British Muslim? There’s no such thing, says Muslim and Briton Mohammed Ilyas.
Wednesday, April 13th, 2016
A couple of months ago I had the honour (or short straw!) of collecting the Charity of the Year 2016 award bestowed on my employer, Islamic Help, at the British Muslim Awards.
My first words consisted of an apology to the organisers. It went something along the lines of: ‘At the risk of offending my hosts, I’d like to point out I’m not a British Muslim. I’m Muslim. I’m British.’
Thankfully, I was not pelted with rotten tomatoes, lynched or run out of the building. And rather than a statement of ungratefulness, it was intended to make the following point (which, thankfully, a few others afterwards voiced their support for).
A Muslim is a Muslim. Full stop. If you want to persist with the game of labels, being known as a Muslim is a badge of faith. Being British is a badge of national identity.
In other words, one is an identifier of my faith. The other is my nationality or geographic identity. And the two, while they can happily co-exist, are mutually exclusive.
It doesn’t matter who you are or where you were born – the UK, France, Germany, the USA, Australia, Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia – you were born as a Muslim, in fitrah – the natural state free of sin.
As the Prophet (sallalahu alaihi wasallam) said: “No child is born except on the fitrah and then his parents make him Jewish, Christian or Magian (Zoroastrian), as an animal produces a perfect young animal: do you see any part of its body amputated?” (Hadith)
We are all born into the faith and it is then the input and influence of our parents, upbringing and social environment that shapes and decides the religious and social path we take.
So as a Muslim, I am no different to a Muslim in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas or the Arctic or Antarctic.
We were all born into the faith and – if we have not strayed from submitting to the will of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala – we share the same faith in one Creator, we believe in the same tenets of faith, no matter the differences in creed, colour, language or dress.
Our differences in nationality have no bearing on my, or their, faith. As a Muslim, I’m a global citizen. No need for a physical passport because the passport of faith is always with me, albeit unseen.
The passport which states that I’m a citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (and the European Union) is only an indicator of where I was born, or the nation where I have taken residence for a defined period of time or where I have been granted certain rights as a citizen.
This passport only comes out of the drawer if and when it’s needed for officialdom or travel abroad. It’s of limited use – in some countries it’s fawned over, in others it’s despised and an invitation for repression and cruelty.
It’s a document by people for people to separate us from other people.
So why is the label ‘British Muslim’ so readily used by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and why are we so accepting of its widespread attachment when Islam (‘submission to the will of Allah’) makes no such distinction?
In his last sermon, the Prophet (sallalahu alaihi wassalam) said:
“All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety (taqwa) and good action.
Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood. Nothing shall be legitimate to a Muslim which belongs to a fellow Muslim unless it was given freely and willingly. Do not, therefore, do injustice to yourselves.”
The message: while we are all different, we are no different to each other in the sight of Allah except for our deeds, and the Ummah – the global family of Muslims – is one.
So if the union of Muslims is a global one, why the need to distinguish ‘British Muslims’ from the rest of the family?
In some ways, it’s similar to the use of the term ‘British Asian’ which in itself suggests an underlying bipolar identity crisis.
It can’t be decided whether we’re one (British) or the other (Asian), so let’s lump the two together and use it as a convenient label to recognise those with certain skin tones or/and strange-sounding non-Anglo Saxon names irrespective of their social identity, background or credentials.
Immediately it’s an excluder – we’re neither one or the other, and by inference we’re a sub-section of society rather than being in the mainstream.
Bear in mind that Asia is not a homogenous, identikit land mass. Neither are its 4.4 billion inhabitants.
If we work on the principle that the first mass of Asian immigrants to the UK started arriving in the late 1950s and 1960s, we’re now into our fourth or fifth generation from that stream.
These latter generations, and probably their parents or even grandparents, were born in Britain.
Based on experience, they have very limited or no idea of the language/s of the countries of Asia that their families hailed from, their now distant relatives or culture. And most have probably never visited that part of Asia except maybe on holiday.
The British Asian tag, while it may signify a rich dual or multi-heritage, confines us in that box labelled ‘stereotype’.
There’s a similar argument to be put with regards to the ‘British Muslim’ label. It’s a divisive tag that seeks to portray us as not only different to mainstream society but the Ummah, as if somehow we are expected to think or behave differently from other Muslims in the world.
At what point do we drop the suffix and decide to refer to ‘British Muslims’ just as Muslims or ‘Muslims from Britain/living in Britain’ (or a similar variation) when discussing religion or faith, and ‘British’ when debating other matters?
When we make this distinction, it’ll signal the acceptance of those referred to as ‘British Muslims’ or ‘British Asians’ as part of mainstream Britain.
After all, that’s how the history of this nation was constructed. The Celts, Gauls, Danes, Saxons, have all contributed through the ages and I don’t see any of these groups referred to nowadays. Their descendants are simply British.
Mohammed Ilyas is Press and Publicity Manager for the Birmingham-based charity Islamic Help.
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