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Merryl Wyn Davies, an eminent and introspective thinker

26th Feb 2021
Merryl Wyn Davies, an eminent and introspective thinker

Merryl Wyn Davies: June 23, 1949 – February 1, 2021 (Photo credit: Muslim Institute/Facebook)

Merryl Wyn Davies was a writer and thinker, whose ideas helped shape the landscape of Muslim intellectual thought for over 40 years. She died on February 1 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, after suffering a heart attack following a period of ill health.

Born on June 23, 1949, in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, Davies grew up in a tight-knit, working-class, coal-mining community, an experience that instilled within her the values of social justice that would go on to inform her work up until her death. She wrote movingly in the quarterly Critical Muslim, as its associate editor, about the profound impact of the Aberfan Colliery disaster in 1966 that caused the death of 116 schoolchildren, just a short distance from Merthyr Tydfil.

Tragedies such as these, and her overwhelming quest for truth and equity, inspired her, after completing her A-levels at Cyfarthfa Grammar School, to read anthropology at University College London.

She never forgot her Welsh roots, returning periodically and metaphorically to her home town, keeping in constant touch with family and childhood friends, always waving the flag of the dragon at every opportunity, particularly when it came to her beloved rugby team. The Welsh team’s self-declared number one fan, all activities would be suspended whenever there was a match to be watched, wherever she happened to be.

Davies was a natural student of anthropology, fascinated by human behaviour and societies, and in possession of warmth and down-to-earth charm that endeared her to all she came into contact with. Frequently described as a larger-than-life character with a mischievous sense of humour, her ability to relate to people of all walks of life across class, religious and cultural boundaries drew her to a career in journalism that would alter the path of her life.

After graduation, she joined the BBC and spent the next decade working on religious programmes including the award-winning shows ‘Everyman’, ‘Heart of the Matter’ and ‘Global Report’; as well as the series, ‘Encounters with Islam.’

It was there that she struck up an intellectual rapport with the writer Ziauddin Sardar, which would span 40 years and culminate in a prolific body of scholarship that would deepen the understanding of British contemporary Islam.

What Davies pioneered was a ground-breaking approach to Islamic anthropology not previously applied in the study of Muslim communities. Her method was modelled on ibn Khaldūn notion of ‘ilm Imran, which she explained was a radical discourse shaped by dialogue between civilisations and cultures and based on a holistic understanding of what it means to be human.

Davies argued that an anthropological approach must be the most effective method for fostering understanding between and amongst people. As she details in Knowing One Another: Shaping an Islamic Anthropology, which was published in 1988, the study of human behaviour necessarily equips Muslims with both self-knowledge as well as an insight to facilitating meaningful engagement with non-Muslims on a plane of mutual tolerance.

The following year she co-edited Beyond Frontiers: Islam and Contemporary Needs where she argued that Muslims were duty-bound to serve the public; da’wa was about working for social justice, alleviating poverty and easing the burdens of the marginalised and the oppressed.

She believed Muslims had to play a crucial role in the future of the modern world and become architects of the solutions to the issues they face, instead of having solutions imposed upon them by those with suspect motivations that, if not nakedly Islamophobic, were hardly in the interests of Muslim communities.

Davies’s comprehension of Islam was vast and wide-ranging, and not confined to contemporary British Islam. Her encyclopaedic knowledge encompassed classical Islamic traditions catalogued by the likes of scholars from Ibn Rushd to Abu Hamid al-Ġhazali. She was well-read and expressed her arguments with robust eloquence. Those with whom she verbally duelled were soon jolted, having been lulled into false complacency by her jolly humour and semblance of a Welsh matronly air, which only served to veil a razor-sharp wit capable of quashing any ideas devoid of critical thought.

This knowledge is encapsulated in the various books she has written and co-authored and made her the ideal candidate to serve as Director of the re-launched Muslim Institute in 2010. Under her aegis the Institute moved closer to its aim of becoming a vibrant community of Fellows dedicated to ideas and debate, placing pluralistic, argued and considered positions in the public space.

A pivotal and invaluable figure in the Institute’s activities right up until her death, Davies helped ensure that a welcoming and inclusive space was created for critical thought, sharing ideas, expertise and interests among fellows and others.

Davies wrote three books on America, with her long-time friend and collaborator Sardar. The trilogy explored how the laws of American mythology are essential to understanding the psychology of America, the security state, its foreign policy and international behaviour.

Her love for travel led her across the world, deepening her disdain for what she witnessed in the form of US imperialism at its very worst. Her voracious appetite for books and films only further broadened the international perspectives that characterised her writing. There was not a corner of the world that she could not speak authoritatively on, either through visits or research.

She traversed the world developing her insights and adding to her burgeoning collection of artefacts, but it was to Malaysia that she lost her heart and where she was eventually laid to rest. She had spent much of the ‘80s and ‘90s working as a speechwriter for Opposition Leader and former Deputy PM, Anwar Ibrahim. It is fitting that she died while remaining firmly optimistic about the future of the Muslim world and striving to be part of the solution to its ills.

She converted to Islam in 1980, citing the work of Sardar, most specifically The Future of Muslim Civilisation, which had come out a year earlier, as strongly influencing her conversion journey.

Her father died when she was in her teens and her mother died a few years ago. She leaves behind an older brother, Peter and two nieces Emma and Becky, who she was close to. She did not marry or have children but is regarded by the Sardar family as their own and was a second mother to Ziauddin and his wife Saliha’s children Maha, Zaid and Zain, who she considered the children she never had.

Books authored by Davies:

Will America Change? with Ziauddin Sardar 2008

American Dream, Global Nightmare 2004

The No Nonsense Guide to Islam 2004

Why Do People Hate America? 2003

Introducing Anthropology 2002

Darwin and fundamentalism 2000

Barbaric Others: A Manifesto on Western Racism with Ashis Nandy 1993

Distorted Imagination: Lessons from the Rushdie Affair 1990

Beyond Frontiers: Islam & Contemporary Needs 1989

Faces of Islam: Conversations on Contemporary Issues 1989

Knowing one another: Shaping an Islamic anthropology 1988

Samia Rahman, Director, Muslim Institute


Independent, brave and principled

Angela Tilby Canon Emeritus, Christ Church Cathedral Oxford

Merryl was an extraordinary woman. Large, Welsh, passionate and opinionated she could easily dominate a conversation, but there was always good humour and genuine attentiveness.
I knew her during the ten years she spent working as a researcher and producer for the BBC’s Sunday night Everyman programme.

It was during this time, and partly as a result of research into the background of the Iranian revolution that she came to embrace Islam, this led her, through journalism to Malaysia where she spent ten years as a television producer and speechwriter for the Deputy PM, Anwar Ibrahim, before returning to the UK to work for the Muslim Council of Britain.

She and I connected again in 2013 when I invited her to take part in a Sunday night discussion at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford. She spoke movingly of her Welsh childhood and particularly of her father who had links with the chapels. Welsh Protestantism, she said, was very much about endurance, of surviving poverty and injustice while fighting for a better world.

She resonated with this, and it formed her perspective on life. She saw herself very much working-class while acknowledging that she acquired middle-class tastes when she entered the media world. She also spoke of how her interest in Islam was first sparked by school history lessons. She remembers being intrigued by the religious tolerance of the early Ottoman Empire – a contrast with the intolerance, which led to the struggles between Catholics and Protestants in Europe.

Merryl was impatient with what she saw as cultural externals in Islam. She dressed modestly but was uninterested in debates about headscarves and veils. It was much bigger cultural issues that concerned her and in the aftermath of 9/11 she wrote a best-selling analysis of American culture, Why do People Hate America?

After our Oxford conversation, she invited me to speak at a conference for young Muslim women. It was shortly after the Church of England had consecrated its first woman bishop, and she asked me to speak on women’s experience in the established church. I was impressed by how concerned she was about the future of young Muslim women in this country and also at the calibre of those attending. Intellectually able, culturally versatile, it was obvious that British Muslim women had great opportunities ahead.

Merryl was always an independent voice, brave, principled, orthodox in her faith, but daring in her expression of it. I shall miss her. May she rest in peace.


Intellectually deep with profound awareness

M Ahmedullah Secretary, Brick Lane Circle, and works for Stepney Community Trust.

It was incredibly sad to hear about the death of Merryl. I first got to know her from her writings published in the Afkar Inquiry magazine (1984-87), the best Muslim magazine ever. I would like to dedicate our next project called Knowing One Another through Philosophy in honour of Merryl and her legacy, especially her attempt to develop the field of Islamic Anthropology.

I am involved with an organisation in East London called Brick Lane Circle. Over several years we ran two projects called Knowing One Another and Knowing One Another Through the Art of Drama. We are about to start the third project on the same theme called Knowing One Another Through Philosophy.

We borrowed the name of the series of community cohesion project from one of Merryl’s book on Islamic anthropology titled Knowing One Another.

Her articles helped me develop certain perspectives on challenges that I was grappling with during the 1980s. Later, they helped me achieve clarity on many issues and provided additional tools for my battles against barriers and intellectual imprisoning that I was experiencing.

An example of an article that she wrote, which was of particular interest to me was when she compared the works of Maulana Maududi and Dr Ali Shariati. I was intensely interested in the writings and transcribed speeches of Shariati, which had a profound impact on me – probably the experiences of many others who developed some familiarity with his creative energy, moral sense and clear perspectives.

For me, Maududi was the opposite of Shariati – intellectually weaker and out of touch with reality. What also disappointed me about Maududi was how, while trying to elevate the status of women in Islam, he completely caused its collapse by claiming that you would never find great thinkers among women. He provided the names of several philosophers from ancient Greece to 19th Century Europe likes of which women will fail to achieve because of their intellectual and rational inferiority and limits compared to men.

Merryl was a very kind and creative soul, who came without hesitance when requested to speak at many events that we organised in the East End during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.

She once invited me to her flat in Golders Green, where she established an intellectual discussion with a group of young Muslim intellectuals in the early 1990s. Merryl was intellectually deep with a profound awareness of social and historical forces/processes. She wanted to make positive contributions to society and help improve communication/understanding and breakdown misconceptions between people, especially Islam and the non-Muslim world.

A few years ago, Merryl invited me to the Muslim Institute, saying that she had not seen me for a long time. I did not manage to go but attended one of their annual speeches, given by Bhikku Parekh, a few years ago, hoping to see Merryl, but she could not be there on that occasion.

I feel so sad that I did not make the effort to go and see this incredible soul while she was alive. This reminds everyone that life is unpredictable and as such we should always make the effort to keep in touch with, visit and support people we respect, love and wish well.


Unique brand of soft power

M Iqbal Asaria Associate at Afkar Consulting Ltd

It was a moment of profound sadness when I learn about the passing away of Merryl in Malaysia. She had been a very dear and cherished colleague for over forty years. She always used to address me as “Iggie” as a mark of her endearment.

Merryl and I came to know each other when I put together an editorial team to publish the Afkar Inquiry monthly magazine. We had managed to establish a team of writers who enabled us to publish a world-class magazine reflecting on events and ideas in the Muslims world. To this day people from all around the world comment on the cutting edge ideas which were covered in the magazine.

The early eighties was a time when the post-Islamic Revolution in Iran and post Arab nationalist regimes in the Middle East, Muslims were taking stock of their situation. Afkar articulated these currents via a worldwide team of editors who brought a diverse range of perspectives to the table.

Assembled here were, Parvez Manzoor, Sardar, Munawwar Ahmed Anees, Ibraheem Sulayman, Ahmed J Versi, Karim Al Rawi, Abdel Wahhab Effendi and Gulzar Haider amongst many others. Merryl was instrumental in persuading us not to limit ourselves to traditional issues but to explore them widely. So, we had coverage of news, analysis of events, and discussion on major themes like the role of the Shari’ah, the place of Human Rights Discourse in the Muslim World, the choice between the USA and China, the Islamisation of Knowledge amongst other themes. We also had extensive coverage of arts and crafts in the Muslim world.

Merryl with her unique brand of Welsh soft power was able to persuade the more traditional amongst us to embrace this diverse flowering of thought as part of our heritage to be proud of rather than shunned as outside the pale. We also were able to critically examine the thoughts of diverse scholars like Maulana Abu Al’a Maudoodi, Rashid Turabi, Sheikh Rashid Ghanoushi and Ismail Raji Farooqi amongst others.

Once Afkar wound up, Merryl joined with parts of the Afkar team to found the Critical Muslim quarterly at the Muslim Institute. The Critical Muslim, now in its tenth year, has carried the tradition of fearless exploration in the spirit of Afkar. It was always a pleasure to meet with Merryl at the gathering of the Muslim Institute to continue our dialogue. As always, I learnt a lot from the wiley Welsh sister! Merryl will be sorely missed but never forgotten.


A mentor and friend

Rumman Ahmed Geo-Economic & Geo-Strategic Analyst

Merryl was a mentor and friend for over 30 years. She had a truly remarkable hinterland of knowledge spanning over a multi-disciplinary range of subjects. It was always such a joy to speak to her. If a Muslim issue caused me grief, I would call her and speak to her for ages.

She was very generous with her time. She had an all-round huge spirit of generosity. And besides her wisdom, her sagacity and her tact were all of the legendary stuff. Such friends would be hard to come by. May Allah SWT forgive her sins and grant her Jannat ul Firdaws. Ameen.


A visionary woman

M M Khan Author of The Muslim 100 (2008) and Great Muslims of the West (2017)

Merryl felt Muslims needed to develop a greater critical awareness and understanding of Islamic history, which is lacking across the Muslim world. Both of us agreed that there was an urgent need for formulating a critical, inclusive and holistic approach, thus transcending existing theological, sectarian and partisan interpretations of more than 14 centuries of Muslim history, culture and thought.

She was a learned and visionary woman, being proud of her multiple identities as a Muslim, Welsh and a woman. May the Almighty grant her Jannat al Firdaws al-Ala for defending the honour of the Prophet PBUH at a time when Muslims struggled to articulate their collective feelings, hurt, frustration and distress.

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