Lifting the veil on Islam

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
Most British Muslims are likely to choose faith over fanaticism, writes James Heartfield

There are 1.6 million Muslims in the UK, mostly of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin, and if you work in any inner-city, you will almost certainly have Muslim children in your class.

Two-fifths of Muslims live in east London, mostly Sylhetis, making up 36 per cent of the population of Tower Hamlets and a quarter of Newham.

Manchester and west Yorkshire, home mainly to Pakistanis, and Birmingham, are the other main centres. There are 102 Muslim faith schools in the UK, teaching 14,000 pupils, but most Muslim children are educated in non-faith schools.

The Holy Koran says that Muslim women should draw their cloaks close around them, though this has been interpreted more or less strictly in different countries. A headscarf, or hijab, is common, though it has been banned in French schools. A jilbab, or gown covering the whole body, is less so, but might be preferred. Girls of Pakistani origin might wear a shalwar kameez, or long shirt with trousers. Schools in the UK have mostly accommodated distinctive dress codes, short of veils. The judgment that the hijab is oppressive are rejected by anti-ban campaigners.

The Islamic year, derived from lunar months, has 10 fewer days than the Gregorian year, so that over the years, it moves in relation to the official calendar.

Islam means "submission to God". In the year 610, Muhammad, who was from Mecca, received the word of Allah from the archangel Jibril (Gabriel), which he preached in Medina. The 6,348 verses were collected after his death as the Holy Koran. Originally a merchant, Muhammad united the Arabian Peninsula.

To a modern reader, The Holy Koran seems strange because it was recited, as it is today, in 7th-century Arabic before it was written and is more like poetry than a textbook. Stories are familiar from the Bible, such as those of Adam, Noah (Nuh) and Abraham (Ibrahim). However, to followers, it is a correction of Jewish and Christian beliefs, thought to have become corrupted over time. So it is promised in the story of Isa (Jesus) that he will return to correct the falsehood that he was the Son of God.

Today, the challenges of interpreting the Holy Koran are helped by the Hadith, a body of commentary. As a teacher, be aware that other interpretations are not encouraged.

Spreading through North Africa as far as Spain and central Asia into India, Islam is the second largest religion in the world. Europeans fought with Muslims at the borders and over Jerusalem in the Middle Ages, and then colonised their lands in the 19th century. Decolonisation and the expansion of European industry in the post-war period saw mass migration of Muslims to Britain and other European countries.

British Muslims are overwhelmingly Sunni, as are most Muslims. Iranians and some Iraqis are Shia.

Pushed into second-class jobs, and often treated as second-class citizens, British Muslims have often struggled to succeed, educationally and economically.

What is seen as self-segregation from mainstream British society, has historical roots and was a defensive reaction to racism in west Yorkshire and east London in the 1970s. Second and third generation Muslims may surprise their parents by becoming more, not less, devout. Muslims in Bradford demonstrated against Salman Rushdie's "blasphemous" Satanic Verses, for example, and recently the Muslim Association of Britain has been active in protests against the Iraq War.

The militant self-assertion of some younger British Muslims provokes fears that the London bombers have more supporters, but for the most part British Muslims have been indifferent to the appeal of Al Qaeda.

The dramatic impact of the London bombs, and that Leeds-based teaching assistant Mohammed Sidique Khan was a perpetrators, should not obscure the more conservative views in which most Muslim children are raised. The perceived insults to Muslims in Palestine are an issue, but modesty and faith are more characteristic than fanaticism for the majority of British Muslims.


Association of Muslim Schools:

The Muslim Association of Britain: www.mabonline.infoenglish Federation of Islamic Students:

Muslim Heritage:

Assembly for the Protection of the Hijab: www.prohijab.netenglishmain.htm

You can consult Amir Brooks's webpage on the Islamic calendar at

Islamic calendar date converter:


Tawhid, oneness, there is but one God, Allah is his name.

Muhammad is his prophet. Ibrahim and Isa are prophets.

The Holy Koran is the word of Allah, as revealed to Muhammed.

Sharia, or Islamic law, derives from the Koran and the Hadith.

In Sunni Islam, there are five pillars of Islam:

* Shawadah, or profession of faith;

* Salat, five daily prayers;

* Zakaah, paying alms, usually 2.5 per cent of income;

* Sawm, fasting from dawn to dusk in the month of

* Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar, which ends in the feast of Eid;

* Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, which every Muslim should make once in his life.

* Jihad, generally means to struggle for the faith, but has been interpreted to mean a holy war.

* Shi'a, one-fifth of Muslims in the world are Shi'a, who observe the lineage of Muhammad's son-in-law Ali ibn Abu Talib. Though following the same Koran, they have a distinct body of Hidath, or interpretation.

* Deobhandi, a minority sect of Sunni Muslims from India.

* Wahhabi, a minority sect of Sunni Muslims from Saudi Arabia.

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