Friday 28 November 2014



The great thing about religious people is that they believe in something. Which isn't to say that the community-minded people in Oxfordshire who run the foodbanks and campaign against the iniquities of (so-called) welfare reform either are or are not religious, nor that they don't believe in what they do. There's a lively new county councillor in Witney who believes in working for the people she represents and as a result, as she told me, she finds herself attending far too many meetings in churches given that she thinks of herself as an atheist. I told her that what she has in common with the church people is that, like them, she believes in something (or if you prefer, doing good things) and shouldn't feel uncomfortable. At Wychwood Circle we meet to discuss what we believe and what we believe in, and one thing we all believe in is dialogue. 

Monawar Hussain certainly believes in something and as a result founded the Oxford Foundation which exists to deepen understanding between people of different faiths and cultures with a particular focus on young people. 
He also bothered to come all the way to Milton under Wychwood to address our discussion group and was rewarded with an audience of 30 who barely squeezed into the library. We felt privileged to be the first to set eyes on a new print-run of an Open Letter to the leader and 'the fighters and followers of the self-declared 'Islamic State' (also known as IS, ISIS and ISIL), a box-full of which he brought with him. Monawar was one of 126 Islamic scholars and others around the world who signed it. 

The Open Letter, dated 19th September 2014, begins with an Executive Summary with a list of 24 points, including the following (my selection): 
  • It is forbidden in Islam to issue fatwas without all the necessary learning requirements. 
  • It is forbidden in Islam to ignore the reality of contemporary times when deriving legal rulings. 
  • It is forbidden in Islam to kill the innocent.
  • It is forbidden in Islam to kill emissaries, ambassadors, and diplomats: hence it is forbidden to kill journalists and aid workers.
  • It is forbidden in Islam to deny women their rights.
  • It is forbidden in Islam to torture people. 

Imam Monawar Hussain practises what he preaches, with an array of projects and interfaith educational programmes such as OMPEP, and on Sunday (Nov 30th) the Oxford Foundation is promoting United for Peace - Oxford's Communities United against Extremism, a multi-faith service at Oxford Spires Academy. Of OMPEP, Rabbi Julia Neuberger has commented:
"Imam Monawar Hussain's toolkit for schools is enlightening, encouraging, informative, and easy to use. What I love about it particularly is that it is designed both to impart information and to improve understanding and relationships, and, as far as I can see, it succeeds in doing just that."
We could say the same of Monawar who both educated us in the basics - and the variety - of Muslim beliefs and inspired us with his warmth and example. It may be said that he also reminded us of the origins of some of the Middle East's turmoil and sense of powerlessness in the face of Western colonialism and 'civilisation'. 

On December 7th we switch our attention to another Middle Eastern rebel of a very different kind in the shape of Jesus of Nazareth. He too didn't think much of occupying powers or for that matter the native religious leaders of his day. But he seems to have had a revolutionary, but peaceful, way of dealing with them.  Just how much we can really know about him - and whether he is or was, or even claimed to be, God - is amply discussed in our study-text for the day, The Meaning of Jesus - Two Visions (see earlier posts).

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