Religion and Atheism: Beyond the Divide

Edited by Anthony CarrollRichard Norman

© 2017 – Routledge

260 pages

My article, Chapter 15, is: “Belonging Without Believing: Religion, Atheism and Islam today”. I argue for a more compassionate space to respect the choice of people who decide not to believe in any religion, and I explore ways in which Islam could deal with rational choices and freedom of religion.

9781138891913A short extract:

“In contemporary debates around Islam in Western societies, often marred by politics of identity, one of the highly contentious issues that has emerged is the stigmatisation of people that leave their religion, to convert to another, or move to a position of agnosticism or atheism. This can become a serious concern with death threats, social isolation and a sense of being ‘cut-off’ from ones community, even family not unheard of. And yet the Qur’an asserts that, “there should be no compulsion in religion”. At the end of the chapter I propose a framework for thinking about this tension further, but it raises the questions of the relationship between Islam and terms such as ‘freedom’ (of religion), ‘humanism’, ‘secularism’ and ‘the secular’.”

About the Book

Arguments between those who hold religious beliefs and those who do not have been at fever pitch. They have also reached an impasse, with equally entrenched views held by believer and atheist – and even agnostic – alike. This collection is one of the first books to move beyond this deadlock. Specially commissioned chapters address major areas that cut across the debate between the two sides: the origin of knowledge, objectivity and meaning; moral values and the nature of the human person and the good life; and the challenge of how to promote honest and fruitful dialogue in the light of the wide diversity of beliefs, religious and otherwise. Under these broad headings leading figures in the field examine and reflect upon:

  • Secular and religious humanism
  • The idea of the sacred
  • The vexed issue of science in both religious and secular accounts of knowledge
  • Spirituality for the godless
  • Non-western perspectives on the atheism/theism debate.

A key feature of the collection is a dialogue between Raymond Tallis and Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury. Religion and Atheism: Beyond the Divide will interest anyone who is concerned about the clash between the religious and the secular and how to move beyond it, as well as students of ethics, philosophy of religion and religious studies.

You can find out more about the book here.


We can’t simply dismiss concerns about integration as racist

It’s time to rethink the way we use terms such as ethnicity, identity, culture and race

Whatever one makes of Brexit and the recent success of Mr Trump – including how similar or dissimilar they are – the two phenomena appear to indicate a growing sense of uncertainty among people who feel they may no longer have a place of value in society. Those who feel that somehow they have been ‘left behind’.

The rise of rightwing politics and discourse is also noticeable in the backdrop, including those on the far and extreme right. The Danish Freedom party (DFP), the Front National in France and the UK Independence party (Ukip) all seem to have a greater influence than was anticipated. Along with their sense of populism (plain-speaking, anti-elite, anti-establishment discourse) and nativism, a common feature seems to be a strong scepticism, if not dislike, of ‘Muslims’.

Far-right parties portray themselves as representing the ‘man on the street’ against the elite, who have ‘betrayed the nation’ by opening its borders. This is not just about a voter base that should be dismissed as racist, or, in reality, even rightwing (a significant element of the far-right success lies in attracting votes from the left and centre). They are often from working-class backgrounds, but bolstered by educated middle-class voters who now seem to be joining ranks, perhaps driven less by economic pressures and more by an instinct to preserve national identity or out of fear of losing some of the values they deem threatened….

(Read more at the Policy Network Blog)

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:

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


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)

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 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’ ( 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)