By Sadia Kidwai
A few weeks ago, I found myself wandering through the Omar Khayyam exhibition at the British Library. The exhibition celebrated the 150th anniversary of Edward Fitzgerald’s publication of ‘The Ruibaiyat of Omar Khayyam’ – it was a translation that would spark a cultural phenomenon, gaining popularity in the fashionable ranks of the British elite. These verses, written by a Persian polymath in the 12th century, became a poetic sensation in the Victorian arts scene. Admirers in both British and American intellectual circles established clubs and societies in Khayyam’s honour, and even today the ‘Rubaiyat’ has barely been out of print.
Why then, when I’m to focus on the decade ahead, am I looking two centuries into the past? Because the story of the Rubaiyat is one that gives me inspiration. When I reflect on changes in the Muslim community in the last ten years, I’m overwhelmed by the growth and vibrancy that pulsates within us. The last ten years has seen the first generation of young British-born Muslims blossom into an exciting movement: a generation who are educated, savvy and confident in their faith. We’ve seen more Muslims breaking barriers and establishing themselves in the highest ranks of law, politics, medicine, sports and the arts. You are now just as likely to find Friday sermons being delivered in the skyscrapers of the City of London, or even the corridors of Whitehall, as you are in a mosque in Leicester.
But one of the most impressive developments of all has been in our culture, and I don’t mean by the growth of curry houses. What I’m referring to is the creation of brand ‘British Islam’. The last ten years has seen something astounding: young British Muslims affirming the cultural heritage of their parents, and transforming it into a new British Muslim culture- our version of cool Britannia. It’s a culture which has enriched charity fundraising, produced glossy magazines, created a successful alternative music and entertainment industry, seen Muslim women become trendsetters (think pashminas, layering and dresses over trousers – you saw it on us first), committed the story of a Muslim woman seeking love to the legacy of British literature and, most importantly, seen a Muslim family on Eastenders. 10 years ago none of this would have been possible and this progress (by God’s grace) has been phenomenal. It signifies the level of confidence the British Muslim community have reached and will play a vital role in ensuring the next generation feel part of something distinctly British, while still affirming their Islamic values.
Now, where do we want this new culture to take us in the next 10 years? I see two scenarios. The first, is the ‘parallel society’; where I can wake up in the morning, read my Muslim newspaper, change into my Muslim designer hijab/jilbab, and pump out Muslim-music on the way to work (for a Muslim organisation). When home, I can watch a Muslim television channel, or perhaps read a Muslim novel or magazine. Somewhere in-between I will pick up my cousin from her Islamic primary school and drop her off to Muslim Scouts. To top it off, I could even eat some Muslim chocolate.
Unnerved yet? I am. The temptation for many of us is to stay within our comfort zones. As a community, it would be easy now for us to build a bubble around us, where we can remain safely protected from (what some assume are) the ‘corrosive’ influences and ‘Islamophobia’ of wider society. But there are many problems with this route; firstly, that it is simply not healthy for us to remain cut off from mainstream British culture – a lack of engagement will only perpetuate baseless fears of one another. But secondly, and more importantly, having gained such internal confidence and knowing how much artistic potential we have as a community, why should we not confidently engage with mainstream culture?
This leads me to my second scenario: the ‘Omar Khayyam’ scenario. Here ‘brand British Islam’ evolves into an intractable and influential part of wider British culture. Where value-based music is a regular feature on radio and where the fashion industry can empower rather than objectify young women. Where the music, or the poetry, or the art we produce is not necessarily self-consciously Islamic, or solely for the consumption of Muslims; but, like the writings of Omar Khayyam, it is influenced by the general values that Islam promotes, making ‘brand British Islam’ something that all of British society can benefit from.
Britain is blessed with a thriving cultural legacy; something that we can, and should, all benefit from. But for me, this is a decade where Muslim artists, writers, publishers, journalists, designers, presenters and musicians can become role models for young Britons across the country, whatever their beliefs. In a popular culture that is often value-lacking, I believe that Muslims have a great deal to offer their compatriots: a culture that can be sophisticated and vibrant, whilst adding realism and values in place of airbrushing and fantasy. This ties in neatly with our Islamic duty to ‘enjoin good’, contributing our values in a way that would, God willing, lead to the betterment of the society around us.
The poet Rumi famously said “Be not content with stories of those who went before you. Go forth and create your own story”. Let us be inspired by the story of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat – but let us not dwell on it. I believe the creative talents of our generation will lead us somewhere far more inspiring in the next decade. And we have the potential to create a great legacy.
Sadia Kidwai graduated in summer 2009 from the London School of Economics with a degree in History and International Relations. She is currently working as a research assistant and volunteer community worker in Cardiff.
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