Belonging is an issue. So universal a need, the need to belong has been grappled with by philosophers from the secular to the religious.
Defined as an affinity for a place or a situation, philosopher Simone Weil stated, “to be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.”
In Islamic thought, two essential vectors of belonging are noted by Professor Tariq Ramadan. The connection to the Creator is the primary vertical dimension, and forms the basis for the horizontal vector of belonging to one’s family, then to the Muslim umma, and then to humanity as a whole. He states that tawhid, the belief in the unity of God, assumes a relationship with others. “to be with God is to be with human beings.”
And therein lies the tension.
Sandra could not find her place. She favored colorful prints and the expostulation of all that came to her mind. Neither style fit in with the more reserved community she found herself in, where emotions and fashion are held in check. I finally advised her, in response to her constant expression of unease, “you can change everyone here, or change yourself to fit in better, or change where you are.”
Belonging requires giving up some individuality. No community can be endlessly pluralistic. When it comes to belonging to a religious organization, how many of us have given up some of our individuality so as not to make waves for the sake of manners, or, say, just so our kids will fit in better? It is one thing to blend in regarding dress, that is mere outward appearance and just means shopping at one store over another. But what if we have a nagging feeling that some scriptural teachings are not as alive as they should be in our religious community?
The tension can become so great that no matter how necessary a sense of belonging, two things can happen. One – annoy those around you so much that they offer an ultimatum like the one I offered Sandra. Two – the tension causes one to finally stalk out to – nowhere.
And no one likes to be nowhere. What can we do in this quandary?
Turn to the “Qur’an Study Group.”
Every month in the heart of London, a varied group of Muslims and non-Muslims from all walks of life and levels of observance gather for a morning long seminar. The teacher announces a theme, gives his presentation on the subject, and invites participants to give presentations as well.
You need some stamina for the seminar as it can span for from four to six hours.
Hafiz Abdullah Muhammad founded the “Qur’an Study Group” over a decade ago. Educated in London and at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the foremost Muslim educational institution and the oldest running university in the world, Hafiz Abdullah is both an Islamic scholar and an attorney, and so he has a broad range of knowledge both of Islam as well as the English legal system. Born to Bangladeshi immigrant parents, the imam grew up in the east end of London where he dodged bullies, and remembers painfully the murder of a fellow Bangladeshi Altab Ali in 1978. This racially motivated murder galvanized the younger members of the Bangladeshi community, who marched on Hyde Park and used this tragedy to promote social justice for Bengalis and, by extension, every minority group.
This consciousness raising surely impressed Hafiz Abdullah, who has had a long career of interfaith work in London. He has also visited Israel-Palestine several times with his family, determined to build bridges between Muslims and Jews, and hosted Ben and I at his Qur’an Study Group, in March 2019.
Those in attendance were as diverse as they come, reflecting every color of the rainbow and level of observance, with a collective high IQ as well as high cultural level. Those present included a woman neuroscientist who holds a PhD and is studying post natal depression, a student who is fluent in Latin and Spanish and has memorized half of the chapters of the Qur’an – at only sixteen years of age. Attorneys, entrepreneurs, university students, the married, the single, both Muslims and non-Muslims from very diverse ethnic backgrounds, from age ten to over seventy were in attendance, whose accomplishments in their respective careers were matched by fine manners as well as a modesty of bearing. What I mean is, you will not find boastfulness matched with accomplishment among faithful Muslims: talent is a blessing from God, conceit is eschewed entirely.
Many do belong to mosques, but some do not find their place in organized religion, and find belonging here. Hafiz Abdullah notes that if it were not for this place, some may even leave Islam altogether. In predominantly Muslim countries, religion is more regimented, so Muslims with who challenge religion generally just leave, having no place to go. In the UK, he has the opportunity to offer an accepting space that is completely in line with scripture and tradition.
Despite his accepting stance, Hafiz Abdullah eschews bidah, that is, religious innovation, and in this sense he is orthodox. I heard him advising one follower, “listen, I know about that alternative reading group, but you need to stay within orthodoxy. If you can help them stay in an orthodox framework, then by all means reach out to them.”
This was but one example of how he confronts issues that people are dealing with that pulpit imams often do not. When an imam is heading a mosque, people come to him, so anyone who would approach such an imam would already have gone through a certain filter. Hafiz Abdullah is in that way more challenged and aware of more of the issues that British Muslims are facing.
I wondered if the young woman with the flowing hair who gave a presentation was a newcomer to Islam, or from a Muslim family that did not hold by hair covering. Hafiz Abdullah quipped, “she started attending the group, sitting in the back, I never asked who she was or where she was from or about her beliefs. Eventually I asked if she would like to present something, and she did.” I did not find out then if she is a Muslim, or considering converting to Islam. What is more remarkable, Hafiz Abdullah did not either, until she was ready to offer him the information.
Now, how many religious communities allow people to attend and participate without leveling any personal questions? Within many religious communities, including my own, though it hurts me to say this, people want to know where you are coming from. Unquestioning acceptance, when it occurs, is pretty transitory. Who are you and where do you belong is a constant demand, the flip side of belonging, looking to welcome if and only if some condition is met, and also, looking to exclude.
I spoke to the woman who covers her face. She is a student from China and plans to return to her homeland. “I am a revert from the Han people, I do not come from the Chinese Muslim community.” I found out later that she does not normally cover her face but on this occasion did so to keep away from the camera as she does not want to bring attention to herself.
In my talk to the Quran Study Group, I expressed two important points: the ideal relationship between the sons of Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac, as well as the scriptural roots of modern political science.
British intellectuals including John Selden looked into scripture to create the civil rights that we enjoy today. They were impressed with the rights of the non-Jews in the ancient Hebrew Commonwealth, including the ger toshav – resident alien – and the chochmei umot haOlam – the wise nonbelievers among the nations, and this spelled a scriptural-based pluralism. Indeed, the very Parliament is based upon the ancient Sanhedrin. The parallel in Islam lies in the Constitution of Medina and the concept Umma Wahida, or united nations, made up of Muslims, Jews, Christians and Sabeans at the time of Muhammad (pbuh). It has been said that John Selden’s efforts avoided civil war among the various Christian factions in his generation. I feel it is essential that the west recognize the scriptural roots of modern political science, with its parallel in Islam. This inclusive view will not only right the historical wrong of the obfuscation of these religious roots of modern democracy, but create a more inclusive space for Muslims in western countries.
So the good news is that there are orthodox Muslim leaders like Hafiz Abdiullah Muhammad who are giving a space to an embracing Islam that is both authentic, orthodox and accepting.
I feel like Hansel and Gretel, leaving crumbs behind me in a trail that I hope someone else can pick up and build something more. God fearing communities can indeed be more inclusive, teachers and clergy can put themselves more in the front line for outreach and for grappling with the real issues that people face. Quit asking personal questions, you need not know about people until they are ready to speak.
And here is an example of how working together, Muslim and Jew, can really work for both our communities, and by extension, create a more inclusive western culture. Our trip coincided with a national open mosque day. Two hundred and fifty mosques across the UK were open to the public. A woman visitor reached out her hand to shake that of the mosque imam. He respectfully declined, beginning as explanation of the mores of Islamic modesty, but I saw that she continued to be frozen in place.
She may have been both embarrassed and offended, and I jumped in, “I am an orthodox Jew and we have the same laws, but I will happily shake your hand on behalf of all the orthodox Jews and Muslims who love and respect you. This bonds us as women as well!” She relaxed and looked greatly relieved and laughed. My spur of the moment hearty handshake seemed to compensate for any embarrassment or offense she felt. Another example of how the different faiths can work together in a unified way.
And we really must work together. Enough wake up calls have been sounded, whether in the realm of education, laws to protect circumcision and meat that is Halal or Kosher, racism, or even simple social interactions which can be misunderstood when laws of modesty are involved.
And inclusive spaces like the Quran Study Group are a great start.