Britain’s first government-funded Islamic school closed temporarily last week amid a wave of anti-Muslim feeling. Its chairman of governors, Yusuf Islam - formerly the pop star Cat Stevens - explains why his adopted religion is the home of tolerance and not of fanaticism
Tuesday September 18, 2001
The playground stands bare and empty. Wind blows across the space where little children until recently chased, skipped and played. The gates of the first government-funded Muslim school in the UK were closed last week for two reasons: respect and caution.
With reports linking the atrocities at the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon to Muslim groups, the parents and children of Islamia primary school in north London have become possible targets of hate and harassment. There was a similar wave of anti-Muslim feeling after the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma in 1995, even though it was later discovered to be the foul work of a son of Uncle Sam himself, a home-grown, disaffected American radical. But media speculation had already pointed the finger at Muslims and the Arab world, and that meant ordinary citizens of the US and other western countries became easy prey for anti-faith hooligans. Shame.
As chairman of the board that runs the small one-form primary school, I decided, in consultation with teachers and parents, to shut the school for a few days, until the dust settles and people can see more clearly. But, sadly, the latest horror to hit the US looks to have been caused by people of Middle Eastern origin, bearing Muslim names. Again, shame. This fuels more hatred for a religion and a people who have nothing to do with these events. This is why I felt it necessary to write and explain some basic facts about this noble way we call Islam, before, God forbid, another disaster occurs - next time probably aimed at Muslims.
I came to Islam in my late 20s, during my searching period as a wandering pop star. I found a religion that blended scientific reason with spiritual reality in a unifying faith far removed from the headlines of violence, destruction and terrorism. One of the first interesting things I learned in the Koran was that the name of the faith comes from the word salam - peace. Far from the kind of Turko-Arab-centric message I expected, the Koran presented a belief in the universal existence of God, one God for all. It does not discriminate against peoples; it says we may be different colours and from different tribes, but we are all human and “the best of people are the most God-conscious”.
Today, as a Muslim, I have been shattered by the horror of recent events; the display of death and indiscriminate killing we’ve all witnessed has dented humanity’s confidence in itself. Terror on this scale affects everybody on this small planet, and no one is free from the fallout. Yet we should remember that such violence is almost an everyday occurrence in some Muslim lands: it should not be exacerbated by revenge attacks on more innocent families and communities.
Along with most British Muslims, I feel it a duty to make clear that such orchestrated acts of incomprehensible carnage have nothing to do with the beliefs of most Muslims. The Koran specifically declares: “If anyone murders an [innocent] person, it will be as if he has murdered the whole of humanity. And if anyone saves a person it will be as if he has saved the whole of humanity.” British Muslims feel nothing but sympathy for those families who lost loved ones. I know people who were directly involved in the tragedy; my own brother, who lives in New Jersey, was going to fly out from Newark last week. In that respect we all feel the same.
The Koran that our young pupils learn at Islamia is full of stories and lessons from the history of humanity as a whole. The Gospels and the Torah are referred to; Jesus and Abraham are mentioned. In fact there is more mention in the Koran of the prophet Moses than of any other. It acknowledges the coexistence of other faiths, and in doing so acknowledges that other cultures can live together in peace. “There is no compulsion in religion,” it states, meaning that people should not be compelled to change their faith. Elsewhere it states, “To you, your religion; to me mine.” Respect for religious values and justice is at the Koran’s core. The Koranic history we teach provides ample examples of interreligious and international relationships; of how to live together.
But some extremists take elements of the sacred scriptures out of context. They act as individuals, and when they can’t come together as part of a political structure or consultative process, you find these dissident factions creating their own rules, contrary to the spirit of the Koran - which demands that those recognised as being in charge of Muslims must consult together regarding society’s affairs. There is a whole chapter in the Koran entitled Consultation; in Arabic the word for that is Shura.
Communal wellbeing is central to human life, so there is a concept in Islam called Istihsan, which means “to look for the common good”. Even though the Koran may lay down a diktat, scholars are also supposed to consider the circumstances prevalent at the time. Sometimes that means choosing the lesser of two evils or even suspending legislation if necessary: for instance, a person who steals bread during a famine is not treated as a thief.
Once I wrote in a song, “Where do the children play?” It is hoped that opening Islamia school’s gates this week will herald a new day and a new dawn for children all over the world. Our sympathy and thoughts go out to the families of all those who lost their lives in this tragic act of violence, as well as all those injured. But life must go on. Children still need to play, and people need to live and learn more about their neighbours so that ignorance doesn’t breed more blind fanaticism. Moderation is part of faith, so those who accuse Muslim schools of fostering fanaticism should learn a bit more about Islam.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “Ruined are those who insist on hardship in faith,” and, “A believer remains within the scope of his religion as long as he doesn’t kill another person illegally.” Such knowledge and words of guidance are desperately needed at this time, to separate fact from falsehood, and to recognise the Last Prophet’s own definition of that which makes a person representative, or otherwise, of the faith he lived and the one we try to teach.