Public face of a private faith

Mona Siddiqui, one of the UK's leading commentators on Islam, is driven by intellectual curiosity, religious belief and a desire to engage. Hannah Fearn writes

July 17, 2008

Twenty years ago, Mona Siddiqui was shocked when the BBC called her to chat about her academic specialism. Salman Rushdie's controversial novel, The Satanic Verses, had just hit a raw cultural nerve, and when the phone rang it was the first time she had been asked to discuss Sharia in public.

In 1988, Siddiqui's work was still considered a niche interest. Today's political debates look rather different, and Islamic law is rarely out of the news. In February, when the Archbishop of Canterbury's comments that the teachings of Sharia should be subsumed within civic law were met with indignation and outrage, Siddiqui was one of the first in the spotlight.

But 20 years ago, Siddiqui - who was then still a PhD student in Manchester - turned down that first media opportunity. "I didn't do it because I hadn't read the book," she recalls. "I thought one needed a lot of preparation before speaking on the radio. I've realised subsequently that you don't."

Two decades on, Siddiqui is a household name; a commentator for the BBC, an adviser to government at the highest levels and a regular contributor to the "Thought for the Day" slot on Radio 4's Today programme. And since the events of September 11, 2001, her phone has barely stopped ringing.

Her successes in academe have been just as considerable. Only 12 years after taking up her first full-time post at the University of Glasgow, she is now professor of Islamic studies and public understanding, and director of the university's Centre for the Study of Islam. But her fondness for taking a public platform is down to her strong belief that debate around Islam is lacking the background and the context that academia can offer.

"For a lot of people, the media are their only source of information about anything in the world. If academics aren't involved in giving measured and more qualified opinions, then you can't blame the extremists or superficial soundbites that define religions."

Siddiqui regularly comes under attack, for her willingness to engage in the debate on Islam and Britishness and for her largely liberal views on Islam and Sharia. She has received critical e-mails, and listeners' reviews posted on the Today programme's website have been mixed. Her sentiments have even been parodied on the satirical website "Platitude of the Day". But she believes that contributing views and knowledge to public debate is an essential part of an academic's job.

"I've never quite understood the unease that a lot of academics have in engaging. I think they felt that there's too much at stake in the academic world, but why so many people are precious about their discipline is beyond me," she says. "I don't think you should compromise on principle - I'm not saying anything to the public that I haven't said to my peer group. What we can do to the best of our ability, in whichever context we're asked, is to give an opinion bearing in mind that the public's knowledge is going to be very different from student knowledge."

Siddiqui was born in Pakistan, and she moved with her family to Cambridge aged six as her father pursued his ambition to sit postgraduate examinations to qualify as a psychiatrist. When his exams were over, the family decided to stay in Britain and relocated to Huddersfield, where her father worked as a hospital doctor.

"I remember thinking for the first 12 or 13 years of my life that we were going back (to Pakistan)," she says. "I just thought that the UK was a limbo experience. I suppose I must have arrived with memories of the first five or six years in Pakistan and thought, 'That was the only life I knew - so what are we doing in this life?' I can't remember as a family ever having any deep and meaningful conversations about the UK being our home. My parents just made the decision and we lived with it."

At 18, Siddiqui enrolled at the University of Manchester, but after just one semester she relocated to Leeds. She was keen to pursue her studies at a civic university, but even at such a young age it was clear where her academic interests lay; the University of Leeds offered her the chance to focus on Arabic studies. She returned to Manchester to continue her studies four years later, after gaining her first degree and working in insurance ("It was awful - a period of my life I'd rather forget"). It was a move her family fully supported, especially as her mother had already decided on a career path that she felt best suited to her daughter.

"I'm one of three sisters, and she decided on our careers based on our personalities. She said the youngest would become a barrister because she's quite sharp-tongued - and she has. The eldest would be a doctor because my father wanted at least one of his daughters to become a doctor. And she said to me, 'You've got a natural leaning towards the humanities and literature.' At that time, no other Muslim family that we knew had children, especially girls, who were doing arts and humanities subjects. It was a bit of a gamble for my mum; I don't think she thought through what that meant as a career. She just wanted us to have a good education.

"I actually wanted to be a journalist. But they weren't keen on that. In some ways it's seen as prostituting yourself," she says. "I think academe was safe. My mother knew that academic research has its own value and that it wouldn't have any kind of negative effect on my faith."

Siddiqui also faced very little cultural opposition from the home, a fact she is now very grateful for. "I think if I'd have got married at that time they'd have been ecstatic, but that didn't happen. There were a lot of intellectual freedoms in the house. I wouldn't say there were a lot of other freedoms, but there were intellectual freedoms. Reading and researching and questioning were applauded and embraced in the family."

Back at the University of Manchester, Siddiqui dedicated herself to the study of Islamic law under the leadership of the late Norman Calder. He was the leading light in her early career. "There are times in your life when you know you've met someone who's going to have a profound effect on your being - in the way I approached academia, in the way I approached texts, in the way I looked at Islamic law," she says of Calder's influence.

Despite initially being drawn to Islamic studies as a projection of her faith, Siddiqui began to realise that her academic work and her personal belief were two separate worlds.

"When you start moving into texts on philosophy, theology and law, these sometimes have nothing to do with what you do as a faith practitioner. It was very easy for me to delve into that straight away. I didn't really feel any tension - like, the text says that but my mum says this."

Completion of her PhD, marriage and relocation to Glasgow followed. She took a year-long break from study to set up home, but when a friend tipped her off about a vacancy at the University of Glasgow she decided to take a last-minute chance - she heard about the post just one day before applications closed.

Twelve years on, she has seen a lot of changes within her department. "I was the first non-white, non-Christian and non-male member of staff. It was a huge thing to do. It was going from old-style divinity to religious studies," she says. "We have a different range of students coming in. I have virtually no Muslim undergraduates. They are normally from a Christian background but are absolutely interested in religious studies as a discipline of the liberal arts."

In this context, religious studies is now a very healthy academic discipline. Although students are keen to root their seminar debates in current political questions, Siddiqui is resolute in the need to embed in them an understanding of the history of religion. This is also her approach to her advisory and commentary work; she wants debate on Islam to move away from being reactive and towards being considered and informed.

When it comes to her own place in these debates, Siddiqui believes too much is made of her faith. She may be a Muslim and an academic, but her views, and the value of her contribution, are not entirely predicated on these things.

"For me, Islam is just one aspect of who I am. When I go to university I'm doing a job," she says. "At the very first conference I went to, the first thing I said was that I was not representing Islam, I was just representing me."

She has, of course, represented herself at some incredibly high-profile and influential conferences, including a landmark meeting of interfaith leaders organised by Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2002.

"As a Muslim academic, I know very few people who think like me. There is a lot of defensiveness about Islam. I don't ever think about how I can explain the true Islam. I don't go in with any Muslim agendas at all," she adds.

It is possibly this stance that has led to her being termed a "secular Muslim", or the acceptable face of Islam for Christians. She finds neither label helpful. Nevertheless, she sees her role as a public face of Islamic debate as a critically important one. She's not about to give it up.

"The reason I do the lectures I do is that I know I can make a difference," she says. "I feel that the public debates are usually attended by people who are interested in learning more, so you don't reach out to those very sections (of society) that you want to reach out to. But I think you need to stay engaged. If you don't stay engaged, nothing ever changes."

Debate over Islamic law reached fever pitch earlier this year after the Archbishop of Canterbury's controversial comments.

Siddiqui hopes that she can inject some context into the discussion and help the British public better understand exactly what Sharia is and what it means for civic society.

"Sharia is not the monolithic legal system that people think it is. There is a fluidity in the Muslim expression of law that is just lost in our public debates," she says. "Sharia has been reduced to just penal law, which is unfortunate.

"I don't think most people would have the faintest idea about how to have a conversation about Sharia. Because it's called 'law' it's misleading, but you're basically looking at everything from the way you pray to the Sharia-compliant financial packages that are so 'in' at the moment. Everything becomes a part of an ethical process.

"I'm the first to say there's no way you should have any systematic enforcement of Sharia here," she adds. "But I'm praying all the time, and I'm eating halal meat - that's part of Sharia."

Where Siddiqui's career will go next is something of a guessing game. Her media profile is still on the rise, and should she choose to spend more time on public and advisory work she would be welcomed with open arms. Offers are also coming in from institutions across the Atlantic, keen to bring in expertise on Islam as the political climate darkens.

But Siddiqui still roots herself in academe. She has two books under way, one analysing a series of classical theological conversations and the other investigating Islamic civilisation.

"If I had the time I would get a grant and set something up in Glasgow that would link the different aspects of the work I'm doing, but I just don't have the time," she says. "At the end of the day it's my writing that I want to concentrate on. It's the writing that informs the public work. The public work cannot just be about public situations - it has to be more informed than that."

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