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OTHER VARIATIONS - modernist, traditionalist, political, apolitical etc

While a denominational approach to describing religious diversity amongst British Muslims – as done above – is useful in providing an overview of the key groups, the terms and labels are only way in which to view the complex theologies and differences that make up the religious landscape. There are significant dimensions to this diversity worth exploring.

Our European heritage of Protestantism, whether or not one is Christian, affects the way in which we view, understand and engage with religion. We have, as a Western culture, a tendency to think of faith in terms of creeds. It isn’t uncommon to hear religion spoken about as almost synonymous with “belief”. “What do you believe in?” a person might ask with regards to another’s religious identity. Creedal differences, however, are not absolutely salient when it comes to religious diversity amongst Muslims. Creeds are important, but as Shaykh Akram Nadwi writes “a creed is a competitive statement of beliefs: its function is to distinguish one group from another”, and debates about creedal issues are largely of historic rather than contemporary relevance. It’s an indication of the secondary nature of debates about correct belief that if you were to stop a Muslim and ask them to which creed they adhered, they would probably be somewhat unsure. So within the Sunni tradition, you have the three dominant schools of creedal beliefs, the Ashari, Athari and Maturidi. Amongst the Shias, there is a greater diversity, with creedal schools such as the Ja’afari, or the esoteric Batiniyya. By and large however, these creedal differences remain issues of debate amongst scholars and the lay Muslim may be largely oblivious to them

Orthopraxis (correct practice) is often more important than orthodoxy (correct belief). There are a number of “schools” of Islamic law. Within the Sunni tradition, these are the four traditional schools (in Arabic madhaab), Hanafi, Shafi, Maliki and Hanbali. Each of the four schools are named after their founder, who developed particular interpretative approaches to deciphering the link between sacred text and practice. In Africa, the Maliki and Shafi schools are popular. In South Asia and South East Asia, the Hanafi school is predominant. In the Middle East, one can expect to find each of the four schools. Salafism abandons the schools altogether, taking a more direct line to the text. The differences between these schools are largely based on methodology. The Quran instructs Muslims to pray five times a day, but the specific questions of how does one pray, at what times, with what words, are all answered by the schools of Islamic law. Within Britain, almost all the divergent schools are present, but owing to migration histories, the Hanafi school is the most common – though Salafism has grown in recent years particularly among younger Muslims.

Another approach to understanding the diversity of denominations would be to consider the ways in which groups approach political authority. Thus you have Quietist groups, who tend to view political authority with a great amount of scepticism coupled with resignation. Political authority for Quietists is a necessary evil, the primary objective of which is to establish peace. Thus they will recognise the authority of whatever leader is in the country, whether democratically elected or dictatorship, and aim to reduce the harm and maximise the benefit by advising or interceding with the authority when relevant, but otherwise keeping a healthy distance to preserve their religious freedoms. This approach, found among Deobandis, Barelwis, and some Salafis, can often be mistaken for isolationism. By contrast, the Activist approach believes political authority can, and should, be exercised for good. Activist groups consider it a religious duty to oppose a tyrant political authority. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is a typical example, and true to their principles, the Brotherhood has been the sole opposition to the military dictatorship in the country from the days of Anwar Sadat.

While most Activist groups are largely non-violent, Salafi Jihadists are anything but. Osama bin Laden and the Islamic State are examples of the Salafi Jihadi movement. What they share with other Salafi counterparts is simply the abandonment of the traditional schools, insisting on a direct relationship with scripture. Saudi Arabian Salafism, on the other hand, is Quietist, whether in Saudi or in Britain – they recognise the political authority of the country, and insist that disturbing or seeking to uproot it is contradictory to Islamic ethics. Thus during the Arab Spring, Quietist Salafi scholars issued fatwas forbidding Muslims from joining the protests against rulers, since they can destabilise a country and invite fitnah (sedition and chaos). Looking at Libya and Syria, some might be tempted to agree with their warnings.

Salafi Jihadism by contrast considers it a religious duty to fight against political authority to establish an Islamic state; this includes the Saudi monarchy. The outward methodological similarity between mainstream Salafis and Salafi Jihadists leads many to confuse the two carelessly. In 2016, David Cameron did just that in parliament, accusing British Imam Suliman Ghani of supporting the Islamic State. Suliman Ghani however had been vocal and active in opposing the Islamic State and its teachings, forcing Cameron to issue an apology. Had David Cameron made the statement outside of parliament, it is likely he could have been sued for libel. The point that religious conservatism is not the same as violent extremism needs to be stressed, in hope to avoid similar cases.

These various religious dimensions – of orthodoxy, orthopraxis, epistemology, views of political authority, and views on religious authority – can combine in a variety of ways. It’s led to scholars attempting to provide a paradigm through which to understand these approaches. Dr Mansur Ali, lecturer in Islamic Studies at Cardiff University, proposes a four-fold division to categorise them. Ali’s division is perhaps the most streamlined and utilises the categories “Islamic Modernists”, “Modernist Salafis”, “Traditional Salafis”, and “Late Sunni Traditionalists”.

These divisions describe the various intersections of approaches to religious texts and views on religious orthodoxy and orthopraxis. In this model, “Islamic Modernists” represent progressive movements typified in Britain by groups such as the Inclusive Mosque Initiative, a London-based project running an open and welcoming mosque especially aimed at women and members of the LGBTQ community. “Modernist Salafis” seek to contextualise religion in the contemporary era, working to ‘update’ established Islamic tradition, and encompassing a range of religious groups including the Muslim Brotherhood, Jamaat Islamiyya, and Sufi scholars such as Abdullah bin Bayyah. “Traditional Salafis”, typified by the aforementioned Salafi movement emerging from Saudi Arabia, take a more literal and direct textual interpretation, abandoning the pre-existing Islamic tradition (of legal schools and interpretive models), and going to the sources directly. “Late Sunni Traditionalism” is a resurgent movement, and argues that tradition does not need to be changed, but rather than solutions to modern issues can be within the existing Islamic frameworks. The term is broad, encompassing influential British scholar Abdal-Hakim Murad alongside the Deobandi and Barelwi denominations.

This abbreviated description of British Muslim diversity is truncated, but like a medieval map of the globe, it should at least provide some orientation. The landscape is constantly in flux however. Most British Muslims will not belong to and derive their religious understandings from only one denominational source, but will engage with many. This, along with new and emerging religious scholarship in Britain, means the denominational maps are being redrawn even as we speak.

The diversity of British Muslims should never be underestimated, and along with the religious denominations described there are salient ethnic, cultural, socio-economic and political differences. And British Muslims, like all people, are not solely theologically motivated. Their actions, choices and goals are complex and multifaceted. Perhaps the diversity of British Muslims is best summarised by another joke I was told in a mosque many years ago – “if you have three Muslims in a room, you’ll have four opinions”.