Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Faith encounter, close to home

Last week I received an invitation to attend a day conference at the Temple of Peace, just down the road from where we live. It had as its title, 'The Dilemma of Extremism', and was put on by Race Equality First, and a local grassroots Muslim women's organisation called 'The Henna Foundation', - website is still in the throes of construction, so watch that space. The event took place today, and I joined seventy other people to hear a series of very engaging speakers, packing a lot in to the four hours of sessions.

The first speaker was Aftab Malik, a UN rated global expert on Muslim affairs, former executive director of the Zaytun Institute in California, the West's foremost Muslim theological college, and currently a visiting fellow in Birmingham University. He gave an historical overview of the origins and development of islamist extremism, and the radicalisation of contemporary Muslim youth. This provided a rich context for hearing Shahien Tab, Executive Director of the Henna Foundation, speaking about dysfunction in modern Muslim families, under the heading 'Subjugation of women behind the veil of Islam; the use of forced marriages and family honour in radicalisation'. From her research she was able to equate the mapping of domestic violence to the mapping of places where known extremists come from, and she argued that Islam was being abused to justify ethnic and cultural practices that are alien to the spirit and intention of orthodox Muslim teaching. As if her carefully thought considered observation as a social science practitioner was not enough of an exercise in candour, we were then treated to an audience with Shaykh Habib 'Ali al Jifri, speaking through an interpreter.

Shaykh Habib 'Ali al Jifri can trace his ancestry back to Imam Husayn, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. He is an international theological educator from Tarim in South Yemen, trained in the Hadramauwt scholarly tradition which emphasises the middle way of Islam, Islamic jurisprudence, and a spiritual education drawn from the Qur'an and the the Sunnah. His teaching on family life was all based on the supremacy of mutual love between husband and wife, in which there is no place for violence. The essentials are love, ethical morality and patience, he said. He was able to explain that the Qur'anic idea of the equality of men and women was undermined by strong patriarchal cultural influences as the faith spread abroad. Fidelity to Qur'anic teaching posed a profound moral and theological challenge to all who subjugated women, and robbed them of their freedom and dignity.

Some of the women present challenged him about their difficulties in obtaining an islamic theological education today. He said that things were changing, opening up in response to modernity, the rise of feminism (understood in the light of Qur'anic high regard for women) and the settlement of Muslims in Western countries. Women can now qualify as Muslim law scholars in some places. But the big challenge is for Muslims to define their own identity as citizens in the West, and not to have an identity foisted upon them by non Muslims which didn't represent the truth of their existence. "You can recognise scholars of the great Muslim law academies by the kind of turban they wear. But tell me" He said playfully "What would the turban of a British Muslim law academy look like?" Scholars here have to discover how they can root themselves and their learning in context, develop scholarly concensus and an authoritative way to guide the Muslim faithful in changed circumstances. Aftab Malik, speaking earlier was clear evidence that this is far from being wishful thinking. He is so clued up on contemporary culture and powerful in his analysis of the current malaise.

Shaykh Habib is a man confident in his lineage and all it represents across fourteen centuries of learning and prayer. He's a man of authority, relaxed, open to debate, incisive in his ability to put his finger on the right question underlying some of the complex issues which members of the audience put before him in Q&A sessions. How important this is as British Muslins strive and debate on how to assert their identity in the face of those who have hijacked the world's attention with their crimes. He's clearly a much revered figure, unafraid of all the tough questions, able to help his audience rise to the challenges they face, domestically, socially and politically. It felt that I had received a privileged insight into the world of Muslim Britain today.

A leader of the Dar ul Isra Muslim Community centre in Cathays, a University researcher in education, led the opening prayer of the day. We'd last met when he attended the Spiritual Capital launch conference. Shaykh Habib was asked to conclude the day with prayer. Just then, I became aware that attention was turned in my direction, seated half way back at the edge of the hall. I was invited to go and stand with him for prayer. I'd worn a clerical collar as a show of support for this event. After all, the Temple of Peace is in my Parish, so why not? We hugged and salaamed each other, before standing, hand in hand before the assembly for prayer. I was able to tell him through his interpreter what a joy it was to have a teacher of faith who encouraged people to think for themselves, and expressed my thanks for all I had learned. He prayed with humble gratitude for the gathering, for the faithful, for the world, in simple devout phrases, translated for him as he went along. I was deeply moved.

No matter what undiscussed differences might lie between us in matters of faith, God is greater, and we are pilgrims on the same journey into the depths of God. He belongs to a school of thought that emphasises respect for differences between scholars. The Gospel at the heart of the church is teaching me that faith means learning to live together with differences, as we strive to realise, all of us, what it means to be children of God, following the way to the kingdom of God.

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