Following the Middle Way

by Jeremy Henzell-Thomas

Up to now I have tried not to get entangled in the debate about whether multiculturalism is supposed to be dead in Britain and to what extent it is held to be responsible for the alienation and even radicalisation of many young Muslims.

In a previous issue, reacting to a list of “core British values” proposed by Dr. Reid, I did question whether “responsibility for others” could be legitimately described as a central plank of “our way of life” in Britain today, and that scepticism has only increased in a week that has seen the puzzling prospect of the “regeneration” of Manchester supposedly promised by a super casino. But in the main I have shied away from getting to grips with the thorny problem of how to define a shared sense of Britishness.

My immediate reaction to the idea that there is a set of authentically British values is to fail to see how any such list differs from what we would surely want to describe as core human values: respect for the law, moderation, tolerance of others, freedom from oppression, fairness, responsibility for others, and so on. To describe these principles as uniquely British is to engage in a kind of colonisation of values. If I were to suggest role models for the virtue of responsibility for others I would probably immediately think of the native American tribe (now largely exterminated) whose council of elders never made any decision affecting the community without considering the welfare of the next seven generations. Yes, the next seven generations, or nearly two hundred years - an object lesson in social responsibility in a world in which our much vaunted values cannot even ensure the protection of our own children from impending environmental catastrophe, but offer instead the impoverishing prospect of massed ranks of one-armed bandits.

Above all, let’s not be smug. The record of faith communities in fostering ecological awareness is pretty dismal. Here is a cause indeed for the Muslim community to take up, and, in so doing, to be true to that beautiful and majestic vision of the sanctity of nature which permeates the Qur’an above all other scriptures. Being true to that, we embrace a universal value beyond any creed or nationalistic identity and embody one aspect of what it means to be a khalifa, a fully human being.

The topic of multiculturalism was discussed on Any Questions on BBC radio 4 on 3 February, and it was the panellist who offered the final comment, winding up the discussion, which hit the nail on the head: “I just want to be a human being, and not inhabit any intellectual ghetto”, she said. Sometimes it takes a bit of reconciling feminine wisdom to get beyond the interminable clash of competing ideologies, warring tribes, talking heads, wagging fingers, and brandished slogans.

I was reminded of an article in the Guardian by Timothy Garton Ash (1 February), appealing that we go beyond the “demagogic clichés of right and left”, with “the right squawking ‘multiculturalism’ and the left squawking back ‘Islamophobia’”. This, as he says, is the “reduction of an important and serious debate to a battle of straw men”. And before anyone gets on their high horse and sets off like Don Quixote to tilt at windmills, no one is denying here that Islamophobia is a real problem, only that it helps no one to bandy it about as a mere label to stifle debate and fend off criticism.

So, let’s take Garton’s appeal to “go beyond the demagogic clichés of left and right” and see if we can’t find in this laudable idea a universal value which reflects what is means to be British and Muslim. In other words, let’s try to discover a core human value that unites us.

We cannot go beyond the polarising clichés of left and right unless we avoid extremes, exercise moderation and lead a balanced life. In the mythology of the ancient Greeks, Jason and the Argonauts have to pass through the Clashing Rocks guarding the entrance to the Black Sea to reach the Golden Fleece, the object of their heroic quest. Symbolically, to pass between the Rocks is to pass through the “strait gate” or the “needle’s eye” between the contrary pairs of opposites which make up the conditioned world. It is to follow the Middle Way, to find the Truth which, as Boethius puts it, is a “mean between contrary heresies.” Inwardly, it is to be guided by the lamp “lit from a blessed tree – an olive-tree that is neither of the east nor the west” (Qur’an 24:35).

There are many sayings of the Prophet on this central Islamic virtue of steering between extremes. On one occasion, he said to Abu Bakr: “I passed you when you were praying in a low voice.” Abu Bakr said, “The One with whom I was holding intimate conversation heard me, O Messenger of God!” He then turned to ‘Umar and said, “I passed you when you were raising your voice while praying.” He replied, “Messenger of God, I was waking the drowsy and driving away the devil.” The Prophet said, “Raise your voice a little, Abu Bakr,” and to ‘Umar he said, “Lower your voice a little.”

This is a beautiful commentary on the statement in the Qur’an that Muslims are “a community of the middle way” (2: 143), which suggests, according to Muhammad Asad, “a call to moderation in every aspect of life”.

Now, this quintessentially Islamic virtue of moderation is also widely associated with a sense of what it means to be British. This is not to say that either Muslims or British people have cornered the market in moderation and colonised it exclusively for themselves. It means that when Muslims, British people, or anyone else behave with moderation they are in tune with a core human value which is part of our common identity, our fitra.

What do we mean by moderation? A dull compromise? A state of mediocrity or half-heartedness? Certainly not. The English word comes from Latin modus, ‘keeping within due measure’, which is related to another word which is also the source of English ‘modest’. Etymologically, moderation has the same inherent meaning in English as modesty, a connection which is also truly Islamic. The Prophet said: “Every religion has a distinctive feature and the distinctive feature of Islam is modesty”. He also said: “True modesty is the source of all virtues.”

Integral to the concept of the middle way is the principle of fairness, the ‘fair play’ so important to the ideal British conception of good character. The English word ‘fair’ has two meanings: the first is ‘just, equitable, reasonable’, and the second is ‘beautiful’. But the meaning of its original Germanic root is ‘fitting’, that which is the right size, in the correct ratio or proportion. The range of meanings of this word ‘fair’ reflects a truly Islamic concept, the idea that to be just is to do what is beautiful (ihsan), to act in accordance with our original nature (fitra), which God has shaped in just proportions (Qur’an 82: 7) as a fitting reflection of divine order and harmony. Indeed, the Qur’anic statement that “Everything have We created in due measure and proportion” (54: 49) is completely in harmony with the underlying sense of the English word ‘moderation’.

We can find further common ground between ideal British and Islamic virtues in this idea of the middle way. The late President Izetbegovic of Bosnia wrote that the source of the convergence between what he called the “Anglo-Saxon spirit” and Islam was an Englishman, the thirteenth-century philosopher Roger Bacon, who set the entire structure of English philosophical thought on two separate foundations: inward experience, which leads to spiritual insight, and observation and experimentation, the basis of modern science. According to Izetbegovic, this aspect of Bacon’s genius, this striving for balance between the inward and the outward, “is considered by most Englishmen as the most authentic expression of English thought and feeling.” It goes without saying that the same balance between faith and observation is integral to Islam; indeed, our faith is not a blind faith but a faith strengthened through studying the divine imprint in the world around us.

There is another important fact about Roger Bacon that has never been sufficiently studied and recognised: the father of English philosophy and science was a student of Arabic. Indeed, he lectured at Oxford in Arab clothes. He was strongly influenced by Islamic thinkers, especially by Ibn Sina, and to this influence can be attributed the character of Bacon’s thought and, through him, perhaps the origin of the middle way as an important guiding principle in English (and British) life. He stressed the need for balance: balance between reason and observation on the one hand, and faith on the other; balance between individual freedoms and rights, and wider social responsibilities; and balance between a pragmatic concern with everyday needs and an altruistic hunger for transcendence.

We may well say that since Bacon’s day, the balance in the society around us has been disturbed, for we may see little evidence either of that faith or that hunger for transcendence which once animated the English soul.

If that is so, the challenge for us is clear. It is not to inveigh against the society in which we live, but to examine the imbalances in ourselves so that, as the Qur’an teaches, by changing what is in our own selves, we might help to change the condition of others. Only balanced people, speaking and acting with “due measure and proportion”, can restore the balance. And only people capable of love can fully embody the core human values which go beyond the narrow identities that threaten to divide us and, in so doing, inspire others to re-animate what might have been lost.

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