By Akbar Ahmed
Dr. Tim Winter, or Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, is one of Europe's most prominent Muslim scholars and an English convert to Islam. Winter studied at Oxford University, Cambridge University, Al-Azhar University in Cairo, and the University of London and is currently a professor at Cambridge University and dean of Cambridge Muslim College, which opened in 2009. I have known him for several years and my research team interviewed him in Cambridge for my projection Islam in Europe, Journey into Europe.
A native of London, Winter converted to Islam in the late 1970s, at the age of 19, when he was an undergraduate student at Cambridge. He noted that at the time many English people conceived of Islam as "something you'd encounter when you were serving with the colonial office or as a missionary, but otherwise it was not there on the English radar at all, for good or for ill." He also noted, "There were quite a lot of people also coming into Islam at that time. There's perhaps 100,000 converts in the U.K. at the moment."
Winter became a Muslim after exploring some of the world's great faiths and what he described as "the usual kind of teenage late-night soul searching." He entered Cambridge as a "freelance monotheist," searching for the right spiritual path.
Following his undergraduate career, Winter went on to live in the Middle East for seven years to learn more about his newfound faith. Upon returning to Britain, Winter began his multifaceted career working with the British Muslim community, first "on the preaching circuit" in English mosques, then by beginning his own film production company, which produces lectures for "Islamic TV stations here and some other features as well."
The role models Winter looked up to in his life and career included prominent early English Muslim converts such as Lord Stanley, who in 1869 became the first Muslim member of the House of Lords, and Abdullah Quilliam, who founded England's first mosque in Liverpool in 1889.
Discussing British identity, Winter argued that there had been a "post-imperial unravelling" of British identity. Winter said that income inequality particularly was an increasing problem in British society: "One percent of the British population owned more assets than the poorest 55 percent of the British population."
Such uncertainty is creating a space for the rightwing in Europe. While Europe's identity is actually being eroded by globalization, Hollywood, and McDonalds, he explained, people have focused on the visibly different Muslims. This is alarming because Europe has a "dark side," and has historically been less tolerant than other societies: "The Middle East was historically much more tolerant than traditional Europe."
The British Muslim community is a success story in many ways. The mosques are packed everywhere, which must mean we’re doing something right
Winter noted that the number of converts has increased in the United Kingdom-remarkably, even as "public attitudes toward Islam have hardened." As dean of the Cambridge Muslim College, Winter works to ensure that top graduates are fully engaged with British society and are able to "relate religion to the modern world" and bridge "Islamic traditionalism and Western post-modernity." Students are taught British classic literature beginning with Beowulf and including the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare. Interfaith engagement is also a major pillar of the work of the College and students make an annual visit to the Vatican where they meet the Pope and stay in a monastery.
Speaking of the challenges facing the Muslim community, Winter said, "The mosques are full, but the message in the mosques is not always ideal.... there's a sense of disconnect, a hiatus, between the discourse of the leadership and what the masses actually need."
Winter was also concerned about the manner in which the British state has interacted with and antagonized the Muslim community, and how this has influenced Muslims' interactions with the state, religious scholarship, and wider society. He is particularly worried about British Muslim youth, who he said "feel misrepresented, disenfranchised, bullied, alienated from many of the things that the state is doing."
Still, Winter said, "The British Muslim community is a success story in many ways. The mosques are packed everywhere, which must mean we're doing something right. The community's growing very fast, establishing itself economically, and creating an increasingly positive relationship with existing state and non-governmental agencies within society."
As a convert from the Anglican Church, Winter said one striking difference between the faith traditions he has noticed is the striking contrast between the pomp and circumstance of the Church and the simplicity of Islam. As a Muslim, he greatly values the faith's adherence to "A pure monotheism which allows me to revere all the founders of the monotheistic faiths: Islam is inclusive, and uncompromising; pure prophecy."
When asked how relations between Muslims and non-Muslims can be improved, Winter said that Muslims need to stand up for themselves and look to the core values of Islam and in doing so they can help Europe. "We're already an indispensable part of what makes Europe work," he said."If we can move that forward so that we become the great harbingers of ethics and compassion and neighbourliness, in an increasingly atomized and self-oriented, materialistic Europe, then I think we'll have justified our presence here."
Winter also urged "Muslim communities.... to engage more with the political process to try and reduce the danger of further British military adventures in the Middle East which usually result in instability and a growth in extremist recruitment."
Akbar Ahmed is an author, poet, filmmaker, playwright, and is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University in Washington, D.C. He formerly served as the Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland.