British Muslims: New Directions in Islamic Thought, Creativity and Activism. Philip Lewis and Sadek Hamid. Edinburgh University Press. 2018.

In the 2000s, living as a Muslim in the UK opened up many new repertoires and horizons of identities, aspirations and pieties. Philip Lewis’ and Sadek Hamid’s book ‘British Muslims – New directions in Islamic thought, creativity and activism’ takes the reader through a series of examples of the hopes and tragedies, concerns and ambitions, fun and grief, renewal and stagnation, radicalisation and withdrawal and the piety and coolness of young British Muslims. Without a doubt, European Muslims will recognise many of the endeavours, but the book also has a distinctive British edge. The book is aimed at a non-academic audience of professionals such as teachers, journalists and social workers and hopes to contribute to their ‘religious literacy’. Yet, the authors present an argument that would most definitely be of interest to academics too. As the authors explain in the preface, they want to show that English Muslims expressing Islam in the UK are making an important contribution to Islam’s modern history.

Navigating the British landscape

In the introduction the authors outline the main shifts taking place in the political and religious landscape of Islam caused by the emergence of an educated, English-speaking professional class of, in particular, young female Muslims. The centuries-old traditions of progressive reform is now taking new directions and is peopled by new faces, such as the Bradford’s Muslim Women Council’s first all-women led mosque which features here as one the exemplary consequences of, and contributors to, such a shift.

Chapter One provides the reader with essential statistics on the demographics, education, poverty, diversity, language, imprisonment, homelessness and the fragmentation of communities. The authors make clear just how fast the social world of Muslims in Britain is changing and the number of challenges that these changes bring with them, such as (and in particular) how to rethink Islam and challenge misogyny and patriarchy.

Another challenge facing Muslim communities is that of religious authority – which becomes very clear in Chapter Two where the question is explored if Islamic seminaries have the potential to develop a vision for Muslim communities in Britain? Although the strong dominance of the Deobandi School makes Britain a unique case in Europe, nevertheless I strongly believe that the tension between renewal and stagnation, the loss of tradition or the enrichment of it, are challenges faced by many of the Muslim communities in Europe. Is transmitting religious knowledge more about reproducing tradition and the wisdom of the older scholars, or is there room for experimenting with ‘credible traditionalism’ (p. 80) which brings with it the risk of opening doors to harmful forms of DIY Islam? The chapter gives various examples, not only of traditional scholars, but also of the chaplains in Britain and the Britain-trained Islamic scholars.

Chapter Three follows neatly with a related theme: debating and engaging with Islam and democracy. Human rights, male guardianship, the sovereignty of Muslims over non-Muslims and aggressive armed jihad, are addressed in various ways ranging from the emergence of Muslim women in public life to Islamic law and the Islamic state. It would have been useful at this point to discuss Islam’s role as a critical lens on the way democracy and public and civic life function in Britain. Although this is absent there is a good critical perspective on policies given in Chapter Four where the processes of radicalisation and the counter-radicalisation strategy ‘Prevent’ are discussed and the difficulties facing the government and the Muslim communities in mounting a challenge to the process of radicalisation are explored; topics that are very difficult to avoid these days.

It looks like a rather large leap from this chapter to the next, Chapter Five, which discusses the arrival of ‘Muslim cool’: a cohort of writers (often female), rappers, Youtube celebrities, actors and spoken word artists who are producing and changing culture. Not that this group is without its critics, unhappy about some of its depoliticizing effects (such as the video Happy Muslims) or the pressures to appear to be Good Muslims (remember Chapter Four), but it’s clearly a new field of creativity where innovative discussion takes place about what Islamic piety actually is and how one can maintain one’s own. The author concludes by exploring the way forward, acknowledging the achievements which have been made and identifying the challenges that lie ahead, in particular regarding the empowerment of women.

The trouble with going beyond the stereotypes

The book is rich in examples of forms of alienation but also of people’s own agency, of ideals being informed by, and re-appropriated within, the British context. But the book is about much more than these classic tropes. It describes a patchwork of contradicting tendencies which occasionally are confusing for the reader and complicate the existing templates of the ways of thinking in media and policies which often reduce Muslims’ lives into oppositions of ‘tolerable’ and ‘intolerable’ Muslims, Muslims who are ‘at risk’ and Muslims who are ‘risky’, Muslims who are oppressed and Muslims who do the oppressing, and so on. The book shows individual Muslims negotiating and navigating complex interpellations, traditions and ambitions for the future, the development of several Islamic institutions (such as the Muslim Council of Britain – MCB) moving away from conservatism, insularity and primordialising ethnic ties and modes of Islamism into a variety of directions, inspirations and ideologies which may be distinctly Islamically British (or British Islamic) but not uniquely.

The book also shows how complicated it is for academics to move beyond the existing tropes and stereotypes of the good and bad Muslims which the authors want to challenge (p. 133). Or to put it more precisely: to escape the binaries repeated by Muslims and others alike in policies, political debates and media. In particular, in regard to the parts of the book that present the changes taking place in Islamic institutions or the challenges of fundamentalism and clandestine political violence, one wonders if the examples chosen (for example, referring to the reformist versus traditional circles of knowledge or the attempts by Muslims to ‘humanise themselves’ p. 195, or the clear preference for modernist Muslims) do not tap into the same old tropes. However, in other parts, the book does a really good job critically engaging with particular responses to the debates and specifically by showing the different voices from the Muslim communities, for example, with the ‘Happy Muslims’ video.

A ‘must read’

Yet, it is the same old stories that seem hard to avoid because obviously there are Muslims who work really hard to provide a more nuanced (more fully-rounded human if you prefer), picture of Muslims. There are several developments within the Islamic institutes of learning taking place and it’s important to note that the authors are writing from their own particular viewpoint. So, now and then, the book slips into particular oppositions or accepts them as too self-evident. In so doing, unintentionally I think, the authors reinforce the traditional view that puts an emphasis on Muslims to change or demonstrate that they are changing against a background of debates on integration and radicalization. It is a struggle I think for many scholars working on Islam (perhaps also on religion in general) to go beyond the often repeated themes about religion (such as tradition versus modernity and youth as the agents of change) because we simply lack the terms and concepts. Yet, the book clearly makes us think about these issues and provides readers with well-sustained arguments for doing so. Not only is the book written in a pleasant style, it also provides readers with a vast amount of thoroughly-researched information and the sources (online and offline) to enable them to continue their own explorations. It is a timely-written book and, notwithstanding some of the issues mentioned above, a ‘must read’ for policy makers and journalists, and for practitioners who want to go beyond the boring and worn out stereotypes.