British Islam is dominated by culturally and theologically conservative south Asians. But the London bombs may help to make it more open to those who want to engage with the modern worldby Ehsan Masood / August 28, 2005 / Leave a comment
As the former home town of HG Wells (he wrote War of the Worlds there), George Bernard Shaw, Peter Gabriel and the Spice Girls, Woking occupies a special place in British cultural history. The town also has a special place in the history of British Islam, as the site of Britain’s oldest mosque. The building, which opened in 1889, is no bigger than a detached house and has a green, onion-shaped dome and matching minarets. Today it is hidden among a warren of houses and streets, but back then it must have been quite a sight, surrounded by fields and visible from the newly built railway.
A short drive from Woking mosque lies the 400-acre Brookwood cemetery. Among its 230,000 graves lie the remains of Marmaduke Pickthall and Abdullah Yusuf Ali, each of whom wrote a bestselling translation of the Koran in the 1930s. Yusuf Ali’s work is the closest Muslims have to an authorised translation in English. His biographer is Jamil Sherif, a British Pakistani, whose Searching for Solace tells us that Yusuf Ali was an ardent reformer who believed that Islam must learn from the west, move with the times, and develop a distinctive British form in the same way that it has a Bosnian, Chinese or Pakistani one.
I thought about Yusuf Ali and Pickthall in early July as the news sunk in that the four London suicide bombers were British Muslims. How disappointed the two men would have been not only by the suicide bombers themselves but by the state of the British Muslim world from which the bombers emerged.
British Muslims have rarely been out of the news since 9/11, and the subsequent discovery of a stream of British-born young Muslim men ready to kill abroad in the name of Islam. But the London bombs have focused attention on British Muslims with an intensity not seen since 1989, when many of us took to the streets to protest against Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. Sixteen years ago, most ordinary Muslims were angry and defensive. The overwhelming reflex was to call for more censorship, disregarding British traditions of free speech. When Rushdie was sentenced to death by Ayatollah Khomeini, several imams at the London Central mosque tried to intervene on his behalf, but were denounced as traitors. I can vividly recall reporting from a meeting at the mosque that Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) tried to…