Contextualising Islam in the UK


Talk by Rabiha Hannan at The Edge: Faith, Fear & Friendship event

Rabiha Hannan











In October 2009, The University of Cambridge, published a report called Contextualising Islam in Britain: Exploratory Perspectives. The report pooled together the collective thinking of a group of British Muslims (specialists, scholars, academics, and activists). Led by Professor Yasir Suleiman, they focused on a central question: what does it mean to live faithfully as a Muslim in Britain today? In particular they looked at a new set of issues that impact on the following areas of Muslim belief and practice (appended as questions at the end of this report): (1) the individual and the community, (2) gender: equality, identity and sexuality, (3) education, and (4) wider society and the common good.

What do we mean by contextualisation?

When we talk about contextualising Islam, what we don’t mean, is to ‘change’ Islam, thereby inferring that we ‘change’ the Qur’an – which Muslims believe to be God’s word.

However everything we currently know and understand about Islam is through the interpretation of human beings – scholars yes, with good intentions and great knowledge, but human beings nevertheless with human limitations of understanding concepts that were thought through within the social construct they found themselves in.

As time goes by, when we read Islamic text (Qur’an and Hadith), we’re bound by the context and interpretation of the scholar that interpreted it, often hundreds of years ago.

The fact is that even those people that say they aren’t contextualising Islam are…otherwise why would there be so many tafseers (exegesis) of the Qur’an?  Because people will bring their own personal understanding to it, that is  coloured by their individual personality, their personal experiences, the culture and traditions they’re surrounded with, the technologies and understanding of the day, ie; their own social context. They will therefore interpret verses within, slightly differently. As Muslims we believe that the Qur’an is eternal and valid and relevant for all times and all places. But to remain true to this, it has to be subject to us being able to recognise the flexibility of interpretation of the verses in the Quran, enabling it to be re-looked at and re-interpreted by different people, in different societies and in a different age, only then will it remain an eternal message, that is purposeful and relevant for all. 

There is a fundamental principle in Islam, which sets a clear demarcation between values that are constant and therefore cannot be altered and those that are not, and are therefore open to interpretation in different contexts. These are the Ibadat (ritual worship) and the Mu’amalat – social interaction (how you deal with the world)

The Ibadat incorporates the core aspects of a Muslims ritual worship, ie the belief in One God, the angels, the Books, the Prophets, the Afterlife, and the Day of Judgement, as well as the 5 pillars of Islam. These are fixed and do not change with time. The ruling with Ibadat is that: everything in ritual worship is unlawful, unless the Islamic texts specifically tell you it is permissible. ie you can’t for example decide you want to change the 5 ritual daily prayers to 6 prayers, unless you can find clear evidence to show this is ok to do.

Beyond Ibadat is the Mu’amalat – social interaction. With respect to this the ruling is the opposite: here everything is lawful unless there is specific text, which clearly prohibits it. The Mu’amalat  - social interaction is about things such as what we eat, what we wear, who we mix with, how we educate our children, how we deal with human rights issues, issues around gender equality, sexual orientation, the list is endless. The onus here then is not to justify every action with a verse from the Qur’an that shows you it is allowed, but unless the texts clearly state it is wrong, it is permissible. And so how we live our lives as Muslims in the UK, remaining sincere to our faith, is far more flexible then we may have thought. 

The worry is that people have forgotten these basic principles and therefore are using the criteria of Ibadat in all aspects of their understanding and practice of Islam, which makes Islam restrictive, difficult, and sometimes even ‘unnatural’ as it no longer has the flexibility of interpretation that was required of it for different times and contexts. 

To demonstrate how this is a not a new concept:

1)When Umar (RA) was leader (Caliph), during a period of famine in Arabia, he suspended the punishment of amputation of the hand for stealing. Why? because he saw that at a time of risk of starvation due to scarcity of food, the ruling was unfair and unjust. As ‘Justice’ and ‘Compassion’ are two fundamental values that the Qur’an prescribes, the ruling in that context did not fit in with the overarching principles of Islam, so were changed.

2)When Imam Shafii travelled from one part of the Arab world, to another, he had to re-write great chunks of his book, as his opinions changed to deal with his new surroundings, challenges and complexities.

3)The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) himself indicated that the idea of contextualising and interpreting Islam in a way that was active and relevant for you as an individual was important.  For example: Once he sent a group of people on an expedition and told them do not pray the Asr (afternoon) prayer until you get to the place of Banu’Qurayza. Whilst on the journey, the time for Asr prayer came, although they hadn’t yet reached their destination. The people deliberated amongst themselves on what they should do, in the end some decided to pray where they were (ie to ensure they prayed on time), others felt that they needed to interpret the Prophet Muhammad’s direction literally, and prayed only when they got to Banu’Quraysa. Later when they asked Muhammad (pbuh), which of the two groups had been correct, he replied that ‘both’ were correct. By using their intellect and reasoning to interpret his instruction with their understanding of Islam they had all individually come to a conclusion that they thought was best for them. It seems then that the effort taken to think through what to do about a dilemma, is as important (if not more so), than the answer itself. This is the flexibility that Islam provides, that is being forgotten about!

Looking then at the above examples, and recognising that the times over the last 1400 years have changed dramatically. Sadly as Muslims we do not seem to incorporate the significance of this flexibility in our actions and practice of Islam today. Over the last few centuries we’ve stopped creatively thinking, we are afraid to interpret things, and therefore our faith has become stagnant. As we’ve moved from the East to the West, often from traditional, rural, simple way of looking at the world, to an environment which is often much more complex, developed, specialised, and highly educated, we do not seem to use the tools that Islam provides to deal with that change.

From a world where kings and queens operated, where patriarchal set ups once reigned, when we have seen the end of the cold war, the creation of the UN, where media has altered the way we look at the world, and the internet alone, even in the last 20 years affects everything about how we live our lives. Yet our understanding of how to apply Islam to these different contexts hasn’t moved with the times, this is still often based upon the interpretation of scholars 100s of years ago, who lived in a different time and in a different context.

Ironically a community that was led by a ‘reformer’ himself – remember the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), came to bring previous teachings of God into line with the context of the day, has forgotten this essential aspect of Islam, that enables it to continue to be purposeful and relevant to all.


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