Mixed gender prayers and female Imams

British Islam conference

Speaker: Fahad Rahman

We are taking the literal words of scripture and zooming out to understand the principles and then zooming back in to apply them to the current context.

There are a number of different terms to describe those who adopt the above approach; including progressive, literal and modernist.

Mixed gender prayers, female imams and inclusive mosques are not simply a topic of academic debate but a matter of real life lived experience.

The group believes in engaging with tradition; Quran and Hadith. There is a focus on social justice. In the post 911 world Muslims have become more conscious of their religious identity.

The topic of women in ritual leadership in Islam reflects similar trends in Christianity and Judaism. The Quran neither permits nor forbids female leadership of congregational prayers.

Proponents of women being allowed to lead congregational prayers reference a Hadith which states that Umm Waraqa, a female, was given permission by the prophet to lead her household in prayers. There is some dispute as to whether this included male members of the congregation. It is used as evidence of a precedent being set that a woman can have leadership in religious worship.

In terms of fiqh the Maliki tradition forbids it completely. The Hanafi tradition considers it Makruh meaning it is disliked but forbidden. Other traditions allow it with certain conditions.

The Inclusive Mosque Initiative (INI) was founded in 2012 by two Muslim women. It currently has six female board members and about thirty volunteers. Its inclusivity includes both Sunni, Shia, non-believers and people from a broad socio economic spectrum.

They hold fortnightly Friday congregational prayers (Jummah) following different ways of praying such as Sunni and Shia. The sermons are translated into British Sign Language for deaf participants. There is no segregation with Men and women praying side by side. Women can and do lead these prayers. They can also perform the call to prayer; Azaan.

The INI also provides Nikah marriage ceremony services. A key difference of the ceremony as compared to other mosques is that there is no requirement for a Walli who is someone that ceremonially gives the bride away.

The INI is an example of how discussions around gender equality have transferred from being an academic discourse to practical life.

The national conversation on immigration

British Islam conference 2018

Speaker: Rosie Carter

Research focused on public attitudes towards immigration.

The research covered 56 cities, with more planned, covering the British Isles from Shetland Islands to Penzance. It included both rural and urban communities. In total 130 meetings were held with community stakeholders and citizens panels that broadly represented the local population.

The purpose of the research is to move away from what is a polarised debate on immigration to a more meaningful engagement to understand the views of people that occupy the middle ground in British life.

The findings were that most people take a more nuanced view of immigration. Appreciating that there are some benefits but at the same time there are real concerns too.

The key fears on immigration expressed by local people were:

  • Security particularly concerns regarding the effects of criminality from immigrant communities
  • The feeling that immigrant communities fail to make a positive contribution to societies
  • A lack of trust in the political system to address the concerns around immigration

The local context plays a significant role in forming views on immigration much more than that expected by the researchers. What they experience in their day-to-day lives shapes their views on immigration. As an example where there were problems with rubbish on the streets the immigrant communities culture was blamed.

There is an awareness that there is a distorted portrayal of immigrants through the media but positive representation of immigrants, particularly Muslims, is also mistrusted. Initiatives such as Visit my mosque  has resulted in negative encounters. There is a tendency for visitors to look for evidence reinforcing existing negative views. The encounter can also be counterproductive when for example one visitor asked the Muslim if they would visit a church. The reply was no and the visitor is more negative towards the Muslim community viewing them as inward looking and not willing to interact with wider society.

The researchers found fake news stories had enormous strength within communities that suffered from economic and social deprivation. In these areas there is a strong belief that Easter, nativity plays and Christmas trees are banned in some parts of the country because of immigrant communities.

In conclusion there is potential for many in mainstream British society to move towards an extreme intolerant position. It is vital to have conversations with this mainstream section of society to ensure their views and concerns are understood and addressed.

Download National conversation on immigration interim report


Challenges of putting Islam into context

British Islam conference 2018

Speaker: Peter Mandaville

Contextualised Islam doesn’t necessarily mean a liberal progressive form of Islam.

A question to ask is who gets to decide what is orthodox in religion? What group is responsible for normalising and privileging certain interpretations over others?

The major obstacles to the contextualisation of Islam are:

  1. The work is articulated in academic language which is not accessible to the ordinary Muslim and presents itself as elitist
  2. Suspicion from sections of the Muslim community that contextualising Islam is an attempt to westernise their faith. Changing it and then applying Islamic packaging
  3. It is sometime supported and funded by western governments reinforcing the fears of westernising Islam

The major structural challenges identified to the contextualisation of Islam are:

  1. Sectarian tensions within the Muslim community, that have been present for generations, resulting in a clinging to a particular narrow interpretation of scripture
  2. Much of the public discourse revolves around the topic of security. This leads to a polarisation reducing the debate to a binary with the community vs with the government stance
  3. The younger generation of Muslims question whether the vocabulary of a contextualised Islam, for example a British Islam, has any relevance. They are not interested in feeling their way to an Islam that feels comfortable within British society but focused instead on specific causes. That might be race, gender equality or environment and their Muslim engagement with that topic


Muslim women in prison

British Islam conference 2018

Presenter: Sofia Buncy

There are approximately 13,000 Muslim prisoners forming a disproportionate 16% of the prison population. Muslim women are also disproportionately represented forming 6% of the prison population.

The Muslim prison population has increased by 50% over the past decade and reflects the acceptability of crime within the Muslim community.

There is a reluctance from organisations to delve into the complexity of Muslim culture.

Faith and culture have become amalgamated and it is now difficult to separate the two. We are failing to look at the drivers behind the increase in the Muslim prison population.

Muslim women are disadvantaged on the grounds of their ethnicity, faith and gender. They suffer from a social stigma that does not apply to male offenders. They are subject to open double standards where it is acceptable for men to be multiple offenders but women are ostracised.  They endure a community where rules are defined by a male patriarchy in community institutions such as community centres and mosques. Going through the justice system is a lonely journey for Muslim women.

What is particularly disturbing is that a lot of women entering the justice system have a male hand behind their crime. Either through having experienced domestic violence, sexual abuse and grooming or by covering for a male.

The crimes themselves can range from violating a suspended driving ban to theft. We are failing to look at and understand the stories of these women.

There is a culture of non-disclosure and our community has a particular problem with holding difficult conversations leading to the increase in women entering prison.

Some of the cases that highlight the drivers include an elderly woman who received a custodial sentence for a class A drug related crime along with her son. In this instance the culture of self-sacrifice for her child and protection of the family took precedence over her morality.  There are increasing numbers being jailed for shoplifting that is driven by drug addiction. The addiction having started through a relationship with a male either inside our outside her family. In some instances their addiction is leading to prostitution.

Asian culture is interfering with our morality. More importance is attached to the outward projection of faith rather than moral values.

Muslim women in prison report.

Islamophobia – a challenge for us all

British Islam Conference 2018

Speaker: Omar Khan, Runnymede Trust

The original report on Islamophobia was published in 1997. The 20th anniversary report has just been published in 2017.

The original report was published when Muslims felt they were under siege facing discrimination with a government that wasn’t interested. Mainstream white liberal classes had no understanding or concern of the issues being faced by British Muslims.

Islamophobia is not just a battle of ideas. It has a material impact on peoples lives affecting their physical and mental wellbeing.

The short definition of Islamophobia is anti-Muslim racism. The longer definition is:

Islamophobia is any distinction, exclusion, or restriction towards, or preference against, Muslims (or those perceived to be Muslims) that has the purpose or effect
of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.

We need to ensure there is agreement on the above definition which purposefully avoids limiting it to an act of hate crime. This is because it is not simply limited to hate crime perpetrated by white working class people. It involves white middle classes who contribute to Islamophobia in many ways including:

  • Designing budgets that hit the poorest black and asian women the hardest
  • Denying jobs to black and ethnic minorities
  • Awarding first class degrees to three times as many white graduates compared to their black counter-parts

Islamophobia is not a criticism of ideas which is a hallmark of a free society. Islamophobia is discrimination against Muslims which is the hallmark of an unjust society. The focus has to be on Muslims and not Islam. Because it is individuals who suffer from the effects of institutional and inter-personal Islamophobia in terms of jobs, mental health, physical health and higher child poverty.

Key messages:

  1. Policy formation needs to be reframed as currently it is focused on hate and counter terrorism. The scope has to be extended beyond this to include overcoming barriers in the labour market, health and education inequality
  2. The challenges of addressing Islamophobia should include working in partnership with wider civic society. An approach centred on universal values that targets all forms of discrimination and not just Muslim centric

Whilst there has been a sea change in societal attitudes towards gender inequality and homophobia there is increasing prejudice against Muslims.

The Grenfell tower tragedy demonstrated that you don’t need to be living 200 miles away from Westminster to lack a voice or resources.

Discussions overcoming Islamophobia should also include the need for positive framing of British Muslims.

Download Islamophobia still a challenge for us all – Runnymede Trust.

Fresh thinking about Islam

Topic: Introductory speech, British Islam Conference 2018

Speaker: Dilwar Hussein

Current events, Russia, Trump, Brexit, Grenfell tower and the like, are challenging and provoking us. Some of the issues include the Muslim sphere such as sexual abuse allegations against a prominent scholar. We are not merely observing from a distance. It challenges us to ask ourselves what does it mean to be a Muslim?

You must step back from these issues and not let them define you. If you allow your reaction to be defined by the issues then you are part of the problem. You lose the moral agency to find a solution. Faith enables you to rise above the pain and look towards a better way.

We need fresh thinking about Islam to address contemporary issues of our time. This isn’t changing Islam to fit the environment. We are saying something is wrong and you can’t keep doing things the same way.

Three key messages:

  1. The Quran is clear that your state will not change unless you change what is in your heart. You must start with yourself first. I can’t stop Donald Trump from Tweeting but I can change what I Tweet
  2. Islam is like an ever flowing stream. You have to keep engaging with revelation. Interpreting and asking questions as the environment changes. Don’t be satisfied with interpretations from 300 years ago or earlier
  3. The current challenges we face are so huge and complex that we must reach out beyond our community for collective action. Dealing with this ourselves is not an option. We need to work together as believers and non-believers in collective action to address the issues we face. Most of the time the Quran addresses the whole of mankind and not simply the believers. Our approach has to match this inclusive outlook


Ethics in Islam

Topic: Keynote speech, British Islam Conference 2018

Speaker: Mona Siddiqui

With the current Trump/post-Brexit challenges we have no place to hide and must engage publicly.

Ethics are the principles that govern a persons behaviour. It is how we determine what is right and wrong and drives our decision making.

The topic of ethics has been largely unexplored in Islamic thought. For most Muslims ethics is reduced to Shariah which overlooks the huge complexity of Sharia and the multiple fiqhs that exist around it.

The key challenge we face is how do you worship God and lead the life God wants you to? This leads to an open ended discussion. Yet we’ve reduced it to a fixed right/wrong stance which is a key problem in Islamic societies. There is no space for the grey areas where most of us live.

Revelation alone doesn’t tell you what is right and wrong. You need to apply your thinking to the revelation to determine right and wrong.

We cannot allow factors such as our minority status, anger and Islamophobia to define us.

Islamic law must be personalised and not theoretical. It has to be based on our lived experience.

Agreement is not a moral entity or exercise. Its not a mandatory objective. Its how you agree and disagree and the ability to accept differences that is important.

An independent review of Shariah councils was undertaken and the three key things learnt were:

  1. These councils are commonly used by women in their 20’s/30’s who have never registered their marriage and have no recourse to civil protection when seeking a divorce
  2. The councils have no legal entity or authority. They are just voluntary organisations
  3. The councils are often a mechanism to extend the abuse of peoples rights. They are subtle ways of forcing people, mainly women, to conform with tradition. An avert way to stop people from thinking for themselves

Two recommendations were made to the government:

  1. Introduce legal regulation of the Shariah councils
  2. Raise awareness of the civil legal rights that women in particular have regarding marriage and divorce

The government will not be proceeding with the first recommendation of regulating these councils. Regulating these councils could lead to giving them credence creating potential future challenges. This is unfortunate because without regulation how do you ensure that members of these councils are not selective in their scriptural references to uphold tradition rather than behave ethically?

The second recommendation will be taken up. It is important to raise awareness that Muslims must abide by the civil laws of this country. It is not an option. All marriages must be registered.