Dr Mona Siddiqui
Professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies, Edinburgh University
It is a great privilege to be standing here at this convocation ceremony and to able to play a small part in what is a very important and special day for you all. I note that this institute has been running for 10 years with the noble objective of strengthening research and teaching on the heritage of Muslim societies over the centuries. During your two year programme you have done field work studied languages and civilisations, gained a much deeper knowledge of the different worlds of Islam. Most importantly I am sure you have been able to do this in a safe place, an environment which has encouraged you to ask questions that challenge you and your peers. The most important thing about acquiring a good education is that you should never cease to question not always in search for answers but because questioning keeps your mind and soul alive.
You yourselves come from diverse backgrounds and you will go your different ways but some of you come from the same part of the world that my parents originated from. When they came to this country, they came here for one reason, education for their children. When I think back to my mother’s ambition for us all, a good education was at the top of her list because she knew that if the pursuit of knowledge is encapsulated in the Islamic tradition of seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave, a western education was a passport to a different world, not just a world of careers and opportunities but a world of reflection and critical thinking where you have the freedom to think, inspire others and to take risks. Did I have many social freedoms as I was growing up – no but I certainly had intellectual freedoms and once you have that then there are no limits to where you mind can take you. If you feel alive mentally and are prepared to work hard, to be honest to be humble but to be passionate about what it is you wish to achieve then you can become the person you dream of becoming.
Don’t’ get me wrong, we can all come up with strategies for life and things can go horribly wrong in all kinds of ways – things can happen to us, our loved ones those who we thought would be there forever; there are always stumbling blocks. You may not even have a purpose in life just now, you may be dabbling with lots of ideas or no ideas just relieved to have finished and be going home. Some of you may be taking on the family business, going onto further education, getting married that is all good. But there is only so much planning we can do in life – some of the best things that happen to us are the unplanned events. But don’t be afraid of what might happen, live the moments that life throws at you for it is in these moments where you might find some of the magic of life.
We may not always see our lives as meaningful but in those moments always be mindful of the bigger picture, don’t get caught up in the pettiness of life, the silly egotisms, look for the relationships which bring out the best in you, where you feel loved and are able to love back, the friendships that sustain you in your sadness, the faith in God which defines the principles you wish to live by. It is only these relationships really matter in the end; it is only in these relationships where we find happiness.
I wonder what you have taken away from being in London for two years or so. This vast city, a multicultural epicentre, a city rich with so many cultures and opportunities. Today we talk much about diversity in the UK, religious, cultural and social. Images of religions are always created in particular social and political contexts. Today we cannot appreciate Muslim-non-Muslim attitudes either culturally or politically without recognising that whereas modernity came to Europe through the context of the Enlightenment, it came to the majority of the Muslim world through colonialism…many parts of the Muslim world have therefore understood modernity as a force to be resisted, what I call the software of liberal democracies often poses a challenge. This includes systematic approaches to religious diversity, gender equality and pluralism which includes freedom of expression and conscience, the very foundation of universal human rights. The central question for all religious communities today is to what extent can they use scripture and the post scriptural intellectual and social traditions to determine the basis of their contemporary ethical stances, especially a normative ethics. With the advances in sciences and medicine, with an increased awareness of world poverty and the issues of socio-economic justice related with it, with the shift in gender roles and expectations, the social and political impact of modern life and globalisation, the demise of structured and more formal expressions of religious allegiance, how does one face the challenge of being innovative whilst at the same time staying engaged with legacy of tradition? In the modern period it is only within civil society where different standards and moralities can live side by side in relative harmony. We are told that diversity is a good thing but why? In my view diversity is not inherently a good thing but cultural diversity allows us, at times demands that we compare and contrast value systems and different lifestyles so that we can dialogue towards building more universal values and beliefs. Muslims must be constructive not antagonistic players in this engagement. The fundamental obligation on us all then is to ensure that our societies accept all the challenges that pluralism bring. The imperative on us is how we free ourselves from dogmatism and prejudice and empathise with human difference at a local, national and global level. This means dialogue with a whole array of institutions and organisations which challenges us to look from within our own faiths at the problems of today, to be guided by the experts, by the voices traditionally silent, by the repressed, by the frightened, by the poor and marginalised, by the sick who can identify the problems of inequality and injustice around the globe and to be honest, compassionate and constructive players who can synchronise legitimate and transparent ways to work to realise a civic consciousness that is visionary and not just reactionary. We will have to make some choices about what we tolerate and what we keep out. This is fundamentally a debate about ethics. Even diversity has its limits and makes demands upon us. For all of us, this means in the end having the conviction that our faiths and cultures can have a positive impact and work for the welfare of the wider society. But we must also have the courage and humility to speak out against what is repressive within our cultures as well as what is unjust in the very societies we wish to change.
As a Muslim who has lived most of her life in the West, I have learnt that faith speaks to faith in many ways. Dialogue is a contested word but engaging with other religious traditions has been a process of learning and accepting, of questioning and appreciating, of self-doubt and humility. Most importantly it has been to understand that talking about a common humanity demands much generosity in the face of practical difference. Engaged in dialogue is an extension of ihsan for me, `To Act knowing that even if you cannot see Him (God), He can see you.’ But as believers in God how do we live the good life, a life that is about making things better here while all the time remembering there is also a hereafter. We are ordinary mortals, neither mystics nor prophets and we have a challenge - the struggle to find and hold onto the sacred in the profane, the sublime in the ridiculous and the divine in the ordinary.
A renowned Christian theologian said ` Theology is not just about reflecting on the world, it is also about mending the world.’ As a theologian, as a Muslim, as one who has chosen to make the UK her homeland, I not only begin with this perspective but say that I have no choice other than to stay engaged with the debates and that most essential debate today is how the individual relates to society when there are competing moralities and competing voices, how civic consciousness must be a personal, local, national and ultimately a global issue.
Let me finish on a personal note - My parent’s migration to England denied me to some extent the great heritage of the subcontinent. They left their home so that we could make the UK our home. Having multiple belonging is enriching but can leave you feeling rootless. But over the years, I have learnt that the past is simply a series of moments that brings us to where we are today, that home is not some romantic ideal.
Home is not just where we have come from but home is also where we are going. Home is what we make of the here and now, home is people not a place, what we give to and receive from the community where we live and work, our relationships with those who are part of our daily lives. Home is the beauty and the pain, the silence and the noise of our daily life. Home is where we do our best – where we try to flourish and help others to flourish is the only home that really matters. Wherever you go from here, remember two things you never know what you are capable of until you try and secondly don’t underestimate the power of good words and deeds every single day of your life; they can be far more inspirational and transformative than most of us ever realise.
I wish you all the very best for a happy and successful future and am confident know that the education you have received here will be only a first step in your contribution to making the world a better place.