The British Board of Scholars & Imams

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BBSI: New board of scholars is unifying fragmented Muslim communities

BBSI: New board of scholars is unifying fragmented Muslim communities

BBSI: New board of scholars is unifying fragmented Muslim communities

By Tim Wyatt

A new panel of Islamic theologians, academics and imams, which hopes to offer religious leadership to Britain’s disparate Muslim communities, has seen its work turbocharged by the pandemic.

The British Board of Scholars & Imams (BBSI) came into being in 2019, and at the start of the pandemic was still finding both its feet and an audience.

But as a result of the unprecedented crisis, the BBSI has met a vital need for up-to-date religious guidance. That has accelerated its acceptance by the Muslim community.

What is the context here?

For years, Islam in Britain has been a mostly fragmented faith, with a range of small, independent networks of mosques and no large denominational institutions comparable to other religions such as Christianity or Judaism.

There are a huge variety of schools of thought and tradition within Islam represented among British Muslims. Their internal division on theological positions has often stymied efforts to unite the UK’s growing Muslim community under shared institutions.

For the past 30 years a number of umbrella groups have been successfully formed, most notably the Muslim Council of Britain, but they have all focused on community representation and political lobbying. Hence, when British Muslims look for specific theological guidance, there have been no clear structures or hierarchies to consult.

Stephen Jones, a sociologist of religion at Birmingham University who focuses on British Islam, said Muslims would tend to either listen to their local imam or federation of mosques, or seek out the growing number of self-appointed experts offering Islamic opinions online.

“There is such a diversity of traditions in the UK that it makes it very hard to have a coherent Islamic perspective on things. There has never been a figure who has achieved the stature of a Jonathan Sacks or an Archbishop of Canterbury,” he said.

What is the BBSI?

As a result, since about 2016 a growing number of Islamic scholars, imams and academics have been holding occasional symposiums to debate particular theological issues and offer cross-tradition edicts, known in Islam as fatwas.

As a result of this work, a need was identified for a permanent body that would issue guidance and opinions for Muslims. In 2019, it became the BBSI.

Those involved in setting it up were deeply aware of the need to ensure representation from all of British Islam and have ensured imams and theologians from all of the various tribes and movements are included.

“Because of everyone being represented it gives an authority and credibility within the community, and that respect,” said the Islamic scholar Zuber Karim, an imam in Dundee and a trustee of the BBSI.

Qari Asim, another imam and BBSI member, said getting so many people from across the breadth of Sunni Islam was a significant achievement. “Over the years there have been many attempts from different angles to have this. It’s an evolving thing but it’s unusual and different because it brings different strands of the diversity of the Muslim tradition.”

Abdul-Azim Ahmed, a researcher into British Muslim Studies at Cardiff University, said the BBSI was unlike any other previous scholarly authority in the UK for this reason.

“When BBSI was issuing their stuff on the coronavirus it was signed off by the Barelvis, the Deobandis, the Salafis. Whatever mosque inclination you’re from, if you’re looking for a name you’re familiar with, you’d find that on their board,” he said.

Dr Jones said he had never before come across any Muslim initiative in Britain that had managed to bridge the internal divides and include such a broad range of thinking

So far the board has not extended to Britain’s much smaller Shia Muslim community, which has different traditions of religious authority from Sunni Islam and has more institutions, too.

What role has the pandemic played?

Those who set up the BBSI expected it would evolve gradually, issuing fatwas as needed and slowly building credibility and support from the Muslim community over many years.

But within a few months of its launch the Covid-19 pandemic threw up many urgent questions that believers needed answering.

In Islamic tradition, the family of someone who has died must ceremonially bathe the body before a funeral and burial, but in the surge of deaths among Britain’s ethnic minority populations it was difficult, if not impossible, to carry out this ritual.

The government then ordered mosques, along with all other places of worship, to shut their doors during the first lockdown and imposed strict social distancing requirements for services once they were allowed to reopen.

Suddenly, British Muslims were facing religious dilemmas they had never considered before, and unlike in much of Christianity or Judaism, they had no well-established denominational leaders to tell them what they should or should not do.

The fledgling BBSI stepped into the midst of this vacuum and began issuing cross-community guidance, which was signed off on by respected figures from every tradition.

“In uncertain times there are some important opinions that are required and it gave that momentum to the organisation itself,” Mr Asim said. “BBSI brings the glorious ancient teachings and connects them with the modern world, for instance whether or not to suspend public prayers, which is a huge thing, or how to pray with social distancing.

“It all hinges on theological interpretation and the need to protect the community, and that’s where scholarship comes in. It’s very timely from that perspective.”

Mr Ahmed agreed, and said that the BBSI launched at what turned out to be an important  moment in history.

Mr Karim said the process would see the BBSI members discuss a particular issue via phone calls and online video meetings, consult specialists such as medical experts or particular theologians who had studied the topic, and then by consensus draw up and disseminate a ruling.

Even as the immediate urgency of the pandemic has ebbed away, there has continued to be a need for fresh guidance. Mr Karim noted how Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, and Eid, the festival that marks its end, both fell under lockdown.

Many Muslims needed to know if it was permissible to hold Eid prayers in their homes as the mosques were shut.

Some fell prey to conspiracy theories that argued that the pandemic was overblown or insisted lockdowns were fundamentally unIslamic. “You will find someone in the community who says ‘No, I will stick to praying together with my friend’,” Mr Karim admitted.

But the BBSI could put them right by telling them what they might not know: that the Prophet Muhammad himself had pronounced on plagues in his own time and argued for the importance of isolating those infected.

The nascent board has also found itself playing an important mediating role between the community and the government, as part of the places of worship taskforce convened by ministers to work out how lockdown restrictions could be eased.

“It’s a conduit between the government and the community on this particular occasion and for this time,” Mr Asim said.

What does the future hold for the BBSI?

Dr Jones said while it was too early to tell if the BBSI could cement a position as the religious authority in British Islam, the signs were positive. “I wouldn’t say I’m optimistic but I would say there is much more fertile ground for this kind of initiative than 20 years ago. There are fewer internal divisions in British Islam and it’s much more networked with public institutions.”

The most important factor would be for the board to avoid the government “saying anything nice about it, which is the kiss of death”, he added. “It’s clearly coming out of a recognised need”, but if ordinary Muslims perceive it to be too closely allied with the secular authorities it will lose all its credibility.

Dr Jones said Labour governments had, after the 7/7 London terrorist attacks of 2005, poured millions of pounds into community groups trying to build a more “British” kind of Islam. But this top-down state-led model became too closely associated with anti-terrorism efforts and groups linked to it failed to find acceptance among the grass roots.

Mr Ahmed was also hopeful that the BBSI could become the long-awaited central, respected Islamic institution in the UK. “It’s been playing its cards quite slowly in general, but it definitely may turn out to be a much more important organisation in a few years’ time than it is at the moment,” he said.

And it would not be twiddling its thumbs once the current crisis eventually passed either, he said, noting there were a large number of issues it needed to pronounce on such as end-of-life care for the growing number of older Muslims, and also moon-sighting to calibrate the lunar Islamic calendar, a particular challenge in countries, like the UK, far from the equator.

Even getting as far as it has was a “great achievement”, Mr Karim argued. “There are quite a lot of issues that the Muslim community could be stuck on, but with everyone coming together from all these different backgrounds and finding a common ground, coming to an agreeable position — that’s a great achievement.”

A key feature of its success would hinge on its Britishness, he added. Unlike other competing authorities in Muslim communities, countries of origin, the BBSI was made up of British-born and bred experts who understood the local context and local needs better than a faraway sheikh in South Asia or the Middle East.

“As we have more generations of Muslims here in the UK — you’re talking about fifth or sixth generation — the community now identifies itself as more British than their ancestors who might have had a Pakistani or an Indian or an Arab upbringing. In that respect, BBSI can play a great role.”

But Dr Jones sounded a final note of caution, warning that the same factionalism that had ruined many previous attempts at consensus could also cripple the BBSI, as rival groups could easily arise and ruin its position of unique authority.

“There is a reasonable chance it could become a prominent body for scholarly opinion, but I doubt it will ever be the case it is unchallenged because there is no real infrastructure to give it that,” he said.

“There is no pope who can nominate a cardinal for the UK. Any authority it can get will be developed very slowly through connections and working across different community groups.”

From: https://religionmediacentre.org.uk/news/new-board-of-scholars-is-unifying-fragmented-muslim-communities/

Open call to end Islamophobia faced by Muslim staff and students in Higher Education Institutions

Open call to end Islamophobia faced by Muslim staff and students in Higher Education Institutions

The recently published EHRC report (November 2020) has shown evidence of institutional and structural racism experienced by ethnic minority academics. Empirical research focusing on Muslims provides evidence of widespread experiences of Islamophobia (anti-Muslim discrimination) (Allen, 2014; Awan and Zempi, 2019).  Islamophobia has been reported in Higher Education (Scott-Bauman, 2019; Stevenson, 2018); NHS (Malik et al, 2019); and when seeking employment (Wykes, 2018).

In Higher Education, research confirms that Muslim staff and students, as well as those perceived to be Muslim, experience varying forms of Islamophobia which go beyond social exclusion (Hopkins, 2011; NUS, 2012). These include microaggression, increased surveillance and anti-Muslim prejudice. Muslims continue to report discriminatory incidences which are defined as Islamophobic (Saeed, 2018; Thomas, 2016). Since the ‘war on terror’, increased securitization relating to legislation and policies together with religious profiling of staff and students have become acceptable and regular at UK universities. Islamophobia is tolerated in HE, with increased incidences and non-existent institutional response procedures (Tyrer and Ahmad, 2006; Ullah, 2016).

Ramadan (2017) shows Muslim academics are casually associated with the discourse of terrorism by others on their campuses. Respondents recount being questioned by colleagues on local and global events which are framed in the public domain through the lens of ‘Muslim extremism’. Furthermore, Islamophobia is gendered, and visibly Muslim women academics experience a range of Islamophobic microaggressions in their interactions with staff and students (Ramadan, 2017; 2020).

A common finding across these studies is that Islamophobic incidences on campus continue to go largely unreported, unacknowledged and unchallenged. Thus, universities have become places of hostility for many staff and students who are Muslim or perceived to be Muslim.

The anti-Islamophobia BBSI working group urges the Higher Education sector to urgently tackle Islamophobia on campus by:

  • Redressing the lack of recognition that Islamophobia is distinct from other forms of racism and needs to be challenged at all levels of the university.
  • Providing a consultation with Muslim students and staff to raise their concerns and involving them in framing campus-based policies and strategies.
  • When signing the ‘Race Equality Charter’ (REC) institutions should incorporate detailed assessment of what constitutes Islamophobia and anti-Muslim prejudice.
  • Implementing REC assessment which investigates and addresses the impact of Islamophobia on academic appointments and promotions procedures.
  • Setting up robust reporting, complaints, grievance, and wider reporting procedures which specifically include recognition of Islamophobic behaviour, its consequences, and appropriate institutional responses.
  • Including well-developed anti-Islamophobia training for EDI postholders across all HE institutions.

Notes to Editors

  1. The BBSI is an apolitical national assembly of imams, traditional scholars and Islamically literate Muslim academics.
  2. The BBSI supports Muslim academic staff and students and supports #IAM2020 Islamophobia Awareness Month 
  3. For further information, please contact info@bbsi.org.uk

 

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    The cup is always half full… 

    The cup is always half full… 

    It was Sunday 12th of January 2020, as I recall sitting in my mother’s living room enjoying my weekly chats with her. The weather was mild and unusually for Bolton, dry too. Our conversation was pertaining to our annual Umrah trip at Easter time. During the conversation, I checked online and booked our tickets to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in the Easter Holidays. This was incidentally around the time, when news of a virus spreading in Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei province was breaking out on news channels around the world. Who would have thought then, that this virus, known globally as Coronavirus or COVID 19, will not only overtake all other news on news channels, but also impact lives of nearly every individual of the global population. My flights have been cancelled by the airlines, Saudi Arabia has stopped all entry in to the country and major airports around the world have become deserted.

    As I write this article (27/03/2020 at 9.05am), the current global figures of people contracting Coronavirus stands at 537,331 with 24,136 deaths. There are 11,658 people who have been diagnosed with this virus in the United Kingdom alone with 578 deaths (www.worldmeters.info). No doubt, whilst you’re reading this article, many more will have lost their lives.

    As panic was beginning to set in, we witnessed people hoarding food and essentials from supermarkets from the beginning of March, till supermarkets introduced a modicum of control to this madness. Shelves were emptying at an alarming rate; people were panicking as never witnessed before and uncertainty from all directions gripped humanity.

    Against economic prudence and frugality, global governments were being compelled to present aid packages for industries and employees. Rishi Sunak, the United Kingdom Chancellor to the Exchequer, has already pledged £330 billion of government-backed loans and guarantees owing to this now a global pandemic (http://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/17/uk-announces-massive-aid-package-for-coronavirus-hit-industries.html).

    Job losses are and will be inevitable as our government, along with most other countries ordain a closure to industry, schools and all unnecessary human interaction. As the masses feel the impact caused by this virus, both physically and economically, it is inevitably going to breed anxiety, apprehension and mental distress amongst them. This is unavoidable. However, as believers, such life experiences should present moments of spiritual reflections and opportunities of turning towards our Lord too. The Prophet of Islam (peace and salutations upon him) himself endured unparalleled hardships and difficulties during his lifetime.

    Saad Ibn Abi Waqqas (May the Lord be pleased with him) once asked the Prophet (peace and salutations upon him), “who is the most severely tested?”  The Prophet (peace and salutations upon him) answered, “The Prophets (salutations upon all of them), then those (in devotion to the Lord) most resembling the Prophets then those most resembling them. A man is tested according to (the strength and weakness of) his faith. If he is firm in his faith, his trial is intensified accordingly. If he is weak in his faith, his trial is lessened accordingly. These trials will remain consistent with a servant (of the Lord) till he becomes without sin.” (Tirmizi)

    The current situation is dire. There is no denying this. The mortality rate, as estimated by the World Health Organisation (WHO) will be 3.4% from among all those affected by this virus. This is most certainly a cause for concern for mankind, but on the flip side to this, more than 96% of those infected with the Coronavirus will survive too.

    We firmly believe, this is a temporal world; we have a prescribed time of life here. Sooner or later, according to the will of the Lord, we will transfer from this world to our eternal abode in the Hereafter. We have no choice in how long we remain in this world. There is a predetermined time for every nation. When their predetermined time comes, they will then not be able to move a moment back nor forward (Quran: 10:49). 

    An Urdu poet, succinctly and eloquently describes our state of being in this world, he states,

    Divine Decree ordained we leave the world, so let’s leave. We did not come into the world by our desire neither will we leave by our choice. If we were to be given the life span of khidr (a long life) be aware, death is still inevitable. No matter how long we remain her, it will always seem as we have just come and left straightaway.

    Our only goal in life is to do the best we can and be the best we can be. …The One who created death and life so that He may test you; which one of you is best of deed (Quran: 67:2). Come what may the situation be, we must remain focused on how we conduct ourselves. We must place our trust in Him. Say, ‘Allah is sufficient for me. There is no deity except Him. I place my trust in Him, and He is the Lord of the Supreme Throne.’ (Quran: 10:129). 

    Undoubtedly, there are a lot of pressures due to this unprecedented global situation. People are confronting all kinds of life pressures as I write. Mentalheath.org has provided some good tips on their website for looking after our mental health:

    • Avoid speculations and look up reputable sources of information
    • Follow the Public Health advice of washing hands often and more rigorously
    • Try to stay connected with family and friends by telephone, email or social media
    • Spend quality time with your children
    • These are trying times and it is okay to feel vulnerable and overwhelmed 
    • Plan your day
    • Be as active as possible
    • Find time to relax
    • Improve your sleep

    www.mentalhealth.org

    In addition to the aforementioned tips, Muslims firmly believe, whatever is decreed by the Lord will occur. No one can defer or deter the will of the Lord. No calamity reaches the earth nor upon yourself except it is in the book, before We bring it in to existence (Quran: 57:22). However, what defines us as servants of the Lord in its truest form, is how we conduct ourselves in differing scenarios and experiences of life. Abu Yahya, Suhaib Ibn Sinan narrates from the Prophet of Islam (peace and salutations upon him), in a hadith referenced by Imam Muslim, the Prophet (peace and salutations upon him) said, “(I am) amazed by the state of a believer; there is certainly a reward for him in all his circumstances (of life), and this is exclusive for a believer. If prosperity reaches him, he (then) shows gratitude (to the Lord), this will then be good for him. (And remember when your Lord announced, “If you are surely grateful, I will most certainly increase for you… (Quran: 14:7). If he is afflicted with a calamity, he (then) bears it with patience, this will then be good for him. (Only those who are patient will be fully given their reward without reckoning (Quran: 39:10).    

    As for our current plight with this virus and how we can spiritually benefit, Abdul Aziz Abdus Salaam Sulami, an Egyptian scholar from the thirteenth century A.D, has compiled some benefits that can be acquired by the believers when they are in the midst of afflictions, tribulations and trials:

    1. Acquisition of profound consciousness of Divine Power and Divine ForceYour Lord’s seizing is most certainly severe. He is certainly the One who originates and will bring back. And He is Most Relenting, the Most Loving; The Possessor of the Throne, the Glorious; Forever doing what He intends (Quran: 85:12, 13, 14, 15, 16)
    2. Acquisition of deep realisation of absolute servitude to the LordThose who say when a calamity reaches them, ‘We certainly belong to Allah and we will return to Him (Quran: 2:156).
    3. Faithfulness to the Lord. There is no place of return in averting calamities except to Him. There is no reliance in removing harm except upon HimAnd if Allah afflicts you with any harm, then there is no remover of it except Him (Quran: 6:17).
    4. Opportunity to turn towards the LordAnd when any harm afflicts the human, he calls his Lord, turning towards Him (Quran: 39:8)
    5. Opportunity to supplicate to HimWhen the human is afflicted by harm, he then calls Us… (Quran: 39:49).
    6. Opportunity to be forbearingIbrahim (peace and salutations upon him) was most certainly frequently sighing, forbearing (Quran: 9:114).
    7. Opportunity to pardon others…and those pardoning mankind, and Allah loves the ones who do good (Quran: 3:134).
    8. Opportunity to bear with patience…And Allah loves the ones who are patient (Quran: 3:136)
    9. Opportunity to be contentThe Prophet (peace and salutations upon him) said, “No hardship, illness, anxiety, sadness, pain or grief afflicts a believer, even if it is a thorn which pricks him, except Allah will wipe away his sins by it.” (Bukhari).
    10. Opportunity to be grateful for the benefits and rewards attached to enduring hardships in comparison to the immediate pain we may experience.
    11. Opportunity to show mercy to those afflicted and to help such people
    12. Opportunity to realise the value of good health
    13. Opportunity to trust the Lord in what He has decreed for you – …and it is possible that you dislike something whilst it is good for you, and it is possible that you like something whilst it is bad for you. And Allah knows whilst you do not know (Quran: 2:216).
    14. Calamities enables the human to abstain from being arrogant – …Allah certainly dislikes every arrogant, boastful one (Quran: 31:18)

    (The 14 points have been translated from الفتن والبلايا والمحن والرزايا and additions have been made to the translation in places.)

    May the Almighty keep us safe, enable us to be steadfast in our devotion to Him and wipe away this global pandemic sooner rather than later. Ameen.

    Sh Yunus Mohamed, Imam, member of The British Board of Scholars & Imam (BBSI), and award winning Counsellor – The Imam Ghazzali Award for outstanding contribution to teaching in mental health – BIPCA, The National Muslim Mental Health Awards 2019.