The Prophet should be introduced to the world as the 'preeminent exemplar of uncorroded humanity'


Exclusive Interview with Tim Winter (Abdal Hakim Murad)

 The agenda of the Islamic world is quite intense these days. Ramadan, the ongoing Cambridge Mosque project and the controversial disputes about the construction of a cultural center at the area of Ground Zero in New York…While the opposite poles are getting even more evident especially in the Ground Zero debates, the ongoing process is inevitably leading to the question of whether Islamophobia is increasing or not. As, we covered all these issues with Tim Winter (Abdal Hakim Murad), British scholar and one of the most prominent figures of the Muslim community in England.

How is Ramadan passing for you?

Tim Winter: Ramadan is going well, every year it seems to have a different atmosphere. This year in Cambridge is has been quiet because it falls during the academic holidays, so as a university city, we are not very busy in August. But Alhamdullillah, we have had some good gatherings, and I think it has been a positive atmosphere so far.

What kind of differences did you observe in terms of the differences between how Ramadan is observed in Turkey and in England?

Well, in Turkey you have an ancient and established civilization, in England it is not as new as can be imagined, so there is a large area of cultural support for religion here which we simply don’t have. We are starting to remedy that through the creation of cultural forms; forms of architecture, forms of sound, songs and the like, but we have a very long way to go. I have a small project for translating some Turkish ilahis (religious songs) and nasheeds into English as a website of British Muslims song, which is now being used increasingly by Muslim schools and other organizations. So we are creating to a civilization for ourselves, but of course, we have a very long way to go.

In Turkey you have an ancient and established civilization. We are also creating a civilization for ourselves, but of course, we have a very long way to go.

We know that in England there are Muslims many different nations. Does Ramadan play a uniting role among the Muslims these different nations?

It ought to, but sometimes it doesn’t partly because there is the annual problem of when we sight the moon, it is important that we the fast on the same day. But very often, people of Bangladeshi origin for example, will wish to fast with Bangladesh; people of Arab origin will wish to fast with Egypt or Morocco, so unfortunately even though nothing should in theory be simpler than just checking the visibility of the moon, we are disunited as a result of the ethnic diversity of the community. Sometimes also, it is the case that in the mosques there is a prevailing cultural style which may not be to the taste of the minorities that attend the mosque, but that is something that we have very little control over. Alhamdullillah, in our mosque in Cambridge, because we don’t have a dominant ethnicity, it’s a very good, irenic environment, and we have not really suffered any problems of that nature.

What about the converts in England?

Well, it is unusual for them to be present in sufficient numbers in any place for them to be able to form a local culture of their own. So usually what they will do is follow the civilization or norms of whatever the predominant ethnicity is in their local mosques community.

In Turkey, and especially in Istanbul, the iftar and Ramadan organizations are rather glorious; do you think this is right or that it should be observed in a more humble way?

Well, when you consider that the modern world, it celebrates so many things that are completely empty, we have for instance coming up in a couple of years the Olympics in London, where over a hundred million pounds will be spent just on the kind of initial fanfares, the ridiculous rituals and parades, and ceremonies, and songs that actually proceeds the games themselves. People are used to flagging up important events, perhaps occasions with a good deal of, as it were, conspicuous cultural consumption, and I think that if we are to compete with that we have also to be conspicuous.

Islam is not really a single thing, and modernity is not a single thing either. So there isn’t a single formula for Muslims as they engage with the West.

What are the main problems of the Muslim today, between Islam and the modern way of living?

Well, Islam is not really a single thing, and modernity is not a single thing either. The tradition of the Islamic world is gigantically diverse, and includes people living a variety of cultural forms, educational levels, income levels, and similarly modernity is very different if you experience it in Cape Town or Moscow, or Tennessee, or Paris it is not a single phenomenon. Modernity is gigantically diverse again, in terms of education, class, economics, cultural formation, difficult attitudes, religious commitment, and religious identity. So there isn’t a single formula for Muslims as they engage with the West, if there were, then things maybe somewhat easier than they are at the moment. I think that what we are seeing is that in some places with some people, there has been a very happy and straight forward engagement, in other places, where there is an element of confrontation and where the communal identities are highly politicized, where there can seem to be a standoff and even a kind of confrontation.

What about Islamophobia? Is Islamophobia a real threat that becomes a part of this process?

Well, it depends on where one is. What often happens is that newly established religious or ethnic minorities become the lightening rod for chauvinisms that have a quite different cause. There has always been a desire in Europe to distract attention the problems of the mainstream culture by treating minority communities as a scapegoat. Religious minorities, sometimes racial minorities have often been the victim of that kind of vicarious prejudice, and now it seems to be the turn of the Muslims to play that role. On occasions for instance, in a place like the United States that feels the need to have a large economic, political, even military projection in parts of the Muslim world, where that projection is seemed to be experiencing difficulties, ‘sometimes’ part of the blame falls upon the heads of often quite innocuous Muslims at home in the United States.

We have made sure that the project is not just the property of the Muslim community, but that others feel that they have a stake in it as well. We have made sure that they have been consulted in every step.

What is the recent point that the project of the Cambridge Mosque has achieved today, and how does it influence the relations between the Muslims in England and the non-Muslims?

Well, we took the necessary step of buying land a couple of years ago, land is not easy to come by in a historic city such as Cambridge, but we did buy a plot of more than an acre. We have chosen an architect and picked some designs, so we are well on our way. In terms of relating to the wider community, we have made sure that the project is not just the property of the Muslim community, but that others feel that they have a stake in it as well because there is a very effective local residence association in the region where we bought the land, and we have made sure that they have been consulted in every step, and that they have given us their wish list of features in the new mosque in terms of facilities that will be useful not just for Muslim worshippers, but to other people in the community such as a public garden and some of the other facilities that are available in the mosque. Design issues are clearly important as well, people don’t want an enormous monolith that overlooks their garden, so we have taken that on board. Similarly, as a university town, we have made sure that we have incorporated the views of the university in the design process, and they nominated a representative for the jury of our architectural competition. So I think that is really the way forward for it to be presented as a new, exciting corporal project in which there are many stake holders, not just Muslims, and partly because Cambridge is an open minded, an educated kind of city where people are used to diversity, a major international university, and I think we have been quite successful in achieving that.

Are non-Muslims getting interested in the project?

Very much so, and they are very supportive. The local residence association is very keen on the design that we have chosen, and they have been very active in attending our committee meetings and making their preferences felt. It is located in a district of Cambridge on a brown-field site, whose alternative use would probably be intensive student accommodation which is something that the local residence do not find particularly desirable. So the possibility of creating something that will be an architectural landmark, and will really give a sense of ‘place’ to that part of Cambridge, is something that really excites a lot of people outside the Muslim community as well as inside it.

What about the support of the Islamic countries?

We have a policy of not engaging with the governments in the Islamic world.

What about communities?

Well, we have had a number of donations places like Malaysia, and the Gulf, partly because of the current political nervousness, but partly also because of the downturn in the global economy donations have not been as extensive as we had first hoped. We were able to secure funding for the land, but we still need nine million pounds to actually the building itself, which is a substantial amount of money. And because of the credit crunch, it is proving to be an uphill struggle actually alerting people to the importance of this.

Is there a deadline for the project?

There is no particular deadline, but the current accommodation for the Muslim community is so crowded, that it is a matter of urgency that we find a larger place where everybody can fit for the Friday prayers.

Prophet Muhammad should be presented as the preeminent exemplar of uncorroded humanity. Nowadays our culture is so suffused with ego that it is difficult for us fully to understand what being a human actually meant to be…

So, in this regard, is there a formulation for how Muslims should be presented in the West and how Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) should be introduced to the Western world?

Islam is a religion that is as effective as its leadership, and I think that more resources than are currently being made available, should be directed towards training the leadership, and the spokesmen and representatives of the Muslim community, not just in the Muslim world but everywhere. That is why we have the new Muslim college in Cambridge which was set up last year, which is specifically to take graduates of Islamic madrasas, colleges, and universities, and to give them one year intensive retraining on how to understand the modern world, how to deal with it more effectively so they learn about religion of science, they learn about politics, economics, other religions, history, philosophy, history of western thought which gives them a very good array of tools with which to respond to the really quotidian issues of engaging with the modern world, particularly if you are a religious leader, and particularly if you are a religious leader who has been called upon to explain the community to outsiders.

As for the introduction of the Prophet to the Western world, he should be presented as the preeminent exemplar of uncorroded humanity. Nowadays our culture is so suffused with ego, and with messages that insist that we should be expressing ourselves in ways that are prestigious; exhibit our wealth, and our status, and encourage envy in others that it is difficult for us fully to understand what the human conditions is actually meant to be, what an ego is, what a human being might be, or a human being who lives genuinely for others might be, or a human being who is in touch with nature, with the animal world, with different sorts of human beings, with men, with women, with the reality around us on the basis of the desire of service rather than on the basis of the desire to establish himself in peoples regard. So it is not an easy task, because modernity really exclusively valorizes those who are proudly displaying their egotism, and to remind them that actually human beings of a deeper level, a spiritual, more humane level where ego simply gets in the way of what we really are is an uphill battle. But the Fitrah, the underlying nature of human beings, can’t be entirely suffocated, and there is, I think, an increasing number of people who are looking not just for a set of values that enables them to live a more natural and more humble life, but also for an actual role model, a human exemplar whom they can practically strive to emulate.

And I have final  question about the celebrations of the special nights, the Kandils…Some argue that  this is an innovation, so what do you think about this?

It depends on how they are presented, if they are claimed to be an indispensible part of the religion when they are not fully supported by the Qur’an and the Hadith, then that represents a negative innovation. If however you are saying that these are commemorations of important events in our early history, and we do not say that it is a religious obligation to celebrate these in a particular way, this is not like a new Id, but if it reminds people of that event, and people do love anniversaries and commemorations, and it is presented as a way in which people can once again regain interest in something that otherwise they might not be thinking about, then that is an innovation that is praiseworthy.



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