Islam is the second largest religion in the UK with more than 3 million adherents. Muslims are regionally spread across Britain, covering a wide spectrum of ethnicities and races. With this come many challenges in the way Islam is understood by the wider non-Muslim population.
In recent months, and arguably for some years now, there has been an ongoing debate amongst British politicians, academics and journalists with regards to what constitutes as “mainstream Islam”. Due to a number of misconceptions being irresponsibly disseminated by sections of the British media, mainstream politicians and far-right groups, a state of confusion over what is “real Islam” has arisen.
Here in the UK, numerous Islamic beliefs and practices are currently under the spotlight, in many cases, due to the blowback from geopolitical events occurring in the Muslim majority world. The labelling of Muslims as “moderates”, “liberals”, “reformists”, “conservatives”, “extremists” and “Islamists” has become the norm in Britain. Inevitably, this has resulted in division within the Muslim community, as well as misunderstandings amongst Britain’s non-Muslim public.
In response to this environment of ambiguity, 5Pillars commissioned research in an attempt to establish what qualifies as the basic tenets of the Islamic faith, as understood by 150 mainstream Muslim scholars, academics and professionals belonging to a variety of theological, political and sectarian backgrounds.
The desired aim of this research entitled the “Normative Islam Report” is to provide an empirical reference point for the media, academics and policymakers when ascertaining what qualifies as mainstream Islam. 5Pillars felt that if this objective could be quantified, it could assist in educating the wider British public in understanding what mainstream Islam is.
5Pillars were confident that while British Muslims are not a homogeneous group with a single designated figurehead, the many influential leaders from among them would demonstrate a pattern of religious consensus in the twelve categories of Islamic beliefs and practices we selected for a survey.
Judging from the consistent documentation of Islamic history throughout fourteen centuries, it is well-known that theological, juristic and sectarian differences have always existed within the boundaries set by Islamic scriptures – the main sources of Shariah law. However, these differences within an Islamic paradigm allowed Muslim scholars and theologians to robustly deal with new realities according to the Quranic text and the Prophetic teachings.
Unlike the systematic reformation that Christianity underwent in Europe during the sixteenth century which subsequently led to the period known as the “Enlightenment”, the Islamic world is yet to experience such a wholesale transition. This is a historical testimony that the societal effects of Christianity and Islam cannot be treated and understood in the same manner, as the latter had always allowed an impressive degree of flexibility to deal with new realities without having to alter the Quran and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad. 5Pillars feel that this is still the case with Islam in the twenty-first century.
The Normative Islam Report should not be treated as a definitive representation of the beliefs of mainstream Muslims, but as an insight to what influential British Muslims consider as the basic tenets of their faith.
Admittedly, like most if not all researches of this nature, there were some methodological weaknesses. The lack of qualitative substance in the 95 survey statements we formulated restricted the dimension in which the participants’ religious opinions could have been elaborated upon with contextualisation of socio-political realities. Another methodological constraint was that 5Pillars had assumed what mainstream Islamic beliefs and practices were, and we used this to engage the participants.
I hope that the Normative Islam Report will benefit both Muslims and non-Muslims in Britain, facilitating further dialogue in order to strengthen community cohesion and mutual tolerance.
You can read and download the full report here.