I have often written about challenges facing contemporary Muslim thought in the pages of this magazine. At the heart of my concern is that we do justice to the essence and message of Islam and live this message in a way that is meaningful and in keeping with its original purpose. One of the principles of fiqh states that a fatwa may change with time and place. This is exemplified most brilliantly by Imam al-Shafi’i, who re-wrote much of his fatawa when he moved from Iraq to Egypt.
Over time, as human societies have evolved, so too must our understanding of the texts and our human expressions and interpretations of those texts. By combining the text with the context, we arrive at a relevant solution that is rooted in Islamic values—ignoring either could mean a departure from that. And so the question—just as there are Arab, African, Asian, Indonesian, and Turkish expressions of Muslim culture, can there not be European and Western expressions?
To understand the severity of the challenge this question poses we only need to reflect on how different the context of Western Muslim communities is to the more established Muslim cultures. But once we begin this process of reflection (and ijtihad), we realise that it’s not just a challenge for Muslims in the West, this is an issue for Muslims everywhere, as time is always moving even when the place may be static.
A number of momentous events have affected the Muslim world over the last century, for example, colonisation, the demise of the Caliphate, and globalisation mass migration; we have seen the demise of the dar al-islam (abode of security and peace) and dar al-harb (abode of war) divide. Today it is often said that one may more safely and freely practice Islam in the heartlands of the West than in some traditional Muslim spaces. Furthermore, the move from rural to urban environments has had a major impact on family, schooling and the distribution of wealth in the lives of Muslims in the diaspora.
There has been some talk of ‘fiqh of minorities’ to deal with these changes in the West. The bottom line is that we need a fiqh that will deal with the real issues and challenges of Muslims living in Europe and the West, and address them in the right spirit—whatever label we give this. It will need to be a fiqh that is not merely based on the defensive and exceptional position of ‘minority-ness’ (emphasising a begrudging survival in the midst of a ‘non-Muslim majority’ culture), or temporary hardship and necessity (darura) (in which ‘normality’ can be suspended to make concessions and compromises), but a fiqh that can encourage Muslims to develop confident identities as active participants and citizens and, above all, allow them to live and practice Islam contextually and recognise that they are already ‘at home’.
The discussions and two ensuing reports on ‘Contextualising Islam in Britain’ by the Centre for Islamic Studies at Cambridge University (available at http://www.cis.cam.ac.uk) are a helpful contribution to this process. The discussions (involving a group of Muslim scholars, academics, thinkers and activists) started in 2009, and the final report (only the executive summary so far) was released this year. They tackled a series of points pertinent to public debates on Islam in modern Britain, for example, gender equality, ethics, citizenship, education, family, identity and sexual orientation.
While the reports are at pains to emphasise that the discussion was not about issuing fatawa, nor that the deliberations should be seen as the final word on any subjects tackled, they provide interested onlookers a fascinating window into a robust yet remakably open discussion between divergent Muslim views that at times strike important chords of resonance, while at other times disagree vehemently.
The Foreword to the first report by Mustafa Ceric, Grand Mufti of Bosnia, notes that thereport addresses questions such as, “What does it mean to live fully and faithfully as a Muslim in a multicultural society such as Britain? What can Muslims contribute to discourses about pluralistic society and human rights, which are such a central part of the contemporary British and wider European context?” Mufti Ceric goes on to say that, “This report tackles these issues with great wisdom, boldness and insight. Always starting from the moral and spiritual vision of the Qur’an.”
The journey in contextualising Islam in Britain may be a long one, even never-ending, and there may be many tough arguments ahead as the road twists and turns, but it promises to be an interesting one. Something to watch out for.
(This blog appeared in emel magazine, issue 95, August 2012)