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Essay

A Choice for Europe: Between Beauty and Bigotry

There are thousands of mosques across Europe. Switzerland banned minarets, but that is a superficial response to a surging issue. There are thirty million Muslims in Europe today. Many of these Muslims feel fully European, but many do not. 

In my own country, Great Britain, I am worried by those Muslims who use the country’s liberties and laws to undermine our civilisation and heritage. Mosques are increasing in Britain’s towns and cities. With almost five million Muslims, there are thousands of new buildings with domes and minarets. In the decades ahead, mosques are predicted to mushroom across the whole land. I went on a journey across the country to understand modern British Muslim culture, but I kept one eye on the history of Islamic civilisation too. 

Islam has a long pedigree of peace, progress and beauty. 

13th century European and Islamic musicians playing stringed instruments, from Cantigas de Santa Maria.

Photo: San Lorenzo de El Escorial library, Madrid.

When the Prophet Mohamed migrated to Medina in 622, his first public act was to establish a mosque. He refused charitable aid, instead insisting on paying for the private property. He built a simple structure of rectangular shape with mud brick walls and tree trunks as columns. It was there that he worshipped freely and escaped the decade-long persecution by the pagans in Mecca. Mohamed’s house was next to the mosque. Years later, a delegation of 60 Christians from Najran, led by the prominent Arab Christian Abu Harithah ibn Alqamah, visited the mosque in Medina to debate and discuss theology with the Prophet. After a while, it was time for prayer, at which point Harithah stood up to lead the Christians out of the mosque. Mohamed’s followers encouraged the exit. The Prophet, however, stopped them: he insisted that the Christians pray inside the mosque. And so they did.

Mosques were open places of rest, knowledge, discussion, and gatherings. Mohamed and his companions often had their siesta in the mosque. The Prophet wanted to call his fellow Arabs to the one God of Moses and Jesus. Where there was anger, Mohamed often brought kindness and compassion. When a visiting Bedouin urinated inside the mosque, early Muslims were fuming, but the Prophet cleaned it up and forgave the man. “This is a sacred place: we worship God here,” he explained to the desert-dweller. The poor and destitute had their own quarter where they could receive help within the Prophet’s mosque. But most importantly, he frequently led prayers with new verses of song, poetic revelation and rhyme. He taught, “Indeed God is beautiful and loves beauty.”  

This early spirit of Islam’s openness to other faiths shaped the character of mosques for a millennium as places of beauty and devout worship. Across the world we see evidence of Islam’s openness to new ideas and its adoption of other faiths and cultures inasmuch they do not contradict the centrality of the worship of one God. Indeed, the art and architecture of Islam that dazzles us to this day is a result of Islam creatively merging with different cultures. This splendour can be seen from the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (built in 685) to Istanbul’s Blue Mosque (1609).

Taj Mahal, Agra, India.

Indian Muslims gave us the beauty of the Taj Mahal (1648)—a shrine to love decorated with Qurānic verses—which had a particularly profound impact on the Western imagination. The Mughal dynasty’s King Akbar the Great hosted Jesuits in his court for three years and then built churches in India. His grandson, much like him, Shah Jahan, was a patron of mystics, poets and artists. Rembrandt drew some of his inspiration for portraits from Indian miniatures from the court of the Mughals. It was this Islam of beauty, art, and confidence that inspired Blake to sketch a drawing of a Europeanised Prophet Mohamed as an early icon of the Enlightenment. Goethe admired Islam’s teaching of submission to the divine will. Nietzsche held in awe the Islamic energy that subdued a Persia at war with Rome for seven centuries. Wittgenstein recommended Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat to Bertrand Russell. This is the aspect of Islam that Roger Scruton admired, and why he so loved the Thousand and One Nights with its stories of love for life.

Sheherazade and Sultan Schariar (1880), a 120.5 x 152 cm oil on canvas by Ferdinand Keller (1842-1922).

Millions of British Muslims are heirs to this great tradition of beauty, but many have forgotten this inheritance of a remarkable synthesis of ideas and attitudes. Over the past two and a half years, I have travelled across Britain’s towns and cities, visiting Muslim communities. Unlike France or Austria, where radical mosques are being closed, Britain’s nearly two thousand mosques are all open and left quite alone by the government. Whilst I consider this right and believe it must be kept that way, this requires an open, confident Islam—an Islam that pursues dialogue, not destruction and separation. 

Muslims are thriving. Britain remains the freest and best place in the world in which to be a Muslim. Doubt me? Ask Shamima Begum why she wants to come back from the murderous ISIS caliphate, or ask the thousands of Afghan, Kurdish, Persian, Bengali, Turkish, Arab and Indian arrivals who seek asylum in Britain. 

On my travels, I have met British Muslim soldiers serving in HM armed forces, imams who are seeking freedom from mosque control, and Muslim women who are battling patriarchal oppression. Most Muslims are normal, law-abiding, even patriotic citizens. But for all this beauty and harmony, there remains a core group of activists in almost every town and city with a Muslim population which seeks to subvert the peace on three fronts. They seek a collision with the land that has given them a home, and they want to use ordinary Muslims as their battering ram.

These Muslim activists have adopted an approach that would have been alien to the Prophet and his followers in Medina in the 620s. The Quran describes Jews and Christians invariably as “people of the book,” “believers,” and “children of Abraham.” When the Prophet settled in Medina, he produced a written contract that mentioned the Jewish tribes of Medina and protected the rights of worship and security for all. The Prophet’s community, or ummah, included Jews and Christians. British citizenship today, with the Queen as head of state and the established Church, should give Muslims cause for confidence and openness in belonging to Britain as a nation with a Christian heritage. 

Britain’s first purpose-built mosque, erected in 1899 in Woking, was spearheaded and commissioned by Dr Gottlieb Leitner, a Hungarian Jew. The female ruler of the Indian state of Bhopal, Shah Jahan Begum, after whom the mosque was later named, began financing the project in 1880. William Isaac Chambers, an English Christian gentleman, designed the mosque with the architectural flamboyance of earlier Mughal buildings in Delhi. Still standing in Surrey, the mosque was a gathering place for Muslims, and often their Jewish and Christian friends, for decades. In footage from the 1920s, we see the imam in tie, waistcoat, long coattail and much of the congregation smart and clean-shaven. Women in English attire sit and observe. There was congruence and confidence. Muslims from India and Arabia had just fought in the Great War together with Britain against the Ottoman caliphate. British Muslims were British first.

Indian Muslim soldiers at the Woking Mosque (1919 or 1920). Photo courtesy of Ahmadiyya Anjuman Isha‘at Islam Lahore, Wembley, London, the successor of the Woking Muslim Mission.

Today, a very different Islam is on the rise in mosques across Britain. We have repeatedly witnessed expressions of this kind of Islam—from 1981 to 2021, it put down deep roots throughout Britain. 

Most concerning of all is that radical Islamist activists have a grip on more than 30 madrasas across the country. Each madrasa produces hundreds of imams for future leadership positions. I visited such institutions in Blackburn, London, Bury and Dewsbury. They are inculcating young minds with an antiquated form of Deobandi Islam, a legalistic interpretation that arose in 1850s India and has since been profoundly influenced by the aggressive and puritanical Wahhabi ideology. Deobandi Islam—the inspiration for the Taleban—was developed to confront the British presence in the subcontinent, undo the mystical Muslim legacy of Akbar and Shah Jahan, and follow the ways of the fanatical King Aurungzeb by being highly literalist and actively oppressing or persecuting women, homosexuals, Jews, and other non-Muslims. This radical, puritanical clericalism is on the rise across Great Britain. 

What is more, these cleric-heavy ghettoes, dominated by activists, are developing a loyalty to their increasingly radicalised community that is in opposition to any loyalty towards the country in which they live. They imagine ‘the Muslim community’ and seek to represent it as a single, confrontational political bloc. For this reason, they find it hard to condemn causes of terrorism: it is dangerous because ‘my own’ is a separate group identity. Palestine matters more than Preston or Peterborough. Loyalty to the nation state is heresy. The hard-line clerics and activists are busy bullying and silencing the individual Muslim citizen who aspires to healthy and patriotic civil participation. I saw this with Labour Party women in Blackburn being deselected. I met dissenting imams who are afraid to confront this mafia of radical clerics and activists due to the inevitable reprisals. No beauty is found in these angry places. Where faith-leaders in many synagogues and churches pray for the royal family and for the country, I heard no such prayer from a cleric in a single mosque of the many I visited.

By the end of this decade, large parts of east London, Yorkshire and Lancaster will have Muslim majorities, and yet the cultural implications of this transformation of British society is still not openly discussed. At present, many Muslim marriages are not registered under British law. Upholding the teachings of their clerics, community activists ensure that Muslim women cannot escape abusive relationships unless a sharia court permits it, and often the testimony of such women is not taken seriously. Many mosques have no space for women. I met women suffering in shelters. Muslim women cannot inherit equally, as clerics teach. This caliphism, enforcing sharia as law by the cultural backdoor, is not, however, limited to the mistreatment of women. For example, again and again, I asked clerics and bookshop staff: for those who insult the Prophet Mohamed or publish an offensive cartoon, should their lives be spared? Wajib e qatl—the religious justification for killing them—was the answer I always received.

Mini caliphates throughout Britain await us unless we confront this rising radical clericalism and ghettoism. As numbers grow, so will the hatred and separatism, as well as the Islamic-supremacy and control. We got a taste of this recently when convoys of cars from Bradford supporting Hamas drove through north London calling for the rape of Jewish women. The Muslim clerics stayed silent. 

Britain is at a crossroads. What type of Islam will rise in our midst? Inside British Islam, some Muslims are pioneering a pathway closer to the spirit of the Prophet in Medina. At that time, women prayed beside men; and in London, Birmingham, Belfast and Edinburgh I sometimes encountered that access for women in mosques. But in Medina, the Prophet went further: in defiance of pagan norms, he declared that women could inherit property. The Arabs mocked him and said, ‘What next? Your camels have rights too?’ His wife Ayesha led men in battle after him. In one community in Belfast, women manage the mosque. Perhaps we should have equality quotas for mosque management throughout Britain. But as things stand, there is a widespread culture of patriarchal oppression led by Asian elderly men that dominates mosques today, and it is clear that this institutional sexism must end. No desirable steps can be taken, however, before British Muslims understand that they live under the rule of English common law.

Islam in the 21st century should be as open and confident as in the Prophet’s time. This means learning to relax. Cartoons will not destroy Islam. The same openness that allows mosques in Blackburn to call for prayer on outdoor megaphones also allows newspapers to publish cartoons. The West is an inheritor of the Greek culture of drama and comedy. Just like Christians (think of The Life of Brian!), Muslims will be mocked. The Prophet was insulted both in private and public, and he forgave. Frankly, today’s Muslims need to lighten up. 

Thankfully, on my journey, here and there I saw signs of acceptance and co-existence. Nonetheless, many challenges await Great Britain as a Muslim population that is expanding much faster than it is integrating looks to dominate swathes of the country. The Prophet is described in the Quran as “mercy to the world,” and when he was asked questions he would often say ‘istafti qalbak’, meaning “ask your heart.” It is the Islam of the heart—of love and longing—that belongs in the West. Other roads quickly lead to the loss of law and liberty.

Ed Husain is author of Among the Mosques: A Journey Across Muslim Britain (Bloomsbury 2021).

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