On Wednesday 19th June 2013, the Al-Mahdi Institute held an innovative seminar in conjunction with Dr Chris Hewer to consider the current perceptions of Islam that exist in society today, and to explore the ways in which a more accurate and informative representation of the religion can be made, particularly focusing towards individuals from a non-Muslim background.
Dr Chris Hewer is a renowned lecturer and researcher, with an extensive background in Christian Theology, Islamic Studies, education and interfaith studies. He has taught in the area of understanding Christian-Muslim relations for many years, and stressed that at the core of this seminar was the aim to help people to understand more about Islam, by using a framework that they can understand and relate to.
Dr Hewer began the seminar by providing some insight into why many non-Muslims wish to know more about Islam. He highlighted that factors such as negative media press, as well as personal experiences with Muslims, have played a key role in this heightened interest in the religion. However, it becomes evident that in response to this curiosity, Islam is most commonly expressed as a practice of religious rituals in a very legalistic manner, which ultimately alienates the vast majority of non-Muslims in gaining a deeper understanding.
Dr Hewer emphasised that alternatively it is important to start with an expression of God as the focal point, upon which all other aspects of the religion are then based. However, God cannot be isolated to any one religion, and as stated by Dr Hewer, “God is the God of all humankind…so whenever one talks about God in a privatised manner, he is actually denying the most central truth of Islam”. By communicating anything other than this, a fundamental distortion of this key principle is unavoidable.
The theme of continuity was also considered in some depth during the seminar. The Qur’an tells us that there are no people on earth who have been left without guidance, thus emphasising the belief that the whole of humankind stands in an equal relationship with God. This supports the notion that the Muslim attitude should not be one that considers itself as exclusive to a divine revelation that was never in existence before the emergence of Islam – instead, it is important to reiterate that based on the principle of continuity, God has sent us one message through multiple prophets and in many different languages, resulting in the existence of many divine texts.
Apart from inter-faith differences, Dr Hewer interestingly also considered the existence of differences that reside within the faith of Islam. Upon reflecting on the varying concepts of the Shia and Sunni paradigms of knowledge, he emphasised that, “it is imperative not to see difference as one is right and the other is wrong, but to see it as a richness from God to help us to see in different ways into the unfathomable mystery of God and to teach us a degree of humility”.
Finally, Dr Hewer explained that, “if we do not try to understand the culture and the history of the society of the people to whom we are trying to speak about Islam, we are going to miss them in the dark”. Thus, building a positive multi-faith and multicultural Britain is vital for the future of our society, and this progressive seminar held by the Al-Mahdi Institute highlighted that in order to be sufficiently equipped to help people understand more about Islam in the current era, a deeper understanding of the society in which we live, including its cultural heritage and literature, its religious history, and its sociology is essential.