Feature Interview: Tim Winter (aka Abdul Hakim Murad)
University Lecturer in Islamic Studies at the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge, England, and Director of Studies in Theology at Wolfson College. His research work focuses on Muslim-Christian relations, Islamic ethics and the study of the Orthodox Muslim response to extremism.
John Cleary: In this hour, we turn to Islam, as a guide to life. Our guest is a Cambridge Divinity scholar who also happens to be a Muslim.
My guest now is somebody whose life is lived in two worlds. Now he may choose to dispute that, but for most people Timothy J. Winter is a university lecturer, a graduate of Cambridge and somebody who has followed the English middle-class path to academia and success.
To many others, Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad is a religious scholar of eminence. Eminence in the Islamic community. Both of these people reside in the one body, Tim Winter, welcome to the program.
Tim Winter: Thank you very much, it’s a pleasure to be here.
John Cleary: Do you ever feel you live in two worlds?
Tim Winter: Yes, and I enjoy it enormously. I think everybody has a complex identity nowadays, we’re all hyphenated one way or another, and I’m Anglo-Muslim, and I find that rather an interesting sort of identity to have.
John Cleary: Many Anglo-Muslims have a Muslim heritage, that is, their parents or grandparents come from an Islamic tradition; that’s not the case with you.
Tim Winter: Well British Islam is a complicated, broad sort of church, and we have perhaps towards its core, a nucleus of converts, and that goes right back to actually the 18th century; there have always been Anglo-Muslims, or Anglo-Mohammedans, as the Victorians called us, and we had census figures released just a few months ago from the 2001 census, that indicate that there’s now 63,000 converts to Islam or descendents of converts in the United Kingdom. So, we’re a small group of eccentrics, but not small to vanishing point.
John Cleary: How did you first discover this community which you’re now so much a part of?
Tim Winter: Well I went into the religion through a rather dry and bookish route I suppose, through comparing various philosophies and theologies, and I suspect that I never met a proper practising Muslim before I actually decided to take the plunge. So it was very much principles first and then the realities of the community after.
John Cleary: Well let’s talk about those principles for a moment, because you grew up in a society, a culture that’s steeped in Christian values. Now whether or not they’re practiced is a different question, but the value system was still there and evident before you. Christianity recommends itself to millions, Islam recommends itself to millions. What were the critical elements in the choice? First the rejection of Christianity, and then the acceptance of Islam, or did it happen the other way around?
Tim Winter: Well my own background is Norfolk non-conformist, we were Congregationalist ministers in various small chapels, and temperance folk as well. My grandfather was from the last generation that took the pledge, and he never touched the demon drink until the day he died. And one ingredient in that sort of dissent was a certain hesitation about the doctrine of the Trinity. Perhaps a certain Anglo Saxon pragmatism could never quite get its mind around the intricacies of at least the classical definitions of three in one.
John Cleary: There’s a very strong history of that in British dissent too, it led to the Unitarians and other groups over the years, so it’s got a strong hold on the British imagination, that dissenting tradition, particularly on such doctrines.
Tim Winter: Yes, I’m from Cambridge, and Newton is perhaps Cambridge’s most famous product, and Newton was at least a closet Unitarian, and many other people in the 17th and 18th century privately harboured serious reservations about whether Christ and the Bible had actually taught anything resembling the later doctrine of the Trinity, and whether it actually made sense to solid, no-nonsense, English pragmatists. So I come very much out of that tradition, although I ended up in a direction rather different from the one that they would have favoured.
John Cleary: Then take us through that path.
Tim Winter: Well it was I suppose the usual earnest late-night coffee-drinking teenage angst talking about the meaning of life, and trying to figure out where I was, what I was heading for. And this was the ‘70s, the tail end of the sort of hippy trail to India. People were still experimenting with sort of oriental, exotic alternatives to solid, middle-class, tedious, worthy, Christendom. But I ended up not in the subcontinent or the Far East, as most of my generation did, but actually in the Middle East, because I felt that to switch to something so radically different as a traditional Indian religion, or Zen Buddhism, would have represented too much of a tearing, too much of a ripping out of my soul, of some of the stories that were there from my childhood, and were really part of who I was. I didn’t really want to be anything strange or exotic, I wasn’t looking for an alternative identity, but rather for a way of continuing in some way with what I already knew, and the person of Jesus was very much central to that, sort of unbesmirchable, great hero of the West’s religious history. But at the same time, squaring my conscience with the core doctrines, and it came to a point where I really could no longer recite the Creed in church and accept the doctrines of incarnation, atonement, and Trinity.
John Cleary: They seemed unreasonable?
Tim Winter: They seemed unreasonable, and also they didn’t seem to correspond very much with what historians were, certainly in the ‘70s, discerning as the original teachings and lifestyle of the historical Jesus. There’s a big crisis now in New Testament scholarship, over whether the Christ of faith is actually the same person as the Jesus of history, the great resurrected Christ that you see in the cupolas of misty Byzantine domes, staring down from on high; is that actually the same person as that amazing wandering rabbi of 1st century Palestine with his extraordinary message of reconciliation?
John Cleary: Many of those same challenges are now being presented to Christians through the Mel Gibson film ‘The Passion’, which incarnates Christ very much as a human being.
Tim Winter: Yes, I have my own problems with the Mel Gibson sort of over-technicolour version of the suffering of Christ.
John Cleary: Yes, somebody’s described it as ‘sanctified splatter’ to me.
Tim Winter: Yes. He represents a particular kind of very conservative Catholicism that exaggerates the passion beyond the mediaeval position. If you look at mediaeval portrayals, particularly the Eastern tradition of the passion, it’s rather toned down, it’s dignified, there isn’t this sense of twisted, tortured agony, that represents I think an exaggerated, what could technically be termed a Jansenist view of original sin, and the misery of the human condition, that I think most people nowadays find rather distasteful: the idea that we’re so deeply sunk in sin and guilt and evil, that God himself has to suffer infinitely to pull us out of this mess that we’ve got ourselves in. It doesn’t speak to me, really, I find even most atheists can live reasonably decent lives. The idea that we’re sunk in a mire of despond and original sin, I think is rather a miserable under-estimation of the way that God’s actually created us. But it’s a great film.
John Cleary: which moved you away from Christianity. What then recommends Islam to you?
Tim Winter: My capacity for faith in abstract doctrines is rather limited. I’m very much a child of my time in that, and I could never really take the leap of faith required to subscribe to the indispensable Christian doctrines of Trinity, vicarious atonement.
John Cleary: And incarnation?
Tim Winter: And the incarnation, yes. And also I don’t see that it’s necessary. The Jesus that appeals to me is the Jesus of, say, the parables, particularly The Prodigal Son, who is ultimately a Jewish teacher, that the great message of the Hebrew Bible is that human being can be reconciled to God through God’s infinite power to forgive, that the prodigal returns to the father, and there’s no sign of a vicarious atonement, or the father suffering on the son’s behalf. He just forgives him and embraces him. I think that’s the highest form of monotheism for me, and I find that enshrined in Islam actually rather more accurately than at least in the developed forms of Christianity that I was brought up with.
John Cleary: You’re on Sunday Night on ABC Radio. Our guest is Timothy J. Winter, university lecturer in Islamic Studies at the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge in England. He is also known as Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad, a Muslim scholar of eminence throughout the Islamic world.
Tim, there’s a cultural element to all this as well. Introduce us to a little music.
Tim Winter: Well, Islam is not just a great enterprise of faith and works, but it’s produced some of the world’s great civilisations. You think visually of the great world that stretches from the Taj Mahal to the Alhambra, some of the world’s great architecture. It also has wonderful sounds as well, and the key to Islamic tonality and melody is actually the formal recitation of the Holy Qu’ran. I used to walk down a little street when I was living in Cairo in the early morning when the shopkeepers were putting out their wares, and I counted 38 shopkeepers who actually were listening to the 24-hour a day, wall-to-wall Qu’ran radio station, which sort of invested the mundanity of their lives with the fragrance of the absolute. That’s certainly my favourite sound, it was one of the things that magnetised me and brought me towards Islam, and it is the greatest of the Islamic art, the naked, unadorned, projection of the human voice into some great dome of a sacred space; that still moves me more than any other sound.
Tim Winter: But of course we have other traditions as well. We have great traditions of singing the praises of God and of the blessed prophet, in an almost infinite variety of modes. The African Islamic sound is very different from the Bosnian Islamic sound, the Turkish Islamic sound, the Uzbeks, the Malays, Islam is not just one civilisation, but a huge range of civilisations, which all have their own particular way of being Muslim, as it were metaphorically facing the same direction of prayer in Mecca, but from often quite different directions. It’s a diverse world.
John Cleary: Well let’s hear one of your favourites, from Turkish music.
John Cleary: You’re on Sunday Night on ABC Radio around Australia; John Cleary with you. My guest is Timothy Winter, lecturer in Islamic Studies at the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University. He is also a committed Muslim; as Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad, he has produced a number of works on Islam and the faith, from the perspective of a believer. Tim, let us for a moment talk about some of the issues which confront us today. Writers have spoken of the clash of civilisations; you have the Huntington thesis and other things. To what extent do events such as those unfolding in Iraq influence the Muslim world as a body, that is the world of faith, to say Look, there is really a subtle clash of civilisations going on here beneath the surface. And I guess I ask it for two groups of people: one, the ordinary Muslims as they go to the mosque each week, but also the Islamic scholars and the range of people who seriously think about Islam.
Tim Winter: Well there’s certainly a clash regrettably, between the zealots on both sides, the Christian Fundamentalists in the Pentagon rattling their swords against the evil, Saracenic East, and reciprocated by Muslim zealots and Fundamentalists who are convinced that the Pentagon represents all America and the West can possibly be, and is just a negative force of domination and contempt. But I think the only positive aspect of the current standoff is that I travel a lot in the Muslim world, and in the West, and my sense is that the mainstream of the two religions actually don’t regard each other with enmity that I suppose they did in the past. Just last week I was in Washington with the Archbishop of Canterbury and a group of Muslim scholars and a group of Christian scholars, and we were actually amazed and reassured by the extent to which we’d agree, not just humanly in a sort of courteous level of interaction and shared faith, although obviously there are sharp doctrinal differences between the two religions, but also on political matters. The previous time our group met was in Qatar this time last year at the height of the war in Iraq. It was a very tense time, and the hotel where we were staying, 80 of the rooms were occupied just by the CNN team, and we were very much operating against that backdrop of a failure of communication between two parts of the world. But all of the Christian clergy and all of the Moslem clerics present were really united in their opposition to the war on Iraq. The Archbishop of Canterbury had spoken against it previously, the Vatican whose spokesman was there, had spoken against it, so the main stream clergy on both sides, actually I think view the world in rather convergent, similar ways. It’s the radicals and the zealots on both sides that unfortunately are the focus of attention for the mass media, who are really responsible for this very tragic and I think rather threatening polarisation.
John Cleary: One of the elements of the polarisation that’s pushed even in semi-serious Christian circles is a theological issue, and that is the critique that ultimately Islam in the way it is taught, in the majority of places, has at its heart, a notion of theocracy, which is fundamentally incompatible, and I use ‘fundamentally’ quite deliberately there, incompatible with any notion of secular pluralism.
Tim Winter: Well clearly, religion in any traditional sense is going to adopt a position of prophetic criticism of the structures of liberal consumer society. There are many aspects of the modern world and globalisation, the degradation of the environment, the control exercised over the planet by the corporations, media moguls etc., that I think people in all religions really want to criticise very sharply, and Islam is certainly not different in that respect. The issue of religion and politics, you have to remember that before say the 18th century, all religious assumed that the two were two ways of expressing the same thing, that the head of the church was the head of the State, and in Christendom, as in the Islamic world, the two were very much elided. But the Muslim tradition is actually to keep the institutions of religion very separate from the institutions of State. The men of the sword are not the men of the pen, to use the traditional language. In the Ottoman Empire the traditional Moghul Empire and elsewhere, while the Sultan, the Caliph claimed some kind of general aura of religious legitimacy, he didn’t legislate, and he had no control over religion. And religion had no formal control over him. What’s happening in modern fundamentalism, is that the tradition Sultan or Caliph figure is being abolished, because the Royal Family has become too decadent, as in the case of pre-revolutionary Iran, for instance, and the ‘clergy’ think that it’s their responsibility now really for the first time in Islamic history, to step into the vacuum and try and put things right. So what we’re seeing now, the sort of theocratic model, the Islamic republican model in many parts of the Islamic world, is something that’s radically new and doesn’t really represent our traditions.
John Cleary: Some people have also compared it to the Cromwellian period in British history, that is once one overturns one mode of government, one necessarily goes through a sort of theological Puritanism in order to sort things out, but Cromwell didn’t last all that long in England and his legacy is regarded as very mixed.
Tim Winter: Yes, I think that’s an interesting precedent. The Anglo Saxon world has, as it were, worked through the experiment of religiously zealous government, and found that it didn’t particularly deliver even religiously. One of the consequences of Cromwell’s period was the unleashing of a long tradition of English scepticism about religion, that it had behaved so badly when in power because of its well-meaning desire to drag everybody into heaven by the scruff of their necks, that many people reacted in the normal human way, by wanting to run away from religion. If you force it down people’s throats, then the danger is many of them will want to vomit it up again. And we’re seeing that in many parts of the Islamic world. If you look at the Iranian experience, after 25 years of Islamic rule, their Ministry of Religious Guidance recently published figures that show that only 3% of Iranians now attend Friday prayers. Before the revolution, it was almost 50%. So what kind of Islamic reformation and revival has that actually delivered? Religion is now identified with a kind of prison, the pan-optican idea of the man at the centre of the State looking at everybody, Calvin’s city of glass, nobody being able to misbehave in a way that annoys the clerics or the mullahs without calling down on them, not just the sanction of heaven, but the repressive capacities of the modern corporate State. So I think that there’s a dawning awareness in the Islamic world that the totalitarian model of Islamic government doesn’t actually deliver, even on its own terms, and it may well be that many Muslim countries have to work through that experience by themselves, that the West should actually let the Algerians, the Egyptians, the Yemenis, the Pakistanis and other people, experiment with the model that many of the people clearly want, and after 20 years perhaps they’ll come down to earth and they’ll see that perhaps there’s a more convivial, more sort of compromising, more real politik style of integrating religion with politics that’s more open to the outside world and ultimately more humane. But it may take a long time.
John Cleary: A recent success, surprising to many, particularly in Australia, given the testy relationship the government of this country has with Malaysia: the recent elections in Malaysia have seen a triumph of the middle-classes, which many people say is the cornerstone to success of any democracy, and belief will soon be subsumed by the good life of the middle classes.
Tim Winter: That’s possibly the case, yes. It may well be that in our consumerist world a totalitarian political order that can’t deliver economically will eventually be superseded. But to do that you have to have a middle-class, as you suggest, with substantial spending power, and given the demographic profile of many Muslim countries, or many Third World countries at the moment, the societies are bottom-heavy, that is to say that the peasantry, the urban proletariat, have very large families, and the middle-class, where it exists in recognisable form, is actually a very small sliver, stratum of the population, and not really enough to deliver the kind of Malaysian model that certainly under Badawi many people in this part of the world were regarding as really rather a positive way forward.
John Cleary: Let’s have a little more music now, Tim, and then I’d like to come back and talk about your life in the Islamic community.
John Cleary: ‘Sut el Islam’, the music of Islam, a contemplative tune from an album of authentic Arabia, the Islamic world, that’s a Sonaton authentic series recording, on Sunday Night.
How does your life as a Muslim unfold itself, Tim, during the week, how are you seen in the community? You’re seen as a scholar in your own right. How does this play out? Is the role of the scholar purely intellectual, or does it have faith and devotional aspects to it as well?
Tim Winter: Well I teach in a divinity school, and most of my colleagues, after giving their lectures, discreetly slip on the dog-collar and go off and thunder from the pulpit in Cambridge parish churches. In a sense, I’m in the same mould, and I find that actually rather stimulating, because I do want to teach and write and expound my scholarship in a way that serves ultimately the glory of God. I take it that that’s the best way of being objective.
John Cleary: And touches the people in the pews as well.
Tim Winter: Well I’m not allowed religiously to touch my students, I have to explain Islam or world religions or the philosophy of religion, a course that I also teach, in ways that are accessible to the wider secular academic world, because that’s the rules by which one has to play, and I think it’s quite bracing and helpful that you can’t take anything on trust, everything has to be proven from the word go. But then of course, I slip off Friday lunchtimes after my last seminar, and wind on my turban and mount the pulpit in the Cambridge mosque and thunder from the pulpit there, to a very diverse congregation, really couldn’t be further removed from the kind of rather languid, apathetic, middle-class English students that I teach in the morning.
John Cleary: There’s a sense in which though each influences the other. I mean the way one responds to an audience in the mosque, to a congregation, actually begins to crystallise the way one’s thoughts academically, I mean life influences art, in the broadest sense.
Tim Winter: Yes, I think particularly in a modern or to use the trendy term, post-modern academic environment, to think that one has to separate the two worlds absolutely, the world of faith and piety and quoting from the Scriptures, and on the hand the world of being philosophical and scientifically objective on the other. That’s not really necessary any longer; nobody expects it. We have different definitions of objectivity now. But in a divinity school where I work, where I find my mainly Christian but also Jewish colleagues actually very convivial and interested into entering into conversations with other faith traditions, I find that there’s a kind of half-way house between the academic objectivity and thundering from the pulpit, that we get together regularly to look at related issues in each other’s scriptures, so because we have great linguists amongst my colleagues, the Hebrew Bible about Abraham, St Paul in Greek, about Abraham, and then the Qu’ran about Abraham, and at quite a high level we’re able to share insights and compare and contrast. And it’s interesting to see how a kind of fellowship, that’s actually a sort of religious fellowship, can develop in an academic milieu that actually crosses the religious boundaries. So while one remains, as it were, vertically part of one’s own denomination, there’s a kind of horizontal way in which one can be in fellowship with people from very different religious traditions, because we share the same kind of academic method of looking at your heritage. So I find it a rather interesting overlap zone in which to work.
John Cleary: On the streets in Europe, religion is becoming an issue. We’ve had France recently take a recourse to their ancient republican heritage and say Look, all religious symbols are out, we just can’t afford to play the game this way. Now one can understand from the position of an intellectual heritage why France would take that line; a similar line is not being taken in Britain and in other countries, as yet. But nevertheless there is a real problem which the French are genuinely trying to come to terms with, and it’s a problem for pluralism. That is, how does one genuinely honour pluralism? Is by saying “All shall tow the same line”, or is it by saying “All shall keep their faith to themselves”? I mean this is a genuine dilemma, is it not?
Tim Winter: Yes, the French are now trying to grapple with the consequences of imposing church-State separation that was formulated at a time when religion only meant the Roman Catholic church, and was really based on a specifically anti-Catholic and anti-clerical rhetoric in the late 19th century, with the fact of a very religiously plural modern Parisian reality. So they banned the headscarf in schools, saying, We’re not specifically targeting Muslims, perish the thought, but then they find that the small Sikh community says We really have to keep our turbans on, so Lionel Jospin goes into conclave with his experts for a couple of weeks, and then they say Well you can have invisible turbans, and the Sikhs say What do you mean exactly? And they go silent for a couple of weeks and then they say, Hairnets, and we’ll give you the model of the Sikh hairnet in the schools, and that becomes absurd. And then the Assyrian community in Paris that nobody had ever heard of before, pops its head above the parapet and says But our religion requires us to have big crucifixes, this has never been a problem in schools before. And so the French secular, rather narrow tight-lipped ideology, finds itself butting its head against a French demographic reality that’s become extraordinarily diverse and rich. The Germans have taken rather a different course two weeks ago: two of the German laender provinces announced that it was specifically Islam that would not be tolerated, that the headscarf would be banned, but other religious symbols would be allowed. And I think the Danes are going to go the same way. That’s a little bit easier to administer, but of course in the context of Germany, people think about the Nuremberg laws singling out the Jews, making them dress in a way that was offensive to them, and it has a rather worrying pedigree there, and with the constant growth of neo-Nazi parties in many European countries, many in the Muslim communities are becoming quite disturbed.
John Cleary: Those countries which are taking these actions are doing it in the name of trying to preserve civil society, yet the remedies you’re suggesting and others, can have perverse side effects. But nevertheless, something needs to be done?
Tim Winter: I don’t see that it needs to be done. Why shouldn’t religious communities dress any way they please in public spaces?
John Cleary: Because they’re used as political symbols, as political rallying points.
Tim Winter: That is generally not the case. I don’t think that most young girls –
John Cleary: But that’s the accusation.
Tim Winter: But I don’t think it’s the case. Most Muslim girls who choose to cover their heads in schools do so because it’s their understanding that this is pleasing to God. They don’t assume that it has any consequences for how they’re going to vote, or their political affiliations. In the Muslim world, a woman covers her head without any indication that she supports any particular political party or orientation, it’s an act of piety, rather as a traditional Catholic woman or Jewish woman will often cover her head as an act of modesty, and because it seems to be recommended in scriptures, without any idea that it’s a political statement.
John Cleary: Yes, one of the amusing historical observations of this is, if this issue were stepped back 100 years, you could not find it because Catholic and Jewish women were wearing headscarves in the same way that Muslim women are today.
Tim Winter: That’s right. I think it was a universal assumption that females should be modest and a good way of expressing their modesty and demureness was for them not to project their physical charms too conspicuously in the public domain.
John Cleary: St Paul speaks about it in the New Testament
Tim Winter: Yes, it’s a good Christian and even in my own ancestral tradition, non-conformist tradition, that women dress modestly in public. It’s universal, it’s not just Islamic.
John Cleary: There are many schools in Islam, Tim. We talk about Suni and Shi’ite as the largest, there are also individual schools within those traditions, such as the Wahabis who dominate Saudi Arabia, Sufism is a long tradition that spreads itself across all of the main categories; it’s a means of doing business, if you like. When you look at contemporary Islamic theology and politics as it’s practiced, Wahabism seems to attract particular attention, and the Wahabies in Saudi Arabia attract a particular attention because of the strong Suni tradition of the imposition of law. Wahabism has a strong juridical element to it, which seems to be imposing itself very much on the way Wahabi Muslims express themselves in life, it’s leading to terrorism.
Tim Winter: Well I think that’s going a bridge too far. I’ve lived in Saudi Arabia, I know some of the Wahabi scholars, and there are really too broad tendencies within what’s conventionally called Wahabism at the moment. One you might define as the Royal Saudi Wahabies, that is to say the regime loyalists in Saudi Arabia, who certainly speak out very courageously against terrorism; and the Mufti of Saudi Arabia spoke out against suicide bombing and 9/11, but then an uneasy relationship with them, you have the radicals, who you might call the Wahabies of Mass Destruction, who’ve incorporated more recent ideas of the ideologising of religion, and particularly incorporating ideas of originally Western radical inspiration, to do with political violence and using terrorism and targeting civilians to secure a political end. And they exist in very uneasy tension at the moment in Saudi Arabia, each claiming legitimate inheritance or the original Wahabi mantle, that the movement was launched 200 years ago in Central Saudi Arabia; and the argument is, does this mean an essentially accommodationist relationship to the West and particularly America, which is the official Royal position in Riyadh, or does it mean some kind of Cromwellian international insurrection in order to impose God’s law on earth? And so intense is this tension now in Saudi Arabia that they’ve been fighting in the streets, and there have been very serious incidents in a number of Wahabi heartland towns in North Central Saudi Arabia. Several dozen people have been killed, thousands have been incarcerated with the blessing, or at least the uneasy consent of regime scholars. So it’s certainly not fair to say that somebody who identifies himself with the teachings of Wahabism is automatically a problem in Australia or in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else. But nonetheless, it’s also the case that the great majority of people who do believe in the legitimacy of terrorism to secure purportedly Islamic ends, do tend to subscribe to the rather literalist, dry, intense Wahibi theology. So there is a problem there, but you certainly shouldn’t generalise.
John Cleary: We’re looking at a Europe which is changing very rapidly. We’re looking at a Europe which is, there’s almost a re-Islamisisation of Europe. One could go back to the days of 1453, when the Spanish ruled the line, and said This far and no further, and similarly in the East up through Bosnia where we’re seeing the outcomes of many of those historic squabbles penetrating. But in another way the battle cannot be won by either side in that Turkey becomes part of the EU, and an Islamic country becomes part of the European identity. This is not something that rules and lines in the sand can change. There has to be at some point a cultural accommodation here. To what extent are intellectuals such as yourself and others, concerned that this long-term agenda is the real agenda? We actually need to come to a very sophisticated, mature, cultural accommodation here, and we need to have our sights clearly set on that, as a European idea.
Tim Winter: Well this has become one of the big lightning rods for the argument about European identity at the moment. Europe now is host, if you include Russia at any rate, to around 32-million Muslims, we’re by far the most substantial minority on the Continent, and given that Europe is largely surrounded by mainly Muslim areas, it’s likely that immigration will continue, families will continue, conversion will continue, and we’re part of Europe’s future. But I don’t like the language of there being a battle, because I travel a lot amongst the sort of mosque communities in the north of England and in parts of the Continent, in Spain, France and elsewhere, and overwhelmingly, the message that I pick up from the ordinary man in the mosque, is that they’re perfectly happy, they feel at ease with their Christian neighbours, they’re happy for Europe to retain a Christian identity, and they’d prefer that to some kind of vague secular alternative, and they do feel very much part of the European reality, although they like in certain aspects of their lives, to be separate and distinct, and there’s plenty of precedents for that, the Catholic communities, the Jewish communities, and many others. Unfortunately the media tends to focus on the sort of loudmouth radical fringe that is absolutely against any possibility of convivial life with Christian and other neighbours, but they’re really not representative. In England we have over 1,000 mosques that are officially registered and I would say maybe five or six are sort of block-headed, narrow-minded, fundamentalist establishments. Unfortunately they’re the ones that the television cameras always tend to focus on. But overwhelmingly I would say that the process of, well, Islamisation is too grand a word, but the cautious reception by Europe of substantial numbers of Muslims has been a considerable success, and in England now we have many successful Muslims in the media, we have Police Commissioners in London, we have Muslims in the armed forces, even in the SAS. A Muslim friend of mine is involved in guarding nuclear weapons in a submarine base, and we have Muslims in the House of Common s and the House of Lords. There is a mosque in the Palace of Westminster in London, there’s a mosque in the BBC. Overwhelmingly I think it’s a success story, and it’s regrettable that we assume that because Islam is said to be so different that there has to be some kind of problem. Inherently I think there isn’t a problem. The days of the Spanish Inquisition are over, Christianity clearly has become a hugely pluralistic and hospital force in the world, and Islam has a long tradition of dealing reasonably with religious difference. And I would describe it overwhelmingly as a success story. But those zealots who do exist are a problem, they are rocking the boat, they are giving us all a bad name, they are a source of guilt and contrition and confusion for us, and I think it’s probably fair to say that the Muslim leadership has not been as outspoken as it should be in condemning those people and trying to rein them in.
John Cleary: And we’re seeing examples of that of course in Britain in the last couple of weeks, Muslim leaders have spoken out against terrorism.
Tim, we’re rapidly running out of time, but let’s talk a bit about your life in the faith. What for you is the clear light of Islam, the thing that shines for you, that recommends it to you as a path that your life should honour?
Tim Winter: A simple definition of one God, ultimate reality is ultimately single, unconfused, uncomplicated, undifferentiated. That seems to me the clearest explanation for the otherwise intolerable mystery of human existence, and the diversity and richness and beauty of the world. And then a wonderful range of forms of meditation and worship by which one approaches and adores that one ultimate reality. One of the richnesses of Islam for me is that the core liturgy, the core practices of worship and of fasting and of charity, are the same everywhere, and have never changed. No well-meaning, liberal, woolly-minded reformers have said Let’s do mosque worship in a slightly different way. Let’s bring in the guitars and the trendy Imam with the winkle-picker boots and the jeans, trying to sing along with the Prophet, and update it. I go into a mosque and I know exactly what I’m going to get, a beautiful, unchanged, perfect ritual from a great age of faith, and I find that to be a unique privilege, one of the great things of being a Muslim for me, is that our core practices don’t change, and I think probably never will change. And then also the third thing is belongingness to the Abrahamic tradition. I don’t experience it as an Englishman, as something foreign. Superficially, I suppose it’s different, but at heart it’s part of the Judaeo-Christian scriptural, Middle Eastern family of faiths. I still love Jesus and Abraham, Moses, Jacob, Isaac, Ishmael, they’re all revered in the Qu’ran, they’re the great figures of my early childhood, and I still revere them to this day. So I don’t feel it’s an alienation.
John Cleary: How do you experience God? Is God then purely an intellectual abstract?
Tim Winter: One of the great mysteries of God is that the nature of God is pure compassion, and the God of compassion which is to be known by human beings, and has created the world as a diverse range of signposts, beautiful signposts pointing back to him. So wherever I look, whether it’s the beauties of the Australian outback, or the English countryside, or the deserts of the Middle East, I see the beauty of God, and that arouses in my heart a desire to return to God, to love that God, that despite his ultimate –
John Cleary: Otherness in a way.
Tim Winter: ….. Otherness, his ineffability, he can’t be described in himself, because he’s radically unlike ourselves, he’s infinite, perfect, all the things that we’re not. Nonetheless, in his compassion, he has consented to have a personal aspect, a personal face, so that we can worship, so that we can love, so that we can grow close to him and Islam has an extraordinarily rich tradition of sainthood and personal devotional poetry and prayer that certainly speaks very directly to my heart.
John Cleary: In some ways, one has to ask, it’s about the, say let’s go back to where we started, to that Trinitarian notion. In Trinitarian religions such as Christianity, the idea of the aspect of God that dwells within, the heart experience, the Holy Spirit, how is that reflected in Islam, the in-dwelling of God?
Tim Winter: Well in-dwelling, we might say very cautiously, is the nature of everything in the world, because it’s all absolutely dependent on God with every instance.
John Cleary: An eminence.
Tim Winter: There is an eminence, yes. The Qu’ran speaks of the God that’s utterly unlike ourselves, but also says God is closer to us than the jugular vein. He is with you wherever you may turn, wherever you turn, the Qu’ran says, there is the face of God. And whatever we see in terms of beauty in the world, in people’s faces, in humans, mutual compassion and love, there we discern that basic thirst that human beings have for the source of nourishment and richness and fullness that is in God. So it’s a kind of nostalgia. Religion is about awakening a nostalgia that we have for the place where we were before we were born, and the place that we hope we’ll return to after our death.
John Cleary: Tim Winter, it’s been great to have you on Sunday Night. Thanks so much for joining us.
Tim Winter: It’s been a pleasure.
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