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Founded on Ideals - The Islamic foundation

Founded on Ideals - The Islamic foundation

Issue 8 Nov / Dec 2004

First Published on November/December 2004

To access the issue page, click here 


The Islamic Foundation is situated in the grounds of an old hospital at Markfield, a sleepy village nestling between the M1 motorway and Charnwood Forest. The intriguing history of the building is possibly explained by the fact that Markfield is eputed to be one of the highest villages in Leicestershire and therefore apparently one of the coldest! The current peaceful location is a far cry from the humble beginnings of this pioneering establishment – a testament to the tireless efforts of those involved in its’ evolution. 

The Foundation emerged out of an ethos that has remained constant as it has evolved. Professor Khurshid Ahmad founded the organisation while he was a student in the UK in 1973, working from his bedroom and driven by an aim to promote a better understanding of Islam within the Muslim community and beyond, as well as to foster healthy relations between Muslims and others. From this simple set-up, Professor Ahmad, who now mainly divides his time between the Foundation and the Institute of Policy Studies in Pakistan, eventually was able to secure premises in Leicester - first a warehouse and then a large house donated to the Foundation by a benefactor - before moving The Islamic Foundation to Markfield, a space conducive to philosophical and spiritual reflection, introspection and intellectual rigour. 

Dilwar Hussain is a Research Fellow at the Institute, pursuing a PhD exploring the experience of Muslims living in a minority and the way in which this existence impacts upon Islamic law. He conducts research on identity and citizenship and has also edited some Islamic Foundation publications including ‘British Muslims between Assimilation and Segregation’ which cultivate the issues of identity among British Muslims in the UK. Dilwar explains the various activities of the Foundation, “One of our endeavours is to encourage a forward-thinking and more contextualised approach to living as European Muslims in the UK, which includes an emphasis on inter-faith co-operation. We do this through various means such as our publications which have included the renowned ‘To Be a European Muslim’ by Tariq Ramadan.” The Foundation does not confine its efforts to academic studies, as Anwar Cara of the Islamic Foundation Publishing House asserts, “We create educational resources for children.” He discusses the fact that there is a need for good quality children’s books to introduce youngsters to Islam and normalise the practice of faith so that it is a cohesive element central to their lives. “We need to teach positive psychology to children and our titles convey such messages: ‘I Can read the Qur’an’, ‘I Can wear hijab’, ‘I Can pray’. These are practical and engaging stories that Muslim children can relate to, inspiring them to be proud of their religion and suggesting solutions to the common obstacles they perceive in the adherence to their faith in a non-Muslim environment.” Some children’s books look at scientific processes revealed in the Qur’an, “We have an illustrated publication exploring the water cycle, as mentioned in the Qur’an. We capture the imagination of the children by turning a droplet of water into a character and the children are invited to travel along the water cycle journey with this character.”

 Another strand of activity within the Islamic Foundation is the New Muslim Project co-ordinated by Batool al Toma who identified a need to support individuals who had recently embraced Islam. “The project was established 12 years ago to ease the transition between a convert’s previous situation and their new situation. We provide advice, counselling and social and spiritual programmes to help them along their journey so that their new-found Islam fits comfortably into their daily routine and is not insurmountable or an overwhelming lifestyle upheaval.” Batool sees the NMP as a service provision. “We publish ‘A Simple Guide to Prayer’ which is an accessible introduction that doesn’t confuse or intimidate new Muslims. We have also established local networks around the country to welcome and support people who are interested in Islam or have recently embraced Islam. The ‘Meeting Point’ monthly newsletter is another resource that brings together New Muslims.” Batool has found that the most common problems facing new Muslims involve the fear of not being able to relate to, or be accepted by their family and friends as well as the obstacles they will encounter within the Muslim community itself. “We make converts aware of the pitfalls within the general Muslim community who often confuse matters because of their own lack of knowledge concerning jurisprudence and the obligatory and optional changes required at conversion.” In addition, the current climate of Islamophobia and media portrayal of Muslims as terrorists has led to converts feeling, “as if their sense of security has changed. They are searching to define their own identity and establish where they fit in with the larger Islamic community, the ummah, which becomes a burden of responsibility they are learning to bear.”

 This burden of responsibility impacted upon the Foundation itself in recent months when The Times published an erroneous article linking the Foundation with ‘terrorists.’ Such a serious and unfounded allegation came as a shock to all those involved in the Foundation, which has a 30-year record of bridge-building between the Muslim community and wider society. Dr Manazir Ahsan, Director General of the Islamic Foundation has worked on the project since the inception.

 “It has grown from humble beginnings to a mature status, now with 50 employees and 300 publications. We are stunned that our efforts over the past 31 years have been so belittled and linked to terrorism without any proof.” For Dr Ahsan this tumult comes hard on the heels of personal tragedy. His wife was rendered virtually comatose four years ago after a routine hospital operation went wrong yet Dr Ahsan maintains his commitment to the Foundation in the face of great emotional strain. “I manage to visit my wife in hospital every day and I ask your readers to remember her in their prayers. It saddens me deeply that while I remain dedicated to the Foundation despite the pain of seeing my wife so ill, people who know nothing of our efforts seek to compound my anguish. It seems that the anti-Islamic lobby which has focussed up until now on fringe elements such as al-Qaeda, has decided to direct its attention to mainstream individuals and institutions with the aim of bringing them into disrepute. Perhaps they do not want Islamic work to be peaceful and harmonious and are opposed to the healthy interfaith ethos that informs so much of the work carried out at the Foundation.” The effect of the article has been to dent the credibility of the Foundation, “Such negative publicity, despite the fact that it is untrue, has set us back in terms of funding and PR.” Dilwar elaborates, “As a result of The Times article, overseas students have been impeded in their efforts to study at the Foundation and are given the impression that this is an academy facilitating the pursuit of extremism, when the reality is quite the opposite.”

 Dr Ahsan relates, “The idea of establishing an Institute for learning has been a dream for us for many years and by confirming an affiliation with Portsmouth University and then Loughborough University, this gave us a stature and recognition that resonates across the world to the extent that our students come from thirteen different countries. However, the article published in The Times has undermined this, for example, causing one British University to pull out of a major joint funding bid.” The consequences of the article in the Times are far-reaching and the Foundation did seek to counter the issues and accusations raised by inviting the writer to visit them. However, The Foundation has been snubbed at every attempt to make contact.

 The ethos of the Islamic Foundation is as far-removed from any purport of terrorism as can be imagined. Indeed, the contextualised approach to Muslim identity in the UK is resolutely nurturing harmony within the larger community. The strong inter-faith premise of the seminars, lectures and programmes of study taking place at the Foundation is indicative of the active role non-Muslims play: the Foundation was visited by HRH The Prince of Wales; it maintains strong links with Church groups as well as organising Cultural Awareness Training programmes that introduce Islam and Muslims to the professional sector. According to Dilwar, “Most of our clients are police officers, and other public sector staff, who wish to find out more about diversity issues in the work-place and develop an understanding and sensitivity to the needs of Muslims.”

 Practical applications of Islam and the Muslim community in Britain are the focus of the courses at Markfield Institute of Higher Education. Dr Fatma Amer is one of the co-ordinators of the Mosque Management course, “We want to raise awareness of how a Mosque should be run efficiently. Too many mosques are run in a very ad hoc manner by people who are not properly qualified, resulting in division and conflict. Teamwork is a problem within the Muslim community and this is something we wish to address.” She also teaches on the Certificate of Muslim Chaplaincy course, “We train individuals to become Muslim Chaplains and they usually go on to work in prisons, the NHS, education institutions among others. We are also producing a significant number of female chaplains who are currently under-represented.” The Chaplaincy course represents the Islamic Foundation’s inter-faith ethos well. It was developed through extensive consultation with and learning from the Church and members of the clergy are present on the assessment panel and advisory board.

 The Islamic Foundation is a seat of learning, leading the way in areas such as identity politics. Dr Ataullah Siddiqui is the Director of Markfield Institute of Higher Education, “I have been involved with Markfield since 1982, initially as Editor of ‘Encounters’ and co-ordinater of the interfaith unit. Recognition of the changing situation over the years enabled us to broaden our focus.” Dr Siddiqui teaches three MA programmes, validated by Loughborough University, reflecting his academic interests of Inter-Faith Studies, Christian-Muslim Relations, Islam and Pluralism. “The teaching at Markfield intends to introduce the contemporary condition of Muslims living in the UK, beyond the Qur’an and Sunnah. There is a demand upon Muslims to rise to the challenge and traditions of modernity explored within the prism of Islamic teachings.” Dr Siddiqui finds that Islam has a diverse accent depending on where you are in the world. “Britain is developing an Islam that is rooted in the Islamic tradition yet open to Western educational norms. Our students debate constantly evolving concepts and ideals that invoke many questions, the answers to which become a central quest in their own lives. They are encouraged to study philosophy and empiricism without losing the roots of revelation to discover how far they can go within the framework of Islam.”

 Markfield is at the forefront of research into Islamic Economics. Dr Mehmet Asutay is a Senior Lecturer, teaching on the Islamic Management, Banking and Finance MA. “The Islamic Foundation contributed to the development of the Islamic banking system that many of the High Street Banks in the UK now offer. In fact the idea for institutions such as the newly launched Islamic Bank of Britain came about as a result of a conference organised by the Islamic Foundation.”

 This application of academic discourse is complimented by Markfield’s well-stocked library which, “houses the largest collection of resources and material on Islamic economics in Europe,” Dilwar impresses. “The wealth of resources available here include rare publications that simply will not be found anywhere else, such as complete volumes of The Islamic Review produced in Woking from 1918, as well as Inquiry magazine which was published during the 1980s and boasts among its contributing editors the likes of Ziauddin Sardar and Parvez Manzoor.” The various projects and initiatives undertaken by the Islamic Foundation are punctuated by an aim to encourage Muslims to venture outside the realm of comfortable or even insular attitudes and engage in their role as citizens of Europe. That this centre for progress has been branded ‘terrorist’ by the media is reason enough for the work at Markfield, seeking to shatter misconceptions about Muslims, continues with a renewed urgency.  

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