I’m really lucky to have grown up in the environment that I did.
On the one hand, like most British Muslims coming of age post 9/11 and 7/7, I felt the world was talking about me, while I wasn’t there to defend myself. Unlike most of my Muslim peers, however, I never really had a Muslim ‘Community’ to find shelter in, either.
In terms of my religious learning, my Sunday school was run mostly by the powerful, ultra-conservative branch of Modern Islam called Salafism. While at home, I was raised in the mystical wonder of the Sufi understanding of Islam, placing emphasis on the awe-inspiring and spiritual nature of the Qur’an, a school of thought often anathematized in Modern Muslim thinking for its tendency for incorporating cultural practices into religious ones, for example the distinct musicality of West African Islam.
Then, Monday to Friday, I attended Church of England Schools that instilled a vague sense of Christian ethics in a sublimely secular, very-British-kind-of-way.
What it meant to be a Muslim in these places meant different things, and early on, I learned that there was an incongruity between different peoples’ definitions of Islam and Muslims.
This Question of what it means ‘to be Muslim’ had also been echoing outside of my social sphere for as long as I remember; to the BNP-types, for example, being Muslim meant, not being British.
To the articulate Secular commentator, like Sam Harris and Douglas Murray, it means to represent the single greatest threat to the integrity of western civilization imaginable and, further still, to my conservative Salafi friends it means not being “Westernised” and attaching oneself to the practices of a community that emerged in 7th Century Arabia.
And our non-Muslim ‘allies‘ in the liberal media seem to see Muslims simply as a marginalised minority; victims of an organized right-wing attack, otherwise fully capable of smoothly integrating into Western Culture.
And while the non-Muslim world is debating what being Muslim means, Muslims are having a similar conversation, but with the same absence of diverse voices.
A problem that Muslims have faced perenially has been that of Takfir, a term you’re probably aware of by way of a related word, “Kafir”, (generally understood as a blanket term for those who deny Islam). The term Takfir relates to the process of declaring someone non-Muslim, despite that person identifying as Muslim.
In a sense, the West exercises Takfir all the time; those on the critical side of the argument often describe Western, Liberal Muslims as replacing their inherently abhorrent Muslim values with cherished Western ones, thereby not being truly Muslim. A great example here is Milo Yiannoplous speaking to a Muslim politician in Australia.
Whereas, on the left, there is a scramble to seek to imply that the ISIS-types and even the ultra-conservative Wahhabis and Salafis who now constitute Islam’s scholarly elite are not really Muslim as Islam is fundamentally a religion of Peace and Tolerance.
Never has this concept of Takfir hit such an emotional chord with me before this weekend, after Afshan and I accepted an invitation from the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community to attend their 52nd Jalsa Salana, a yearly 3-day event that culminates in an emotional pledge of allegiance to the Ahmadi Caliph which, with 30,000 expected attendees, constitutes the largest gathering of Muslims in Britain.
That final clause is incredibly controversial, as Ahmadis, a subset of Islam making up less than 1% of the Muslim population, are routinely the subjects of scholastically-sanctioned Takfir and cannot even legally be recognised as Muslim in countries such as Algeria and Pakistan.
I say that an emotional chord was struck that day because, on the cusp of one of the five daily ritual prayers (Or Salah in Arabic – not to be confused with the Footballer) our team from The Common Sense Network, requested a little time out to wash up and pray. I was under the impression that I would be praying with my host from the Ahmadiyya Press Office but as time went on and after being very well-looked after by the gentleman who was also a newly qualified Imam of the Community, I realised we still hadn’t prayed. I asked my host when we were going to pray, and he responded, “I wasn’t sure if you would’ve wanted to pray with me”. My heart broke into what felt like thousands of tiny Muslim shards; the Takfir-infused denigration of the Ahmadi Community perhaps lead to an assumption that I would not have believed him to be Muslim, consequently not wishing to share the Salah with him.
On the face of it, however, the Jalsa Salana was a very Muslim event – there was moderate segregation between the sexes, modest dress, melodic recitation of the Qu’ran, Samosas, and almost excessive hospitality towards guests.
These familiarities won’t change whether the Ahmadis are right or wrong about their doctrinal differences with the rest of the Muslim world but the topics tackled at the Jalsa seem to be very Muslim issues; where Islamic Terrorism originates, the impact of Muslims in the West and the relationship between Islam and other faiths and beliefs.
I was absolutely enthralled by their sense of Community and their sense of urgency towards the propagation of an Islam that can be embraced by the West rather than caricatured or vilified by it. This, however, did not convince me of the legitimacy of their Caliphate and their claims of having been founded by Islam’s promised Messiah. These things are worthy of a discussion and after seeing the Ahmadi commitment to their faith, I’m happy to have my mind changed and grapple with the best version of their arguments.
The Muslim Community relates to Ahmadis in a similar way as the West often relates to Muslims in general; talking about them, rather than talking with them. The Common Sense Network is pro-dialogue of this kind not just as a quaint idea but because it makes the world a better place; most of all for the Ahmadis persecuted and sometimes killed in the UK and abroad for what seems like differences that could be discussed rather civilly. I believe Muslims, in general, could gain a lot from that interaction, least of all because Ahmadis are the longest established Muslim Community in Britain and seemed to have mastered a Western Islam that seems authentic.
The Media often asks the question “who speaks for Islam?” and while some may argue vehemently about whether the Ahmadis, or Anjum Chaudhry or Majid Nawaz represent true Muslim thought, the Muslim Community stills seems yet to answer the most simple question; Who’s Muslim Anyway?
This article was updated at 13:10 on Wednesday the 8th of August for editorial reasons.