MEDINA IN BIRMINGHAM, NAJAF IN BRENT: INSIDE BRITISH ISLAM. BOWEN, I. LONDON C.HURST & CO. 2014. 288PP. £16.99. PB
Muslim intellectuals may try to define something called British Islam, but the truth is that as the Muslim community of Britain has grown in size and religiosity, so too has the opportunity to found and run mosques which divide along ethnic and sectarian lines.
Just as most churches in Britain are affiliated to one of the main Christian denominations, the vast majority of Britain’s 1600 mosques are linked to wider sectarian networks: the Deobandi and Tablighi Jamaat movements with their origins in colonial India; the Salafi groups inspired by an austere form of Islam widely practiced in Saudi Arabia; the Islamist movements with links to religious political parties in the Middle East and South Asia; the Sufi movements that tend to emphasise spirituality rather than religious and political militancy; and the diverse Shi’ite sects which range from the orthodox disciples of Grand Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq to the Ismaili followers of the pragmatic and modernising Aga Khan. These affiliations are usually not apparent to outsiders, but inside Britain’s Muslim communities sectarian divides are often fiercely guarded by religious leaders.
This book, of which no equivalent volume yet exists, is a definitive guide to the ideological differences, organisational structures and international links of the main Islamic groups active in Britain today.
(from the front cover)
By Dr Philip Lewis, Peace Studies, Bradford University, and author of Young, British and Muslim (2007).
Innes Bowen, a BBC journalist, has written an indispensable and accessible work which lays bare the ideologies informing the main Islamic movements in Britain today. Policy makers, journalists, politicians, statutory agencies, voluntary bodies and inter-faith activists alike, will be grateful for this study.
The author has written the sort of book she looked for in vain in 2003 when she began research for her first programme on Islam in Britain. In eight chapters, she outlines the history, key ideas and some of the main personalities of the most significant movements in Britain; how they are organised, transnational links and their respective stances on gender, jihad, attitudes to wider Muslim society, as well as governance, i.e. what might count as an Islamic state.
The ethnographic richness of the book comes from eighty interviews conducted during its seven year gestation. As a good journalist, Bowen is adept at uncovering the debates and tensions within and between movement e.g. she rehearses ‘the classic bits of mis-information’ entertained by Sunnis about Shias shared with her by a convert to Sunni Islam who became a Shia (p.136).
The rationale for this work is to get beyond the many useful, sociological studies of Muslim communities in Britain to explore the religious trends which inform the thoughts, feelings and actions of Britain’s Muslim communities. Bowen is right to insist that ideology is important. She was shocked by the ignorance of such ideologies exhibited by ‘politicians, interfaith groups, police and journalists who interact with these Islamic groups’:
The phenomenon of ‘home-grown’ terrorism in Britain cannot, for example, be explained in purely sociological terms. Those involved in terrorist plots have come from a wide range of ethnic, social and educational backgrounds. The only thing they have in common is a shared set of ideas and a willingness to act on them (p.1).
As someone who lectures on ‘Islam in the West’ to peacemakers and policy makers, I have long pointed out that no one is religious-in-general. With Bowen’s work, policy makers will no longer have any excuse for lazy generalisations about Islam and Muslims in Britain. In future, discussion and policy will have to be informed by her detailed knowledge of Deobandis, Tablighi Jamaat, Salafis, Jamaat-e-Islami, the Muslim Brotherhood, Barewlis, the Shia ‘Twelvers’ and the Ismailis.
Bowen’s work reflects the ethos of the BBC at its best: informative, impartial – by which I mean an insider can recognise themselves in what she writes – yet identifying worrying issues and thus not neutral. She does not play down the existence of gender segregation in many traditions, nor the fact that certain trends are complicit in violence – if not in Britain then overseas. Occasionally she will reproduce a comment that clearly shocked her: whether a Deobandi insider who points out Muslim children from a young age are subject to ‘subtle demonization’ directed at wider society (p.27) or an academic whose researches indicate that Tablighi Jamaat have promoted ‘a sense of paranoia and disgust of non-Muslim society’ (p.47).
Such comments point to a crisis in religious formation. Bowen illustrates it but to provide the background to this crisis and ways forward, her work needs to be complemented by Abdullah Sahin’s pioneering, New Directions in Islamic Education, Pedagogy & Identity Formation, (2013, Kube Academic, Markfield).
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