Pluralist Britain is now home to a rich tapestry of ethnicities, beliefs and cultures. Despite its limitations, our multiculturalism serves in many ways as a role model to so many regions of the world which continue to be marred by inter-ethnic and inter-religious strife. Yet there is no room for complacency, for as the recent race riots in the north of England and the anti-religious diatribe that has emerged in the aftermath of the September 11 tragedy have shown, our ethnic and religious bridges are fragile and vulnerable. There is then a pressing need to promote real dialogue between our faith and cultural communities - a dialogue that is based on an in-depth appreciation of what it means to belong to a tradition other than our own. For those conscious of God, such honest sharing of convictions represents an unparalleled opportunity to connect and empathise with fellow British citizens; and in so doing learn more about our own relationship with God. In this article, I attempt to provide a view from within the sacred tradition of Islam. A framework that has as its core principles the belief in a just and benevolent Creator - One who has throughout time sent guidance to assist each and every-one of us to reach our full potential and return to a life of perpetual bliss in our Ancestral Home.
Humankind - The Axis of Creation
As human beings - God's foremost creation - we are qualitatively distinct from all else in the cosmos for we possess both a horizontal and a vertical dimension to our being. Charged with acting as God's vicegerent (khalifa) on earth, we are responsible for caring for and bringing tranquillity to the earth and all her inhabitants. The realisation of this noble calling begins by first understanding ourselves. Crucially, we have an inner reality, one that is centred on the metaphysical heart (qalb), an organ that has the ability to recognise goodness, truth, beauty and, above all, transcend the mundane ephemeral world and commune with the Divine Reality. It is our responsibility to preserve the inherent integrity of our being by persevering in the childhood quest to seek answers for the fundamental questions of existence. This search must continue until such time as we find answers that quench fully our psychological, intellectual and spiritual thirsts. Innately gifted with a 'heart' with which to discern, what is required of us is sincerity and steadfastness - if present our search will, God willing, be successful.
Islam: The Way of Peace
Islam is, to the Muslim mind, the answer to this perennial quest. As autonomous beings, it is of course our individual responsibility either to accept or refute such assertions (as indeed we must with respect to those made by other world-views), but to dismiss a tradition professed by an estimated one-fifth of the human race without an appreciation of its teachings is, to borrow from Sartre, tantamount to acting in 'bad faith'. 'Islam' quite literally means 'Peace'; the etymologically related term 'Muslim' defines one who has freely and consciously submitted her or himself to the will of God. Through this act of submission, we enter into a state of unison with the rest of creation - both animate and inanimate - a oneness of purpose that results in equilibrium and harmony in our innermost worlds and, by necessity also, with the universe around us.
God' s Guiding Lights
The Qur'anic description of The Fall differs from that in the Old Testament in several respects - both Adam and Eve (may God's peace and blessings be upon them both), after succumbing to the false promise of eternal life, turn together in repentance to their Lord: 'Our Lord, we have wronged ourselves, and if you do not forgive us and have mercy on us, we shall surely be of the losers' (Qur'an 7:23). Clemency was the only possible response from a Creator who, before time began, decreed 'My mercy prevails over My wrath'. To allay the inevitable Parental concern that ensued, Adam and Eve received the additional assurance that Guides to the 'Straight Path' (Qur'an 1:5) would be sent periodically throughout the earthly sojourn of their progeny, with the promise that, 'Whosoever follows My Guidance, on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve' (Qur'an 2:38). The number of guides sent total well over 100,000, and have included such luminaries as David, Solomon, Moses, Aaron and John the Baptist (may God's peace and blessings be upon them all). Held in the highest possible esteem are the figures of Jesus and Mary (may God's peace and blessings be upon them both). The Son of Mary had an immaculate conception, was able, with God's permission, to heal the blind and the leper, and was one of the foremost Emissaries of the Lord of the World's. His mother is honoured by having a chapter of the Qur'an named after her and is one of the elect who will be responsible for leading the righteous into Paradise. Fragments of the teachings of earlier Prophets survive (as expressed today in the religions of Zoroarastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and possibly also Monotheistic Buddhism and Hinduism) and these traditions are therefore, in their original form, regarded as authentic expressions of Divine Mercy. As God's Final Emissary, the communiqu revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (may God's peace and blessings be upon him) remains preserved intact both in written form and also in the breasts of countless men and women of Faith. Recited in the five daily canonical prayers, the Qur'an is without doubt the most read 'book' in human history. The Qur'an, the Prophet contested, was the self-evident proof of his ministry and is available for inspection to one and all. So too accessible is his blessed life, so appropriately summarised in the Qur'anic formulation 'A mercy to all the worlds', for each and every detail of it was faithfully recorded by those privileged enough to witness it first-hand.
Shar'iah: Core Values and Principles
Shar'iah or Sacred Law - so often misunderstood in the West - is principally concerned with five objectives: * protecting life; * safeguarding the freedom to believe; * maintaining the intellect; * preserving human honour and dignity * protecting property. Muslims understand the term Shar'iah as being 'The Path leading to the Well of Life', for both are concerned with preserving and promoting life. Taking the first and foremost principle for example, it is easy to understand why so many Muslims continue to be attracted to the noble art of medicine, for as the Qur'an notes: 'Whosoever saves the life of a single human being, it is as if they have saved the life of the whole of Humankind' (Qur'an 5:35). Freedom of belief is thus also an inherent human right - and coercion wherever it occurs and whosoever it is perpetrated by - is wrong and must be denounced as such. There are then in the Qur'an and the Prophetic example, clear criteria to judge an individual or a nation-state's claim to be following Sacred Law. Perhaps surprising to some is that very many Muslims are of the opinion that there is currently no region of the world in which Shar'iah is truly implemented.
The Equality of Man and Woman
Islam, true to the teachings of Abraham (may God's peace and blessings be upon him) - Kierkegaard's 'Knight of faith' - is a resolutely monotheist tradition. Allah -the Arabic for God - is a genderless term. It follows then that there can be no cosmic prioritising of the male principle - both males and females emanate from the same essence. Encapsulating this view, the sage Rumi, currently experiencing immense popularity in Britain, in a well-known passage of his spiritual masterpiece Mathnawi, notes: 'Woman is a ray of God' (I:2437). She must then have the same opportunity of attaining success in the only real meaning of the word. For those whose measure of achievement is judged by capitalist ideals, Islamic norms which encourage the segregation of sexes and role demarcation (in order to promote a healthy society in which the integrity of the family unit - the very building block of society - is protected) may appear sexist. But myopic secular perspectives have unfortunately - yet predictably - resulted in the unravelling of the institution of the family, which is now facing a fall almost equal to that of our Parents. The consequences are apparent for all to see - marriage on the decline, promiscuity, a sharp increase in abortions and illegitimate children, but above all, the debasement of the most noble of God's creation to little more than 'producers and consumers'.
Objective readers of the Qur'an will notice immediately an unmistakable resonance between the narratives of Islam and Christianity, such as the belief in a loving, merciful God, the conviction that as moral agents we have the freedom to choose our destiny and ultimately a responsibility to answer before our Lord for the choices we have made - choices on the basis of which we will all be judged and assigned either to bliss or chastisement. Justice demands that even those who do not share in our convictions respect our choices. The current disingenuous attempts from many quarters to malign a tradition subscribed to by over one billion people by appending adjectives such as 'terrorism', 'barbarism' and 'fundamentalism' needs to be resisted by all those concerned and committed to truth. Just as the Crusades, Hitler and Milosovic were an anathema to Christianity, so too do those 'Muslims' who perpetrate and condone the cold-blooded murder of innocent civilians blaspheme the religion of Peace. Having been privileged enough to experience Islam for what it truly is - the view from within - I can but only concur with the Prophetic observation: 'All praises belong to God for having bestowed on us the blessing of Islam ' and this is a blessing that suffices! '
Acknowledgments: I am grateful to Ms Suma Din and Dr Sangeeta Dhami for many thought-provoking discussions on some of the ideas raised here.