A report which explores the philosophical and theological perspectives on what it means to be a Muslim in Britain today has been published.

The publication of the study, entitled “Contextualising Islam in Britain: Exploratory Perspectives” marks the culmination of a nine month research project by the University of Cambridge in association with the Universities of Exeter and Westminster.

A total of 26 Muslim scholars, academics and activists representing a diverse spectrum of views from Muslim communities in the UK took part in discussions about what it means to live as a Muslim in modern Britain. The report covers a wide range of issues including secularism, democracy, Shari’a law, human rights and citizenship.

The report presents the group’s conclusions and aims to act as the basis for a wider discussion with other Muslim leaders and communities around the UK. In time, it is hoped that this will lead to the development of a virtual “House of Wisdom”, providing space for discussion among both Muslims and non-Muslims on how Islam should function in modern Britain and contribute to wider society.

The research project was funded by the Department for Communities and Local Government but remained independent of both Government and the Universities involved.

Members were invited to participate by a steering committee of academics and activists. Members of the project set their own agenda, choosing items for discussion and meeting five times between February and May 2009 to debate these issues before producing the final report.

The document is, however, only intended to mark the start of the debate. “The report’s contents are the ideas of a small group and they need to be refined by a wider number of participants,” said Project leader Professor Yasir Suleiman, Director of the Centre of Islamic Studies at Cambridge.

“The process has already succeeded in bringing together Muslims from a wide range of backgrounds who, in spite of those different backgrounds, have been prepared to work together. What we want to do now is stimulate further dialogue with a wider group of Muslim leaders and communities.”

Minister for Communities Shahid Malik said: “This is a ground-breaking report from a wide cross-section of British Muslim scholars, academics and community leaders. I hope that this report by Cambridge will inspire wider debate from communities across the country on the values that we all share.

“Following the terrorist attacks in New York and London, many Muslim leaders expressed concern that their religion was being misrepresented and misinterpreted. The silent majority of Muslims have since fought hard to restate their religion as they see it and this report is an important contribution to that.”

Despite its exploratory nature, the report puts forward conclusions concerning a number of key areas.

The authors argue, for example, that a secular British state provides many benefits for British Muslims, not least by allowing Islam to be practiced freely in an atmosphere of respect, security and dignity.

The group agreed that Muslims should assert and teach what they see to be the truth of their faith, but also recognized the existence of different religions and the right of others to do the same. Their study urges Muslims to identify shared values between Islam and other world views, pointing out the Qu’ran’s emphasis on qualities such as good neighborliness, charity, hospitality and non-aggression.

The report also redefines a number of terms which the authors believe have been misinterpreted. It notes, for example, that both Muslims and non-Muslims often have “skewed understanding of the term Shari’a, which conjures up images of floggings and beheadings.”

In fact, it stresses, Shari’a is a way of life based on an ethical code that emphasizes dignity, equality and justice for all. Islam, it says, teaches the equality of all human beings regardless of gender.

Similarly, the study notes that “jihad” in its true sense refers to active citizenship, and is meant to encourage Muslims to strive for social justice, fight against poverty and make efforts to reform themselves.

In some, clearly defined, cases, it can also mean the legitimate use of force in self-defense. The authors add, however: “It is important to stress that Islam is opposed to all forms of terrorism, regardless of who sponsors them. While all legal systems recognize self-defense as a legitimate rationale for the use of force, it is clear that foreign conflicts cannot justify violence in Britain.”

Finally, the report says that Muslims have a responsibility to be active citizens and engage with society in a positive way. Political engagement is described as an obligation for Muslim citizens and voting is to be encouraged. This can, however, also involve questioning and challenging the state when it fails to uphold principles of justice.

Copies of the report are being supplied to the Government, community leaders and others, but it can also be downloaded by anyone online.

University of Cambridge in Association with the Universities of Exeter and Westminster

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