Travelling with my father through a small British town one Friday, we stopped a passerby to ask if there was a mosque nearby so that Jumu’ah prayer could be attended. ‘Yes’, the man promptly answered, ‘Are you looking for the Bangladeshi one or the Pakistani one?’ His reply threw me. It had instantly highlighted divisions within the Muslim community (or Ummah) and a worrying disparity amongst its diverse ethnic groups enforced by this segregation. Was the mosque not supposed to be viewed as a focal point for all Muslims regardless of their cultural background? A place that brought community together to stand shoulder to shoulder in congregation with each individual having the same and common intention, that of attending a mosque simply to worship? The requirement for another mosque in the town should surely have arisen through a straightforward logistical need to accommodate an increase in number of local Muslims. But instead, it had been deemed necessary for the admission of worshippers solely according to the ethnicity of the individuals attending; these mosques were, in effect, directly creating barriers between fellow Muslims through their code of separation and going completely against the spirit of Islam and its teachings to uphold racial harmony.
As mentioned in the Qur’an, Al Imran, ayah 103: ‘And hold fast, all of you together, to the Rope of Allah and be not divided amongst yourselves.’
Having a strong association with your own culture is acknowledgement of your heritage and it is a positive sentiment to celebrate who you are and where you have come from. However, when these attachments are given an importance and emphasised to such an extent that they become a priority that is placed a long way above regarding one another with equality and respect, then there can only be an inevitable weakening, and not strengthening, of relationships between Muslims.
As well as cultural divisions in some mosques, there appears to sometimes exist a type of judgemental behaviour and an attitude which conveys a damning message to other Muslims: that they are not deemed to be ‘religious’ enough to attend the mosque. With varying degrees of faith and knowledge, we are all travelling along life’s steep learning curve at different speeds and recognition of this fact must be acknowledged as a humbling reminder – that it is never too late to gain new information. An open discussion of differences is healthy and to have disagreements is not in itself an issue. But overcoming these differences of opinion respectfully, and without a sense of hierarchy which does not hinder progress from our ultimate goal of learning, must remain a priority. New attendees may otherwise, understandably, find themselves unwelcome and alienated by such a negative atmosphere. The following hadith reminds us of the importance of mutual respect between one another: ‘A Muslim is the brother of a Muslim. He neither oppresses him nor humiliates him nor looks down upon him’ (Muslim).
This open-minded approach to building bridges also applies within a community when diverse multi-faith groups are working together. Julie Siddiqi is the Executive Director of the Islamic Society of Britain and has made many connections across the UK through networking with both Muslim and non-Muslim organisations and individuals. She is also a mentor for the UK-based charity ‘Mosaic’ and Vice Chair of her local SACRE (Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education). ‘Mosaic’, founded in 2007 by HRH Prince Charles, delivers mentoring programmes which focus on young people in some of the most deprived communities. The ‘About Us’ section of the Mosaic Network web site explains that the programmes are “delivered by volunteers, and lift the aspirations of young people and close the gap between those aspirations and their attainment” aiming to “boost their confidence, self-efficacy and long-term employability.” Julie says “It is humbling and so important to not feel we are somehow better or more important than others because they are not part of the same faith, ethnic background or seem too ‘different’ to us. That kind of attitude can lead to wider issues and needs to be tackled and discussed very early on.”
The challenges of working successfully together as a group appear to be more easily overcome with the realisation of universal and shared experiences. Julie continues “If we focus on differences then yes, working in a diverse group will be more challenging. But we have so much in common, that can be our focus. As mothers, as wives, as sisters, as daughters, we have so much to connect with others through. Being around good, decent people, whatever faith or belief, strengthens my own faith.”
Perhaps the reason that some people are choosing to limit their exposure to different cultures is due to the fear that they will lose something of their own, without realising the benefits of enriching their existing knowledge through the learning and sharing of new experiences. Indeed, this type of direct inter-cultural community involvement is a subject area spoken about by Jamillah Karim, author of the book American Muslim Women-Negotiating race, class and gender within the Ummah.
Jamillah says, “The Ummah ideal seeks to create brotherhood and sisterhood among Muslims. This would entail coming to know and respect the concerns, issues, and struggles of different ethnic groups in the Ummah….Although cross-ethnic fellowship begins with understanding different perspectives, an important outcome is for people to question and change some of their beliefs and behaviours.”*
Along with being open to one another’s viewpoints, Jamillah also talks about the emphasis and importance that Islam places on ‘standing for justice’ whereby ‘working for change in local communities’ through shared goals is likely to bring Muslims together while coming to know one another.
From a personal point of view, and on a more global scale, I have certainly found this last statement on working for justice especially true. Working on the Rohingya Journalism Fund, I have become connected and drawn closer to like-minded activists from a variety of religious and non-religious backgrounds where our common goals converge on a shared commitment to humanitarianism. Our different outlooks on life are irrelevant; we have found that by listening to one another, compassion and humanity are an overriding uniting force.
In her booklet for the ‘Transition Network’s guide to embedding diversity and inclusion in transition’, Catrina Pickering says “When we really listen, we are able to find common ground and start from where people are at. Real listening is about being prepared to be changed by what we hear.” We are now, more than ever perhaps, better globally connected through technology and improved transport links and in many ways the world is getting smaller. But our ethnic differences are too often being allowed to cause greater separation and division within communities. A ‘Them and Us’ mentality can only serve to direct us away not only from one other but also and more fundamentally further away from the great importance that Islam gives to universal brotherhood.
Khurshid Khatib is a freelance writer and writes articles mostly relating to charitable or human rights issues. Her educational background is in Pharmaceutical Sciences and Medicinal Chemistry and she has previously worked as a Pharmaceutical Scientist and Radio Broadcast Assistant/Producer. She is currently studying with the Open University on a creative writing course.
*Interview excerpt from the ‘Islamic Monthly’ website.