Shared traditions between Englishness and Islam
Friday, October 21st, 2016
The English have never been an easy species to define, and a significant academic industry thrives on attempts, usually futile, to pin them down. In the words of one recent academic study, they are ‘a curiously mysterious, elusive and little understood people’. But in this, the English are not alone. A no less murky cloud of unknowing hovers over the head of that other very diverse entity, that we refer to as the Muslim community. Both turn out to be very fluid and protean categories, habitats for very disparate life forms. Neither Englishness nor Islam are, or ever have been, single things, and hence they cannot be juxtaposed in any simple way, as though they were a married couple that might or might not be said to have a chance of a happy and fruitful life together.
But let us be methodical, and begin with the first of our difficult terms. Who, or rather what, are the English? A general global consensus often seems to fix them as a people forged in authority over an empire that now no longer exists. They were once incubated in great and fearsome schools, hatcheries of what was called the Breed, fresh-faced young men well-versed in the classics of a more antique empire, self-possessed, muscularly Christian, and all bearing that most English of anatomical peculiarities, a stiff upper lip. Even the dissident types, the Hampstead socialists, the romantic revivalists, the Webbs, the Wildes and the Shaws, seemed cut from the same broadcloth. Brand recognition was instantaneous. Fifty years ago, one would point to a man in a duffle coat, who smoked Players, drank warm beer and listened to Vaughan Williams but who also rather liked to get things done, and could say, without much fear of ambiguity, that there was Englishness incarnate. It was a jolly hard thing to define, but rather like a Morris Minor, you couldn’t mistake it for anything else.
Jeremy Paxman tries to sum it up like this:
‘The English were polite, unexcitable, reserved, and had hot water bottles instead of a sex life. … They were doers rather than thinkers, writers rather than painters, gardeners rather than cooks. They were class-bound, hide-bound, and incapable of expressing their emotions.’
But all that was before the sixties. Then suddenly the empire turned into something shameful, all the wrong women were burning their bras, and a strange episode of self-loathing overtook us. This was the watershed time which Philip Larkin identified as lying ‘between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP.’ John Osborne told us to look back in anger, specifically at our distinctive culture and its inhibitions; and soon Monty Python made the old shibboleths of our world – the class system, the Church, the regiments – into objects of derision. The old norms and beliefs floated away. Today, Roger Scruton calls his book about the English, ‘an elegy’; like Paxman, he chooses the past tense; for Englishness in the way the world used to understand it, a land of Ealing comedies and censorious Lord Chancellors, has become another country, for some nostalgics, a land of lost content.
Instead, we have – well, we all know what we have, because it is ourselves. We are no longer reserved; on the contrary, we are Jade Goody and Rowena Kincaid. The old school songs, Drake’s Drum and the British Grenadiers, have been retired. We have started to cook. The Church of England is still central to our constitution, but is in practice now a dim ghost of what it was. At weddings and funerals today, most of us can no longer make out the hymns.
This quick and radical loss confuses the older generation, who sometimes think immigration is to blame. Perhaps the Brexit vote was a sort of attempt to turn back the clock to a more bucolic English age. The politicians, endlessly speechifying about the future, underestimated the English affection for the past. But immigration, and the Muslim presence which for many nationalists looks like the true emblem of the alienation which it brings, is not really at fault at all. It is not the tandoori restaurants and Kurdish cab drivers who have confiscated our old identity; it is globalization, and particularly the Americanisation of our culture. And that is something which we deliberately imported and asked for gleefully; it was not pressed upon us by others.
Let us now look at this other, accused partner in our putative relationship, the one called Islam, carried by those members of our society who usually bear the brunt of nativist xenophobia and unease. For many, Muslimness feels like the paradigmatic Other of everything that is proper and English; a kind of inversion of ourselves, a black mass, an Oriental antipodes. But again this will not work, for like Englishness, Muslimness is no single thing, and two generations after the great wave of primary immigration, it is not now what once it was. Here too we find the narrative has been shifting, thanks to what sociologists sometimes call our liquid modernity, in which no constants are feasible. British Islam is a noticeably broad church, and broadening still; and British Muslims are no longer just a nation of shopkeepers. And even before this widening, Islam had never been a single story. While the core practices of the religion are startlingly immobile, Islam has historically been a creed claimed by an almost indefinitely wide diversity of human individuals and cultures. The temper of Islam in a traditional Indian setting is very noticeably Indian; just as Islam in Gambia is unmistakeably African. Indonesians and Moroccans may pray towards the same holy city, but they do so from opposite points of the compass. Islam, a rainbow of modalities of Muslimness, is always hyphenated, because no religion can exist naked, without the clothes supplied by time and place.
If there is a Javanese Islam, an Albanian Islam, and an Islam of Zanzibar, then clearly in the nature of things there ought to be an English Islam. The categories in Islamic law called urf and ada encompass and validate this: the classical Sharia manuals tell us that local custom and precedent may be incorporated into Muslim life, unless they evidently flaunt a scriptural truth. Only fundamentalism of the Wahhabi type discounts this Muslim normativity. In his book Nawaqid al-Islam, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab castigates any form of inculturation with the ways of disbelievers, or any hint of loyalty to their polities. That book, precious to puritans of the ISIS type, has regrettably become one of the most influential texts of the modern world. But it rejects, not confirms, the classical consensus of Muslim jurists, and the universal practice of Muslim cultures everywhere. Yesterday, at the culmination of the Mecca pilgrimage, the spectacular moment came when four million pilgrims changed from the white robes which unified them during the earlier rites, to change back into their national dress: African colours, Indonesian batik sarongs, a riot of Uzbek ikats: this affirmation of their diversity in unity is intrinsic to the rituals of the Hajj itself; and so it is necessarily Islamic.
A local British Islam, or a range of British Islams, is therefore religiously authentic and even mandatory. In a sense, however, the question is largely academic, because whatever theorists and theologians might wish, British Islams already exist, quite exuberantly. Apart from those fundamentalist enclaves inspired by Saudi zealotry, younger British Muslims are very recognizably from and of their own place. They carry the regional accents, they fully hear their colleagues and neighbours, and are understood in turn, and have clearly made themselves at home in some idiom of Britishness or even Englishness, whether in our hospitals, politics, media, or even academe. It has happened.
To underline this it is helpful to ponder some statistics. In 2009, the Gallup organisation carried out the largest ever survey of opinions amongst British Muslims, to determine their position on various indices of identity and citizenship. In general the results were not surprising to the community’s leaders, although they occasioned some puzzlement in the popular press, which likes to see Muslims as a seething crucible of alienation. For instance, it emerged that 77% of Muslims identified ‘very strongly’ with the UK, compared to only 51% of the general population. 76% of Muslims expressed confidence in the police, compared to 65% of the wider public. Only 3% of Muslims felt that other religions were threatening their way of life, compared to a national British figure of 25%.
On these fairly standard citizenship indicators, then, our Muslim communities tend to score very highly, compared to the current British norm. Reflecting on the findings, a headline in the Economist summed British Muslims up as ‘pious, loyal and unhappy.’
If Muslims identify more strongly with the UK than do the mainstream non-Muslim population, we may presumably view this as a reassuring confirmation that there is no clash of civilisations, and that mainstream Islam’s legitimation of inculturation is still an active principle even here, so far from the Islamic heartlands, and despite significant headwinds.
Is there, then, in this already-existing British Islam, something which feeds off what remains of Englishness, specifically? This is a harder question to answer. But we may begin by remarking that on a purely historical level the English habitat has always been deeply shaped by engagements with Muslims. Looking around these gardens of remembrance, I recall my conversations with my great-uncle. He had been a volunteer in the 28th Artists Rifles. (One doubts that today’s Ministry of Defence would sanction such a romantic idea as an artists’ regiment!) But his regiment saw service at Cambrai, also the scene of major Muslim participation. The First Indian Cavalry Division was heavily Muslim, for ancient Mogul reasons which the British Indian army chose to respect. I wonder if my uncle knew that facing the same German machine guns, were Indian comrades: the 8th Lucknow Cavalry Brigade, the 29th Lancers (the Deccan Horse), and various curious semi-irregular formations levied in Baluchistan. If so, he never mentioned it.
But our imperial history is ambiguous, whatever we older people learned in school. And to volunteer for a conflict which saw such horror, for the sake of the Treaty of Versailles, that catastrophically destabilising document which David Fromkin calls a Peace to End all Peace, was surely morally problematic; at least so it seems for those of us with the benefit of hindsight.
That war brings a few faint suggestions of transreligious solidarities, but a much greater burden of remembered pain and grotesque suffering. And it certainly had nothing to do with the emergence of a putative English Islam. So let us consider another, less ambiguous, example of Muslim-English relations, this time drawn from our own time.
Imagine, if you will, a quintessentially English member of the Tory squirarchy, of the type that might well regard Muslims as some alien race. He may begin his day with coffee – a seventeenth-century import from the Islamic world, and perhaps a dish of kedgeree, or even a croissant, a reminder of Austria’s old crusades against the Ottomans. Underfoot there might be a Turkish or Persian carpet. In his youth he had played polo; now he plays chess, or is content to watch the morris men – their dance apparently rooted in the dances of Moorish Spain. And they perform, of course, outside a pub called the Saracen’s Head … Clearly, whatever our country squire might imagine, the English have always engaged with Islamic and Muslim culture, and have been significantly enriched by it.
In fact it is quite easy to show that Muslim culture inhabits our past. The English language contains at least six hundred Arabic words. But what of our present-day encounter? It seems to me that if we take Paxman’s list of things that we think we are, or rather were, and add some obvious riders and further items, that we will find some very intriguing and even provocative convergences. Muslims, like Paxman’s English, abhor public displays of emotion. Their stoicism is universally remarked upon. They revere the institution of marriage and despise divorce or any premarital goings-on. Their women are perceptive but understated. Overindulgence in food is simply not the done thing. And most importantly of all, the community exists for a reason, it is actually for something, which has to do with God, providence, and the life everlasting. This religious dimension is at the heart of what William Blake called the ‘matter of England.’
This inescapable Muslim regard for the older Englishness is ultimately rooted in the Qur’anic esteem for the People of the Book – readers of the Bible. We might even go further, and suggest that since Muslims have not in general been carried along by the recent flood of secularisation and the decline of a family-centred outlook, that Muslims in England are in fact closer to the old Englishness than are many or perhaps even most of the newer generation of the English themselves.
A Cambridge colleague of mine gives an annual lecture on Shakespeare to trainee imams. He remarks on how immediately they relate to Shakespeare’s values. Principles of honour, fate, gender essences, the extended family, duty to parents, the power of heaven, even the reality of magic – all these make Shakespeare readily accessible to conservative Muslims, where his non-Muslim students, inhabiting a globalised and very secular culture, often strain to catch his meaning, almost as though they are trying to receive a radio signal beamed from a far distant planet.
That matter of Albion, so important to an earlier generation, is impressive to Muslim believers and to our trainee imams. But the new urban anomie that has replaced the old English way seems, frankly, to be less appetising to them. Listen to David Cameron, for instance, after his brief stay with a Birmingham Muslim family:
Family breakdown, drugs, crime and incivility are part of the normal experience of modern Britain. Many British Asians see a society that hardly inspires them to integrate. Indeed, they see aspects of modern Britain which are a threat to the values they hold dear – values which we should all hold dear. Asian families and communities are incredibly strong and cohesive, and have a sense of civic responsibility which puts the rest of us to shame. Not for the first time, I found myself thinking that it is mainstream Britain which needs to integrate more with the British Asian way of life, not the other way around.
Cameron’s fair-minded words remind us that virtues are universal. Muslim communities should be true to their own social vision, because in doing so they can witness to a less individualistic and more spiritual form of life which England seems to have let go. We can learn from each other in the most affirming way, which is to remind others, heirs to great though always flawed narratives, to be more true to what is best in their rich heritage. Muslims and the English, when reified as separate communities, should at the very least remind each other of what they can be, at their very best. And that turns out to be a set of values which significantly converge. Muslimness and Englishness are not rivals in a zero-sum game; nor are they complementary; instead they are two historically rich strategies for living a virtuous life, which turn out to converge in many ways which it is not difficult to recognise.
Tim Winter, Woking, 13 September 2016