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


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):

or on

  • 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)

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.

Who’s afraid of the slippery slope?

Last month I wrote about the need for critical thinking and reasoned reflection. This month I want to continue that thread by looking at two of the objections that are often raised when people try to engage with new ideas. Firstly, that ‘the community isn’t ready’ and secondly, that somehow ideas that push the boundaries of our thought are the start of a slippery slope. Step there, and you never know where it will all end up!

Both of these concerns could have some valid starting point of course. As Revelation unfolded at the time of Prophet Muhammad, there was indeed a pragmatic dimension to it. People were educated and taken step by step through the changes that were occurring. The prohibition of intoxicants famously came in stages to prepare people for a significant social change. The Prophet also remarked to Aisha that if he felt the people would accept it, and he had had the means, he would have rebuilt the Ka’ba on its ancient foundations. However, the question is where the balance of such concerns lie, and do we allow them to create intellectual paralysis. No one can say that the Prophet shied away from providing decisive leadership when it came to a host of different issues—had he stopped to wait for ‘the community’ on all other matters, very little would have happened in those fascinating 23 years.

But today, such arguments are too often used to mask a lack of leadership. The idea that the community can speak with one voice is itself a dubious one. Which section of the community? Furthermore, one often finds that scholars and leaders presume ‘the community’ will resist change, while many people in those very communities presume that the scholars and leaders are more conservative than they actually are—a vicious cycle! Each group is looking to the other to make the first move as neither wants to stick their neck out first. The sad thing is that through this process we are creeping towards a tendency where people may say one thing in public and an entirely different thing in private.

The notion of the slippery slope is a familiar one. In fact, some our fiqh has almost institutionalised this fear in the principle of ‘closing the means (to harm)’ (sadd al-dara’i). By over-using this principle, some scholars have created an ultra-cautious (ultra-orthodox?) fiqh that attempts to control every possible avenue for sin, presuming the worst of the human spirit.

The irony is that a study of Muslim history shows we were at our strongest when we surfed along the slippery slope with confidence, when we were able to be critical, experiment with new ideas, make grand innovations, and have the confidence to get things wrong in the process of getting things right. Making mistakes is a natural consequence of thinking, and the blessed Prophet beautifully underlined that when he said that those performing ijtihad were rewarded even when they made a mistake, and are doubly rewarded if they are correct. In stark contrast, today some feel that Islam itself will somehow begin to unravel because of some critical voices, or ideas that may not fit in with what ‘the community’ thinks. This really raises the question of what we hold as central to our faith. What do we really believe in, and what do we really worship—is it God, or do we actually worship ‘Islam’ as an identity—often manifested in clothing, food, or cultural attitudes, perhaps even political positions?

Even a snapshot of the debates amongst scholars of the past shows the courage with which they embraced scholarship. Whether we look at the views of al-Ghazali or al-Shawkani on music, the views of Ibn Taymiya (who was imprisoned for his ideas) on a range of issues, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd on philosophy, Ibn Khaldun on biological evolution, and the list can go on, we can see the breadth of our tradition. We can also see how some scholars were constantly battling against the so-called ‘consensus’ of their day to the extent that their pursuit generated accusations of heresy at times (even if those same ‘heretical’ ideas were to later become part of the ‘mainstream’).

Sadly, and perhaps due to our acute crisis in confidence today, the ‘mainstream’/‘orthodoxy’—what we deem to be acceptable—in Muslim thought has now become far too narrow. Not only are we critical of so many new ideas, which may be a perfectly reasonable position to adopt, but some try to shut down the debate itself, which is not acceptable. One can get into a ‘chicken and egg’ type discussion about what should come first: intellectual creativity or confidence? But either way we need to learn the skill of surfing the slippery slope again and get ourselves out of the vicious cycle.

(This blog appeared in emel magazine, issue 93, June 2012)

British or Muslim?

Well, the question itself is a rather silly one…but as so many people still ask it here is a brief posting on the issue, linking to resources I have put out elsewhere.

I recently did a video-cast on some questions around British Muslim identity, that can be seen below:


I also wrote about the subject a few years ago in a book called, British Muslims Between Assimilation and Segregation (2003). The pdf of that chapter can be downloaded for free here:

British Muslim Identity

Although some of the arguments may be outdated now and some of my views may have changed over the years, the bulk of the content should give some background to my thoughts on the subject.

Who do you worship?

Islam gives great emphasis to learning and creates an atmosphere of natural respect for those who are learned and even those that are seekers of knowledge, after all learning is a never-ending process. The Prophet (s) emphasised that the search for knowledge is incumbent upon every person, male and female.

But that emphasis on learning (and the learned) is framed within a wider picture of contemplation and reflection where individuals have a responsibility to think for themselves.

The Qur’an mentions those who (suspend their own thought process and) elevate their religious leaders to the level of gods. A person once asked the Prophet how that could be, when they did not literally worship them. The Prophet responded that they obeyed them blindly when they made things that were lawful into unlawful and vice-versa. This shows that even for the one that follows others in matters of fiqh (muqallid), there is a need for vigilance and one cannot merely abdicate the responsibility to think for oneself.

It is of course true that specialist tasks such as deriving a law in fiqh, offering a fatwa, giving insight into what is halal and what is haram, require expertise and a recognised standard of learning. But putting those specialist functions aside, to read the texts, to think, consider, question and challenge is not only the right of every Muslim, but in fact a duty for those capable.

One could draw a distinction here between those (historically or today) living in climates where the level of education is very poor, where illiteracy is widespread and there is no real chance for people to read the texts, let alone question their meaning, and those (such as Muslims growing up in Britain today) that live in a highly educated society where many have gone on to study at graduate and post-graduate levels.

Consider that billions of pounds are pumped into modern education systems to promote learning and critical thinking, to prepare people for pressured careers such as medicine and law where they hold peoples lives and welfare in their hands. The skills of research and fact finding, sifting through evidence and analysis are taught. Yet in such a climate (as in a British University), to press the pause button in your mind when it comes to thinking about your faith, often the most important thing in your life, risks not only creating a schizophrenic mentality but is also a travesty of epic proportions.

Yet all too often that is precisely what seems to happen. Some people want ‘the scholars’ (Ulama) to do all the thinking when it comes to Islam – they have no opinion or view of their own – even when the Qur’an reminds: “do they not ponder the meaning of the Qur’an?” (4:82). Some even dislike that people should read the Qur’an in English and ask that it should be taught by a scholar, in case it is misunderstood. How can one ponder upon the meaning of the Qur’an if one is not allowed to read it openly and self-critically with a reasoned sense of reflection and contemplation? Or in fact, read it at all?!

The call for reasoned reflection here does not even refer to questioning the nature of God or trying to understand something we may not fully grasp like divine decree (qadr). Nor is about lay people offering fatwas, deciding what is halal or haram. In fact, that is a small (albeit important) aspect of Islam – when one looks at the Qur’an perhaps less than 10% is about law, fiqh. The rest is about how we live in the presence of God, with our fellow humanity, about who we are and what is our role in this life.

The degree of deference to scholars also raises the important questions of how well they are equipped to deal with modern day life and to answer such questions? I would argue that the Ulama are largely called to perform three functions: i) represent and reproduce a tradition; ii) demonstrate a high calibre of personality, integrity and spirituality; and iii) deal with the everyday challenges that people face and therefore bring to them.

Have we trained our scholars sufficiently to take on such burdens, especially the latter? What analytical tools do we provide for them to understand the challenges that people face, in the time that we live in?

My point is not against scholarship, on the contrary it is precisely the opposite. I am arguing that we need more scholarship, a higher calibre of expertise, especially in understanding the context. And especially because of this, while we wait for those lofty ideals to be met, the role of individual, creative thought – questioning and challenging, raising the level of debates – among the masses is even more important.