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Forging Intra-Faith Muslim unity in UK

29th Jan 2016
Forging Intra-Faith Muslim unity in UK

Then Secretary General of MCB, Farooq Murad emphasising the importance of unity among Muslims at the launch of Intra Faith Unity Statement (Photo:MCB Intra-Faith Statement)

Dr Shuja Shafi

We are blessed in the UK to have one of the most diverse Muslim communities on earth. Outside of the annual Hajj where the world’s Muslim converge, the UK can rightly be proud in hosting Muslim communities from all four corners of the earth.

That diversity was recognised when the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) was formed in 1997. Organisations belonging to both Sunni and Shi’i traditions became founding members of the MCB. From its very inception the MCB has been ever mindful that Britain’s Muslims belong to a community of communities. We are united in our belief in one God, His last Prophet and the religion laid out for us to follow.

As the years have gone by, successive leaderships in the MCB have benefitted from having members from both the Sunni and Shi’i traditions. Together they have worked tirelessly on issues that affect Muslims regardless of sect or background: whether that be challenging Islamophobia, presenting a consensus picture of British Muslim life, or lobbying with Government and other bodies to ensure Muslims are treated fairly and not discriminated against.

At the MCB, opportunities have also been formed for Muslims from different background to learn from one another and appreciate each other’s perspective. For example, in our successful Leadership Development Programme, a conscious attempt is made to ensure there is a diversity of Muslims participating in this annual initiative to teach people professional skills.

Over the years, intra-faith unity has been implicitly forged by undertaking activities that are in the common interests of Muslims and forge the common good. But we must never be complacent. Events outside the UK can negatively affect harmonious relations between Muslims and we must remain vigilant.

As early as 2004, following the disastrous war in Iraq, the MCB spoke out against sectarian attacks taking place in that country and in Pakistan. Even though the MCB is a British organisation – reserving comment that affects British Muslims or the Ummah at large – the MCB has spoken out against sectarian attacks as and when it affects Muslims here.

Concern about intra-faith relations grew however, following the Arab Spring and the civil war in Syria. As a result, in 2012, the MCB initiated its annual intra-faith iftar [breaking of fast during Ramadan], with the specific aim of getting Muslims to break bread together.

In 2013, the MCB condemned the activities of Anjem Choudhury and his small band who physically attacked a gentleman belonging to the Shi’i tradition. It also spoke out against a TV channel that was accused of fomenting anti-Sunni hatred.

Cognisant that more needed to be done in this area, the MCB followed this up by facilitating a historic ‘intra-faith unity statement’ between Muslim leaders of Sunni and Shi’i traditions. At a time of deepening sectarian tension in the Middle East and Muslim world, this document was drawn up to warn and ward off any threat to cross-sectarian unity in the UK. Signatories promised that ‘We shall respect each other and our differences and be sensitive to the personalities, places and events that any group amongst us hold in esteem.

In our respective disagreements, we shall abide by the Islamic manner (adab) of disagreement that is neither inflammatory nor insulting.’

The document was signed by Muslim leaders from a range of traditions. It was historic because Muslims from a diverse range of faith traditions came together to affirm their commitment to Muslim unity and pluralism.

This document continues to guide the MCB’s work to this day, and the Council encourages Muslims to take part and sign their affirmation.
Of course, such declarations are not enough and whenever the MCB has been informed of sectarianism, action has been taken to help those affected.

In the past year, the MCB has intervened in support of communities affected by sectarianism in Bradford, Newport, Leicester and Birmingham. Such infighting within Muslim communities is detrimental to our place in society – we must work together, in unity, for the common good. And the MCB will work with all that do.

Over the coming months I will seek to ensure we be more proactive in this area. I hope, for example, to initiate a programme of ‘mosque twinning’ where a mosque from one tradition partners up with a mosque from another tradition so that congregations can learn from each other and, insha Allah, benefit each other and forge a better understanding. Only by building deeper bonds can we as a Muslim community forge closer unity while maintaining our diversity.

Dr Shuja Shafi is Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain

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