Ali Azam and I have been friends for many years, and as you would expect we have talked about many topics from theology to jurisprudence, politics and economics, from social life to activism. These are linked to common humanity and dignity, equality, respect and multiculturalism amongst others. What was clear was the lack of space and nuance for these topics in so many national debates. You often note two entrenched views without compassion or an attempt to understand the other side’s point of view. Examples we reviewed concerned the LGBTQ+ community, Islamophobia and Prevent. We tried to ensure a balance between legitimate complaints, discrimination and prejudice, without falling prey to playing the victim card all the time.
In the midst of our discussions, we decided to create a foundation, The Virtue Ethics Foundation. We wanted to create a frank discussion platform, while also encouraging compassionate conversation especially where there are different opinions, to see how the teachings of Islam can speak to wider society.
Additionally, we wanted to create a platform where Muslims could appreciate and understand non-Muslim and secular society opinions on current issues.
As an educator, I feel we need to teach our youth about morality, alongside theology and jurisprudence, and provide them with an ethical life template underpinned by our scriptures. This is so that even those who do not follow our scriptures will be able to appreciate and sign up to make this world equitable, so we can all live in peace and harmony.
We have begun to create materials for teachers, children and parents to provide an opportunity to instil virtuous, ethical, spiritual and religious living in Muslim societies.
9/11, the bombing of the Twin Towers in the United States, was a significant time for Muslims living in pluralistic societies. Perceptions of Muslims began to shift, resulting in Islam being examined quite critically. Islam began to be projected and portrayed as an aggressive and authoritarian ideology.
I arrived in England in 1986, and I remember following Muslim guidance, such as not eating pork or drinking alcohol. It was considered a respected choice at that time. However, that spirit seemed to come under scrutiny in the aftermath of 9/11 and like many others, I wanted to contribute to a new narrative.
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. I had the opportunity to study a MA in comparative philosophy at 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. My hope was to develop new ideas and use it as a tool to ensure better cohesion between different faiths and non-faith belief systems. My focus on ethics drew me towards Aristotelian ethics, especially virtue ethics, as well as 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 thought profundly about morals and ethics. 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 learn and implement these moral values.
Islam provides a template on how to practically adopt these values, but this has sadly received little attention.
I strongly believe that learning and implementing these values is critical from a young age, which is why the Foundation’s main focus is to promote character education from the word ‘go’. As you grow older, character traits can be harder to change. Through my studies, I realised the importance of character education to transform society.
I began participating in TV debates and had the opportunity to work with Sheikh Ibrahim Mogra on local Muslim channels. We shared the same concerns and believed that character education should be taught in our madrasas and schools. It had the potential to replace policies like Prevent and aid in teaching, leading to a more cohesive society.
We thought that by creating the Foundation together, we could use this platform to talk about current issues, not just in education, but in the political sphere too. Aspects include Islamophobia, the LGBTQ+ community, Prevent and other affairs, where we witnessed extreme to passive opinions. We wanted to make people aware and encourage the use of ethical based approaches, while dealing with sensitive issues. This would not only help to present our community in a better light, but also help to create a more cohesive society.
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