I recently made the case for a Grand Mufti to be appointed for the United Kingdom – and why I believe that now is the time for such an office to be brought into being.
The model I proposed was based on the Chief Rabbinate role, which has provided religious representation for Jewish communities, and which has become a focal point for discussions and debates relevant to them. I am not going to outline the same issues in the article. Instead, I will look at the kind of person who should fill this much-needed role.
Obviously, the post requires someone who has built up credibility and respect within the various Islamic theological frameworks and communities – and should not be selected by the Government. Any Ministerial involvement would lead to a loss of credibility in the eyes of many within Muslim communities, as though a “community leader” were being foisted onto Muslim communities. The idea also raises, in the minds of some, the old “Rajah” system of leadership that was supported by the East India Tea Company in India.
Furthermore, the Grand Mufti must come from collective, organic decision-making processes within Muslim communities. If this opportunity is lost, the super-fragmented cacophony of voices who comment on Islam and Muslims, (some of whom really have very tenuous connections to any Muslim community) will continue to blur messaging at a time when clear leadership and a strong moral authority over issues which affect Muslim communities is needed.
However, the Grand Mufti also has to do the realpolitik of someone in the public glare – and this means understanding the positions and views of other faith communities and those who choose no faith, whilst also exercising astute political judgement. Anyone considering how to make the case internally within Muslim communities about why they have the skills, abilities and moral authority to fill this role should therefore realise that it will involve political judgements.
So what else will the successful candidate need? Well, given the intense spotlight placed on statements made by social commentators who happen to be Muslim, and given that there is a whole industry of spin merchants who promote anti-Muslim bigotry, the Grand Mufti will, sadly, have to have the skin of a rhinoceros. In other words, he will probably be agitated against and smeared by web-sites, anti-Muslim bigots, half-baked websites and extremist far right websites. Shrinking violets should therefore not apply!
Finally, the individual will have to be relevant to young Muslim populations, since nearly half of his audience in the UK will be under 25. He will also have to have an outlook firmly rooted in Islam and based on pluralism, equality, social justice – and be able to articulate clearly how religion is able to adapt and include those from communities such as the gay Muslim community.
While the last is still controversial in Muslim communities, there is no dichotomy in making the case for issues affecting faith communities, and ensuring the right to liberty and for people to live their lives free from fear, intolerance and bigotry. This means taking a position of ensuring that such controversial groups are included within the developments and dynamics of discussion, rather than maintaining the current position of “say nothing and hear nothing”. This simply does not work and does not acknowledge a deeply religious section of the Muslim LGBT community in the UK.
So far, so good? Anyone reading this article would think that such a person will take decades to find. I disagree, and the last five years have seen a range of potential candidates take social positions on complex matters. The “carpe diem” moment is now.
Here is a final thought to consider. When revelations of prophethood were given to Muhammad in the seventh century, he sought advice from one person. The person he sought advice and took that advice from was his wife, a trader and businesswoman. It was she who provided him with the initial support to step forward and to trust in the message of Islam. If that spiritual strength came from a woman, there should be no barrier for a future Grand Mufti to be a woman. For those who take a sharp intake of breath at the thought of this, you do a dis-service to a guide and anchor for the Prophet of Islam. She was, after all, female, confident, worldwise and most of all, willing to guide.