British Islam: re-made in our image

by - 5th August 2009

Hopes of a British Islam may be closer to being realized than people think. And it’s not good news.

I turned up unannounced last week at the Dewsbury markaz – so-called European headquarters of the Tablighi Jama’at, in its unlikely green and rolling Yorkshire milltown setting. 

The most methodologically successful of all the Muslim revivalist movements, the TJ has, so it’s said, 80million followers worldwide – but that must fluctuate as there’s no dotted line to sign, and is more fluid than the western mind can easily grasp.

Scholars and afficionados deny it is ‘secretive’, so I thought I’d drop in.

‘If you make yourself known to the organisers, I don’t see any reason why you are not allowed to go in and have a word with anybody you want to’, said the Director of the Newham project Abdul Khaliq, in a news item in 2006, when challenged by the reporter Tim Whewell.  

So I went, accompanied by two Pakistani friends and a local Baptist pastor.  We just went with the flow, Asian-style, as I had in Delhi last January when visiting the central markaz in Nizamuddin.

My Pakistani friend – let’s call him Kurshid – is a scholar and pir, and has a gentle and penetrating charisma that people instinctively warm to.  If he couldn’t get a reception, no one could.

We turned into the short cul de sac of low-rise brick terraces, with the mosque looking little different from a largish state school at the far end of the street, and the short minaret rising unobtrusively behind it. 

A few bearded faces turned to observe the whiteness in the car, then looked away unconcerned.  Some had large sleeping bags on their back and were making for the bus.

We stepped over the threshold, hoping to find someone to greet us.  Shoes were lined up at the point where the tiled entrance meets the carpet a few feet in – a clear line of demarcation; a metaphor for what sociologists call liminality which ‘intensifies the experience of migration and results in a heightened sense of group identity’, according to one.

 A group of dark, bearded boys preparing to go off on gasht – preaching tour - were sitting cross-legged on the floor of this large vestibule looking at us.

Then a tall, handsome man in stunning white turban and salwar kameez walked up to us, shook hands with the men, and said there was no one we could see. 

He was clearly English-born, but when I asked, said he hailed from Bangladesh.  He was the Islamics teacher.

We explained why we were there – simply hoping to make contact and speak to the amir.  He asked us if we had an ‘appointment’ – and we laughed. 

He explained we would need to speak to the ‘secretary’ responsible for ‘foreign affairs’. 

I asked what foreign meant.

He said ‘Anything outside this building’. 

He gave me the number of Mr Daji, the man who handles foreigners like me, and he regretted that we should have phoned beforehand, as he was busy and no one else could receive us.

(The use of the word foreign was probably inadvertent.  English people tend not to come.  I met no one in Dewsbury from the indigenous English churches who had actually visited this mosque, and the word would more likely apply to the tablighis who pour in from Europe for training before going out on preaching tours.)

I told Turban that all sounded very British. 

We asked him whether there was anyone we could sit with, just for a cup of tea.  My Dewsbury friends wanted to build contacts with the mosque, and I was interested in comparing it with the markaz at which I’d been made so welcome in Delhi.

No – there was no one we could speak to, and no cup of tea.  Were there any women who might sit with me for a conversation?

Turbaned Man fixed me with a meaningful stare and said: ‘We believe in keeping women in the home.’

I laughed out loud.  And as he shook the men’s hands again, I thrust mine out overtly, and he said, taking it as if I were offering him a dead fish:  ‘I only ever shake my wife’s hand’ – and strode off across the car park. 

Kurshid said he could tell Turban had been born in Britain. 

Unlike the kindly imam we then called in on – a Tablighi maulana from Pakistan. His hospitality overwhelmed us.  Tea, cakes, several kinds of biscuits, all immaculately served on a small lace-covered table in his well-furnished, comfortable former council house.  He even contacted me later – through his daughter – to apologise for the paucity of his welcome.  He thrust hadiths and tracts about the ‘special rewards favoured by Allah to women in Islam’ into our hands.    

He sat and smiled and nodded and apologised – through a translater - for the young men at the mosque, who, he said, treated him with the same lack of respect.

The old imams the government is trying to fade out may not have much English, or understand well the modern rubric of life, but they understand something with which this culture is not equipping the next generation: spirituality.  Or do I mean just kindness?   

Islam seems to be remaking itself in our secular image.