The Politics of Islam(ism): Decolonizing the Postcolonial
Tuesday, February 19,2008 09:50
By Dr. Jeremy Henzell-Thomas

As a reaction to perceived threats to national identity and social cohesion arising from migration, multiculturalism and, above all, the resurgent Muslim presence in its midst, a vocal political and cultural tendency has emerged in the West to claim national ownership of a set of core values which purport to distinguish modern, progressive Western civilization and its way of life from alien and hostile influences which are held to be incompatible with it.

This paper will offer a critique of this process of colonization with reference to the supposedly “core British value” of “responsibility for others”. It will be argued that instead of appropriating and even misappropriating values for the purpose of asserting tribal superiority, we should all, no matter what our affiliation, be working together to reclaim those core human values which transcend national, cultural, ideological and religious divides.

The challenge for Muslims in Britain today is to embody the altruistic love of humanity which is the core of all authentic religion.  It is to come of age, to assume the mantle of a truly creative minority which can inspire social renewal and help the nation as a whole to lift its ambition, rediscover its moral compass and heal its social maladies. This is a task which cannot be accomplished by any group acting in the interests of narrow identity politics, tribal partisanship or triumphalism, but only by all people of goodwill embracing shared universal human values and acting together for the common good. 

On the face of it, my abstract suggests that my paper has much more to do with pressing social issues than with the political themes foregrounded by this conference, but the core of what I want to say goes beyond any such discrete and artificial boundaries between disciplines. We need overarching interdisciplinary principles and superordinate paradigms which can offer unifying explanations. The illustrations I will draw from the state of society are intended to point the way to a new vision of how Muslims might come of age and assume the mantle of a truly creative force which can help to transform the societies in which they live.

What initially struck me in the Call for Papers was the insightful statement that “Analyses and representations of Muslims and Islam, both outside and within Muslim communities, continue to be dominated by variants of Orientalism, and beholden to Eurocentric paradigms that claim supremacy in the guise of universalism”. Islam and Muslims thus remain trapped “in a colonial framework from which it is impossible to generate enduring solutions to the many problems that confront the Muslim Ummah.” Decolonization and the “cultural, economic and political subordination” it entails ultimately “demands the forging of alternative conceptual frameworks… and the evolution of new discursive approaches” which “do not limit themselves to traditional Islamic conceptual frameworks”.

Now, we could seize immediately on what is meant by the term traditional in this very analysis, and see it as an example of the “under-conceptualised terms” which the Call for Papers itself correctly argues contribute to the “controversy” and “opacity” infecting analyses of the contemporary Muslim Awakening. Or rather, to my mind it would be more exact to say that the term traditional is not essentially “under-conceptualised” like the terms “extremism, fundamentalism, and Islamofascism” identified in the Call but is actually deeply ambiguous and multi-layered, with both positive and negative connotations and nuances, and even radically different meanings. Is it only to be associated with the “traditional theologically-based Islamic scholarship” which the Call maintains is conscripted into a “war of interpretations” within Islam and is therefore unable to offer any real insights into the current crises? That’s certainly one take on the word, but my own concept of Tradition with a capital T and Traditionalism as a conceptual framework goes beyond the “theologically-based scholarship” which might be used, or indeed misused, to legitimize Islamism, but encompasses a vastly more universal paradigm based on a perennialist perspective that bears no relation to a fixed and exclusivist mentality but which honours the explicit manner in which the Qur’an above all scriptures divinely ordains a pluralistic vision of unity in diversity, not only in terms of culture, language and race, but also in religion.

Now I’ve argued elsewehere [1] that there is a pressing need to develop a nuanced terminology which can help us to avoid the conceptual dead-ends which poorly defined terms can lead us into. For example, we must develop the linguistic tools which can help us to distinguish authentic concepts from their distortions and counterfeits and thus avoid being taken in or manipulated by ideological labels. Chief among these is the confusion between unity and uniformity, between a Qur’anic vision of unity in diversity and the stifling uniformity associated with the isolating pathologies of civilisational narcissism and cultural autism. By the same token, we must distinguish divinely-ordained diversity from the division and divisiveness caused by human ignorance and ill-will. [2]

We must distinguish our transcendent identity as human beings from tribalism, sectarianism, narrow identity politics and the supremacist triumphalism they breed. And on the same note, as a means of going beyond the false dichotomy between integration and segregation, we need to make the more subtle distinction between having integrity and being integral from being integrated, for the latter may in effect be only a euphemism for being assimilated. [3]

The real difficulty is in getting people to move from the outer to the inner level - that is to become integral, neither integrated (in the reduced sense of ‘assimilated’ or segregated. We have to get beyond the integration/segregation dichotomy and help people to understand that to be integral is to have the integrity to retain a deeper transcendent identity and not to corrupt it by setting it against other ‘identities’ at different levels.

The essential sense of integrity is to be intact, whole, unadulterated, pure. We must realize that this integrity refers to an inner condition of the soul, just as integration in its deepest sense does not refer to an external state but an inner psycho-spiritual state of wholeness or holiness. Unfortunately, it is often reduced by religious literalists to the level of ‘purity’ supposedly guaranteed by the mere observance of external religious duties and prohibitions, by exclusivists to the belief that only one kind of doctrine or observance is correct and that compliance must be rigidly enforced through coercion [4], and by cultural separatists, supremacists and colonisers to the ‘communalism’ and narrow identity politics which isolates and separates people into homogenous communities.

Only through that integrity can we act as a truly ‘creative minority’ in trying to renew and heal the societies in which we live.  The word identity comes of course from Latin idem (’same’, that common identity or essential nature we share not through homogenisation or external integration, but through the fitra we are all endowed with. This is also a moral imperative for us as Muslims, as is expressed in the ethical connotation of the word integrity itself. 

Going further, we need to distinguish conformation to a divine pattern from uncritical conformity to human constructions; the authority of divine revelation which liberates the human soul from the authoritarianism imposed by narrow human formulations which imprison it; and the existence of absolute and timeless truths from the tyranny of an absolutism which obliterates all context. The process can be carried further to distinguish community from communalism, relationship from relativism, individuality from individualism and solipsism, liberty from libertarianism, religion from religiosity, ideas from ideology, doctrine from dogma, morality from moralising and moralism, and the true democracy assured by an informed populace from the demagoguery which thrives on repetitive rhetoric directed at the ignorant or those kept from the truth by biased and malicious media. [5]

The forging of the alternative approaches and conceptual frameworks which is one of the purposes, as I understand it, of this conference, must rest in part on this kind of linguistic refinement, and its accomplishment is well overdue.

The gift of language, given to man alone by God when He “imparted unto Adam the names of all things” [6] makes possible the exercise of human reason (‘aql). The root meaning of the word ‘aql is to ‘bind’ or ‘withhold”, indicating the human capacity for separating, defining and differentiating meanings so as to arrive at precise and distinct concepts. If well developed, it is an indispensable cognitive tool for advancing mature dialogue and dialectic, and as such it ought to be the foundation of all education in thinking skills. It was Plato who laid one of the foundation stones of Western civilization when he asserted that the process of dialectic (the critical engagement with competing viewpoints which leads to the refinement and advancement of ideas) was immeasurably superior to rhetoric as a means of persuasion, and it is for this reason that in all European languages the word rhetoric has an invariably negative or pejorative connotation. [7]

However, if poorly developed, or if contaminated by ideology, the same innate faculty of differentiation can easily become a negative force, one which takes us on a downward path by reducing the positive process of dialectic to the irreconcilable dichotomies and polarised positions of adversarial debate, and ultimately to a destructively unilateral us-versus-them mentality which can only lead to dangerous conflict. It is linguistic precision which is one of the foremost conceptual keys to avoiding the Clash of Civilisations and the mutually uncomprehending hostility of competing ideologies.

We would de well to remember the words of President Eisenhower in his Farewell Address to the American Nation in 1961: “Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose” (my emphasis) [8] . 

Or, to paraphrase these wise words in a single Islamic term, we need ‘aql, which in its highest sense means the synthesis of mind and heart, a faculty of seeing and understanding which is not merely rational but also encompasses a moral imperative. The Qur’an teaches us that our intellectual faculties are not designed to exist in a moral vacuum. The various words in the Qur’an which denote these faculties (‘aql, albab, basirah, rushd) also carry a profound sense of moral valuation.  There is a criterion (furqan), a touchstone within our own hearts which enables us to distinguish between the true and the false, and between right and wrong. [9]

I accept the premise in the Call for Papers that representations of Islam and Muslims are often dominated by a Colonialist or Eurocentric paradigm that claims supremacy in the guise of universalism. But I believe that the way forward out of subordination cannot and must not be through an emotionally charged rejectionism based on that lower impulse in the human mind and heart to reduce complex realities to irreconcilable dichotomies, or, in other words, to a bogus Clash of Civilisations.

It is all too easy to succumb to this kind of negative and victimised rejectionism as a reaction to what seems to be the growing partisan tendency to claim national ownership of a set of core values for the purpose of asserting national or civilisational superiority. This increasingly vocal political and cultural tendency has arisen in the West, or so it seems to me, as a reaction to perceived threats to national identity and social cohesion from migration, multiculturalism and, above all, the resurgent Muslim presence in its midst.  These distinguishing values purport to draw a line between modern, progressive Western civilization and its “way of life” from alien, hostile and supposedly backward influences which are held to be incompatible with it. [10] And I am thinking here partly of the current debate over core British values, although is might just as well apply to other nationalistic assertions of the supposed superiority of a particular way of life, including the creed held by so many Americans that their country offers “the last and best hope for mankind”.

But my argument today, in a nutshell, is this: instead of appropriating and even misappropriating values for the purpose of asserting tribal superiority, we should all, no matter what our affiliation, be working together to reclaim those core human values which transcend national, cultural, ideological and religious divides. It is time to go beyond triumphalism, beyond parochial and tribal assertions of identity.

The challenge for all of us is to embody the altruistic love of humanity which is the core of all authentic religion. Muslims must come of age and assume the mantle of a truly creative minority which can inspire social renewal and help the nation as a whole to lift its ambition, rediscover its moral compass and heal its social maladies. This is a task which cannot be accomplished by any group acting in the interests of narrow identity politics, tribal partisanship or triumphalism, but only by all people of goodwill embracing shared universal human values and acting together for the common good.

I do not accept that such shared values offer a diluted common ground, a kind of lowest common denominator. The Qur’an does not tell me this. It tells me that human beings are endowed with an innate disposition, an esssential nature which seeks what is good; that they are created in due measure and proportion after a divine pattern [11] and are stamped with a character that is capable of embodying divine attributes; that they are endowed with the gift of language, with hearing, sight and hearts, with reason and insight; that they are capable of the remembrance of God and reverence for what is sacred; that they can come to recognise the moral and spiritual reality within themselves through struggling with their lower selves [12] and act upon that consciousness and conscience for the benefit of others. This constellation of divine gifts is surely not the lowest common denominator.

Hamza Yusuf and Zaid Shakir are surely right on target in arguing in a recent issue of Islamica Magazine that civic involvement is an Islamic imperative. [13] They argue
that Muslims must build social and political networks to improve the condition of society as a whole and through contributing in this way “divine aid and succour will accrue to this community as long as we are providing the same to fellow member of the human family”.

Let me move on to some concrete illustrations to relieve the rather abstract tone of what I have said thus far. A year ago, I had the pleasure and privilege to perform umrah in Mecca with our Chairman, Dr. Anas al Shaikh-Ali. Returning to England, and pulling out of Waterloo Station on my way back to the calm of life in the French countryside, I opened The Independent on Sunday, and there, leaping out at me was a prominent article entitled “Reid prepares ‘script of British values’ to win over Muslims”. A draft of this script, we are told, defines British values as “respect for the law”, “freedom of speech”, “equality of opportunity” and “taking responsibility for others”. 

Now, we might, whether we are Muslim or non-Muslim, quibble about such things as the required balance in a mature and civilised society between freedom of speech and our responsibility not to offend, inflame and incite (and acres of newsprint have been written on this issue since the furore over the Danish Cartoons), but it is absolutely right that as British citizens we should be expected to adhere to these four principles or values, even if we can legitimately engage in debate about what they mean and where they originally come from.  Even the one which might lead to wounded sensibilities – freedom of speech – is, as Tariq Ramadan rightly advises, “not negotiable”.

But the value which took me by surprise was “taking responsibility for others”. Other articles in my wad of newspapers, including one in The Sunday Times entitled “Islamists infiltrate four universities”, suggested to me that the Muslim context for Reid’s emphasis on social responsibility was the problem of “radicalisation” of Muslim youth, and the responsibility of the Muslim community to deal with it from within.  [14]

Now, social responsibility certainly did not strike me as a particularly distinctive British value. Today, it seems even less apt.  It was not difficult to find in my wad of newspapers and periodicals a litany of evidence of serious breakdown in social responsibility amidst British society as a whole. Presumably, Dr Reid’s list of British values applies to everyone within these shores and not just to Muslims.

Indeed, what immediately struck me was the major contribution to wider society that can be offered by Muslim values.

In page after page of my newspapers, I read of dire social problems which hardly justified this misappropriation of “responsibility for others” as a distinctively British value, but seemed rather to confirm the statement attributed (if only apocryphally) to Margaret Thatcher that “there is no such thing as society”. “Parents powerless to bring up their children”, thundered the Observer as I entered the Channel Tunnel, citing the alarm of Beverley Hughes, the Minister for Children and Families, that British parents have much less confidence than previous generations in their ability to raise and guide their children.

In Britain, “Alcohol kills 22,000 a year” (not the 8,000 the government would have us believe) proclaimed the Independent as we reached top speed on French soil. 60 people now die every day from drink, and the Charity Alcohol Concern warns that ministers are massively underestimating the problem. [15] The socially responsible answer?  Extend licensing hours!  And how to “take responsibility for others” undergoing the misery caused by addictive gambling? Well, build a new swathe of super-casinos!

Elsewhere in my newspapers I read of the alarming rise in obesity; [16] widespread and escalating assaults on teachers, nurses and other public service workers; [17] house prices beyond the reach of already debt-ridden and stressed-out young people with total national credit card debt in excess of a trillion pounds (70% of the total personal debt in the whole of Europe); unremitting decline in the quality of television programmes, and much else besides.

Now, a year later, after successive revelations pointing to what many are describing as a “broken society”, responsibility for others strikes me as something which is in dire need of salvage and reclamation.  The truth is that we have a national culture of “social recession” which “puts the market ahead of people, has corroded solidarity, empathy and humanity and created widespread social decay”. [18] Our standing abroad as tourists is indicative of this malaise. I recall a survey which rated 33 countries according to how well their nationals were regarded in countries they were visiting. British holidaymarkers turned out to be the rudest, meanest and worst-behaved of the lot. They came bottom, not only because of disorderly behaviour, but also because of their insular lack of empathy with other cultures and their profound incompetence in learning foreign languages. [19]

Perhaps most shocking of all was an article I read the day after this very conference. In “Truths we must face up to” (New Statesman, 12 November 2007), Kira Cochrane reported on the horrific levels of “bullying and violence against the disabled”, referring to a series of distressing cases. [20] “The bullying of the disabled is endemic,” she says. “In 1999, a survey by Mencap found that nine out of ten people with learning difficulties had been bullied”, and “earlier this year a survey by the same charity found that eight of ten children with a learning disability had been bullied, with the same proportion too scared to go out.”

I don’t want to labour the point, but let me mention two prominent revelations which have recently come to light:  first, contempt for the old, and second, neglect of the young.

A recent Healthcare Commission report Dignity in Care has brought to light the appalling neglect of old people in our hospitals. [21] Less than one in five elderly patients who need help because they cannot easily feed themselves actually receive such help from nursing staff. The statistic was so bizarre it was difficult to digest.  Less than 20 per cent of this needy group receive the basic standards of care to ensure human dignity? The Charity Help the Aged described the findings as “intolerable”. When patients themselves are seen as a nuisance, and death makes life easier in the NHS, then something is desperately wrong. [22]

Ivan Lewis, the Minister for Care Services, said that the government recognised the “anomaly”. The use of the word “anomaly” rings a bell. If my memory is correct it was the word used by Tony Blair to describe the Guantanamo Bay gulag. It is one of those value-free abstractions which distance us from a full realization of how rotten something actually is. The word means an “irregularity of motion or behaviour” and is derived from a Greek word meaning “uneven”. An embedded culture of intolerable neglect and abuse is not a mere irregularity; it is a shameful disgrace.

Is this representative of the value of “social responsibility” which Dr. Reid told us is one of those distinctly “British values” to which we all need to adhere in defending our “way of life”?  If it is, then we need to reclaim it, and people of faith need to be in the forefront of that enterprise to heal our social maladies for all our people, and not just for special interest groups or co-religionists.  Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, has affirmed his intention to speak out.  “Is our society broken? I think it is.” So he said in a recent interview for The Daily Telegraph.

In the first of the Memorial Lectures in honour of Sheikh Zaki Badawi, now published under the joint auspices of the AMSS UK and Lambeth Palace, Dr. Williams emphasizes the duty of all people of faith to contribute actively to the real health of society through their joint and energetic commitment to sustain what he calls “the visibility of faith in the public sphere”. This does not of course entail the imposition of a theocracy, but nevertheless affirms what he calls “the religious roots of moral and social vision” and actively resists the idea that the “default setting” for every developed human society must be rooted in secularism and must obsessively keep out of view any sign of religious commitment.  People of faith will be inspired by Dr. Williams’ call to make their faith visible in the public sphere. In so doing, they can make a huge contribution to sustaining those spiritual and moral values which underpin a healthy society.  [23]

As always, there is an opportunity for Muslims, together with all those who uphold the sanctity of human life, to act as role models in reclaiming an exalted conception of healthcare for all people regardless of their age. [24]

I remember well a BBC interview last year with a very senior nursing officer on the mistreatment of elderly people in the healthcare system. Her explanation for the culture of neglect and abuse was simple. Fewer and fewer people, she said, had any religious faith, nor any belief in an afterlife. They therefore saw old people not as human souls approaching the transition to the next stage of existence but only as dispensable material bodies which had outlived their usefulness.

This rings true. Ageism and the culture of contempt for the old is the ultimate consequence of a brutal and nihilistic materialism which reduces everything to base physical utility, to a mere mortal body devoid of soul and spirit.  The Qur’an tells us that God created man from “sounding clay, out of dark mud transmuted” and that after He had formed him He breathed into him His spirit (15:28-29). He then commanded the angels to prostrate themselves before this human being, but only after he had been imbued with that divine spirit. No angel was expected to worship lumpen clay devoid of that breathed-in holiness. And without that reverence for the holiness within, it is easy to see how the quality of care can degenerate. Ironically, nurses have often been referred to affectionately as “angels” for the comfort they can bring to the sick and dying. We should not forget, in the midst of this crisis, that there are of course many nurses who richly deserve this accolade and who enter the profession with the highest ideals. [25]

The materialism which reduces the human being to a lump of clay is especially prone to contempt of the aged because it is only the condition of the clay which is valued, not the inner qualities of character which animate the clay. The many newspaper cartoons of Sir Ming Campbell during the last Liberal Democrat Party Conference, depicting him as a doddering old fool harking back to the ancient Chinese Ming Dynasty or even a crumbling skeleton attest to this rampant and infantile ageism. And Sir Ming is a mere 66 years old! On that basis, in six years, I too will be for the scrap heap, and looking around in this hall today I guess there are some others who are already well past their sell-by date.

So much for us oldies. Now, what about the even more pressing problems afflicting the young? More pressing, because they are the future, and our approach to them should at least be as caring and responsible as that of the Blackfoot Indians, who never made any decision affecting their community without considering how it would affect the next seven generations. Yes, the next seven generations.

A recent report has described British teenagers as “the worst in Europe” but it firmly points the finger at the weakening of “inter-generational family ties” as the prime cause of their deteriorating behaviour. [26] The fault is patently not theirs but the failure of personal care and the collapse of relationships between the generations which leaves them rudderless, emotionally vulnerable and susceptible to a voracious consumer economy and celebrity culture. According to figures released by the British government “ the average parent spends twice as long dealing with emails as playing with his/her children”. [27]

The UNICEF report on child well-being published earlier this year placed Britain bottom of the league of 21 developed countries, with the USA very close behind in 20th place. [28] In short, Britain is the worst place to bring up a child in the developed world. The six dimensions investigated in this study include not only behaviour and family and peer relationships but also their experience of schooling and their personal happiness. [29] Incidentally, a recent survey on happiness ranked the USA (No. 1 in affluence) at 150th (despite the fact that the pursuit of happiness is sanctified in the constitution) and the UK comes 100th. In both these countries, mental health problems afflict a quarter of the entire population at some stage in their lives compared to 10% in mainland Europe.

The UNICEF report pointedly opens with the statement that “The true measure of a nation’s standing is how well it attends to its children”. Commenting on the murder of Rhys Jones and other victims of child crime, the Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, has pointed out that “our society, so technologically advanced, seems to have become, especially for children, brutalised and dangerous”. “Civilisation, he says, “is judged by the way it treats its children.” [30] And in the light of the low standing of educational well-being in Britain, we should heed the words of Maria Montessori that “One test of the correctness of educational procedure is the happiness of the child”.

The rampant decline in the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents, revealed by studies which have exposed the growing incidence of stress, depression, compulsive disorders and even suicide, is now a national disgrace, and they carry this malaise into their adult life, where it is further compounded by an oppressive and soulless work culture. [31]

So, in the face of such decline, what are we to do? And, to come back to the purpose of this conference, how does our response to such decline give us a model of the new approach in Muslim discourse which is needed on so many levels?

Well, for a start, I don’t think that an alcohol opt-out clause for Muslim checkout staff in supermarkets [32] is the most positive or visionary way to build relationships and make an inspiring contribution to a pubic discourse which makes of Muslims a truly creative minority in transforming society for all our people.  Neither is a boycott by Muslim taxi drivers on carrying passengers arriving at airports with bags of duty-free alcohol. How does a stand-offish approach like this win friends and allies in the community at large? 

To achieve that transformational impact, we must reach beyond self-interest. The new paradigm for achieving liberation from a colonial framework is not to define oneself by one’s reaction to it but to embody a higher Qur’anic vision encompassing that altruistic love of all humanity which is the core of all authentic religion.

In other words, what have Muslims got to say about the pressing issues of the day and what solutions are they proposing? How can Islamic values and ethics impact on public discourse, and influence thought leaders, opinion formers, and policy makers, including politicians, educators, journalists, commentators and other media professionals? How can Muslims contribute more to debate about the care and education of all children, the care of the elderly and other pressing healthcare issues for all our citizens, widespread social recession, the environmental threats to our planet, and, yes, the loss of soul in so many areas of life? 

Earlier this year we celebrated the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade on 25 March 1807. [33] I was inspired to hear on the radio at that time an extract from William Wilberforce’s famous speech in the House of Commons in 1789 advocating this momentous reform. His four-hour long speech, delivered to a largely hostile audience entrenched in self-interest, has been described as one of the greatest speeches ever given in the House. 

The one big idea which stood out for me was the absolute clarity of Wilberforce’s judgement that the trade was so “irremediable and wicked” that the “consequences” of its abolition had absolutely no bearing on the issue: in other words, the damage done to people’s economic interests was irrelevant and the moral justice of the cause overrode all other considerations.

How different is such a totally principled stand from the prevarication, duplicity and hypocrisy embedded in the self-serving doctrine that potential damage to our economic interests is often far more important than upholding either the law or moral principle.

The contrast between the moral clarity of Wilberforce, derived from his Christian faith, and the moral fog which many would say has engulfed our political system could not be starker. It explains why, 200 years on, we are celebrating the legacy of one of our greatest parliamentarians and one of the most influential humanitarian reformers of all time, and why at the same time no one seems to have the foggiest idea how to describe the contemporary “legacy” of our political leaders.

We should not of course forget that Wilberforce himself was the parliamentary spokesman for a tireless campaign whose driving force had been another Christian, the Church of England pastor Thomas Clarkson, with strong support from the Quakers.  Clarkson dedicated his whole life to the cause, travelling over 35,000 miles on horseback to gather support around the country.

What was truly remarkable about the popular campaign was its altruism. The fact is that the trade did not adversely affect the lives of British people at the time. The livelihoods of many people depended on it. They could have continued to turn a blind eye to it. And yet, the British people overwhelmingly took up a cause dedicated to an overriding principle of justice, and put the improvement of the lives of others above their own self-interest.

Self-interest is not only a matter of economics, but can take many forms - nationalistic, ideological, sectarian, and, indeed, the tribalism that can revolve around religious identity. The arrogant fiction that “I am better than you” is the starting point of all tribal prejudice, whatever its form. The abolitionists appealed instead to the equality of mankind in the form of an image of a kneeling slave with the inscription “Am I not a Man (or Woman) and A Brother (or Sister)? Inscribed on medallions, brooches, cufflinks and hatpins, this logo was one of their most effective tactics in changing public opinion. .

In Qur’an 49:13, God advises us that we have been made into nations and tribes so that we may come to know one another and that there is no superiority of one over another except in taqwa, that consciousness and loving awe of God which inspires us to be vigilant and to do what is right.  This verse is an implicit condemnation of all racial, national, class or tribal prejudice (‘asabiyyah), a condemnation which is made explicit by the Prophet Muhammad: He is not of us who proclaims the cause of tribal partisanship, and he is not of us who fights in the cause of tribal partisanship, and he is not of us who dies in the cause of tribal partisanship. When asked to explain what he meant by tribal partisanship, the Prophet answered, It means helping your own people in an unjust cause.

This verse establishes the brotherhood of man on the broadest foundation. It teaches that God does not judge men or women on their appearance, social standing, wealth, or stated affiliation, whether tribal, national, or religious, nor even on their skill or intelligence, but only on their striving to be faithful to an innate sense of what is true, just, right and good. This is within the reach of every human soul, and not the preserve of any privileged or exclusive group.

In his celebrated letter to Malik al-Ashtar, Imam ‘Ali writes: Make your heart a throne of mercy towards your people. Show them perfect love and care.  For they are in one of two groups: either your brother in religion or your fellow-human being. This broad view, in total harmony with the Qur’an, embraces all races, all cultures, all tongues. It asserts the unity of the human race and the equality of all human beings, demanding compassion for all and not only to members of one’s own group. [34]

In their campaign to abolish slavery, the British people actualised their altruism, and in so doing they overcame the moral corruption of vested interests. 

The spiritual tradition of Islam affirms the humanitarianism that underpins such universal altruism and concern for others.

The heart of the Islamic concept of ‘provision’ (ar-rizq) is that whatever we can give to sustain others is provided for us through the limitless generosity and mercy of the ultimate Sustainer, our Rabb.  If our hearts are open to that divine plenitude, our quality of care partakes of that bounty. The best quality of care must be premised on a deep spiritual awareness of the divine origin of every human soul and an understanding that it is to God that every human soul returns. In nursing, for example, there can be no partiality, no preference for one community of patients above another. As God nourishes and sustains all Creation, so the nurse cares for all patients with equal compassion, no matter what their religion, nationality, race, gender, age, social class, or wealth. The Prophet instructed us that All creatures are God’s children, and those dearest to God are the ones who treat His children in the best way. 

And to stay with nursing as a metaphor for our wider mission, we have a role model in British nursing history, a contemporary of my grandmother who also nursed wounded soldiers in the First World War. Anyone who walks down Charing Cross Road in London towards Trafalgar Square will have doubtless seen the statue of Edith Cavell near the National Portrait Gallery. She was executed by a German firing squad for helping hundreds of soldiers from allied forces to escape from occupied Belgium. She became a popular martyr and her case was exploited in British propaganda throughout the war. However, her true humanity, derived from her Christian faith, transcended the “patriotism” which made her a popular heroine. The night before her execution she said these words to the Anglican Chaplain: Standing as I do in view of God and eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone. These beautiful words are inscribed on her statue.

In a recent article in The Sunday Times entitled “A lesson in humility for the smug West” William Dalrymple makes the telling point that many of the Western values we think of as superior came from the East and our blind arrogance hurts our standing in the world. [35] He was thinking especially, so he says, of Douglas Murray, “a young neocon pup” who had written in The Spectator the previous week that he “was not afraid to say that the West’s values are better” and in which he accused anyone who disagreed of “moral confusion”. Murray identified these values as rule of law, parliamentary democracy, equality and freedom of expression and conscience. This article was a curtain-raiser to an ensuing debate involving Murray, Dalrymple, David Aaronovitch, Charlie Glass, Ibn Warraq and Tariq Ramadan. The motion was: “We should not be reluctant to assert the superiority of western values”, which, Dalrymple regretted to say, was eventually carried.

Dalrymple does well to demonstrate in his article that the “Emperor Akbar, the greatest ruler of the most populous of all Muslim states, represented in one man so many of the values that we in the West are often apt to claim for ourselves”. Akbar, arguing for what he called the “pursuit of reason” rather than “reliance on the marshy land of tradition”, declared that “no man should be interfered with on account of religion, and anyone is allowed to go over to any religion that pleases him” at a time when Jesuits were being hanged, drawn and quartered outside Tyburn here in London and Giordano Bruno was being burnt at the stake in Rome for defying the dogmas of the Catholic church.

Dalrymple explores further in his article the obvious truth that “in the real world, East and West do not have separate and compartmentalized sets of values”. This is doubtless an assertion that can be verified by a modicum of historical and cultural knowledge, but nevertheless a fact that is hard to get across in an educational climate of increasing historical and geographical illiteracy. [36]

Important as Dalrymple’s corrective history lesson is, I believe that the transformational paradigm shift we need to make actually goes beyond the rectification of historical and other forms of ignorance which breed prejudice. The supremacist illusions of one tribe are not rectified by the triumphalism of another any more than the hegemony of Western science can effectively be challenged by trying to prove that the Qur’an prefigures every scientific discovery, for this not only manifestly fails to convince but also demeans the Qur’an, which is not a scientific textbook but an immeasurably more important call to live a spiritual life.

We should also be talking about how Muslims can offer solutions and not always be regarded as the “problem”. We can also ask ourselves: what have we done today to reach out to British people, whatever their faith, culture or ethnicity, in offering them a universal vision of what it means to be a human being, either in deeds or in a language which makes sense to them?

In doing so, perhaps we can re-ignite some of those supposedly British values which seems at such risk all around us.

How compelling are the many opportunities before us to demonstrate the impartial humanity of Islam! That is surely the way forward. A broad, generous, magnanimous, expansive way of the heart, reaching out with love and respect for the divine spirit with which God has endowed all humankind. And this is not a kind of woolly idealism resting on fine words. We need, now, a network of enlightened individuals and organisations which can reach beyond self-interest and narrow parochial concerns, draw together the best research on key contemporary issues, and communicate in the right language what Islam has to offer the world.

Let me end with these beautiful words of Thomas Merton:

“Those who attempt to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening their own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love, will not have anything to give others. They will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of their own obsessions, their aggressiveness, their ego-centered ambitions, their delusions about ends and means, their doctrinaire prejudices and ideas. There is nothing more tragic in the modern world than the misuse of power and action to which people are driven by their own Faustian misunderstandings and misapprehensions. We have more power at our disposal today than we have ever had, and yet we are more alienated and estranged from the inner ground of meaning and of love than we have ever been.” [37]

This is at once a warning and a challenge for all of us, utterly consistent with the advice in the Qur’an that God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.  If we can rise to it, we can, God willing, contribute to a better future for all mankind.

Jeremy Henzell-Thomas
Saint Michel de Montjoie
November 2007

ENDNOTES: Click here for the endnotes

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