What happened?

Do Muslims really exist? I often find myself pondering this question. Do they exist in the workplace? Where are they? Whenever a new member of staff with a Muslim-sounding name joins the team, there is a momentary, fleeting sense of gladness: company at last. But, alas, such glee is always quickly spirited away when they head to the pub each Friday lunchtime instead of to the mosque, and when they dive into the birthday cakes half-way through Ramadan. So do Muslims really exist, except online, where they teem in great numbers, safe in the knowledge that the keyboard is mightier than the sword? Alhamdulilah, I just spent the day with real, breathing Muslims; I know my question, in reality, is really rather foolish.

But something has happened. I wonder what became of all those zealous companions of mine, who championed the hijab and ilm and the ummah when we were students 15 years ago. Where are they now? What became of those bold realities? Why did we disappear? Yes, something has happened. Five years ago, the interwebs teemed with ardent voices, upholding the toughest of stances on this, that and the other. They were critical of those they deemed to have fallen short: orthodoxy was the order of the day. But now? While we were away there was a great exodus. Old homes have been left abandoned. Words scattered like dust. The hot embers have been cast aside.

Who is left who will walk with us? Where now are our companions? Will we grow old and grey and wise together, or will we each cast out on our own path, to wander on alone, chasing after whichever new cause takes our fancy? Will the generation that replaces us fare any better, or are we set to degenerate, to promulgate a faith that blooms momentarily, only to wither away and become dirt under foot? Is there any hope in longevity for our faith? Or will we forever repeat the cycle of zealotry and mockery, turning back on the early days of faith in favour of this ugly cynicism that we have now adopted. Now we are the enlightened: those that come after us are the fools we once were! Really? Or is it just that once we were sincere and passionate and true, and now we are just jaded, compromised and fake?

These are troubled times. A beautiful elixir tastes mostly bitter. The world calls out to us, and we call out for it. We go whichever way the crowd goes. We have learned to laugh much, and to make comedy of our beliefs. We have replaced our heart with virtual spaces, where we speak all, sell all. We have replaced the inward gaze with the outward performance. Where is all that polish we once sought? Where that mission to refine and reform and to be reformed? Where has that desire to be better people gone? What is left of us? What happened?

More than bricks and mortar

Recent months have seen a sudden upsurge in devotion to the Christian faith amongst followers of the British National Party (BNP) and the English Defence League (EDL). In June the BNP chimed against the Islamic colonisation of Britain, seen in the widespread conversion of churches throughout the land: the Central Mosque of Brent; the former Forest Gate Church; Peckham’s St Mark’s Cathedral; West Didsbury’s Albert Park Methodist Chapel; Oldham’s Glodwick Baptist Church; and 250 year old Brick Lane Church in London’s Spitalfields (once a French Protestant church, a Methodist chapel, a synagogue and now a Bengali mosque). All of these churches — and many more — have fallen to the Islamic invasion.

The BNP are not alone. As the EDL prepare to descend on Manchester on 10 October to protest against Islamic extremism, a video has appeared on the internet, making a rallying cry for England’s Christian heritage.1 In his video entitled, ‘EDL: Defending our heritage & birthright – Manchester Oct 10th 2009’, Lionheart of Luton, Paul Ray, builds a picture of a nation under siege. While it begins with headlines captured from the Daily Mail and the Express to illustrate how Muslims receive special treatment — whilst England’s natives suffer at their hands — this is another ode to the churches of England.

‘Manchester England,’ reads a slide midway through the video, ‘The destruction and desecration of a Christian Church and graveyard to make way for a Mosque’. The slides intersect a video showing a tracked Komatsu digger moving earth within the grounds of Longsight’s St John’s Church. The next slide reads:

Are yesterday’s politically correct Church leaders irrelevant to us in todays United Kingdom? Psalm 81:9 There shall be no foreign god among you; Nor shall you worship any foreign god.

In this video, the EDL has messianic pretensions, likening church leaders to the corrupt Pharisees of old, but they would rather not share the Christian message here. Instead, invoking the book of Samuel, they turn to an earlier saviour for inspiration. The EDL is David to the Muslim Goliath in England’s midst:

The Saul generation of Church leaders is coming to an end with the emerging David’s poised to take their place. Please show God where you stand and pray for the United Defence Leagues and their members

The video from St John’s is followed by newspaper clippings about the resignation of Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali — the only bishop, we are told, who grasped the extent of the threat of Islam to British civil society. Nobody mentions Kenneth Cragg these days, while the intellectually brilliant Rowan Williams is dismissed as some sort of loony. And so it is left to the EDL to defend Christianity, not just from the Muslims, but also from parish priests, pastors and impotent Bishops:

The David generation leaders are already in place and speaking the truth on-behalf of His people
Are you one of them who is willing to stand against the Islamification of this Christian land?

A little probing reveals that the source of the video showing building contractors working on the church site is a BNP supporter, who posts the full version on YouTube entitled, ‘Saint Johns, Christian Graves Desecration’2 with the description, ‘Graves desecrated at Saint Johns Church in Longsight, Manchester, England as Church is converted into Mosque.’ The BNP itself has an article featuring both the video and further photographs on its website.

There is a problem, however. When I researched the history of St John’s, Longsight, I found that it was decommissioned in 1999. Neighbouring St Agnes — ‘in this place will I give peace,’ inscribed above its entrance — now houses the abandoned church’s statue of St John the Evangelist in its nave. It has taken the BNP and EDL an entire decade to lament the loss of this historic place of worship and its descent into disrepair.

Of course, the key issue riling the nationalists is the desecration of the site. But here again there is a problem. A quick enquiry with the City Council reveals that St John’s Church is a Grade II listed building, which means that it is considered nationally important and of special interest.3 To make any changes to such a building requires the owner to apply for building consent.

Lo and behold, we discover that planning permission for a 16 space car park in the church garden was granted early in 2007. In the intervening period, the owners have spent £50,000 repairing the building, which now houses Dar-ul-Ulum Qadria Jilania mosque and Islamic Centre. A photograph on the BNP website clearly shows that the graveyard has been carefully preserved, although the picture has been tagged, ‘grave-in-front-OF-DIGGER’, since the work in the church garden can be seen in the background.

It turns out that the graveyard has not been touched at all. But if it had been, should we not expect the BNP and EDL to be enraged whenever a graveyard comes under the developer’s gaze? Locals certainly protested when a builder obtained planning permission to redevelop a derelict chapel in Coedpoeth, Wrexham, which included plans to build luxury flats and a car park on top of approximately 100 graves in 2007. But as far as I can tell, the BNP did not join their protests.

The truth is, the redevelopment of graveyards is a fairly common occurrence in the United Kingdom. Rehoboth Baptist Church in Horsham, for example, has just completed construction of a seven space car park and garden of remembrance on its former graveyard. Planning permission to remove the headstones without disturbing the actual graves and to block pave part of the site was granted in 2005. The BNP and EDL, of course, will not be protesting about this car park on this graveyard.

And that’s the problem. The BNP and EDL wish to use the redevelopment of church buildings as ammunition against Britain’s Muslim population, but the facts do not support them. Reading their literature, you would imagine that hoards of Muslims were running amok throughout the land, confiscating church property at the expense of lively congregations. Nowhere is the reason for church closures mentioned — ironically for people that speak of a David Generation, a term commonly employed by those concerned with conquering the personal Goliaths of the ego, there is no introspection here.

Nor are the numbers of closures put in context. For while seventeen hundred Anglican churches have been made redundant since 1969, there are still over 48,500 churches of different denominations serving their communities nationwide. Moreover, over the same period, The Church of England opened more than 500 new churches, while continuing to maintain over 16,000 others. If, as some claim, there are now seventeen hundred mosques in the United Kingdom, this is still only 3.5% of the total number of churches in the country (interestingly the Muslim population of the UK is a similar proportion of the whole).

If Muslim worship appears to be more visible than that of the Christian, it could only be because the Muslim still views the Friday Prayer as England’s Christians viewed Sunday Worship one hundred years ago. Even a believer on the borders of his faith still feels duty bound to put on his Friday-best once a week. But it would be misleading to suggest that seventeen hundred mosques have sprung up in place of the seventeen hundred Church of England buildings closed over the past forty years, for Anglican churches have covenants conferred upon them which usually prevent them from being used by other faith communities. While BNP leader, Nick Griffin, has claimed that Church of England buildings are being turned into mosques, ‘up and down the country,’ it is actually rather hard to find any. The closest I can find are a couple of gurdwaras utilised by the Sikh community.

If my own experience reflects a wider trend, I would suggest that only a handful of mosques in Britain are of great note. Converted houses, rooms above shops, disused warehouses and hired halls in multi-cultural centres are all included in the number of mosques in Britain. The Archbishop’s cubbyhole under the stairs for private prayer would not seem out of place in our sometimes ramshackle collection of prayer halls. Nevertheless, it is true that Muslims have bought former churches — notably redundant Methodist chapels which seem to be in great supply.

So the BNP and EDL have a point? Well I don’t think so. While ranting about St John’s, Longsight, they completely ignore St George’s, Hulme, a Grade II listed building built in 1823 which has been converted into a place of residence, a mere two and a half miles away. But why should this surprise us when they also ignore the conversion of former churches into restaurants, gyms, pubs, nightclubs, shops and private apartments? Brixton’s St Matthew’s church is now the Mass nightclub, which promises revellers loud music, all night dance and expensive spirits. O’Neill’s on Muswell Hill Broadway, housed in a grand old church, offers cheap food and Guns ‘n’ Roses. Cheltenham’s St James’ is now an Italian restaurant. St Luke’s in Heywood, Lancashire, located 14 miles from Manchester City centre, has been turned into a huge family home, featuring six double bedrooms. And for between £250,000 and £500,000 you too can own one with estate agents listing hundreds of former chapels, rectories and churches, already converted or waiting to be converted, with planning consent already obtained.

If the BNP and EDL were genuinely concerned about the loss of historic places of worship and the demise of their Christian heritage, they would say to their members, ‘Look, churches are closing all around us because we don’t use them. We need to start making Sunday special again.’ That task, however, would entail asking their followers to take personal responsibility for their lives: that only ten percent of British Christians regularly attend church cannot be blamed on the mainstream political parties, on multi-culturalism or political correctness. It certainly can’t be blamed on the Muslims.

But the likely response of such people would be to say, ‘Don’t bring religion into this.’ Though they claim to be defenders of the faith, they are in fact like the utilitarian jihadis who dispense with the boundaries of religion, claiming that the end will justify the means. Like those who ignore the prohibitions of their faith, the BNP and EDL ignore the message at the heart of the religion they claim to hold dear. When Jesus — peace be upon him — was asked which were the greatest commandments, Christians believe that he replied:

“The first commandment is this: Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbour as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”4

If this message is unclear to those of the David Generation, Jesus — peace be upon him — is reported to go on to say, ‘But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’5 And if they insist on bringing, ‘I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword,’6 let them read it in context: Jesus — peace be upon him — knew that most of his people would reject his teachings, which would divide both families and communities. His was a vision of a just society: he overturned the tables of the moneylenders in the temple, he promoted fair treatment of the poor and forgave his enemies. In the context of his time, many of the parables appear as much an assault on the social injustices of his society as messages for spiritual growth.7

More famously, perhaps, we have the Beatitudes: blessed are the are the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the hated, the meek, the merciful, those pure in heart, and the peacemakers.8 A worthy message indeed, but one clearly lost on those self-declared champions of Christianity in Britain, the BNP and EDL.

Last Thursday, twenty Muslim gravestones were pushed over and a number were broken at Manchester’s Southern Cemetery on Barlow Moor Road.9 It is not possible to say at this stage who was responsible and what motivated them, but the Police are treating it as a racially-motivated crime. It is not inconceivable that it was a revenge attack for the alleged desecration of Christian graves at St John’s, Longsight — a mere ten minute, four mile drive away.

Love your neighbour as yourself? Love your enemy as yourself? Blessed be the peacemakers? I will leave you to draw your own conclusions about the authenticity of the nationalists’ new found faith, and where it is liable to lead us.

  1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWcGOt4btwY (spiritofstgeorge)
  2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Z6o5Ccwb0A (SuperAceofDiamonds)
  3. Listed buildings in Manchester by street, Manchester City Council — http://www.manchester.gov.uk/info/514/listed_buildings_register/1908/a-z_of_listed_buildings_in_manchester/18
  4. Gospel of Mark 12:29-31
  5. Gospel of Matthew 5:44
  6. Gospel of Matthew 10:34
  7. See for example Jesus the Prophet: His Vision of the Kingdom on Earth by R David Kaylor, John Knox Press, 1994
  8. Gospel of Luke 6:20-23 and of Matthew 5:1-14
  9. Manchester Evening News, 2 October 2009 — http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/s/1153293_muslim_graves_targeted_in_hate_attack

The Wakeup Call

In the community in which I live I could not say that there is a problem of extremism amongst the Muslim youth. Not ‘Islamic Extremism’ in any case – jahil extremism maybe. In this community, our concerns are with drug use, alcohol consumption and anti-social behaviour. A friend tells me that some young Muslims are bringing drugs into the area to foster a previously non-existent trade in the town. Our local press has reported on a number of occasions about youths in our town being given ASBOs (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders); troublingly in each case the recipients have Muslim names. Late on Friday and Saturday nights, young Muslims gather in the centre of town, smoking perpetually and ranting aggressively with sentences littered with expletives. This is probably not what the middle-class commentators have in mind when they call for Muslims to integrate with society; still here the Muslims certainly are adopting the culture of those they find themselves amongst.

Undoubtedly British Muslims have a duty to tackle extremism in our midst, where it exists, but there is also an urgent need to tackle the vast array of huge social problems which have emerged. A friend of mine is the head of department in an inner city London secondary school and he is appalled by the behaviour of his students – more so, he laments, because the majority of them come from Muslim families. Apart from having no knowledge of their religion whatsoever, these young people have no manners, no respect for the people around them and are frequently members of gangs. The Muslim community makes up barely 2% of the British population and yet 7% of the prison population. The Muslim Youth Helpline draws the following inferences from research carried out by Muslim organisations:

– Drug abuse and smoking are shown to have a significantly higher prevalence amongst Muslim youth between the ages of 16-25 years, despite the fact that an estimated 45% of Muslim youth have never used illicit drugs, smoked tobacco or drunk alcohol.

– Mental Illness occurs more frequently amongst Muslim youth, particularly those that enter Britain as refugees. Almost one-half of the Muslim Youth Helpline’s clients complain of mental anxiety, depression or suicidal feelings.

– Muslims make up 7% of the country’s prison population, a figure that is five times that of the total Muslim population in Britain today. Numerous clients of the Muslim Youth Helpline have been to prison and one client recently accessed our service from prison.

As I have noted before, I work with a national helpline charity which aims to help Muslim women in crisis. Domestic violence is rife, divorce rates are high and the issue of forced marriage is not going away. My wife used to work as a social worker around the time she became Muslim and it is sad to report that huge numbers of unwanted babies are being abandoned by Muslims in the care of social services, often by Muslim girls who became pregnant outside marriage. Meanwhile educational achievement amongst young Muslims remains poor. All in all, as a community we have huge problems and the question of extremism is only one of them.

With the Prime minister’s words to the Muslim community this week about doing more to tackle extremism, the first response is naturally one of defence. We ask what power we have, given that the extremist groups quite deliberately do not frequent established mosques. If wider British society is understandably not asked to root out the extremism of the BNP, we ask, why should the Muslims be asked to take on the role of the Police and Local Government? But once these initial objections pass, we are faced with a very uncomfortable truth: despite pockets of light – and there are many examples of the Muslim community making a positive and successful contribution to society – there are issues which we as a community must address ourselves.

Merely resorting to the very un-Islamic sense of victim-hood is not going to help any of us. Merely condemning terrorism is not going to help us either. Nor is my writing about social problems going to help. Like my friend who went into teaching or those running the various Muslim help lines, there is a realisation that we need to get out into the community to engage in social works. There has been too much focus on establishing a Muslim media, believing that this is somehow going to improve our situation. But public relations exercises are always bound to fail when what lies beneath the surface is diseased. My experience of this media over recent months suggests that our priorities are confused – I might even say we have our heads stuck in the sand. On several occasions I have been asked to write something about the nasheed business and listening to music. That’s right: at a time when Muslims have a disproportionate representation in prisons, when Muslims believe it is acceptable to target civilians with bombs, when drug use and gang membership is mushrooming, the issue which is causing most debate in our community is listening to music. Has nobody heard the narration of the sahaba who was asked whether it was permissible to kill mosquitoes, at a time when righteous Muslims were being slaughtered in that early great fitna.

It’s time we extracted our heads and awoke to the realities facing us. Coinciding with the first anniversary of the explosions on the London transport system, there will be a lot of focus on the Muslim community this month. Some of it will be unfair, some of it deeply insulting, some of it untrue. But let us not pity ourselves. We have a lot of work to do. If one of you sees something bad, we are ordered, you should change it with your hands, and if you cannot do that you should change it with your tongues, and if you cannot do that you should hate it in your heart, and that is the weakest of faith. For years we have been using our tongues and our typing fingers, but we seem reluctant to use our hands. We are reluctant to get out there on the streets as youth workers, teachers, social workers. The time has come. This anniversary of 7 July should serve as a reminder of this. It is a wakeup call.

Knowledge

When I as studying for my Masters degree in Publishing six years ago, I was interested as a recent convert to Islam in the question of safeguarding knowledge now that technology had brought publishing within virtually anyone’s grasp. This was in the days before ‘Blogging’ existed as it does today and when the Internet was a medium only just being colonised with Muslim thought. As a new Muslim I was interested in the question of what constituted knowledge, given that I was able to lay my hands on any number of books on Islamic topics without really knowing anything about their authors. It was because of this that I decided to write my dissertation on this topic. Its title was ‘Safeguarding Knowledge: A Concept of Review and Accreditation for Popular Islamic Educational Publishing in the United Kingdom’. A bit of a mouthful, I grant you.

Following some discussions which took place during the day, this topic returned to my mind this evening. I suppose it is my oft returned-to question about writing in general and writing a weblog in particular. Quite separately, but still intimately linked, a question about typing Arabic text in Adobe Photoshop led me to think about my own experience of typesetting, which in turn made me pick one of those books up. The work in question is wholly concerned with the question of authentication, in this case in the preservation of the Qur’an. The memory of typesetting was linked to the former by the fact that an unknown character provided me with a useful commentary on the question of innovation in religion. What I was most taken aback by was the fact that he/she posted these comments anonymously. The book I was blessed with the opportunity to typeset, however, contains the following:

“…scholars face stringent limitation on which books they coulduse in the form of a ‘licence’ or reading certificate. In promulgating hadith books a regular attendance record was always kept, written either by the teacher or one of the famous scholars present, supplying details of attendance such as who had listened to the entire book, who joined in partially and which portions they missed, the women and children (and even the maids and servants) who participated, and the dates and sites of these readings. … A signature at the book’s conclusion terminated this reading certificate, indicating that no further entries could be made therein. To the muhaddithin this certificate was tibaq, an exclusive licence for those listed within to read, teach, copy and quote from that book.”

By contrast, today the internet is awash with ‘Islamic knowledge’ about which we do not have even an inkling of its authenticity. This recognition makes me shudder and it leads me on to wonder if even my own meanderings – this journey of a self-centred soul – should cease, even as I make no claim that it is anything other than opinion. I do not know if ‘Anonymous’, who provided the commentary, is such-and-such, son of so-and-so, student of such-and-such, nor where he/she obtained this knowledge and whether he/she has a reading certificate. I simply do not know.

So the whole question is playing on my mind now and I find myself thinking about that question which I asked six years ago once more. What are we all doing publishing this and that willy-nilly? It is a question for me as much as anybody else, for this weblog is in the public domain and is read by people I do not know and who do not know me. Even if I tell you that I am Timothy Bowes ibn Peter ibn William, it does not help you for still I am just anybody. You do not know about my learning or my truthfulness. On the one hand we could argue that since I am not attempting to disseminate knowledge we should not really be concerned, but I am not so sure. I now have grave concerns.

My dissertation focused on the segment of the Muslim publishing sector which I defined as popular publishing concerned with basic Islamic education. In other words, not academic book production, but that aimed at the general Muslim readership. My concern was the editorial element, rather than improved production which has become the focus for many publishers over recent years. While producing beautiful books happens to be a passion of mine, the question of typography and cover design is really a fairly insignificant aside. In the course of this project, I undertook a study of Islamic education, examining the concept at some length. I went on to analyse the current state of Islamic education in Britain based on textual sources. This was followed by a review of the Muslim publishing sector in the United Kingdom.

In light of the Islamic heritage concerning the authentication of knowledge I was interested in whether there was a case for the establishment of a review body, modelled not just on Muslim tradition but also the structures set up in the scientific publishing sector. After examining information management as it occurred in traditional Islamic settings, I studied peer review as it exists in scholarly publishing as a model for a review body. Before concluding, however, I considered whether the establishment of such a body would amount to a form of censorship and so I examined the notion of freedom of expression in contemporary thought along with the Islamic concept that a word is an act, which I have touched upon many times whilst writing on this weblog.

The case presented for a means of safeguarding Islamic knowledge from corruption inevitably collides with a culture which views knowledge in a different way. As I wrote in a recent post, so-called post-modern society argues that there is no absolute truth, only contingent truths. The result is that the claim that Islamic knowledge needs protection may be considered an affront to the freedom of speech – to the freedom of individual Muslims to make their own fatwa or religious verdicts. Traditionally, scholars have always been entrusted with the community’s knowledge. Writing in Knowledge Triumphant: The Concept of Knowledge in Medieval, Rosenthal states that there was “little that later influences and developments were able to accomplish by way of injecting new ideas” into what constitutes Islamic knowledge. Meanwhile, Eickelman and Anderson note in ‘Publishing in Muslim countries: less censorship, new audiences and rise of the “Islamic” book’ that the books now published by Muslims in great quantities in the Muslim world,

“…set aside the long tradition of authoritative discourse by religious scholars in favour of a direct understanding of texts. Today chemists and medical doctors can interpret Islamic principles as equals with scholars who have graduated from traditional centres of learning.”

While many advocates of unrestricted free speech may welcome such a development, I argued that apart from opening our religion to the general threat of corruption, it could be used to support actions which have disastrous consequences. I had in mind the slaughter of pilgrims on the Hajj and wanton acts of violence, but the possibilities are endless.

During the course of this study, I quizzed readers about their views on books concerning Islamic knowledge. One respondent was suspicious if sources were not given, to the extent that she would begin to doubt its authenticity. A respondent who reads in English preferred it if the references were made, but pointed out that he was unable to check original texts in Arabic. If the book was from a respected publishing house, however, he did not mind if sources were not listed. An academic, meanwhile, said that he was very concerned if the book was in English, but much less so if it was a standard Arabic book whose author was well known. One respondent said that she would check the source if the content was totally unknown or at odds with her prior knowledge, but she would usually trust the author. Six other respondents were either concerned or very concerned if sources were not listed. One pointed out that even when they were listed, sources may be of dubious or inappropriate value. He also believed that literature even from established figures could still be a cause for concern because of the problems today’s Muslims face in interpreting Islam. Another respondent stated that all seekers of Islamic knowledge should be concerned about the authenticity of information provided, that everything is questioned at all times and that he would critique every view. Another was so concerned that when choosing a book that he would only select works from trustworthy authors or publishing houses, and that he would look for the general source of their views.

The emphasis on authenticity lies, without a doubt, in the development of the science of hadith (Ulum al-Hadith). With the swift growth of the Muslim community beyond Arabia in the decades after the death of the Prophet, peace be upon him, the need for the preservation and transmission of his teachings became a matter of crucial importance. In their Guide to Sira and Hadith Literature in Western Languages Anees and Athar write:

“Looking at the elaborate methodology that evolved through Ulum al-Hadith, including rules for transmission, textual criticism, chronological authenticity, papyri, and similar criteria for validation, Ulum al-Hadith offers a unique example of information management. It is the only branch of knowledge that requires personal ethical responsibility on the part of individuals who involve themselves in this endeavour. In its quest for exactitude, it held accountable those who transmitted information. It offered a methodological balance by not invoking wholesale rejection of transmitted matrial but designating it in a graded fashion depending on the external and internal validation. Judged from this criterion, Ulum al-Hadith presents a pioneering example in critical historiography.”

By studying this topic in some detail I locked these ideas in my mind, hence their frequent return. Scholars are considered the protectors of knowledge in Islamic tradition and the existence of the science of hadith indicates that guaranteeing authenticity is a vital part of its dissemination. It was on the basis of these two elements that I proposed the establishment of a review body for popular Islamic educational publishing in the United Kingdom.

In the world of scholarly publishing, both of books and journals, reviewing or refereeing is an important part of the editorial process, as Page, Campbell, and Meadows explain in Journal Publishing: Principles and Practice. This is used to establish which works are suitable for publication and which are not, in terms of contribution to scholarship, accuracy and quality. Hans Zell argues in A Handbook of Good Publishing Practice that the term “peer review” is something of a misnomer in this respect, as the ideal referee should be a top authority on the subject under consideration, rather than simply a peer. Zell describes such reviewers as the “gatekeepers” who “ensure high editorial standards, rigorous scholarship, and … protect a journal’s credibility and standing in the academic community.”

The first stage of the peer review process is an initial reading of a manuscript to determine whether it has any potential. A manuscript which does not meet the standards of quality required by the imprint or journal will be rejected at this point. The second stage sees the editor selecting a reviewer with relevant knowledge, or preferably expertise, in the subject undertaken by the author. In some circumstances, more than one reviewer may be selected. The reviewer’s role is to assess the quality of the manuscript and to decide whether it should be published or rejected, before making recommendations to the editor. The reviewer may also suggest revisions. On the basis of the reviewer’s recommendations, which may be a long time in the making, the editor then takes the ultimate decision as whether to publish or not.

This process is most common amongst reputable scientific and academic imprints and journals, and less common amongst literary or cultural publishers. It is estimated that three quarters of the major science, social science and humanities journals use the process of peer review, says Leslie in ‘Peering over the editor’s shoulder’ . In An Author’s Guide to Scholarly Publishing, Derricourt argues that because there are some imprints which “publish almost anything and everything in their field, without much evaluation,” professional, scholarly and scientific journals must distance themselves from them by “demonstrating a commitment to selectivity and quality.”

The editors of specialist academic publishers usually wish to obtain reviews from at least two referees. If two reviewers do not agree as to whether a manuscript should be published or not, the editor may seek the opinion of a third or fourth reviewer. Some journals, such as the British Medical Journal, have records of reviewers stored on computer so that editors are able to choose from a wide range of referees. This system also ensures that reviewers are not overburdened and that previously unhelpful reviewers are not re-selected, as records and cross-references may be generated quickly. A cautious editor will probably use the peer review process only as a mechanism to aid a decision, rather than to make the decision out right.

In the peer review process the reviewers’ report is usually provided in confidence, ensuring that the reviewer is unknown to the author. Derricourt believes that anonymous peer review “permits an honest assessment of the unpublished manuscript which will be seen initially only by the publisher.” In some cases the reviewer may work with the author and Zell notes that “many authors will be grateful for the help they receive from referees in helping them to reshape their paper or improve on points of clarity, conciseness of writing, documentation of text, etc.”

An alternative view of this process, however, is that it amounts to censorship and can be detrimental to academic authorship. Writing in ProfScam Sykes argued that the process is distorted, corrupt and, most importantly, used as a mechanism to suppress unpopular ideas. In his paper, ‘Preserving the integrity of peer review’ , meanwhile, Banner wrote that the American Council of Learned Societies found that many scholars were unhappy with the practice – though not the principle – of peer review as undertaken by learned journals. He writes:

“The peer review process – the process by which the strength and value of knowledge is asserted and its publication justified – has long been taken to be epicentral to scientific research and humanistic scholarship and a given of scholarly publishing. Yet peer review is today beset with many problems – of attitude, administration, and effectiveness­ – that erode its authority and threaten its legitimacy.”

In Ethic and Manuscript Reviewing, De George and Woodward find that peer review generates friction between the author and the publisher, as it is this that determines what is, at the end of the day, published. They go on to ask whether the rules governing manuscript reviewing are fair for all parties involved. While no author has an automatic right to see his or her work published, they argue that authors do have the right to expect fair treatment. At the heart of the ethics of peer review are honesty and sincerity. Reviewers have a duty to be as objective as possible and to read the manuscripts they agree to review carefully. Peer review is, it has to be remembered, “a difficult, time-consuming, and poorly remunerated task, for which little credit is typically given. De George and Woodward note that it is not unheard of that reviewers have written a negative report of a manuscript without reading all of it or it at all.

As a result of the problems associated with peer review, a number of suggestions for improvements have been forwarded. Sattelmeyer produced Seven steps to a better review process, believing that publishers must design a review process that ensures fairness and objectivity, whilst also accepting a certain amount of responsibility for the manuscript. Reviews may provide the evidence upon which decisions are made, he argues, but they should not provide the final decision. Banner also provides a number of guidelines: reviewers are asked to provide an evaluation of the manuscript and to recommend directly whether it should be published or rejected. They are asked to take into account how well the author achieves his or her aim, the quality of their analysis of the problem, the clarity of its presentation, and the degree to which it presents information not available elsewhere. Reviewers are also encouraged to suggest ways in which the manuscript might be improved. Once reviews have been collected, a publication committee meets to decide upon one of three alternatives. The manuscript may be accepted, accepted with conditions for revision, or rejected. The benefit of utilising a process of peer review is summed up well by Derricourt, who states:

“If there are things wrong with the overall project, or improvements that can and should be made, or if there are errors of fact or detail or interpretation, it is better to have these before publication. Otherwise, the first published review will draw them to attention of thousands of one’s peers, and it will be too late to correct them.”

I felt at the time that this point was very relevant to the topic at hand. In the case of Muslim publishing the problem does not relate to the author’s reputation so much as to the idea of conveying accurate information which has its roots in the science of hadith. Going further than the standard peer review model, however, I proposed the establishment of an accredited review body, independent from the publishing houses, providing a unified service to all authors and publishers nationwide. Affiliation to its review process would be entirely optional, but would be promoted to publishers on the assumption that they are concerned about the accuracy of their work.

Although the review body would not actually have any power to prevent an author or publisher from publishing a manuscript which it rejected, I felt that it could establish itself as giving accreditation to works deemed sound. This would aid the consumer in his or her search for reliable sources of Islamic education. The feasibility and likelihood of such a body ever being established, of course, is quite another matter. At best it was a long term solution for the problems facing Islamic education through the medium of publishing: the establishment of an open review body, acting as a guide and assistant to authors and publishers. From the perspective of orthodoxy, I felt that the establishment of such a body would be extremely beneficial to all those in the Muslim community in Britain concerned with Islamic education, aiding the future production of books which covey the teachings of Islam correctly.

But here we are just six years later; the landscape has changed massively. The weblog has democratised the internet and suddenly all of us are publishers. The case for a review body is clearly a lost cause. Perhaps – and I say this with some sadness – this is the argument for self-censorship. Better to withdraw than to be held accountable for all the information floating around masquerading as knowledge. Some of it is knowledge, but with our laxity regarding proving it, it is impossible to tell. So much confusion. These are the thoughts on my mind tonight.

Sources

  • Al-Azami, M.M. (2003) The History of the Qur’anic Text from Revelation to Compilation (Leicester: UKIA)
    Rosenthal, F. (1970) Knowledge Triumphant: The Concept of Knowledge in Medieval Islam (Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill)
  • Eickelman, D.F. and Anderson, J.W. (1997) ‘Publishing in Muslim countries: less censorship, new audiences and rise of the “Islamic” book’ in LOGOS (London: Whurr Publishers Ltd.) 8/4
  • Anees, M.A. and Athar, A.N. (1986) Guide to Sira and Hadith Literature in Western Languages (London: Mansell Publishing Limited)
  • Page, G., Campbell, R. and Meadows, J. (1987) Journal Publishing: Principles and Practice (London: Butterworths)
  • Zell, H.M (1998) A Handbook of Good Publishing Practice in Journal Publishing (London: International African Institute, Oxford: African Books Collective)
  • Leslie, L.Z. (1992) ‘Peering over the editor’s shoulder’ in Journal of Scholarly Publishing (Toronto: University of Toronto Press) 23/3
  • Derricourt, R.M. (1996) An Author’s Guide to Scholarly Publishing (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press)
  • Sykes, C.J. (1988) ProfScam (Washington DC: Regnery Gateway)
  • McGiffert, M. (1988) ‘Is justice blind? An inquiry into peer review’ in Journal of Scholarly Publishing (Toronto: University of Toronto Press) 20/1
  • Banner, J.M. (1988) ‘Preserving the integrity of peer review’ in Journal of Scholarly Publishing (Toronto: University of Toronto Press) 19/2
  • De George, R.T. and Woodward, F, (1994) ‘Ethic and Manuscript Reviewing’ in Journal of Scholarly Publishing (Toronto: University of Toronto Press) 25/3
  • Sattelmeyer, R. (1989) ‘Seven steps to a better review process’ in Journal of Scholarly Publishing (Toronto: University of Toronto Press) 20/3
  • Derricourt, R.M. (1996) An Author’s Guide to Scholarly Publishing (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press)

Blank Canvas

A brother sent me an article in the last few days by a sister about her choice to wear hijab. It was like others I had read before: a defensive response to the perceptions of others. ‘So next time you see me,’ the author concludes, ‘don’t look at me sympathetically. I am not under duress or a male-worshipping female captive from those barbarous Arabic deserts. I’ve been liberated.’

I have often reflected on our response to non-Muslims’ perceptions of us; indeed, on our perception of their perception. I have no doubt that we do often encounter hostility, but I wish to say that we must not let ourselves ‘expect’ it.

I recall the day I became Muslim and the weeks after it. My shahada came after a very personal journey over the preceding years, months and weeks, and yet when I had made the decision to utter those words, I found my whole life thrust into public view for all to scrutinise as they pleased. I had considered it a personal affair, but within only hours the news was in the public domain. I had many friends at the start of that day who, by nightfall, would now refuse to speak to me. At the time we were in the midst of our second year exams and I put their strange behaviour down to exam stress. Only, when the exams came to an end, the same people would still only smile, as if embarrassed, when I said hello, if they didn’t just turn their back on me and walk away.

Relating to other people became very difficult: it was paranoia time. I came to understand the reactions of two unconnected sisters to my behaviour when I was not a Muslim after they had taken to wearing hijab.

When I first went to university, there were really only two things which I ‘knew’ about Islam: Muslims don’t eat pork ‘because pigs eat dirt’ , and Muslims only eat halal food. I didn’t have an opinion of Muslims – I didn’t even think they were all terrorists or that they oppressed women. But one thing I found when I went to university was that there were Muslim women there who wore the head scarf. I cannot tell you why I reacted as I did, because I do not know; I just thought that I should; but whenever I saw such a person, my eyes would hit the floor. I would not look at her face. I think I thought that because she wore the scarf, she wanted privacy and, therefore, I was not allowed to look at her. I remember there was a day when I was sitting with an ‘ordinary’ Muslim girl from my course in the university’s common room, and she pointed to this sister wearing hijab and said, ‘Can you guess where she’s from?’ I thought this was incredibly odd, because I thought I was not meant to look.

I encountered the paranoia tendency twice because of the way I behaved. The first time it was in my first year, the second time in my second year; both times those involved were new to wearing the head scarf. Both times my refusal to even look at the person was taken as meaning that I hated Muslims or that, at least, I had a great problem with them wearing hijab. I really thought neither; I just acted as I thought was expected of me.

Now that I have been there, almost in their shoes, I know just what is like. Visually, little had changed about me, but words were enough: without me even telling anyone, the grapevine revealed that I had become a Muslim. Most of those acquaintances who have never been very close, but you considered them friends, drop you in an instant. They blank you when you say hello or look at them, and you come to know that they hate Muslims or that, at least, they have a problem with something that you believe. Later, other friends, even your closest friends, drift away. They don’t have a problem with you, they say, but then they cut off all our ties. And when you experience this, you start to think that everyone thinks this way.

But they don’t.

I remember finding people on my course when I was in the third year periodically ignoring me. I would think, ‘Oh, well this is because I’m a Muslim.’ But often it wasn’t. People get stressed, consumed in their own worries. Study gets on top of them. Then there are the people who don’t know exactly how to react around you; they just want to show respect. So there was me, once upon a time, feeling that I should show respect, my intentions being misinterpreted, and then me later on doing the misinterpreting when others respond to me in exactly the same way.

In the two and a half years that I have been a Muslim, I have encountered all sorts of different reactions to me and my beliefs. I have encountered fascination as well as disinterest, respect as well as hatred, curiosity as well as being boycotted, sincerity as well as mockery. I have met people who have asked me question after question about Islam, searching on their own for the truth. I have known people who don’t even have an opinion on Islam; who aren’t even confident that they can pronounce the word ‘Muslim.’

So what I’m really trying to say here is, please treat every potential Muslim you meet as a blank canvas. Don’t assume things about that person. It is so hard, I know from experience, to decipher what people are thinking, but we must try our best to be optimistic. Should we start on a negative like, ‘I’m not a terrorist, you know?’ or begin with a positive like, ‘Hello, how are you?’ Islam is a blessing, so don’t forget to share it. We really have been liberated!

T.Bowes 18/02/2001