I greatly benefited from reading the entertaining account by journalist John-Paul Flintoff of his quest to experience and learn about Islam, as published in the Sunday Times:
I have some reflections to offer, directed primarily to fellow Muslims, especially those belonging to institutions that seek to make Islam more accessible to the general public.
Among the numerous reasons to do so is to make it easier for those seeking the truth of this faith to actually find it, as we would rather be means for God’s guidance than obstacles to its delivery. Seeing people embrace Islam is a source of immense joy for Muslims, because we wish good for every human being, and what is a greater good than finding the path to salvation? Yet conversion is not the be-all and end-all of promoting understanding of Islam and Muslims.
Above all, the present climate makes it imperative that “openness” be one of our key words.
The article is quite long, but worth reading in full. You could read the following brief points afterwards, or look at them first in order to find the examples in Flintoff’s piece that illustrate the importance of the advice therein.
1. We need to develop suitable routes for people to encounter what Islam is about. We may prefer a purely educational route, or an experiential one, or a suitable combination of the two. As it stands, people find themselves at a loss as to where to start, and even when people come to us (generally at a mosque), we are largely unequipped to take them through a process that addresses what they want, and what they need.
2. We need a British-adapted Islamic discourse – NOT a “tailor-made islam”, but a more nuanced approach to what to say, and how to say it. Language is a serious issue in this regard. So many things are lost in translation, but worse is when the wrong things are born in translation. By now we have enough competent speakers of English for them to come to the fore in developing suitable approaches to explaining Islamic concepts.
This will not only be of benefit for people enquiring about Islam, but also for the newer Muslims as well as the rest of us who were born into Muslim families and are looking for convincing answers to genuine questions. This process will benefit greatly from listening to the questions that all these types of individuals have, and realising the sorts of misunderstandings that they are vulnerable to, often the result of a confusing discourse presented by Muslims.
3. Part of the above is distinguishing (for ourselves as well as others) between essentially religious teachings and the more cultural aspects of our lives. Many things we do and say will be interpreted as religious even when we know that they are not. Moreover, we need to appreciate the ordering of priorities, and to present the core of the issues before concerning ourselves or others with the peripheral matters and questions of image. Additionally, if we fail to represent the diversity in our own community, we may come across as narrow-minded, or leave the discussion of certain aspects of Islam (such as spirituality) to people on the fringes.
4. The QUESTION is such a valuable thing for the one who asks it, and the one who receives it. We need to be much more welcoming to questions about Islam, even of the malicious kind, because they give us a chance to reply. Before even that, they cause us to ask along with the questioner, and search ourselves and our traditions to find the answer. This is enlightening and humbling, and indeed this way we learn from the questioner. We understand a new perspective, and that makes us more equipped to address the next person in the best way. Above all, we need to realise what kind of thing is going through the ‘average’ person’s head, something which is closely associated with time, place and other factors.
5. Crucial to our societal dialogue are safe spaces in which to meet, and I cannot think of a more obvious place than mosques, as long as they are utilised in the right way. We need to move from the idea of mosques as places to hide away from society, and make them open to everyone, of course in a way that is complementary to their central role as places of worship.
As well as adequate space for women, we need to add meeting/exhibition space to our priority list for new and renovated mosques. Good practice in Edinburgh can be emulated, where the Central Mosque has a thriving café-restaurant within its grounds, as well as an exhibition available year-round and particularly during the annual Edinburgh Festival. Let’s at least achieve these things for the landmark mosques of each city.
6. The deeper the level on which we want to explain Islam, the more advanced the qualifications of the speaker ought to be. Anyone can point out the basic layout of the mosque or outline the Five Pillars, but it takes knowledge and experience to be accurate, engaging and convincing. Most importantly, we don’t want to be saying the wrong thing, so the first knowledge we need is awareness of our limits. All this points to the need for specialisation in studying and explaining Islam.