Winter Gathering on Muslim Futures

Ehsan Shahwahid is from Malaysia, currently a Chevening Scholar at the University of Leeds undertaking an MA in Religion and Public Life. He is a research fellow at the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF), an organisation based in Malaysia advocating for freedom, democratisation and Islamic reform; and also a social researcher at the Merdeka Center, with research topics related to society, politics and religion. Ehsan is a fellow of the Muslim Institute (MI).

“Don’t think the garden loses its ecstasy in winter. It’s quiet, but the roots are down there riotous” ~ Rumi

Winter is always cold, usually dark and at times, solitary. For a traveller from thousands of miles away, used to the sunny days, tropical warmth and the ever-presence of friends and families, the winter experience is a new discovery. If only earlier I came better prepared of the future, the present could have a lot more to cheer. Even more, for someone with an interest in studying religion and humanities, particularly of Muslim societies, unpleasant news across the globe is making things no better. Challenges ranging from underdevelopment, internal conflicts of intolerance and the external threat of Islamophobia are facing Muslims in different parts of the world. From the country where I am from (Malaysia), the earlier development of political reform that looked set to shape a promising future has turned rather uncertain; and religion has become more and more a source of problems rather than of solutions. While the futures of myself, my nation and the communities of my religion globally have been the focus of my mind, I took a journey to the south of England, to the town of Salisbury for a gathering to discuss the concerns of Muslim futures.

The winter gathering was hosted by the Muslim Institute (MI) which was set up in 1974. After a period of turmoil followed by dormancy it was revived in 2009 as a Fellowship society comprising of networks and a community of fellows devoted to pluralistic thought, creativity and excellence. The gathering this time commemorates the 10th year of its operations. The annual gatherings, since first held have always taken place at Sarum College, a Christian seminary just next to Salisbury Cathedral, illustrating that the commitments to friendship could always go beyond the differences of religious beliefs and traditions. The gathering this time featured several prominent speakers talking on various topics related to the central theme of “Muslim Futures”; including the future of education, the environment, work, intimacy, humans and theology. The discussions among the fellows were vibrant, critical, and enlightening in all the sessions. In each session, the only limitation to explore the topic of “Muslim Futures” was time.

One topic most striking to me was the discussion on The Future of Islamic Thought, which started with a reading reflection of contemporary approaches to Islamic theology, and later a talk on the topic by the former chair of the Institute, Ziauddin Sardar. According to Zia, as he is more friendly known, the main challenge of the Muslim Futures lies deep in our theology itself, mainly in developing an imagination for the future that could bring benefit to Muslims ourselves, and the world at large;

“We must realize (in our theology) the importance of the future, and not just only the past”.

Zia observes that for Muslims at the current time, generally our theology has been emphasizing too much of the past in constructing a model for the Muslim society, in almost all aspects of our lives. Such common emphasize to the past has been leading us towards regressive ideals and creating a static theology, giving very minimal benefit for the development of the Muslim Futures towards excellence in this world. He also pointed out the obsession of some Muslim scholars to the usually accepted Islamic eschatology, comprising narratives to the end of the world that in many aspects could only be counterproductive to the progress and development of Muslims globally. In fact, such eschatological narratives could well be influenced by constructions from questionable sources.

Instead, Zia called for Muslims to consider the importance of seeking inspirations for our future from the most credible source, the Qur’an. In one of the Quranic verses quoted regarding the importance of our role in the future, God says;

“..Verily, all the earth belongs to God; He gives it as a heritage to such as He wills of His servants; and the future belongs to the God-conscious!” (Al-Qur’an, 7:128)

There are also ample lessons to be taken from the life mission of the Prophet Muhammad – peace be upon him – especially in key events that have proven to be vital in the growth and progress of Islam; the Hijrah(migration), the Treaty of Hudaibiyyah, and the Charter of Madinah. These events, which are all important in their own ways involve elements of strategic planning, negotiation and compromise, the commitment towards pluralistic principles, and most important of all, a preparation for the future. Furthermore, various Muslim scholars of the past have provided substantial contributions for our references, just by naming a few, the works of Ibn Tufayl and Ibn Rushd on human reasoning, and the sciences of civilization by Ibn Khaldun.

The discussion on the state of our Islamic theology has left a mark in my mind for further reflections and revisions. Such revisions would certainly require us to free ourselves from the static, mythic and rigid elements of our theology. The challenge for us to overcome would also be in the form of disentangling our belief from the complex global modern structures that in some aspects have been polished with superficial Islamic coatings. The reconstruction of our theology must have the capability to unleash our self-agency and solidarity through a dynamic belief with the spirit of continuous development, empowerment and progress. Islam is not an ice cage that freezes our capabilities and creativity, but instead it should be more like the flowing water that brings us life and sparkle the best of our potentialities. Perhaps then our belief would drive the future of Muslims to go far beyond the end of the world narratives; and fuel us towards an imagination of endless opportunities and the states of excellence with eternal divine guidance and blessings.

After a full-day of scholarly talks and intellectual discussions on the future of Muslims, the gathering approaches the end with a night of culture and arts featuring songs, traditional musical performance, arts display, short video screening, and recitations of poetry. There were satirical presentations inviting laughter among the fellows, as well as moments of remembrance to those who have passed away earlier. This session clearly signifies that the Muslim futures to be envisioned should be in no way short of the expressions of joy, beauty and the appreciation of life. The friendly interactions, sharing of stories and experiences between the fellows has set the tone for me to look forward to future gatherings.

As the travel back up north makes me delve further into the cold winter, the challenging path to the future for myself and also for Muslims generally in all parts of the world will be of no easier. Our duty for the betterment of the world and the future of humanity is eternal, and not even limited to the end of time. As the Prophet – peace be upon him – once taught us, even at the final hour, a deed of planting a seed would be counted as God’s blessings. Each of our steps and actions is meaningful in this existence. Life in itself is a pilgrimage towards meeting the Creator of our destiny; creatively living a journey to the future as if we are dancing graciously to the enchanting rhythm of the divine.

Written By: Ehsan Shahwahid – he can be contacted at ehsanshahwahid@gmail.com

Image Credit: Ehsan Shahwahid (image of opening talk by Ziauddin Sardar)

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