Ali Azam and I have been friends for many years, and as you would expect we have talked about many different things over the years- from theology to jurisprudents, politics, economics and from social life to activism. These are things to do with common humanity and dignity, equality, respect and multiculturalism among many other topics. One thing through our conversation that was clear was the lack of space and the lack of nuance on so many national debates that take place in our country. Here you would end up with two sides entrenched in two views set in stone without compassion or an attempt to understand the other side’s point of view. Example’s we looked at were affairs concerning, such as the LGBTQ+ community as well as other matters like Islamophobia and Prevent. We had to try to get the balance right between legitimate complaints, discrimination and prejudice. We also felt it was necessary to create a balance without falling prey to playing the victim card all the time. It was in the midst of discussing these issues that we decided to create a foundation, The Virtue Ethics Foundation, in the hopes to provide a platform with a frank and open discussion, while also encouraging compassionate conversation. We wanted this to occur especially in the cases where there was a difference of opinions, to see how the teachings of Islam can speak to wider society.
Additionally, we wanted to create a platform where Muslims can appreciate and understand where non-Muslim, and the secular society are coming from too, such as their views on the issues and concerns in this day and age.
As an educator, I feel that there is a need for us to teach alongside theology and jurisprudents to our youths, to enable them to understand morality, and provide them with a template in living an ethical lifestyle that is underpinned by our scriptures. This is so that even those who do not follow our scriptures would be able to appreciate and sign up to it, to make this world a fair and equitable place for us all to live in peace and harmony.
It is why we have begun to create material for teachers, children and families, to provide an opportunity where they can us them to inculcate virtuous and ethical living, spiritual living and religious living in Muslim societies.
9/11 was a significant time for Muslims living in pluralistic societies. Things gradually began to change and people’s perceptions of Muslims began to shift. Islam began to be projected and portrayed as an aggressive and authoritarian ideology. Many started questioning Islam, which resulted in Islam being examined quite critically.
I came to this country in 1986, and I remember doing things that our faith deters from, such as not eating pork and not drinking alcohol. It was considered a respected choice at that time. However, that spirit seemed to come under scrutiny – there was distress created from the aftermath of 9/11 and like many others I too wanted to contribute towards change in the narrative of the story.
I began to observe that as Muslims we have an apologetic approach while holding Islam in a religious and theological sense rather than as a practical guide of living a good life. An opportunity arose and with much keenness, I took my MA in comparative philosophy from an Islamic college (an affiliation of Middlesex University). This proved difficult as I came from a non-academic background but I was very passionate in learning more about the Islamic and Western intellectual disciplines and perhaps use it to develop ideas and use it as a tool to scope for better cohesion between different faiths and non-faith belief systems. My focus was on ethics which drew me towards Aristotelian ethics, especially virtue ethics as well as other normative theories such categorical morality. However the more I learned, the more I appreciated Islam’s approach on moral values in the sayings of the Prophet (PBUH) which I believe are transformative and can have a significant impact on human life and its enrichment.
In the west too, in addition to Judo-Christian ethics, there are various philosophers who have given profound thoughts on moral and ethical ideas.
I realised all these moral values, whether they are Islamic or from other philosophical backgrounds, are only theories which need a specific methodology for internalisation.
There needs to be a way for people to train and implement these moral values.
Islam provides a template on how to practically adopt these values but sadly little significance has been given.
I strongly believe that learning and implementing these values is critical from a young age, which is why our main focus is to promote character education in schools from a very young age. This is because as you grow older, it becomes harder to change the core aspects of our character. It was through my studies that I realised the importance of character education, and its capabilities to transform societies.
I began doing some TV debates and had the opportunity of working with Sheikh Ibrahim Mogra on a number of series on some local Muslim channels, where we realised we shared the same concerns and believed that character education should be taught in our madressahs and schools. We envisaged that this education has the potential to even replace policies like Prevent and could aid in teaching and leading a more cohesive society.
So we began discussing these issues, and thought if we created this foundation together we can use this platform to talk about various issues that concern us today, not just in the educational sphere but the political sphere too. We can use it to discuss different aspects such as islamophobia, LGBTQ+ community, Prevent and other affairs, where we were witnessing it to receive such diverse responses, from extreme to passive. We felt there was appropriate considerations and deliberations missing while discussing these issues, and we wanted to make people aware and encourage the use of ethical based approaches while dealing with sensitive issues. This in return not only helps to represent our community in a better light but also aids in creating a more cohesive society.
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