leader of Tunisia’s Islamic political party, Ennahda Movement, wrote an Arabic essay entitle al-Islam wa al-muwatana (Islam and citizenship) invoking the Medina Charter.

In 2011, the then grand mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa, wrote a short Arabic article in Al-Ahram on the Medina Charter as an example of coexistence. He also went on to discuss “The Concept of Citizenship in the Medina Charter” on Irqa’ TV.

Similarly, Yusuf al-Qardawi discussed the same topic on his popular programme al-Shari‘a wa al-hayah (Sharia and Life), on Al Jazeera TV.


The Marrakesh Declaration and Abdullah bin Bayyah’s lecture notes focus primarily on the contents of the Medina Charter and its inclusive message. A lot of space is dedicated to this in the Arabic “Booklet”. The Charter should have been analysed alongside “problematic” and “exclusivist” hadith traditions which speak of the expulsion of Jewish communities from the Jazirat al-Arab. For example, the traditions in Sahih al-Bukhari under the title Bab ikhraj al-yahud min jazirat al-‘arab [3768]; Sunan Abu Dawud, under the same title [3029]. These are the kind of traditions often cited by groups like ISIS. It is therefore not enough to simply speak in general terms about the need to engage in contextual reading without demonstrating how to engage with such “problematic” texts.


And finally, the Marrakesh Declaration states that:


“The Charter was not borne of war or conflict, rather, it was the result of a contract between groups living peacefully together to begin with.”


This is not entirely true and it contradicts established historical accounts (e.g. early commentaries on Qur’an 3:103) and what Abdullah bin Bayyah himself states in his lecture notes in the Arabic version of the “Booklet” (p. 25/line 32 – p.26/line 1-14) that the Charter was born of a long war and conflict between the various communities of Yathrib (Medina) prior to the arrival of the Prophet and his followers. Indeed, Prophet Muhammad was invited by the residents of Medina to come and broker a peace deal between the warring tribes in exchange of protection from his Meccan enemies. The war between the Banu Aws and Khazraj Jewish tribes had been going on for 120 years before Muhammad’s arbitration.


It is true, as Abdullah bin Bayyah warns that selective reading of texts is dangerous. The problem, however, is that declarations such as this, by their very nature, are exercises in selective and decontextualised reading of sources. They tend to privilege one set of texts over others. In this case, it is the Medina Charter and its “inclusivist” message which was privileged over other “problematic” and “exclusivist” texts.


Michael Mumisa (Shaykh) is a Cambridge Special Livingston Scholar at Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge. His research profile is available here:

Ideas hub: Unknown and Untold: The significance of Britains WW1 Muslim Soldiers, by Avaes Mohammad

Unknown and Untold:  The significance of Britains WW1 Muslim Soldiers.

By Avaes Mohammad

“I think it began when Archie Duke shot an Ostrich because he was Hungry”

Private Baldrick (Blackadder Goes Forth)

Half way into the centenary commemorations Britain’s desire to honour the events and combatants of WW1 remain increasingly committed.  Each notable battle and treaty, act of valour and figure of heroism is visited in fresh light to ensure a century’s worth of dust never settles.  But aside from ensuring the war is never removed from mass consciousness, what other purpose can remembrance serve and more importantly, how are the events we remember from it even determined?

Perhaps it’s because history is so important to identity that the meaning of war and its remembrance has changed with the needs of British society.  Immediately after the war of course it became important to engage with to understand what had just happened but the Cenotaphs, war memorials and memoirs we associate with remembrance didn’t actually exist until the 1920’s.  The outbreak of war in 1939 gave the Great War a new name and the post-war peace of 1945 underpinned narratives of how heroes were betrayed in 1918.

Interestingly, much of how we think of WW1 today actually derives from the 50th anniversary when Oh What A Lovely War was staged and innovations in media meant the BBC could create a stream of documentaries, which along with Sunday supplements popularised a new understanding of this history.

Unfortunately none of these narratives to date have included the over two million soldiers who fought in WW1 for Britain from what is now the commonwealth. Of these, approximately 1.5 million were from undivided India alone, from which was delivered the most significant Muslim contribution.  400, 000 Muslims fought for Britain from undivided India alone serving at the most critical and influential theatres of war.  From the famed battles of The Somme, Ypres and Neuve Chapelle on the Western Front to North and East Africa and even Mesopotamia where they fought Ottoman co-religionists, the contribution made by these Muslims remains compelling, prominent and of symbolic contemporary importance.  That the first VC awardee amongst any of the commonwealth soldiers, Sepoy Khudadad Khan of the 129th Baluchis was an Indian Muslim demonstrates the full extent to which this contribution was made.

Until recently proper acknowledgement of their sacrifices or valour has been lacking across South Asia as well as Britain.  In India and Pakistan these soldiers represented an all too recent colonial history not suited to cultures newly discovering their own sense of independence and identity.  But what of Britain, where Muslims make up the second most significant religious community and the explorations of identity are quite distinct to those occurring in South Asia?

Think-tank British Future, in partnership with New Horizons in British Islam are conducting a national project called Unknown and Untold to ask just that question.  What is the relevance of this shared history for both British Muslim and majority White British communities?

In Birmingham the project has worked with marginalised youth from Muslim and Non-Muslim backgrounds hailing from Lozells and Kingstanding respectively.  Collectively they learnt of the extent of Muslim contribution to the war before interviewing the descendants of those soldiers currently living in their own city. Presenting their findings and opinions at a public event, the Muslim youth spoke emphatically of how this knowledge of their ancestors, or at least people from their ancestral homes having served Britain at such a level, allowed them to feel a claim to this culture and identity as historic contributors – a claim reaching deeper than any immigrant narrative beginning in the 1970’s.  Additionally, for the Non-Muslim White and African-Caribbean youth this heritage was found to remove any notions of inherent incompatibility between Britishness and Islamic values whilst simultaneously broadening their definitions of Britishness itself (see for more details).

Similar attitudes were echoed in other parts of the country the project worked in, whilst in Leicester, where the heritage of Muslims fighting alongside their Hindu and Sikh countrymen was promoted, the same narrative proved successful in bringing together members from these three faith communities in a common honouring of their shared heritage and cultures.

However, this project certainly doesn’t aim to gloss over the complexities surrounding the nature of this engagement by ignoring the unequal and at times, cruel treatment some of these soldiers were subjected to.  Whilst some soldiers did enrol for ideas of adventure or money, not all of them were willing participants.  As Britain became increasingly desperate for fighting men so did their recruitment methods and some shocking stories also exist detailing the brutality of such methods.  Whilst some stories exist of admiration and respect from white officers towards their Muslim soldiers, others also exist to highlight the all too common feelings of prejudice and servility that were the unfortunate norm of Imperial subjugation.

In light of such complexity, what remains is that 400,000 Indian Muslim soldiers delivered the highest contribution possible under the most imaginably cruel conditions towards the culture and identity all Britons enjoy today.  Furthermore the Unknown & Untold project is proving that this heritage holds equal importance across all sections of society and not just for British Muslim communities, in developing a stronger sense of inclusivity and collective identity.

British Future research conducted in 2013 asked what importance the British public associated with the centenary commemorations.  A significant 80% agreed with a statement supporting the importance of acknowledging the commonwealth contribution for integration today.  This overlooked chapter of history is too important for Britain’s contemporary identity to be overlooked any longer and the centenary brings an opportunity to at last acknowledge the integral role of Muslims in this nation’s history.


For more information on this project please visit

For more information on Avaes Mohammad, please see:







Idea’s Hub: Prof Jonathan AC Brown on “How Much Does Islamic Law Change When Customs Change?”

How Much Does Islamic Law Change When Customs Change?

By Prof Jonathan Brown

Not long ago one of my students approached me asking my opinion on a small text that had been circulating on social media, particularly amongst advocates of Progressive Islam.  The snippet of text was fascinating, since it touched on a major question of Islamic law and legal reform, namely the competing authority of the original proof texts (nass, plural nusus) of Quran and Hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) on one hand, and the authority of changing custom (‘urf) and convention (‘ada, the two terms are often used interchangeably) on the other.  I offer this short analysis not to discuss the merits of Progressive Islam but only to assess the provenance of the text and explore both what its author intended and how Muslim jurists have received it.

The snippet claimed to be a quote of Qadi Abu Yusuf (d. 798), one of the three founding scholars of the Hanafi school of Islamic law.  Here I will paste a screen grab of the snippet from the Facebook post of a very vocal advocate of Progressive Islam, since this scholar translated the section well:

JB text pic

This text appears in a commentary by the Ottoman judge and legal scholar Ali Haydar (d. 1935) on the nineteenth-century Ottoman civil law code known as the Majalla (Turkish, Mecelle), promulgated by the Ottoman sultan between 1870-1875.  The text appears as part of Haydar’s discussion of one of the five main maxims of Islamic law, ‘Convention is a probative source of law (al-‘ada muhakkima).’  This means that local customs are determinative on matters left undetermined by scripture or the strong stances of schools of law (ex. how much dowry should a groom pay his bride?  What constitutes reasonable care for an item left for someone to guard?  How do we interpret the clauses of a contract, and what sorts of conditions are acceptable to set in a contract?).  As the Majalle, Ali Haydar and indeed countless previous Muslim scholars all stress, this maxim does not mean that custom can justify disobeying or abandoning a proof text (nass) from the Quran or the Hadiths.  Because Muslims believe that these texts come from the infallible sources of God and the Prophet, they cannot be based on falsehood.  Custom, meanwhile, is a human product and therefore enjoys no such guarantee.  As affirmed by generations of scholars from the Hanafi school of law, the school of Abu Yusuf, the Majalle, Ali Haydar and the Ottoman state overall, “the strong cannot be left in order to act according to the weak.”  But how then should we understand Ali Haydar’s provocative quote from Abu Yusuf.  It seems to contradict this very assertion.

On its face, the Abu Yusuf quote seems incredibly consequential.  Abu Yusuf was not a minor figure.   He was the senior disciple of Imam Abu Hanifa, is seen as one of the founders of the Hanafi school of law and was the first chief judge of the Abbasid caliphate.  In this quote, he seems to be saying that, in the case of ruling derived from the Quran or the Hadith of the Prophet, if that Quranic verse or Hadith was based in the customs of Arabia at the time, then that ruling needs to be adjusted based on the characteristic of custom and convention today.  We can easily imagine some examples: Arabia was a patriarchy in which men dominated public life and the distribution of resources; the Quran states that a son should receive twice the share of inheritance that his sister receives; since the Quran’s inheritance ruling is based on a patriarchal culture, and modern Western culture today advocates gender equality, then the customary basis of the Quranic ruling needs to be abandoned and the ruling altered to meet the custom of our time.  Similarly, the Prophet instructs Asma’, daughter of Abu Bakr, that a mature woman should cover her whole body except her hands and her face around unrelated men; since the Prophet’s ruling is rooted in the notion of appropriate dress in his particular time and place, it must be altered to fit its appropriate basis in our time and place, namely our modern notions of modest dress.

Indeed, the more I thought about it, the more Abu Yusuf’s quote seemed to offer an eighth-century mandate for the approach advocated by the late Islamic modernist Fazlur Rahman (d. 1988), whose theory of the ‘double movement’ had Muslims today looking at the details of a Quranic injunction, identifying the moral rule behind it, then figuring out how to apply that moral rule in our own, modern context.  In effect, one should look at the spirit, not the letter, of law because the letter was fixed in a distant time and place.

This interpretation of Abu Yusuf’s alleged statement, however, raises one major problem: it is difficult to determine where it would not apply.  Almost every ruling in the Quran and the Prophet’s precedent is based in some way in the culture of the Prophet’s environment.  The opposite of custom and convention would seem to be something originating totally with God and with no clear worldly connection, like the details and mechanics of Muslim worship (ibadat).  But these are also quite often bound up in culture and convention.  Fasting, notions of ritual purity and the idea of certain foods being impure were all deeply ingrained in the Near East and Arabia of the seventh century.  But they are totally foreign to twenty-first century Western Europeans and Americans, whose Christianity was founded on a rejection of Jewish dietary laws (“It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person,” says Jesus in Matthew 15:11) and who have no notion of ritual purity being essential for prayer.  Should we conclude that the Quranic rulings on ritual purity and prohibiting pork are based in the custom of the Prophet’s culture, and therefore that the rulings based in those proof texts should be abandoned in favor of reliance on our own custom?

There is an even bigger problem with Abu Yusuf’s quote, namely that he did not actually say it.  I have searched all the databases I know of, but I have not been able to find this exact quotation from Abu Yusuf anywhere but Ali Haydar’s commentary. Abu Yusuf did say something similar, but his actual statement is much less clear and categorical than what appears to be no more than Ali Haydar’s creative paraphrasing.  In the discussion of whether certain commodities can be traded by weight or by volume, which is intimately connected to the potential taboo of Riba (interest bearing transactions), Abu Yusuf said, “what is considered in all [such] things is custom, in contrast with what is specified by proof text.”[i]

In order to understand Abu Yusuf’s statement here one must look at both the specific question he was addressing and the larger issue of the authority of revealed texts versus custom.  First, the larger issue.  The question of how much authority was really vested in the temporal and cultural surroundings of the Prophet has always been salient in Islamic thought.  On the one hand, Muslim scholars always recognized that many aspects of how the Prophet and his companions lived were totally incidental and had no binding normative claim on other Muslims.  Thus we find it stated in early Sunni theological texts that ‘There is no problem with praying in trousers.’[ii]  This seems like an inane tenet to find in a summary theological text, but it was extremely important.  It drew a line delimiting the normative power of Arab custom on non-Arab Muslims.  Arab clothing was not part of Islam.  The Arabs did not wear or know of trousers during the time of the Prophet, but the Muslims discovered them soon after the Prophet’s death when the Muslim armies conquered the lands of the trousers-wearing Persians.

On the other hand, the Quran was phrased in the language and idiom of the Hejaz in the seventh century, so it was impossible to read the text without taking that context into consideration.  Moreover, sometimes the Prophet forbade something because of its meaning in his society.  This then raised the question: If the social significance of such a thing changes, does the ruling on it change too?  To a great extent, this depended on how explicit the reason behind a ruling was.  The Prophet condemned Muslims letting their robes extend down below their ankles.  But he also showed why he did this in his rebuking those who drag their clothing in the dust to show how wealthy they are (since they have spare clothing).[iii]  The Prophet forbade Muslim men from wearing gold and silk (though he exempted cloth that was a silk blend or that only had a stripe of silk on it), presumably but not explicitly because this was a sign of conspicuous consumption.[iv]  In the case of wearing long clothing the Prophet made the cause for his ruling clear, and he exempted people whose clothing kept going below their ankles because of how their body was shaped or because of how they walked.  Because modern Western trousers generally extend below the ankles but in doing so do not indicate any display of wealth, most Muslim scholars today see no problem with adopting this custom of dress.  Because the Prophet did not qualify his prohibition on silk with a clear cause, however, Muslim scholars have upheld the prohibition on silk even in times and places where wearing silk is not seen as a clear sign of wealth (most ties available in stores today in the West are made of silk, for example).  Because of the link to display, however, custom has managed to create adjustments around the edges of this ruling.  Muslim scholars have generally allowed men to use silk in their clothing for such purposes as insulation if such uses become customary.  Silk ties are often justified under the license for the silk stripe allowed by the Prophet.

Specifically, it is in the context of what the Prophet’s affirmation does to local custom that Abu Yusuf’s quote must be understood.  The Quran and the Prophet forbade usury.  In fact, until the late nineteenth century, Muslim scholars were in agreement that this prohibition included all interest-bearing transactions, not just ones with exploitative interest rates.  The details of this prohibition come from Hadiths prohibiting two things.  First, two parties exchanging like commodities could only do so in the same amount.  Party A could not trade 1 pound of dates to Party B for 2 pounds of dates.  Second, one could generally not delay payment (the Prophet made exceptions for this, however, which are the basis for much of Islamic finance).  What relation do these two practices have to interest or usury?  It seems that, in pre-Islamic Arabia, a poor person desperate for food would offer almost anything to feed his family.  He might offer a seller 10 pounds of dates, paid whenever he could get them, for just 1 pound of dates right away.  In this way, the poor would become horribly indebted to the rich.  In the Prophet’s commands that commodities only be traded in like amounts, he specified what form of measurement should be used.  In one Hadith he explains “gold for gold, silver for silver, by weight.  Wheat and barely, mady by mady (a mady being a certain dry volume measure).”[v]

The question arose amongst Hanafi jurists: What if people started trading gold or silver by volume instead of by weight, or if they started trading grain by weight instead of by volume?  The fear in this was that Party A, desperate for money right then and there to buy some necessity, might accept 10 coins made of only 10% gold in exchange for paying the ‘lender’ 10 coins made of 90% gold later on.  Since the volume of the coins was the same (coins of the same size being, in effect, a measure of volume, not weight), this could become a means of allowing exploitative usury.  This is where Abu Yusuf’s quote fits.  Abu Yusuf was stating that, in such a situation, one should adjust the legal ruling to meet the change in custom.  The Prophet had been trying to forbid interest-bearing transactions.  Because gold was exchanged by weight according to the custom of his time, his prohibition used that language.  If the custom changes, so must the units of measurement so that interest does not suddenly become allowed.

Almost all Hanafi scholars vehemently disagreed with Abu Yusuf’s statement, but this was not because they wanted to leave open some backdoor to usury.  Rather, it was because they considered it impermissible to indulge a change in the weight/volume conventions to begin with.  Muslims could not just switch from measuring gold by weight to volume and say this was custom.  The Hanafi jurist Sarakhsi (d. circa 1096) explains that the Prophet’s affirmation (taqrir) of these means of measuring had the effect of making that custom into a revealed command (nass).  The Prophet was, in effect, commanding Muslims to measure certain commodities by weight and others by volume.  This custom had become prophetically codified and was no longer subject to change.[vi]  Critiquing Abu Yusuf’s comment became standard in Hanafi books of law, and the Ottoman scholar Birgili (d. 1573) reminds his readers that Abu Yusuf’s opinion was ‘weak’ and could be taken in the face of the weight of opposing opinions.[vii]  One scholar who actually embraced Abu Yusuf’s position was the influential Damascus jurist Ibn Abidin (d. 1836), who wrote an entire treatise on custom in law because of the confusion surrounding Abu Yusuf’s statement.  Ibn Abidin appreciated that, since coins had for many centuries been the means by which precious metals were counted or measured in exchange, Abu Yusuf’s principle actually “closed off a great door for usury.”  Although the main purpose of states minting coins and stamping them with their imprimatur was to assure people using them that their weight and purity was standardized, in theory Abu Yusuf’s rule would provide a solution in case such standards broke down.[viii]


At first, Abu Yusuf’s quote seems like a clear mandate for changing the rulings of Islamic law, even if those rulings come from scriptural sources, if the rulings in those scriptural sources were determined by local custom at the time of the Prophet.  Since Islamic modernists like Fazlur Rahman understand the Quranic revelation and the Prophet’s teachings to be almost entirely bound up in that custom, this would mean that a revered classical Muslim scholar was advocating a revolutionary reform in Islamic law.  Upon examination, however, the quote attributed to Abu Yusuf was a murky modern paraphrase.  His original statement dealt specifically with conventions of measurement and the specific rules prohibiting usury.  Even in that specific context, traditional Muslim scholars criticized Abu Yusuf for his position, and those who embraced his stance did so because it would provide a backup if Muslim had engaged in an impermissible indulgence in favoring local custom over Shariah injunction.

Jonathan AC Brown is the Alwaleed bin Talal Chair of Islamic Civilization in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, and he is the Director of the Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim Christian Understanding.  He received his BA in History from Georgetown University in 2000 and his doctorate in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago in 2006.  Dr. Brown has studied and conducted research in Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, South Africa, India, Indonesia and Iran.  His book publications include The Canonization of al-Bukhari and Muslim: The Formation and Function of the Sunni Hadith Canon (Brill, 2007), Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World (Oneworld, 2009), Muhammad: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2011) and Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenges and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy (Oneworld, 2014), which was named one of the top books on religion for 2014 by the Independent.  He has published articles in the fields of Hadith, Islamic law, Salafism, Sufism, Arabic lexical theory and Pre-Islamic poetry and is the editor in chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Law. Dr. Brown’s current research interests include Islamic legal reform and a translation of Sahih al-Bukhari with commentary. 



[i] al-muʿtabar fī jamīʿ al-ashyā’ al-ʿurf ʿalā khilāf al-manūṣ ʿalayhi: al-Sarakhsī, al-Mabsuṭ (Beirut: Dār al-Maʿrifa, 1978), 12:142.

[ii] Al-Barbahārī, Shar al-sunna (Beirut: Dār al-Ṣumayʿī, 2000), 72.

[iii] aīḥ al-Bukhārī: kitāb al-libās, bāb mā asfal min al-kaʿbayn fa-huwa fī al-nār, bāb man jarra thawbahu min al-khuyalā’.

[iv] Sunan of Abū Dāwūd: kitāb al-libās, bāb fī al-ḥarīr li’l-nisā’; bāb al-rukha fī al-ʿalam wa khay al-arīr.

[v] Sunan al-Nasā’ī: kitāb al-buyūʿ, bāb bayʿ al-shaʿīr bi’l- shaʿīr.

[vi] Al-Sarakhsī, ibid.

[vii] These included the opinions of Abū Ḥanīfa and al-Shaybānī; Muḥammad b. ʿAlī Birkilī, al-Ṭarīqa al-Muammadiyya (Istanbul: Āsetāne, [n.d.]), 213.

[viii] Ibn ʿĀbidīn, “Nashr al-ʿurf fī banā’ baʿḍ al-aḥkām ʿalā al-ʿurf,” in Majmūʿat Rasā’il Ibn ʿĀbidīn (Damascus: [Muḥammad Ḥāshim al-Kutubī], [1907], 2:118.

Ideas Hub: British Muslim Comedian Sadia Azmat on not being Malala, Prevent and Radical thinking

British Muslim Comedian Sadia Azmat on not being Malala, Prevent and Radical thinking

AN Big Comedy Night (Bham) (Raw) (3)

I discovered stand up comedy at a very early age watching late night comedy specials like Chris Rock Bring The Pain. What I loved was how raw and honest the routines were. Legends like Bill Hicks, Richard Pryor, Dave Chappelle are all a great inspiration. My own style is observational humour and I call it as I see it. It’s amazing to work in a field where you don’t have to worry about people’s feelings, in fact, it’s the exact opposite, audiences expect to be challenged.

I find it important to exist beyond a stereotype and to be seen as an individual rather than a token Muslim, female or Asian. What I’ve discovered that surprised me is how much comedy is really about being truthful. My show was called ‘I Am Not Malala – The Girl Who Did Stand-Up For Entertainment and Was Not Shot By The Taliban’ as a play on the title of her book ‘I Am Malala’. After she was shot a lot of people congratulated me and it was rather bizarre for me to take the credit for her bravery and the fact she survived the ordeal! It was similar to how people congratulated all black people after Obama was elected like they had won some sort of prize.

My latest material tracks the rise of ISIS, Jihad and terrorism. The case of 26 year old Brit Tareena Shakil, who returned from ISIS, highlights the heightened paranoia as she received a sentence of six years for allegedly supporting ISIS, which is weird since threatening to kill the U.S President only gets you five years.

Another concern is the fact that the Government STILL doesn’t have a current definition for terrorism! The Prime minister remains evasive on the area and simply gives contemporary Muslims the cryptic message to adopt ‘British values’. However, when a family tried to do just that by travelling to Disneyland they were prevented from doing so, because one of the people travelling had a questionable friend on Facebook. Now so you know, all my friends on Facebook are questionable! They take pictures of themselves eating cereal, I can’t vouch for them! Muslims are constantly being made an example of in order to, on some level, justify how deep the Government have gotten in terms of their attempts at countering radicalisation.

What seems to be overlooked is the commitment the majority of the Muslim community have to integrate. It’s the Government’s policies that seem to be divisive. Take for instance the Government’s recent £20 million funding to teach Muslim women who can’t read. One has to wonder if the only solution for people from other religions and backgrounds would be to first convert to Islam to be entitled to the same opportunities.

A balance needs to be struck in terms of really looking at the underlying appeal of terrorist groups versus stigmatizing an entire community. The popular view seems to be that radicalisation is religiously motivated – but yet the majority of evidence fails to support this, with extremists ordering copies of Islam for dummies on Amazon and being known more for their party than their prayer skills.

The motivations for terrorism are far and wide-reaching – from concerns about foreign policy, to lacking a sense of belonging. These salient issues are being continually reinforced rather than addressed. The rise of Prevent, the Government’s statutory counter-terrorism strategy, and it’s increasing infringement on freedom of speech and expression, is having an effect on morale and the ability of Muslims to feel like equal citizens.

As a comedian, and having researched the field, the answers I have found are that there is nothing wrong with radical thoughts or ideas. There needs to be a forum where these ideas can and should be aired and challenged in a safe environment. Without this, we’re kind of letting the terrorists win as they succeed in bringing us further apart.

Aside from making people laugh I want my comedy to help unite people from all different walks of life through the similarities in our experiences. I always try and come from an honest perspective and also want to help audiences identify with the issues I raise, rather than confirm some form of indoctrination they may have already become accustomed to.

Sadia Azmat is a comedian and writer from East London. Her style is observational
humour and has performed nationwide at various festivals including the Edinburgh
Fringe and Dave’s Leicester festival. She featured in her debut BBC iPlayer short
in 2015 entitled ‘Things I’m Asked As A British Muslim’.
She Tweets @sadia_azmats_ and you can find her onFacebook too: Sadia Azmat

Ideas Hub: A Historic Perspective on Contemporary British Muslim Fiction, by Hannah Kershaw

A Historic Perspective on Contemporary British Muslim Fiction

by Hannah Kershaw

 Hannah pic

Today’s British media outlets, particularly the tabloids, are saturated with claims that Muslims living in Britain have had a negative influence on society. Immigrant communities from traditionally Muslim regions in Asia and the Middle East has been targeted as potential enemies of ‘the West’, framed in popular discourse as a threat to supposedly intrinsic British values, such as democracy, gender equality, and freedom of speech. My current doctoral research aims to offer an alternative perspective to this damaging narrative through the study of contemporary British Muslim literature (loosely defined as authors who are writing in Britain and are from Muslim heritage, often with varying degrees of religiosity). Considering this exciting and growing body of literature as an alternative narrative allows us to consider how British Muslim writers, such as Leila Aboulela, Nadeem Aslam, Robin Yassin-Kassab, use an imaginative craft embedded in reality in order to challenge and re-imagine what it means to be both Muslim and British.


This area of scholarship is continuing to grow, with recent publications in this field including but not limited to Anshuman Mondal’s Islam and Controversy: The Politics of Free Speech after Rushdie (Palgrave, 2014) and Rehana Ahmed’s Writing British Muslims: Religion, Class and Multiculturalism (Manchester UP, 2015). However, my research specifically asks how these authors explore Muslims living in Britain through the use of history and cultural memory. Theories of memory and trauma are often used when researching literature and testimonials around the Holocaust, but I argue that using this approach can benefit us in two ways. Firstly, it can help us to understand how British Muslims authors place their and their characters’ identities within a postcolonial and global framework, and secondly, it allows us to strive towards an understanding of British identity as historically and inherently multi – not mono – cultural.

At this point, it helps to ask: is there really a meaningful relationship between literature and social reality? In considering literature as a form of aesthetic representation, it is clear that there are benefits to using it as a way to understand everyday political and social conflict. George Von der Muhll  describes the act of reading literature as an activity that allows the reader to understand social conflict ‘from the inside out’, meaning we not only engage with a novel’s characters through empathy, but also through its construction of political and social conflict through dialogical relationships – or simple inter-character dialogue and action.


Salman Rushdie was particularly vocal about the potential of literature back in 1984, although after the furor of the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988, his position has become somewhat more inward looking. In his essay ‘Outside the Whale’, Rushdie argues that it is wrong for authors not to wish to engage with contemporary politics, claiming that ‘works of art, even works of entertainment, do not come into being in a social and political vacuum’. However, it became apparent to Rushdie in the late 1980s during Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa, that both political and authorial intention does not always result in the desired response from the reader (or, in this case, non-readers too).


Much of the British Muslim fiction being produced today is of social and political importance because of the themes that are touched upon: the struggle to maintain the Muslim faith in Britain; everyday and structural forms of racism; the trauma of migration; a perpetual sense of non-belonging. However, let’s not forget the positives that some of these authors explore, namely the actualization of new relationships, new communities and places of worship, and new opportunities.

(Above: Depiction of the Amristar massacre)

One of the novels that I discuss is Nadeem Aslam’s 2004 Maps for Lost Lovers, which narrates the everyday lives of a South Asian family living in a relatively working-class and economically deprived unnamed northern town in England. The novel, which is framed around the supposed ‘honour killing’ of a young woman, considers how domestic structures and Pakistani traditions are disturbed and made problematic in a post-migration setting. Of particular interest is the novel’s analepsis to the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre near Amritsar, when crowds of non-violent protesters were subject to random shootings by the British army. It was here that one of the novel’s protagonists, Shamas, remembers how his then-Hindu father was caught in the violence, became injured, lost his memory and lived as a Muslim for the rest of his life. This act of colonial violence is remembered and re-imagined throughout the novel, and is a crucial reminder of the impact of the British Raj on today’s clashes between white and South Asian communities. By weaving memories of the British Raj and the 1947 Partition of India into the present-day British narrative, Aslam employs a fictional but deeply historical narrative that acknowledges anti-Muslim sentiment as stemming from Britain’s long history of colonial rule and fear of the non-Christian, and the non-white.


Hannah Kershaw is a third-year PhD student and is co-supervised by the Department of Politics and the Department of English and Related Literature at the University of York. Her research project into British Muslim literature is funded by the ESRC WRDTC network ‘Reshaping Multiculturalism through Cultural Practices’, a highly interdisciplinary network supported by academics at York, Leeds and Sheffield.

She tweets @HCKershaw

Ideas Hub: Muslims, foreignness and the ‘integration’ debate – by Dr Sarah Hackett

Muslims, foreignness and the ‘integration’ debate 

by Dr Sarah Hackett

            Muslim minority communities have secured a firm position at the centre of political and public discourse in Britain in recent years. These ever-heated deliberations have centred upon, amongst other things, integration, multiculturalism, segregation, exclusion, identity, belonging, discrimination and extremism. Far too often, these debates have been driven by sensationalist and attention-grabbing agendas and headlines. Recently, these have included the Sun’s dangerous and misleading claim about British Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis, David Cameron’s heavily criticised proposals regarding face veils and Muslim women’s command of the English language, and the questioning of a 10-year old Muslim boy about terrorism by police in Lancashire.

There is no doubt that such headings and tactics have clear negative repercussions for social cohesion. Rather than promoting a sense of togetherness, unity and understanding, they create division, suspicion and fear, and further endorse an “us vs. them” mentality and rhetoric. Indeed someone casually glancing at the news headlines might be forgiven for subscribing to both the clash of civilizations theory, and to the notion that a British and a Muslim identity are somehow inherently at odds with each other. Perhaps most frustrating about this discourse are the everyday and numerous examples of integration and social cohesion that seem to go almost entirely unrecognised. We know, for example, that Muslims are as likely to feel a sense of belonging and loyalty to Britain as other religious groups, and that they have made huge advances regarding political membership, community leadership, and public recognition and influence. Mainstream Islam has successfully become integrated into British society.

My own work on the integration of Muslim minority communities in Britain seeks to go beyond overarching national-level debates and claims. My Manchester University Press monograph, entitled Foreigners, Minorities and Integration: The Muslim Immigrant Experience in Britain and Germany, which has recently been published in paperback, attempts to tease out the stories and experiences of the seldom talked about Muslim South Asians of Newcastle upon Tyne. The research addresses the socio-economic dimension of integration through an exploration of the employment, housing and education sectors, adopts a historical approach from the 1960s onwards, and draws a comparison with Turkish Muslims in the German city of Bremen.

There are two key findings that emerge from this research that can go some way towards challenging political and public anxieties regarding the integration of Muslims in Britain. Firstly, it argues that Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims in Newcastle have often succeeded in fulfilling their long-term goals and aspirations, and have displayed high levels of self-determination and autonomy. In other words, their behavior and performances in the areas of employment, housing and education have often been marked by their pursuit of economic independence and higher wages, the importance awarded to home ownership and neighbourhood formation, and indicators of increasing educational achievement. Moreover, this success has often been the consequence of an understanding of and an interaction with their local “Geordie” surroundings, be it regarding their ability to partake in Tyneside’s peddler culture or their competence in utilising the housing market in order to suit their own long-term needs and ambitions.

Secondly, the book concludes that in no way does Islam act as a barrier to integration, but rather stresses the extent to which Newcastle’s South Asian Muslims have often adhered to pattern and traits exhibited by Muslim and non-Muslim minority communities in Britain, but also across Europe and the Western world. This is clearly not a story of incompatible polarised Muslim communities who deserve to be singled out because they sit at odds with mainstream twenty-first century British society. Although Newcastle is not a British microcosm and there are factors that could help explain why its Muslims have fared better than what has often been argued to be the case for Muslim minorities in Britain in general, it is evidence that not only is integration possible, but that it has been underway for some time.

Indeed the political and public debate in Britain needs to move beyond the “easy pickings” of face veils, language and counter-extremism ideologies. We need to shift away from what are often clear cases of victimisation, persecution and unhelpful stereotypes that lead to nothing but alienation. If the social cohesion agenda is to be at all effective, more needs to be done to address the everyday obstacles and difficulties many British Muslims face, and to debate how barriers to equality of opportunity might be overcome. Younger Muslim migrants growing up in Britain need to have the same life chances as their non-Muslim counterparts in education, employment, health, religious practice and representation, and space in which to blend their British and Muslim identities.

We should take comfort from the fact that Muslims have been living in Britain from at least as early as the seventeenth century and that Muslim migrants who arrived to Britain in greater numbers after the Second World War have taken great strides regarding social mobility, integration and carving out a secure, positive and active role for themselves in British society. There are many past, recent and on-going positive examples, such as those I encountered in Newcastle, which should be recognised and used to sketch out a framework for how to move forward. One of the greatest dangers of the current rhetoric and headlines is that they’re spoken and written in isolation from, and sometimes in ignorance of, what has often been a wider holistic and historical context of positive integration and social cohesion. Using educational and local community initiatives as a means in which to further develop a more balanced awareness and understanding of Islam and Muslims in Britain may go some way towards countering the culture of fear and suspicion in which we currently find ourselves.


Sarah Hackett is Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at Bath Spa University. She has published widely on immigration and integration in Europe, migration and religion, and Islam in Europe in historical perspective. She acts as an editor for the Journal of Migration History.

She tweets @SarahEHackett

Her latest book Foreigners, minorities and integration: The Muslim immigrant experience in Britain and Germany”  is out this month.




Ideas Hubs: The Sun and the dangers of made-up statistics – Dr Khadijah Elshayyal

Above: Dr Khadijah Elshayyal
Postdoctoral Research Fellow (Muslims in Britain)
The Alwaleed Centre
University of Edinburgh

Exclusive: shock poll – ‘1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis’ –  screamed the recent front page of The Sun newspaper. It seemed that the tabloid notorious for giving us inflammatory ‘Muslim stories’ in the past[1] had hit a new low.

Over the past week, criticism for the headline, the poll, and indeed the article as a whole has been mounting, and rightly so. The anonymous piece by an individual who had helped conduct the poll for Survation being particularly telling, in terms of the clear intention of the newspaper to pursue a ‘headline’ above all other considerations. Its use of questionable techniques to obtain the data, followed by a clearly misleading interpretation of the results, render the article and the ‘statistics’ within it absolutely useless in terms of providing information of any value to the reader. As Maria Sobolewska and Matt Singh have pointed out, the use of any sort of polling to determine the level of support from Muslims is a futile exercise. Results can vary hugely depending on the wording used for questions, and ultimately, ‘what we receive as a true picture of what Muslims think is mostly an artefact of what they get asked’.[2]

But the problem does not stop at the article’s lack of utility. A more serious concern is the very real damage that misleading headlines based on patently false ‘statistics’ can cause to social integration. Headlines and ‘stories’ such as these provide easy reference material for far-right groups who typically capitalise on crises to ‘blame’ Muslims for current social problems (be they real, exaggerated, or imagined).[3] In fact, they do much of their work for them.

Even beyond the influence of the racist far-right, among the wider public, opinions, and sadly, prejudices, will already have been formed when reading the headline. One would even be forgiven for thinking that this (or similar headlines) may have subconsciously influenced our Prime Minister, as he emphatically asserted in the House of Commons last week that those opposing military action in Syria were ‘terrorist sympathisers’. Comparatively, very few people will have noticed the ‘correction’ that so often sheepishly follows such sensationalist headlines, in this case, not even from The Sun, but from from its sister paper, The Times.

And while this is irresponsible journalism at the best of times, we are not living in the ‘best’ of times by any measure. Indeed, local and international factors, not least the impact of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, have all contributed to strained community relations in many parts of the country, and a dramatic rise in Islamophobic hate crime, of the type that we have come to routinely expect in the wake of terrorist incidents. Those who carry out these attacks regularly cite an association between their Muslim (or ‘Muslim-looking’) victims with ISIS, or terrorism, and British Muslims, particularly women, have expressed unprecedented feelings of vulnerability. Newspapers like The Sun should not be able to get away with publishing untruths that are ultimately fear-mongering about a minority that is already under intense pressure, and in the age of terrorism and securitisation, increasingly viewed as suspect.[4] While it is heartening to see that concerned members of the public have held them to account, it should not be their job to do this.

Therefore, the recent move by MPs led by Birmingham Ladywood’s Shabana Mahmood to discuss this headline and its dangerous wider impacts with The Sun’s editor is to be welcomed. Certainly, media outlets and journalists do need to take greater responsibility for the accuracy and reliability of their reporting, and acknowledge the very real-world effects of their content.



[1] Including ‘Ramadan-a-ding-dong’, which claimed in 2013 that Channel 4’s daily broadcast of the Muslim call to prayer ‘could inflame tensions’.

[2] Maria Sobolewska, ‘Can we ever estimate how many British Muslims will become Islamic extremists?’ Manchester Policy Blogs, 26 August 2014.

[3] For an example of this, see Waqas Tufail,  ‘Rotherham, Rochdale, and the Racialised Threat of the ‘Muslim Grooming Gang’’ in International Journal for Crime, Justice and Democracy, 4(3), pp. 30-43 (2015).

[4] Mary J Hickman, Lyn Thomas et al, ‘‘Suspect Communities’? Counter-terrorism policy, the press, and the impact on Irish and Muslim communities in Britain’ London Metropolitan University, (July 2011).

Ideas Hub: Emad Mostaque on “Daesh and the “Islamicisation” of Supremacism”

Emad Mostaque is the CEO of Ananas, an organisation working on using technology to eliminate extremism and build stronger communities. He is also an investment strategist focusing on geopolitics at Ecstrat.
He tweets @EMostaque

After the spate of recent terror attacks by Daesh, the Arabic acronym for the so-called “Islamic State”, the question of why they carry out these heinous acts and how we can stop them has resurfaced. While there are many factors involved in recruitment and radicalisation, studying the group it becomes clear that their primary driver is not perceived injustice, but a deadly supremacist narrative similar to that of the Nazis or KKK.

We have been fighting the “War on Terror” for 14 years and have been unsuccessful on every front, spending huge amounts of money and killing countless civilians yet seeing the number of terrorists increase a hundred-fold.

The original target of this campaign was al Qaeda after 9/11. The origins of al Qaeda were in the Soviet-Afghan conflict when a few thousand foreign fighters joined the 250,000 Afghan “mujahadeen” through to 1989. This was actively encouraged by opponents of the Soviets and portrayed as a “defensive” jihad, or holy war, against godless Soviets, channeling religious community ties and empathy for their foreign policy goals. Educational resources were even altered to increase coverage and adjust the concept of jihad, with hundreds of thousands of books distributed on the topic leading to the eventual takeover by the Taleban (“students”) a decade later.

These battle hardened foreigners returned home to a less than enthusiastic reception as their governments did not share their zeal for “defending” Islam against foreign threats. This was the first flare of the supremacist narrative, which grounded not in al Qaeda, but in the GIA in Algeria, who, in the wake of the roll-back of a brief democratic moment by the army against the Islamist FIS in 1992, declared all of those outside of their group as “kafirs”, or disbelievers (ie those who knew the Truth but rejected it) and saw them all as viable targets to overthrow the government.

The result of this was almost 200,000 dead in a bloody decade for Algeria.

Al Qaeda on the other hand, led primarily by engineers, were more calculated and starting acting against their initial backers when they were forbidden from fighting in the battle against Saddam in the first Gulf war. King Fahd of Saudi Arabia instead turned to the West for support, angering Osama bin Laden in particular who believed no foreign forces should be in the land of the two mosques (Makkah and Medina) per his reading of Prophetic tradition. The long term goal of al Qaeda was always a Caliphate, but they believed this would be implemented by implementing Shariah law and education to get the people ready first.

As the 90s progressed and they started targeting Western targets, they played up a “grievance” narrative, appealing to key issues where many Muslims felt injustice such as the Israel-Palestine issue or repression by autocratic regimes. They did attack some Muslims, but until the second Gulf War their targets were primarily Western, the “far enemy”.

In many ways al Qaeda from their grainy videos and audio tapes from random caves very much cared about mass appeal and winning the “hearts and minds” of Muslims worldwide, viewing their heinous acts as necessary stepping stones to a noble goal.

Daesh is different.

Daesh grew from al Qaeda in Iraq with disaffected Sunni recruits who had once ruled Iraq, but now felt second class citizens to the Shia who formed the majority of the population and thus took control once the war was over. This group dissatisfaction melded with al Qaeda ideology and a clear sectarian message against a Shia “near enemy” to disrupt the traditional harmony of the region, where multiple faith groups had coexisted for centuries. Al Qaeda Central even publicly castigated the local group for its excesses in trying to stamp out “gray” areas in Iraq, dividing it into Shia and Sunni areas.

While al Qaeda in Iraq was defeated in a 2007 “surge” by 189,000 US troops allied to local tribes, these tribes were not given the rewards they were promised by the central government and still felt marginalised. This provided fertile ground for Daesh to expand, pushing a new religio-nationalistic message of supremacism as they split from al Qaeda in 2014 and established a so-called Caliphate. Daesh also emphasise their purported role in the coming Final Battle before the Apocalypse (said to be in Dabiq, the Syrian town their magazine is named after), reinforcing the black and white nature of their group.

In contrast to al Qaeda, the message of Daesh is selective and supremacist, either you are in their group or you are a target, which is why Muslims are their greatest victims.

They declare themselves apart from the Sunni Muslim majority, hate the Shia most of all and pick and choose from evidences to justify their excesses. As they have a purported Caliphate, the legal justifications for their actions become incredibly fuzzy as “public interest”, a tool of flexibility in Islamic law for governments, is widely used to pick weak or invalid positions over those agreed upon in Sunni Islam, using Islam as a cover for their intentions rather than as the basis for it.

Some recruitment channels remain based around grievance narratives and promises of glory, money or sex, but they have moved from being driven by community cheerleaders as al Qaeda had, to online and in small, secretive groups that are far more difficult to infiltrate.

Once radicalised, there is no grievance in a supremacist narrative that can be realistically addressed as, for example, existed with the IRA or Vietcong. This makes deprogramming far more difficult and unfortunately their recruitment channels are widening in Africa in particular as they operationalise terror.

By restricting freedoms and losing appreciation for the “gray” zones that make up our multicultural societies we are fighting the last battle against al Qaeda rather than the new one against Daesh. We must not do their work for them by agreeing with their absolutist vision of the world, but must build on the richness of our society to win this war.

Idea’s Hub: Challenging Islamophobia: The video that went viral with a Message of Hate


Dr Imran Awan and Dr Irene Zempi (above)

Now that hate crime awareness week has gone, it’s time for deep reflection and also action in how best we tackle intolerance, bigotry, prejudice and discrimination. Crucially, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron announced that the Government will now make it a legal requirement for all UK police forces to record Islamophobia as a separate category of crime.  This means that now Islamophobic hate crime falls in line with anti-Semitic attacks targeting Jews.  Indeed, the number of religious hate crimes recorded in England and Wales in 2013/14 had soared by 45% on the previous year and race hate crimes in total were up 4% (35,889 to 37,484) following the murder of Lee Rigby.  We argue that having a separate category which breaks down religious-based hate crime is a step in the right direction and we hope will break down some of the barriers towards reporting hate crime. 

On Monday, we also launched our report into anti-Muslim hate crime in Parliament alongside Tell MAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks) where we presented evidence about online and offline experiences of anti-Muslim hate crime in the UK.  Our participants reported a range of anti-Muslim hate experiences from abuse they suffered online where they were threatened with violence to offline abuse where they suffered verbal and physical abuse on the street.  In one case a women was punched, kicked and had her headscarf (hijab) pulled off. In another case, a female participant was threatened by someone on the street who wanted ‘to blow her face off’.   Additionally, we heard disturbing accounts of how Muslim men had also suffered anti-Muslim hostility in the workplace. In one case, a participant described how his work colleagues had locked the room where he was praying. Typically, male participants felt too scared to report it to the police in case people perceived them as being ‘weak’ whilst female participants felt that the police would not take it seriously. In Hira’s case, she told us that: ‘I asked the person abusing me to stop but he wouldn’t. Then they dropped alcohol on my coat…People were watching but they ignored it. No one wanted to help.”

One of our key findings was how many participants we spoke to felt that bystanders and onlookers did not help them.  This is best epitomised in a recent video that was posted on Facebook last week which showed a woman shouting anti-Muslim abuse at Muslim women on a bus in London. The video had received over 700,000 views and the women who suffered this abuse mentioned how she felt afraid and upset that no one actually came forward to help them.

Moreover, we also found that the prevalence of anti-Muslim hate crimes is influenced by ‘trigger’ events of local, national and international significance. Terrorist attacks carried out by individuals who identify themselves as being Muslim or acting in the name of Islam – such as the Woolwich attack, the atrocities committed by ISIS and attacks around the world such as Sydney, the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, and attacks in Copenhagen and Tunisia – induced a significant increase in participants’ online and offline anti-Muslim hate crime experiences. Additionally, national scandals such as the grooming of young girls in Rotherham by groups of Pakistani men, and the alleged ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal in Birmingham framed as a ‘jihadist plot’ to take over schools, were also highlighted by participants as ‘trigger’ events, which increased their vulnerability to anti-Muslim hostility.

Participants also reported suffering anti-Muslim hostility on a daily basis, ranging from online threats and messages of hate to harassment, intimidation and violence in the physical world. They highlighted that the visibility of their Muslim identity was key to being identified as Muslims, and thus triggering anti-Muslim attacks.  As might be expected, experiences of anti-Muslim hate crime increased feelings of vulnerability, fear and insecurity amongst participants. They also suffered a range of psychological and emotional responses such as low confidence, depression and anxiety. The constant threat of anti-Muslim hate crime had forced participants to adopt a siege mentality and keep a low profile in order to reduce the potential for future attacks.  So whilst, we welcome the step in having a separate category to report anti-Muslim hate we also argue that to tackle Islamophobia requires challenging the changing people’s perceptions of how Muslims are viewed.



The Report – “We Fear for our Lives”: Offline and Online Experiences of Anti-Muslim Hostility can be downloaded from here.

The Research was a joint collaboration between Mr Imran Awan (Birmingham City University), Dr Irene Zempi (Nottingham Trent University) and Tell MAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks).

A Video of Young Muslims who have experienced online and offline anti-Muslim hostility has been released alongside the report. It can be viewed here.

Imran Awan is Deputy Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University. His new book Islamophobia in Cyberspace (2015) is published by Ashgate. 

Irene Zempi is a lecturer in Criminology at Nottingham Trent University.