Let me share a cartoon story with you, it shows two dogs leaving an exhibition about cats, one says to the other “I didn’t like it”. I think we can all recognise a common human weakness in the phrase, “I didn’t like it”. The dog disapproved all those wonderful pictures of cats. Similarly, we too so often fail to appreciate the other, the wisdom of a culture different from ours, or the beauty of professions different from ours. All are initially hard for us to understand. We put up barriers and prejudices in front of the content and refuse to acknowledge the goodness in the other.
The Glorious Qur’an identifies three outstanding qualities of a true Muslim:
- The one who gives generously.
- The one who is pious and God conscious (has taqwah)
- The one who accepts beauty wherever it is (he is open minded)
How do we react to others? How do we relate with different people? Do we put up mental barriers? Or do we make bridges?
The above key points (taken from the Qur’an) clearly reveal the relationship building nature of Islam. They teach that man must build good relations with his fellow humans and share with them what he has. Secondly, he must know his creator and Lord, and thirdly, he must value the beauty around him in God’s creation. In this essay I want to explain how Islamic teachings promote community cohesion amongst the Muslims. We will also look at the problems we face and the prospect of building a strong Muslim community in Britain.
How strong are Muslim relations?
Contrary to what many politicians and social commentators say, I believe Muslims are gradually integrating into British society. The third and fourth generation of British Muslims speak English, they support local football teams, wear designer clothes like white children and love fish and chips!
A healthy integration which will produce good British citizens depends on a community that has self-confidence and self-respect. We cannot accept the assimilation model whereby Muslims are expected to lose their religious distinctiveness and adopt ‘British’ ways of life (whatever that might mean). We believe Islam is not only good for Muslims, but good for our country.
Let me now turn to the concept of community cohesion in Islam, God says:
“And hold tightly to the rope of God, all of you together, and do not divide. Also remember God’s favour on you; for you were enemies and He united your hearts, so by His grace you became brothers of one another. And you were on the brink of hell fire when He rescued you from it. God shows His signs like that so that you may be guided” (Surah Ale Imran: 103).
The themes of community, unity and strong social relationships are very common in Islamic teachings. Take for example the daily five prayers. Their value and reward is multiplied twenty-seven times when prayed in your local mosque. Spiritual gatherings of divine remembrance, the Friday congregation and the festivals of Eid open with congregational prayer. The Messenger of God (peace be upon him) encouraged people to eat together and share meals with friends and neighbours.
Iqbal, the Muslim poet eloquently sums up the value of living as a community in a couplet:
“A person only exists as long as he is linked with the community, A tide is only powerful as long as it is part of the ocean, Every human being wants to be part of a community, To be part of something bigger than himself.”
I hasten to add that this does not mean that Islam opposes individualism, autonomy and free choice. Just as these are fundamental human rights in the west, they are also in Islam. However, Islam teaches Muslims to acquire self-mastery over their egos, so they do not become self-centred and greedy animals. The Qur’an describes the disciples’ community spirit as follows:
“Although they are needy themselves, they prefer others over themselves. And whoever can protect himself from being greedy is really successful.”
Muslims are taught to restrain themselves, their needs and even freedom of choice for the good of the community. Islam sets a very high standard of self control and discipline.
The Muslim Community
Why does Islam lay so much emphasis on living an active community life? Firstly, every person has a fundamental need. The need to belong, to be part of something greater than oneself. Professor Maslow identified five basic needs in his hierarchy of needs:
- Bodily needs
- Security needs
- A sense of belonging
- Self esteem
- Self actualisation
In order to contribute to the well being and development of society a person has to be fed, be safe, and have a sense of belonging and respect. The community provides these ingredients.
The emphasis on traditional rituals and customs is to create a communal place and time where people can gather together and share their beliefs, devotions and goals. The daily congregation, Friday prayer, funeral services and so forth reinforce the sense of Muslim community. This idea of community is another way of creating a collective identity which is based on our faith in God and the hereafter. It is true that in doing so, we exclude others, but that in no way means we are ‘less British’ than others. To me, this shows that we have multiple identities.
As the famous Muslim musician and outspoken political activist Aki Nawaz put it: “Even contemplating, considering or imposing the idea of being ‘British’ is damn right stupid, no-one to this day even those people such as Sir Andrew Green (migration watch) could define what it is to be British and when asked they mumble about ‘cups of tea’ with the neighbours, embarrassingly pathetic, people have the right to be what they choose to be not what is imposed” (The Muslim News, 27/10/06).
What a huge blow this is to Kipling’s famous verse: “Oh! East is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet.”
Muslims have created their own ‘comfort zones’, where their needs are fulfilled. They have a clear sense of community, they feel secure and moreover they have the freedom to share their traditional rituals and customs. The Muslim community is not a monolingual, monochrome, monocultural or homogeneous community. It is a multicultural society since it is composed of people from many different cultures and walks of life. In my mosque in Forest Fields, I have people with thirteen different nationalities, speaking twenty different languages and dialects. It is a very diverse community and there is a real sense of belonging as we recognise everyone.
Let me share with you their successes and achievements. During the month of Ramadhaan, almost the entire community, men and women, the old and the young keep fasts and pray. The two mosques run by Karimia Institute are jam packed throughout the blessed month. There are daily meals at iftaar (end of fast), for nearly a hundred people everyday, kindly provided by some pious soul. Both mosques and the community radio station (Dawn FM) raised a staggering total of £60,000. All this hard work was done by volunteers. As for example, a ten year old boy named Shafiq would come to the Karimia mosque just before iftaar everyday to wash and fill up water jugs for the worshipers.
The sixteen mosques and Islamic centres in Nottingham all enjoyed similar successes. The Muslim community have heavily invested in building its mosques, community centres, schools and other social enterprises. These examples from community life vividly illustrate the concept of social capital.
“Social capital consists of the stock of active connections amongst people; the trust, mutual understanding and shared values and behaviours that bind the members of human networks and communities and make cooperative action possible” (Don Cohen and L.Prusak, ‘In good company. How social capital makes organisations work).
These myriad activities represent close negotiated ties of interdependency, which is the glue that holds the British Muslims together. The mosque building projects undertaken by Muslims is a powerful strategy of bringing the community together. However, the new mosques will have to be multidimensional and multi-functional places; serving the old and the young, men and women and people of different cultures.
The Challenges for the Muslim Community
However, the Muslims need to do a lot more to build links and bridges with other communities. We need to engage with the wider society. I fully agree with the home office report on community cohesion which states:
“Community cohesion requires that there is a shared sense of belonging based on common goals and core social values, respect for differences and acceptance of reciprocal rights and responsibilities” (Denham 2001 pg.18).
The report goes on to say that this happy state of affairs can only be achieved by empowering and supporting the communities to turn ‘vision’ into reality.
What Must the Muslims do?
As a faith group with great internal diversity we must build strong connections with other communities. Through the Karimia Institute we are working with our local Churches, Schools and other organisations. Although these are mostly internal networks, we are gradually developing more structured links. For example, the St. Steven’s Church, the URC on Gregory Boulevard (Nottingham) and our mosque have formed an organisation called ‘Faiths in Action’. The aim is to better understand one another and eliminate discrimination of all kinds. It also aims to build alliances, mediate over conflicts and ensure that a regular dialogue is continued over a range of different issues. We need more contact, formal and informal with other communities, as this will reduce mutual ignorance and hostility. Muslims have to diminish the fears of wider society. How? Better relations with neighbours. But more importantly, better public relations through well trained spokespersons.
Psychologists call this ‘contact theory’: This explains the effects that different kinds of interaction have on people’s attitudes towards others. The more contact people have with each other, the lesser the effects of stereotypes and prejudices. Open days, cross cultural awareness work shops and sports and arts events all are powerful tools for combating ignorance and discrimination.
We are the most peaceful and law abiding community and we work incredibly hard. Therefore, we deserve better representation by our politicians, leaders and the media. Our government needs to empower us so that we can make even more positive contributions to the welfare of our community. We need to build mutual trust and respect. Currently, the Muslim community perceives itself as unfairly treated by the media, the politicians and the public agencies (the Police, social and educational sectors). As a consequence lots of Muslims are angry and frustrated. It is the internal community cohesion and solidarity that is preventing this anger from exploding. Although in certain northern towns it did transiently get out of control!