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Religious understanding is a mutual obligation


23 March 2013

As a Muslim I am very aware of how little non-Muslims in Britain and many other countries know about both the theology of Islam and its contributions to human civilisation. Some of my writings on this website, such as my brief introduction to Islam for non-Muslims, aim to increase that understanding.

However I am also conscious of how little many Muslims know about other religions, or about the views of those people who have no religion. That is particularly disquieting when British Muslims live in a society that is 95% non-Muslim.

On 13 March 2013, the Conservative Muslim Forum (CMF)held an event to mark Islam Awareness Week, with the participation of the Islamic Society of Britain (ISB). The speakers were:

  1. Lord Sheikh, Chairman of the CMF
  2. Julie Siddiqi, Executive Director of the ISB
  3. Julian Bond, Director of the Christian Muslim Forum
  4. Mohammed Amin, Vice Chairman of the CMF

My speech, which is reproduced below, gave me the chance to remind the audience that religious understanding is a mutual requirement.

Text of speech

Good evening and peace be with you.I used the English translation rather than the Arabaic "As-salamu alaykum" because I wanted to be more inclusive given the many non-Muslims in the audience.

When Councillor Ayub [the master of ceremonies] planned this event, he asked me to speak last. He said to me “Amin, they will remember you. People always remember the last speaker.”

However, he didn’t say why! As I listened to the earlier speakers use up my points one by one, I realised that you might end up remembering me as the man who had nothing left to say! However I have just a few bits left.

What is left, like Gaul, is divided into three parts.

  1. A little bit about me.
  2. A few words for the non-Muslims in the room.
  3. A few words for the Muslims who are here.

A little bit about me

Each of us has many parts to their identity. I am British, I live in Manchester and London, I am an accountant etc. However for each thing that we are, there are many more things that we are not.

If you support Chelsea, it automatically means that you don’t support many other football clubs. You don’t need to apologise for not supporting those other clubs; it is simple logic.

I am a Muslim, which means that I believe in Islam. That automatically means that I do not believe in any other religion, except where the beliefs of that other religion overlap with the beliefs of Islam, such as believing in one God. For example, I don’t believe in Judaism, although with Judaism the overlaps with Islam are very many. Indeed I don’t know of any other two religions that are closer to each other.

Not believing in Judaism does not stop me reading the Old Testament, which I have read from Genesis to Malachi. Strictly speaking since I am talking about Judaism, I should have said from Genesis to the second book of Chronicles, since Christians and Jews put the same books into different orders.

Even though I am not Jewish, I can still feel the pain and suffering and sense of loss in texts such as Psalm 137, which begins:

“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”

Psalm 137, King James Version

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.

For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

How shall we sing the LORD'S song in a strange land?

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.

If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

Remember, O LORD, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.

O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.

Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

I won’t go on, because the emotional power of the text is so overwhelming. It is hard to read without crying. I recommend going to the Bible and reading the Psalm in full.

You don’t weaken your own faith by learning about the faith of other people and by understanding them.

The same goes for my reading of other religious texts such as the New Testament from Christianity, or the Bhagavad-Gita and some of the Upanishads from Hinduism.

Turning now to the non-Muslims in the room.

This week is called Islam Awareness Week, not Islam Conversion Week. It is all about learning to understand others.

Islam is the religion of about 3 million British people, around 5% of the population.

Islam is also the religion of about 1.5 billion people around the world, about 23% of humanity, in 57 Muslim majority countries. Many of those countries are key players in the global economy, such as Turkey and Indonesia.

To work with people, to trade with people, you have to understand them. You cannot understand Muslims without understanding something about Islam.

Where do you get that understanding?

I recently saw the Oscar winning film “Argo.” I knew quite a bit about it already from reading reviews and seeing some clips on TV. However I would never claim to understand “Argo” without sitting down and watching the whole film.

Exactly the same applies to the Quran. The Quran is a book which speaks for itself, and which is perfectly readable. For people who are new to it, I always recommend one specific translation.

It is published by Oxford University Press, and is called “The Quran.” The translator is MAS Abdel-Haleem, and the paperback costs just £5.19 on Amazon’s UK website. The translator lives in London and is a professor at SOAS.

I recommend it because the language of the English translation is so clear. Also there are very few footnotes, so you can read it as you read any other book.

If you forget the details, you can find my website very easily by Googling my name, and on my website is a page about Quran translations including that one.

Turning now to the Muslims in the room.

We live in a country that is 95% non-Muslim, mostly Christians, atheists and agnostics.

We live in a world that is 77% non-Muslim.

Everything that I have said to non-Muslims about the need to understand Islam applies even more strongly to our need to understand religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and so on. We also need to understand how agnostics and atheists think.

You cannot get that knowledge from other Muslims, just as non-Muslims cannot learn about Islam properly if they stick to non-Muslim sources. You have to go to the people who believe in those other religions, and to their books and other writings.

For Muslims to live in Britain while being ignorant of the beliefs of 95% of the people around them is just not good enough.

Each of us has the same obligation to understand our fellow men and women, regardless of whether we are Muslim or non-Muslim.

Thank you.


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