Minaret among the dreaming spires

July 7, 2006

Oxford's Islamic centre celebrates the faith's traditions - and blends in with the city domes, says Mandy Garner, a year on from the London bombings

For an institution that started life in a wooden hut 21 years ago, the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies has come a long way. In 18 months, it will transfer to a building that outshines many of Oxford University's colleges. The centre's rise reflects the growing importance of finding common ground between Islam and the West and isolating extremism.

The outer shell of the building is already complete. From a distance, the domed prayer room dominates - its intricate, other-worldly carvings strangely in keeping with Oxford's dreaming spires. The architects were keen to blend the medieval college designs with Islamic architecture.

"They have a shared heritage," says Hassan Abedin, the centre's development officer. "Islamic civilisation was flourishing when many of the colleges were built, and they have a lot in common, from domes to the shapes of archways and the centrality of the place of worship."

The £70 million building is funded by an international endowment raised over ten years. Many of the contributions come from foreign governments and the design will reflect this. The Turkish-style entrance will include tiles from Turkey, and the public debating wing, paid for by the Malaysian Government, features a window frame carved from Malaysian wood. The US is also interested in funding a room, while Prince Charles is designing the garden.

Building work has been painstaking, with British engineers somewhat incredulous that it all works. Side by side with tradition will be the latest technology, including plasma televisions and en suite facilities for all 54 student rooms.

The building reflects the aims of the centre: to embrace the diversity of Islamic culture and tradition, to bring that tradition into the modern era and to put it under the microscope. Unlike other academic institutions studying Islam, the centre's focus is on Islam as a cultural rather than a religious phenomenon. Unlike Oriental studies, where Islamic culture is studied regionally as "the Other", the centre adopts an all-inclusive approach that emphasises that there is no one type of Islam. The range of subjects studied is vast, from medieval Islamic thinkers and classic courses in Arabic to current Muslim attitudes to the environment.

It was set up to bring Islam into the fold of the major religions studied at Oxford, which already had a Hebrew Studies Centre and a Centre for the Study of Christian Medical Ethics. Farhan Nazimi, founding director, says:

"When the centre started, it had no staff and no official notepaper. It was just an idea."

"The idea was simple: to have an academic institution for the dispassionate study of Islam and Islamic societies that would be multidisciplinary. It would not be defined narrowly by history or place and so could cut across boundaries. The connecting link was Islamic societies."

The centre has four major areas of activity: teaching, publications such as the Journal of Islamic Studies and a recent series on the makers of Muslim civilisation, research, and lecture series and conferences on issues concerning Islam and the West. Speakers have included Kofi Annan, UN secretary-general, and Nelson Mandela.

The centre is also involved in community work - it prepared a report on Muslims and housing in the UK, is developing an oral history of first-generation British Muslims and has worked with religious studies teachers at schools in Oxfordshire. In August, it will pilot a three-week summer school in leadership for young Muslims.

Nazimi says the centre came along at "just the right time" given the current climate. "It's easy to blame the media," he says. "But the media doesn't exist in isolation. The real challenge lies in how Islamic civilisation is studied in educational institutions. We can provide new perspectives where we do not try to control the narrative. By the time things hit the media, attitudes have already been determined. We have to encourage an environment based on the world in which we live rather than on paranoia. We want to create a place where people can debate and disagree with each other yet then have a cup of tea together."

Many of the centre's students come from Islamic countries, and the hope is that the new building will provide the kind of spaces - courtyards, gardens and communal dining areas - where they can socialise with each other and their British counterparts more freely and learn more about how Islam works in different societies.

The new building could not be more different from the centre's current home, a warren-like former solicitors' office in central Oxford, where every nook is home to a different research project. In one room, a researcher works on Islamic architecture, in another an anthropologist has just received an e-mail about Islamic attitudes to food. Yet another is home to the Atlas of Muslim Social and Intellectual History , where a cartographer sits with two researchers tracking how Islamic thought has developed over time. They are working on the first of seven volumes - on South Asia - to be published by Oxford University Press in about 18 months.

It has taken more than ten years to gather the data. Hundreds of files line the shelves. Maps adorn the walls, as well as charts of how different thinkers link up with each other. Every fact is triple checked.

Just up the hall sits Muhammad Talib, a sociologist-turned-anthropologist. He has been involved in outreach projects with school dropouts. All teaching staff are employed by the centre but also work across the university, teaching undergraduate courses in anthropology and history, for example, masters in Islamic civilisation and related subjects, and supervising PhDs.

One of Talib's main interests is in how identity and knowledge are forged, particularly how stereotypes develop. He speaks about the headscarves debate. Why, he asks, do we assume that the ill-treatment of Muslim women is due to Islam, when in the West we would attribute it to patriarchy? "In the current set-up, the 'facts' support opinions that are already held," he says. The centre aims to bring a new perspective.

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