New Horizons

After 17 years I left my various roles at the Islamic Foundation and the Policy Research Centre at the end of March 2013. See below for my new contact details…

Markfield, beautiful at all times of the year. Long may it thrive.

On the one hand, I was sad to leave a base that has offered me so much and to leave colleagues, especially in the Policy Research Centre, who have been the best friends anyone could ask for. I started working at the Islamic Foundation soon after graduation, as a research assistant. I feel deeply indebted to everyone that offered me a chance to learn, to develop and to experience a vast plurality of Islamic thought that I would not have been exposed to otherwise.

On the other hand, I am very excited and eager to continue some of my recent work in a new shape. I will be working closely with my wife, Rabiha, in developing a new project that will focus on aspects of reform and contextualising Islamic thought and hopefully helping to deepen our understanding of what faith, and Islam in particular, means to us today.

The new project is called New Horizons in British Islam, a forward-looking organisation that works for reform in Muslim thought and practice. It is inspired by Islamic spirituality and values, speaks from within the Islamic tradition but for the benefit of all.

I will also work as an independent consultant, among other things continuing my role at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. I’m also very excited to be starting a new role at the Lokahi Foundation. The final bit of the picture, last but not least, is to pursue some of my academic interests through a number of Universities – Cambridge, London and Leicester.

Aside from ‘work’, I hope to keep up various voluntary roles as a Trustee of 3FF (Three Faiths Forum), Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, Maslaha and the Islamic Society of Britain. No rest for the wicked then!

My latest email:

dilwar@nhorizons.org

You can also keep up with developments via this blog or join the mailing list for the project for updates, at: www.nhorizons.org. Thanks!

Dilwar

Muslims in the West and the Search for Abu Talib

What do these figures that are mentioned in the biography of the Prophet Muhammad (s) have in common – Abu Talib, Mut‘im bin Adiy, Ashama bin Abjar (the Negus of Abyssinia), Waraqah bin Naufal? They are all people that did not accept the faith of Islam (although there is some dispute about the Negus) yet were crucial in supporting the early Muslim community.

While there are many commentaries and studies of the Sira (the life of the Prophet) this is an often under-explored aspect that is highly relevant to us today, especially those Muslims living as minorities.

The care and compassion shown by Abu Talib, the uncle of the Prophet, is well known to many. His protection was vital given the tribal nature of Makkan life. When the small band of followers in Makka faced severe treatment at the hands of the Quraysh, it was to the Christian Negus of Abbysinia that the Prophet sent those who were able to leave. During the time of famine in Makka, when the Muslims were subject to a social and economic boycot, it was non-believers like Mut‘im bin Adiy who would secretly smuggle food to Muslims. It was the same Mut‘im who granted the Prophet protection after the death of Abu Talib. When the Prophet was secretly leaving Makka during the Hijra it was a non-Muslim guide, Abdullah bin Uraiqit, that he confided in revealing his plans and asked him to show the route to Medina. Waraqa bin Naufal, a Christian priest, was the cousin of Khadija, wife of the Prophet. He was the one that helped the bewildered couple make sense of the first revelation to Muhammad.

The fact that the Qur’an addresses humanity as ‘the children of Adam’ is very significant. It reminds of the common ancestry of all humanity, creating the atmosphere of a single family of people rather than one of different races or religions who should fight against each other. Differences are of course there, but in the sight of God they are natural and part of His plan: “If your Lord had so willed, He could have made mankind one people…” (Qur’an, 11:118). “O mankind! We created you from single (pair) of male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other, (not despise each other)…” (Qur’an, 49:13). Furthermore, the Islamic idea of pluralism goes beyond mere tolerance or acceptance of difference, it is based on honour and dignity, “we have honoured the children of Adam” (Qur’an, 17:70).

Sadly, this more open and pluralistic outlook of Islam has been forgotten by many. In the heat of conflict we have become obsessed with identity politics, thinking in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Wind the clock forward 14 centuries, and think in the context of a multi-faith environment like Britain; now more than ever before, the question of how we live with each other, with our differences and our diversity is vital. It is important that we pay serious attention to how we can work together with people and not just on our own as a Muslim ‘community’.

‘Muslims’ / ‘non-Muslims’ – our lives are intertwined in very complex ways. The examples from the time of the Prophet show that they always have been. Think of how much we rely on each other as citizens, neighbours, friends and co-workers. Whether for something as low level as asking a neighbour to keep an eye on our home, sharing the school run, or raising money for a local cause. Working on something more organised like getting planning permission for a mosque or something at the national level, like winning the support of others to argue for a piece of legislation that protects everyone’s rights. Or something like relying on open and fair minded people (as we have done so often) to defend the rights of Muslim citizens when they are wrongly attacked. So, one could ask the question – who are the contemporary figures such as Abu Talib for Muslims today? Have we reached out to make such friends?

I’m struck by how much more powerful it is when someone that is not a Muslim speaks out against Islamophobia, for example. And likewise, when a Muslim stands up against another form of prejudice such as anti-Semitism or homophobia.

But in order to reach that level of co-operation, we need to move beyond the parochial. To open ourselves up to relationships that go beyond self-interest and where we can be sensitive to the needs of a much wider circle of people. Where we are able to see the value of working for the whole. All the people that are our neighbours and fellow citizens; our people. We truly are in it together.

(This blog appeared in emel magazine, issue 99, December 2012)

Islam in the European house: Towards an inter-religious social ethics

Islam im europäischen Haus: Wege zu einer interreligiösen Sozialethik

Islam in the European House

This book (in German), by Dr Hansjörg Schmid looks at the emerging ideas of 5 Muslim figures on religion, public life, the secular state and pluralism:

  • Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid
  • Dilwar Hussain
  • Fikret Karčić
  • Tariq Ramadan
  • Azzam Tamimi

Summary

The focus of this book is on the relationship between religion, secular state and pluralistic society. The comparison carried out in this book of contemporary Muslim positions with selected references to Christian social ethics brings to light striking similarities as well as distinctions. Just as Christian social ethics have emerged as a response to social changes, Muslims in Europe are also now working to reconcile tradition and contemporary challenges. The book suggests that a purely denominational Christian social ethics as developed in the 19th Century, due to social pluralism, has now comes up against its limits. Only an inter-religious social ethics will provide an alternative to the challenges presented to religous discourse in the public arena.  The book  identifies and develops a basic methodology of shared social and ethical areas of action for Christians and Muslims.

The book can be purchased here (can also view contents and introduction):

http://www.herder.de/buecher/details?k_tnr=32557

or on Amazon.de

  • Hardcover: 500 pages
  • Publisher: Verlag Herder; 1 edition (September 27, 2012)
  • Language: German
  • ISBN-10: 3,451,325,578
  • ISBN-13: 978-3451325571
  • Size and / or weight: 21.4 x 13.4 x 4 cm

Sticks and Stones

The issue of how to deal with ‘insults to Islam’ has become a recurring discussion in Muslim circles. Spurred on in recent years by cartoons depicting the Prophet, burning of the Qur’an, and that YouTube video; the latest disturbances have created a global uproar—demonstrations in tens of countries, over a dozen lives lost, embassies attacked, whole nations blamed for the actions of a fool. What’s going on?!

The love and passion that Muslims have for Muhammad is well known to themselves, and yet perhaps one of the most misunderstood things outside of Islamic circles. This is more than an ordinary pre-occupation with blasphemy—the Persian couplet hit the nail on the head when it said: “Take liberty with God if you wish, but be careful with Muhammad!”

Muslims may well perceive an insult to the Prophet as an injustice, but we need to ask serious questions when we react to such provocations and think what the actual priorities should be? After all, where is this energy when it comes to other cases of injustice, for example the ongoing conflicts in Syria or Bahrain? Can this energy be channelled in more productive ways? Why is it (nearly) always destructive?

A piece of advice from the Prophet himself may help us to set some sense of context and proportion: “Shall I tell you of something that is better than fasting, prayer and charity? It is mending discord between people. Beware of hatred—it strips you of your religion.”

Islam gives us many other more direct teachings of how we should react in the face of insult. When the Prophet was stoned and chased out of Taif his reaction was not to ask God for the destruction of the people, but to pray for their guidance. The Qur’an teaches us: “…and argue with them in ways that are better…” (16:125). It also reminds us that, “not equal are the good deed and the bad, repel [the bad] with good…” (41:34). As someone reminded me recently, if we repel evil with evil, then only evil can prevail.

The Qur’an also teaches us not to curse the deities of other religions in retaliation to their insults. The fact is, the icons of our faith—God, the Prophet, the Qur’an, etc. don’t need defending. If we are faithful, what could any human being do or say that would undermine our faith in them, or cause any actual hurt to them? Violent, inflamed defence does nothing but lend credibility to the accuser.

Over the last few weeks some Muslims have called for blasphemy laws to be introduced in various countries. However, it strikes me that the insult that Muslims often feel in such situations and the violent reactions demonstrated, stem from a deep sense of insecurity—perhaps related to a post-colonial history, disillusionment with the ethics of global politics today, estrangement from the spirituality of their own religious traditions, identity politics, etc. Blasphemy laws, or indeed any laws, will not resolve such deep problems.

Blasphemy laws were repealed from the UK in 2008 because they had become out-dated. The last imprisonment under those laws took place in the 1920s. Instead laws have been introduced to protect people (incitement to religious hatred, for example) and not religions. Balancing the right to free speech and the potential for causing offence are not easy. These are complex tensions that every society grapples with and there is always a need for some boundaries in the law to prevent exploitation and injustice especially of the weak and vulnerable. Ideas and beliefs do not need defending, but people do.

One would of course wish for, and expect, decorum and civility in public discourse. The challenge is how do you react when the criticisms against your beliefs are crude or are deemed offensive?

Human societies have now grown to value the importance of free speech and probing enquiry. It is also worth noting that much of the position that Muslims have carved out—religious freedom, anti-discrimination and equality—is built on the foundation of notions such as freedom and human rights.

While we continue to urge decorum, arguments are better aired, rather than pushed underground. People are afraid of Islam and Muslims. We need to face up to that. We will not defeat this fear nor deal with people’s prejudices and anxieties by merely asking for restrictions on what they can express. Instead we need more freedom for people to debate, discuss and bring out whatever anxieties they have. Only when we nurture a climate of open discussion (and yes, some of that will be bitter and difficult for us to hear) can we even stand a chance of dealing with the concerns that people have.

(This blog appeared in emel magazine, issue 98, November 2012)

Glad Tidings to Strangers

The Prophet Muhammad once stated, “Islam began as a stranger and will return as a stranger, so give glad tidings to the strangers!” Islam began in a desert, semi-nomadic climate where tribalism had a strong influence on people’s lives. One of the key aspects of the Prophet’s struggle was to work against this tribalism in which there was little room for strangers and foreigners.

Given this struggle of the Prophet, I have been a little concerned to see attitudes of “they are coming here and taking our jobs” developing amongst some Muslims whose family, as close as one generation ago, migrated and settled in this country.

One famous story shows how the Prophet Muhammad, early on in his life, stood up against injustice and xenophobia. When Muhammad was in his teens, a trader from Yemen came to Makkah and was wronged by one of the Makkans who bought goods from him and refused to pay the agreed price. In those days, people would be protected through their family or clan and, knowing that the trader had no such protection, the Makkan felt that he would get away with this. The trader went to the Ka’ba (almost like a village square) and pleaded for help. In response, a group of people met in the house of Abdullah ibn Jud’an. Those present at the meeting formed a pact to protect the innocent and downtrodden. Muhammad, along with his close friend Abu Bakr, was a party to this pledge. Later, in old age, he recalled the pledge, the Hilf al-Fudul (the Virtuous Pact), with fondness and said that he was still bound by the pact.

Islam is a religion based on equality of all people regardless of their differences. Muslims believe all human beings have originated from the same source—the blessed Prophet said, “You are all Adam’s offspring and Adam was made of clay.” The Qur’an says:

“O mankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another. Surely, the most honourable of you is the one who is most conscious of God. God is all-knowing, all-aware.” (49:13)

Difference and diversity are thus seen as positive characteristics of our lives, present by God’s Divine intent and not by accident. This is exemplified in the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Makkah, during which the faithful, whether rich or poor, king or peasant, all dress in the same simple clothes and worship side by side, equal before God.

Furthermore, the instruction to help those in need is repeated throughout the Qur’an and mentioned in many hadith. The vision of Islam is for a benevolent society where we try our best to look after each other and do what we can to make society better—if we cannot do that in monetary terms then even picking up some litter, or just being pleasant and greeting people with a smile is enough. Importantly, we should not just rely on the state to be the benevolent hand in society. Social justice is a concern for everyone. It is that spirit of concern and thought for others, based on human equality and dignity, in our everyday life, that is important. Similar teachings can be found in respect of the rights of neighbours, regardless of faith. “He is not a true Muslim, who eats his fill while his neighbour sleeps on an empty stomach,” said Muhammad.

British Muslims are lucky to live in a society where poverty and hardship are not as common as in other parts of the world; a society where the basic rights of human beings are valued. But the discourse on immigration and the rights of those who have sought asylum in this country is worrying, and not just amongst the wider public. Increasingly, the rights of the stranger, the foreigner and those who are ‘not like us’ are at risk due to the tempo of this public debate. Furthermore, as Muslims move up the socio-economic and class ladder, the temptation to kick the ladder away once one has climbed it must be avoided. Human rights groups, Churches and other faiths have provided some admirable leadership on such issues and needless to say Muslims—especially because they have recently experienced migration and settlement themselves—should do more to work for the rights of the stranger in our midst. Let us bring “glad tidings to the strangers.”

 

(This blog appeared in emel magazine, issue 97, October 2012)

Social Policy, Cultural Integration and Faith: A Muslim Reflection

Published in: Social Policy and Society Journal / Volume 11 / Issue 04 / October 2012, pp. 625-635.

Abstract

This article is a reflection on some of the discussions around faith and public life, within the context of Muslim communities and their interaction with public policy. It looks at the gap between popular debates on Muslims and the actual lived socio-economic reality of most people of Muslim background, and then goes on to look at aspects of identity formation and Muslim identity politics in the UK. It also considers the idea of integration and looks briefly at emerging Islamic discourses that are grappling with some of the challenges presented by modern British society. Finally, the article explores the role of faith in the public sphere and if it can help to build social capital and play a role in ideas such as the Big Society. The article concludes by emphasising the need to move beyond identity politics and communitarianism and asks where the real divides in society are – between religious and ideological groups or within them?

Link to this article here or download here: Social Policy, Cultural Integration and Faith

How to cite this article:

Dilwar Hussain (2012). Social Policy, Cultural Integration and Faith: A Muslim Reflection. Social Policy and Society, 11, pp. 625-635 doi:10.1017/S1474746412000292.

Beyond the Dysfunctional Family

Beyond the Dysfunctional Family: Jews, Christians and Muslims in Dialogue With Each Other and With Britain

By Alan Race, Tony Bayfield and Ataullah Siddiqui (Eds)

This book contains a series of articles by people of Jewish, Christian and Muslim backgrounds involved in interfaith discussions about the evolution of their communities.

My article, Chapter 3, is on: How Did the Muslim Community Come to Be Where it is Today?

A short extract:

“So the question of ‘being British’ was not a major issue for me, but for many Muslims of the second and third generation discussions of identity have been quite vocal debates. Are these Muslims British or Pakistani, Bengali, Gujarati, etc? This evolving debate has seen new twists and turns in the post 9/11 and post 7/7 era. For the vast majority the story has always been of people who saw great opportunities in the UK, people who were born, or at least brought up, here with a sense of pride and belonging – right down to the neighbourhood level and often displayed in the local accents, cultures and customs adopted by Muslims across the country. This process of adoption and adaptation has quite naturally created a gradually developing sense of hyphenated identities such as ‘British-Pakistani-Muslim’, or later just ‘British-Muslim’. It seems that the crux of the matter is how Muslims can become entirely comfortable being British and at the same time remain loyal to their faith. Can this apparently dual sense of loyalty be harmonised?…”

Summary of the Book

This book is the fruit of 15 years of face-to-face interfaith dialogue between practitioners of the three Abrahamic faith communities, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The focus is on how the dialogue cannot be avoided if we are to build a society based on shared humane values. Theological questions are interwoven with a narrative of how tortured relationships from the past do not have to determine the future. There are 16 contributors but it is definitely not a collection of unrelated essays. The book builds in argument as writers interact with one another. It is a work of critical thinking, but free from unnecessary jargon. The authors are convinced that the next phase of religious identity needs urgently to embrace the growing dialogue between religious traditions, both as a search for a fuller account of religious truth and in the cooperation needed for overcoming the impression of endemic violence which many associate with religious conviction. The three religions share a positive sense of the goodness of creation, moral purpose in history and believing as a dynamic enterprise of persons. This book embraces a critical approach in all of these matters and accepts that such an approach is positive in outlook leading to a future based more on respect and mutual learning than on the suspicions which have characterised much of the past. Although the book’s context is the place of the three communities in Britain, it is also clear that the dialogue which it embodies will also contain lessons for other contexts beyond the confines of the shores of the United Kingdom alone. The beauty of this book is that it does not aim for dispassionate analysis. Over 15 years the contributors learned the value both of listening deeply and of responding empathetically, including sometimes sharply, to one another. They ended up convinced of their need of one another for the sake of a religious identity which will be more authentic for the 21st century if it is shaped by critical friendship. From now on it will not be possible for Judaism, Christianity and Islam to exist in isolation if the real truth of our human religious situation is to be grasped.

The Moderate Path

When one reads the sources of Islam, there is a clear sense that being a Muslim entails a serious degree of engagement and commitment—one cannot shirk duties, for example in supporting those one is responsible for, or standing up for the rights of the needy or oppressed; on the contrary, people should always seek to “promote good and counter wrong” (Qur’an, 3:110). Nor should one be spiritually neglectful—“Say: my prayers and sacrifice, my life and death, are all for God, Lord of the worlds.” (Qur’an, 6:162)—and exemplified are those “who remember God when they are standing, sitting and lying down.” (Qur’an, 3:191)

Commitment, hard work and struggle are therefore facts of every day life. The spirit of jihad (striving to our utmost) is precisely there to nurture inner strength and self-control when faced with tough circumstances, such as life always conjures up, so that people can confront adversity with dignity, composure and discipline. Knowing that “surely, with every hardship comes ease.” (Qur’an, 94:5).

This sense of serious commitment and fortitude however is not to be confused with deliberately making things difficult for ourselves. Nowadays it seems that some go out of their way to make things harder, feeling that the more pain we feel, the more ‘Islamic’ an act is. There is a gross misunderstanding that the path of religion should entail hardship and suffering in order for it to be ‘genuine’ and ‘authentic’. At the root of this lies the (conscious or sub-conscious) anxiety that this life is fundamentally at odds with our spiritual well-being, and it is a mere test for us to pass through. This is actually alien to the original spirit of Islam, which confirms that it is God who created us in a state of natural balance, in harmony with the rest of the universe around us. That we need to take time to enjoy, laugh, relax and have fun as well as do all the serious things in life. This is why the Prophet Muhammad taught his companions that “…there is an hour for this and an hour for that” (Muslim).

The idea that Muslims should try to live a life of balance and moderation goes to the heart of Islamic teachings. The Qur’an asserts: “We have made you a community that is of the middle path (wasat)…” (2:143)

Very boldly, the Prophet taught: “Make things easy for the people and do not make them difficult. Give good tidings to people and do not repel them” (Bukhari). It is said the Prophet was never confronted by two options but that he chose the easiest of them—a notion that became a guiding principle in usul al-fiqh. This is clear to see in the vision of Islam—it is here to facilitate and help us, not to burden us. As the Qur’an emphasises, “God desires ease for you, and not hardship.” (2:185)

Every day dispensations such as shortening and combining the prayers when travelling, the allowance for the sick to make up their fasts later, performing symbolic wudu (tayammum) when water is unavailable, the instruction of the Prophet to Imams to shorten the congregational prayers as the elderly, weak, and those that need to tend to their work, would be in the congregation—these, and so many other examples, all show the humanity and common sense of how this faith is intended to be practiced. In the realm of social interaction the Qur’an allows that we eat from the food of the People of the Book (5:5), because despite there being quite specific dietary laws in Islam the purpose is not to create a community that becomes isolated and breaks social ties, so common sense allowances and exceptions are built in to compensate.

When we look at so much of the lived practice of Muslims today however, on so many subjects, we will find ‘pious’ deviations from the original spirit of Islam causing its intended sense of balance and moderation to get lost in translation.Islam actually came to liberate us, as the humble Rabi ibn Amir said to the mighty Persian emperor, Rustum, that it came to free people from servitude to other human beings and to take them from “the narrowness of this world to the wide expanse of this world and the hereafter; and from the injustices of other religions to the justice of Islam.” (Al-Tabari)

For too many of us today, it seems, it has become a shackle such that narrowness and injustice are no strangers to us.

(This blog appeared in emel magazine, issue 96, September 2012, under the title: Making Religion a Burden)

A Western expression of Islam

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)

An Olympic Ramadan

As the eyes of the world turn to London, the last few days (after years) of preparations come to fruition as London proudly hosts the 2012 Olympics. I remember vividly the jubilation when the decision for London to host the 2012 event was announced back in July 2005. The bid for the Olympics focused on the diversity of London and its unique place in the world as a result of that. It really seemed to galvanise people together. Then the day after, the 7th day of that July was, sadly, an entirely different experience for London.

In a way that tension between euphoria and fear, between celebration and terror, marks the preparations of this Olympics, as security is planned to be tighter than ever for the safety of an astounding 11 million ticket holders (including the Paralympics) is at stake.

My focus for this piece, and the interesting dimension of this Olympics, is that it overlaps the month of Ramadan. Now for some, Ramadan and something as sporty and energetic as the Olympics, don’t match. We need to think again.

If we go back to the ancient Greek origins of the Olympic games, it was a time when people would suspend war and conflict in order to participate in the games. The games also had religious connotations and were intertwined with beliefs of the ancient Greeks. When they were revived in the late 19th Century they inspired the Olympic creed; “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

Along with the Olympic motto of Citius, Altius, Fortius (Faster, Higher, Stronger) this represents the spirit of the Olympic games, and actually it chimes more than we may think with the spirit of Ramadan.

The idea behind Ramadan is that we better ourselves, we try to be the best we can be. We exert effort and sacrifice in order to improve ourselves, focus our minds, become more disciplined and become stronger. While realising that real strength lies in self-control and not in simply beating someone. This is why the Prophet once said that, “The strong man is not the one who can wrestle another to the ground, rather the strong man is the one who can control himself at times of anger.” The Qur’an describes fasting in the month, “…as it was prescribed to those before you, that you attain taqwa…” (2:183). The word taqwa, often translated as ‘piety’, here implies a combination of piety, discipline, diligence, and self-control.

For some people today, Ramadan is becoming a time for taking time off work, missing school or college days and generally ‘taking it easy’, while often over-indulging in food at night. (While in some locations the days can be quite long, that is a separate discussion for another article perhaps). This is not how things began. Fasting in Ramadan was supposed to be an intense period of ‘training’ so that we come out at the other end spiritually charged, more disciplined, and more conscious of God and His daily gifts to us. The inference here is also that we remember those who are less fortunate and remind ourselves to be more generous in giving to people around us. This is why many Muslims increase their charitable giving during this blessed month.

It is a time for reflection, meditation and also reforming our character and conduct. The Prophet said, “Whoever does not give up false speech and false actions and ignorance, God has no need of his giving up his food and drink.”

So, perhaps rather counter-intuitively, the spirit of Ramadan and the spirit of the Olympics actually have much in common. It is for these reasons that the Islamic Society of Britain, along with other partners, is involved in the Ramadan Festival 2012, part of ‘2012 Hours Against Hate for Unity’ (www.ramadanfestival.org). It’s an opportunity for people to come together and share in the common spirit of Ramadan and the Olympics and to learn more about each other.

After all, Ramadan and the Olympics are both really designed to bring people together—yes, to make sacrifices, exert effort, become stronger and more disciplined, even compete—but with a higher purpose and vision in mind, that we are all part of one human family under God.

(This blog appeared in emel magazine, issue 94, July 2012)