Monday, 25 May 2015

The First Forum of Imams in the UK

The First Forum of Imams in the UK

 Dr. Mozammel Haque

One-day Conference on “The First Forum of Imams in the UK” was organized by the Islamic Cultural Centre (ICC) London in cooperation with the International Masajid Organisation, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, an Affiliate of the Makkah-based Muslim World League, Saudi Arabia, was held at the Library Hall of the Centre, on Thursday, the 26th of March, 2015.

The Conference has three sessions besides the Opening session and the Closing session. The conference started with the recitation of the verses from the Holy Qur’an. Dr. Ahmed al-Dubayan, Director General of the Islamic Cultural Centre, London, welcomed the speakers, participants, imams and the audiences. Mr. Khaled Banakhar, Representative of the International Masajid Organisation, spoke about the organization; Dr. Naji Al-Arfaj, Deputy Cultural Attaché of the Saudi Arabian Cultural Bureau, London, spoke on the Role of Masajid in Islam. Lord Mohammed Sheikh, Peer of the House of Lords, British Parliament delivered the Opening speech at the Opening session.

Session One was chaired by Mr. Khaled Banakhar and Dr. Ahmed al-Dubayan spoke on the topic “Challenges facing mosques & Imams in the West”; Dr. Farooq Murad, Director General of the Islamic Foundation, Leicester, UK, read the paper on “Role of Imams in Combating Islamophobia”; Sir Robin Knowles, A Judge of the High Court of England and Wales,  read his paper on “Legal Aspects of the Imam’s Role” and Dr. Alhagi Manta Drammeh, read his paper on “Mosques and Imams in a Multicultural Society”.

Session Two was chaired by Dr. Mohammad Ahdash. Dr. Muhammad Abdul Bari, former Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain and a trustee of the East London Mosque, delivered a paper on “Maximising the Effectiveness of our Mosques”; Sheikh (Dr.) Omar El-Hamdoon, President of the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), London, delivered a paper on “Qualifications of Imams”; Dr. Saeed Alghadie delivered a paper on “Developing Islamic Discourse in Islamic Associations;” and Sheikh Khalifa Ezzat, Imam of the Regents Park Central Mosque & Islamic Cultural Centre, delivered a paper on “The Role of Imams in Interfaith” Arabic).

Session Three was on Workshop.

Opening Session
Dr. Ahmed Dubayan
While welcoming the speakers, participants, Imams and the audience, Dr. Ahmed Al-Dubayan, Director General of the Islamic Cultural Centre, said the subject of Masajid and Imams is very important. He expressed his hope that the conference will “achieve some points of views of our Muslim community to help each other and to put some strategic views ahead for our future generation, Insha Allah.”

While expressing his thanks to the International Masajid Organizations for “giving this chance to work together and to have this remarkable marvelous gathering for discussion about this very important subject, Dr. al-Dubayan said, “It is about the future of the Muslim community in this country and that of Europe and the minorities in the East and the West, because of the work of the Imams.”

Dr. Naji Al-Arfaj
Dr. Naji Al-Arfaj, Deputy Attaché of the Saudi Arabian Cultural Bureau, London, mentioned about his topic “the Zikr or the inheritance of our Prophet (peace be upon him) as the Imam Huraira told that the people who go to the Masjid to get the part of the inheritance of the Prophet (peace be upon him). So this is the inheritance of the Prophet (peace be upon him) the Masajid.

Actually Dr. al-Arfaj wanted to talk about something “practical”.  He said, “It is indeed the Imam or the Dayee or the head of the organization who can activate Masjid. It is how to make the Role of Masjid active through our efforts. So, we all of us can make a difference.”

Dr. Al-Arfaj suggested five step which makes the Role of Masajid more attractive and how to treat others.

The first step: Dr. Al-Arfaj said, “We need sincerity and specialty; so we do it first of all. We specialized in certain aspects .This is your field; so try your best to be as practical as possible in your field. So you cannot gather in other field other than this Masjid. So we need to be professional and perfect in reaching out to others. This is the first step.”

The second step: Dr. Al-Arfaj mentioned, “We should have strong determination that yes we can make a difference. Why some Islamic centres, some Masajid backward or very lazy, why? So through determination we have to make a difference. The second part of it is management; the big vision. We as a Masjid resources management.  We have resources in the Muslim community; how to manage all these things. I have to talk about many things about management. We have Dr. Ahmed Makhdoum specialized in strategic plan. We can learn from each other, from workshop, from dayee and to support each other. This is the second step.”

The third step, Dr. al-Arfaj mentioned, is “Just be updated. Be updated what is going on, for example, How can we reach out to the youth without using the social media, for example, in our age, in order to reach out to the youth we want to create twitter, face book and others, We need to be updated. This is the third step to be updated.”

The fourth step is counsel in the Islamic centres and Masajid. Dr. Al-Arfaj talked about the first impression about the Islamic centres and Masajid. He mentioned, “Go to the place, for example, the shoes.  Is this the first impression that you like to give to the visitors. How the shoes are spread at the doors and at the gates. That is the First impression. We invite non-Muslims and they walk and step on shoes.”

Dr. Al-Arfaj gave his practical experience. He said, “I went on a couple of years ago. I was in New Zealand. There was a training course; we invited numbers of Church leaders and numbers of synagogues leaders; they came in and they came stepping on the shoes of the Muslims. Putting their shoes on the doors; Wallahe. I cannot forget that impression. They are stepping on the shoes. Is this the good impression? So we need to have this johdah in our services.”

The last step that we need is the Dua.  

Lord Mohammed Sheikh
Lord Mohammed Sheikh, Peer of the House of Lords of the British Parliament, in his Guest of Honour speech at the Opening session of the First Forum of Imams in the UK, explained first the importance of holding this conference at this time. He said, “It is important to hold this Conference as we are going through a critical phase and our glorious religion has been severely criticised in several quarters. In combating this criticism we must be pro-active and reactive and take positive steps as a community.”

“Unfortunately because of the action of a small minority we are all being to some extent painted with the same brush,” Lord Sheikh mentioned and added, “It is therefore imperative that all Muslims irrespective of what school of thought they belong to must take remedial action to dispel misunderstanding of our religion and promote the true message of Islam.”

Problems Muslims face
Lord Sheikh mentioned some of the problems Muslims are facing. He said, “These problems relate to the following issues: 1. Radicalisation 2. Identity crisis. 3. Education standards. 4. Empowerment of women. 5. Deprivation. 6. Low property ownership. 7. Grooming by the Muslims. 8. High population of Muslims in prison. 9. Islamic method of slaughter. 10. Lack of integration. I can talk on every topic at some length but our concentration today is on the issues relating to Imams and Mosques.”

There are nearly 1500 mosques in the United Kingdom and mosques are indeed an integral part of our community.

Talking about problems, Lord Sheikh said, “I believe that sometimes problems arise because non-Muslims do not understand our principles and difficulties arise out of misunderstanding. It is therefore imperative on all of us to explain what the real Islamic principles are. I believe that every one of us whether he is a Politician, Imam or a member of our faith is an Ambassador to promote the true principles of Islam.

Mentioning about the tiny minority among the Muslim community, Lord Sheikh said, “Unfortunately there is a tiny minority who have hijacked Islamic and totally distorted the true principles of Islam. I believe that to some extend the mosques and the Imams do have a role to play to guide our young in the understanding of Islam.”

“Last week I was speaking at a Conference where the other speakers were Muslim and one of the speakers said that it was about time we reformed Islam. My immediate answer was that we cannot reform Islam,” mentioned Lord Sheikh and added, “Our Holy Qur’an contains the words of Allah Subhana wa Taalla which were revealed to our Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) by Angel Jibrael. The Qur’an, therefore, contains words of Allah Subhanaah wa Taalla and we the people cannot change what is written in the Quran.”

Prophet Mohammed peace be upon him said at Arafat :
People, no prophet or apostle will come after me and no new faith will be born. Reason well, therefore, O People, and understand words which I convey to you. I leave behind me two things, the QUR’AN and my example, the SUNNAH and if you follow these you will never go astray.

Lord Sheikh said, “We do need our Imams to explain the Islamic principles and tell the Muslims and everyone in the country what the Islamic principles are. Islam clearly forbids forcible conversions and there is no compulsion in Islam.”

Rules of Engagement in warfare
“We need our scholars and Imams to emphasise the true principle of Islam and contradict the wrong impressions given by these fighters in Syria and Iraq. The rules of engagement in warfare were laid down over 1,400 years ago and have been incorporated in the Geneva Convention in the West recently.  The West has learned our principles and unfortunately some of our Muslims have not done so,” said Lord Sheikh.

About the Youth
Talking about the youth, Lord Sheikh said, “We should also explain to our young population the true principles of Islam and here I think the Mosques and Imams have a role to play as these issues can be incorporated in the sermons.”

Speaking about the sermon at the Mosque, Lord Sheikh said, “The total population of Muslims in the United Kingdom is nearly three million and a third of the Muslims are under the age of 15. There is therefore a significant number of Muslims who are young. Most of them are born here and a number of them do not know their mother tongue and the only language they speak is English. It is therefore important that the sermons and speeches in mosques and community centre should be in English as much as possible. Furthermore in the sermons and speeches we should talk about issues which are relevant to the young people.”

Lord Sheikh also mentioned, “I think that every mosque or community centre should have a youth group which arranges activities which are of interest to the young people. They can hold appropriate discussions, have sports facilities, social clubs and have outings. In addition we should engage with the young by perhaps involving them in the strategy of what the mosque should be undertaking.”

About women
Speaking about women empowerment, Lord Sheikh mentioned, “The other important thing in regard to mosques is involvement of women. I am a great believer in empowerment of women and I feel there should be a ladies group in every mosque and there should be facilities for ladies to pray.”

Mosque as venues of integration
Speaking about Mosques, integration and interfaith, Lord Sheikh suggested, “I believe that mosques should become more than place of worship. They must be used as venues of integration for the Muslims. Mosques should have open days as part of wider programme to support interfaith dialogue. Mosques must have programmes where people of other faiths are invited to the mosques.  We should have “Visit my mosque day” periodically where mosques open their door to the general public. Everybody could be invited in and perhaps given refreshments and making everybody comfortable and explain what we do in the mosque.”

“We should make every effort to become part of the community. We must therefore be visible and be seen to do be doing things with members of the wider community,” Lord Sheikh said.

Political participation
Lord Sheikh said, “I would like to say that we should encourage our Muslim community to be involved in the political scene and perhaps encourage them to join a political party of their choice. By doing so there would have a say as to who their next Member of Parliament or Councillor will be.”

“The Muslims represent 5% of the British population and at least 5% of the British Parliamentarians should be Muslims. The total number of Parliamentarians in United Kingdom is 1,450 and we would like to see at least 70 Muslim members of House of Commons and House of Lords. We have the General Election coming up on 7th May and we should encourage all the Muslims to vote for the Party of their choice,” mentioned Lord Sheikh.

About the training of Imams
Finally Lord Sheikh mentioned about the training of Imams. He said, “I think that some of our Imams do require training in communicating with the congregation and in this regard I am supporting the courses which have been organised by the University of East London for the training of Imams. I am pleased to hear about training courses organised by Mr Khalid Banakhar in Saudi Arabia. I think it would be very useful if these courses could be introduced in the United Kingdom.”

Shari’ah Courts
 Speaking about Shari’ah Courts, Lord Sheikh pointed out, “I have heard criticism of Sharia Courts particularly from the ladies. I am in favour of Sharia Courts but we must arrive at decisions which are fair and equitable to all the parties in the event of matrimonial disputes. The decision should be fair to the man as well as the women.”

Dr. Dubayan’s closing remarks
At the end of the Opening session, Dr. Al-Dubayan made some closing remarks. In his closing remarks, Dr. Al-Dubayan said, “He agreed with all the points Lord Sheikh have raised in his speech about the development of the Mosque.” He said we have to talk about this lack of important things in our organizations before somebody else talk about it.

About ISIS
Commenting on the problem within the Muslim community, Dr. Al-Dubayan said, “These small tiny minority, the individuals, I cannot call them even small minority, those who adopt this cruel racism do not represent Islam as a faith or do not represent the majority of Muslims. Those are their interpretation of faith and this has been condemned by almost all scholars everywhere in the world; and even by scholars, by organizations by everybody. We should also condemn all the evil things done by the ISIS or done by other militias or done by anybody. Any atrocity or killing of innocent people vandalizing properties or destroying any country should be condemned and should not be tolerant with this kind of things.”

Engagement of Women
Commenting on the empowerment of women, Dr. Al-Dubayan said, “I have followed what you have said about the engagement of women. In our Muslim community in the UK the empowerment of women, the role of women is small than it should be. I am talking generally; but there are organizations founded by women doing lots of activities. Remember; I am talking generally now.”

Engagement of Youth
Commenting on engagement of youth, Dr. Al-Dubayan said, “Engagement of youth is a must now. It’s not an option; it is must now. I think I can see there is a movement now in the Islamic organizations towards this area little by little.”

“But we should not forget that Muslim organizations have problems of finance; they have problems of administrations. I want all these developments should take place one day and Insha Allah it is coming. We work together but we should not forget the challenges especially in the finances which are really the Muslim organizations are facing. Muslim organizations till today are really relying on donations,” mentioned Dr. Al-Dubayan and added, “I do not know any Muslim organizations which can put actually plan ahead for two years with a certain budget they have going to have with certain planning action plan. They put plans but they cannot work on the plan actually what they want to do; because they do not have enough budgets or enough finance or financial support; this is something very very important. I am going to talk about this in my paper.”

Encouraging Muslims about elections,
Commenting on casting votes and participate in elections, Dr. al-Dubayan said, “Encouraging Muslims about elections, I think, this is an important action. We talked about it two/three years ago.  We had a talk here about Islam and Democracy. We talked about it and we said in general actually and our Imams have talked about elections in Friday sermons encouraging Muslims to go to vote. We Muslims in this country or in other European countries vote to change to happen.”

“We talked about other minorities who succeeded in things. When they participate they became enter into the political arena; and that’s why they have this success; they have this achievement. So if you want to have change you have to engage also in elections. To stay aside will not bring any change. They wish one day there will be change.  No; you have to engage. You have to engage with media; you have to engage in the political area; you have to engage in the political process of the country; you have to use your right actually as a British citizen; actually as the Lord Sheikh said. This is very very important.

Language issue
Commenting on the issue of language, Dr. Al-Dubayan said, “The issue of language, it is an issue in the Muslim community. Even some minorities, the communities within the Muslim communities they are sometime little bit isolated because of the language.”

English the Lingua Franca for everybody
“I think English is the lingua Franca for everybody in the Muslim community and I think the other languages are going to go away little by little from the area and English is going to dominate the whole and English would be the only language of the Muslim community because the new generation; the sons, the daughters or the children of the Arabs, Pakistanis, Indians, Africans and Asians; they don’t speak Arabic as their fathers do.  They don’t speak Urdu, Sohaili; they do not speak other Muslim languages. They speak English as a first language and then other Islamic languages,” observed Dr. al-Dubayan.

Arabic – the language of the Qur’an
While commenting on the issue of language, Dr. Al-Dubayan emphasized the special importance of Arabic language. He said, “But the other Islamic languages are very important; as literature, as background, as culture. Of course, we should have given some attention paying but also to be in the society, English. Arabic language, of course, has the special importance. This is the language of the Qur’an. So we must have taught Arabic language in all Islamic organizations. We have to support it as much as we can; because it is the access for our children to go to read and learn the Qur’an, the language in which it was revealed; which is very very important. Those who can read Arabic and understand Arabic they know whatever you do in the translation of the Qur’an. The translation which is not the text will lose lot of this sweetness which you see in the Arabic language and you can taste it all if you can master the Arabic language.”