Oxford University, UK’s oldest seat of learning, now a place more Muslim students are calling home

East meets West in the dreamy spire of the Oxford Center for Islamic Studies. Top left, students gather to pray and break their fast during Ramadan. Reuters
Updated 10 July 2018
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Oxford University, UK’s oldest seat of learning, now a place more Muslim students are calling home

  • The Oxford Center for Islamic Studies, set up in 1985 to promote the study of Islam and the Muslim world, has been instrumental in broadening the remit of oriental studies at the university.
  • Muslims account for 10,320 of the city’s population of 151,906, according to a 2011 census

OXFORD: Arriving at the University of Oxford to begin her studies, Mahdiyah Rahman suddenly felt anxious. “I didn’t know how many other Muslim students would be there. I wasn’t sure what to expect.”
During her first week, the 19-year-old student discovered that there were just two other Muslims in Oriel, the Oxford college where she would eat, sleep and study during her time at the university. “I was the only one there wearing a headscarf,” she recalled. Over the summer Rahman had given little thought to the realities of practicing her faith at university, but standing in the crowded hall at Freshers’ Fair, surrounded by hundreds of stalls advertising student clubs and societies, she felt overwhelmed.
Then a banner for the Oxford University Islamic Society (ISoc) caught her eye. “They make you feel like there’s a community that will look out for you while you’re here,” she said. “No one who has joined the ISoc ever wants to leave.”
Muslim students starting out at Oxford University — an institution steeped in tradition where the earliest colleges date back to the 13th century — can struggle with a profound sense of alienation.
“A lot of the Muslims here are also ethnic minorities, so there is already this feeling that you’re going to be on the periphery,” Rahman told Arab News. Historically seen as the preserve of a white, upper-class elite, the student body has grown gradually more diverse, reflecting the changing character of modern, multicultural Britain in the country’s oldest seat of learning.
Faith societies such as ISoc allow students to engage with people who share their values and beliefs, and expand their network outside college life. Attending some activities during Freshers’ Week, as well as college parties and balls, can be difficult for Muslim students trying to avoid the alcohol-fueled atmosphere of university social life.
Getting halal meals in the college dining halls can also be a challenge, as Ayesha Musa, 19, the ISoc secretary, discovered when she arrived at Jesus College, Oxford to study medicine.
“That was a big adjustment — having to be vegetarian,” she said. “I wanted to eat with people in college and was reluctant to miss out on that social experience for the sake of getting something different to eat.”
But many Muslim students say they are “pleasantly surprised” by provisions made to accommodate their faith. “Overall I’ve been really impressed,” Musa said. Being part of ISoc means “you never miss an aspect of practicing your faith the way you would do at home with your family.”
Rahman was surprised by the size of university’s central prayer room, which “even has ablution facilities.”
Famously described as the “city of dreaming spires” — a reference by British poet Matthew Arnold to its scholarly atmosphere — Oxford, in southeast England, is one of the UK’s fastest-growing and most ethnically diverse cities.
Muslims account for 10,320 of the city’s population of 151,906, according to a 2011 census — up from 5,309 Muslim residents the previous decade. The findings also showed that a third of people living here were born abroad, contributing to the atmosphere of multiculturalism flourishing in the country’s oldest seat of learning.
“It’s very cosmopolitan. We live in one of the most beautiful and cohesive places in the country,” said Imam Monawar Hussein, who founded the Oxford Foundation to support disaffected young people and is also the Muslim tutor at Eton College, another of England’s renowned academic institutions.

In the university, this is reflected across the departments, where course names are beginning to reflect the demand for a wider educational experience in branches of Islamic studies.
The theology faculty, one of the oldest and most distinguished in the world, now offers a paper in Islam, while the Department of Economics has a professor specializing in the economics of Muslim societies.
“Oxford is possibly the most international university in the country and the preferred (higher learning) destination for many around the world,” said Farhan Nizami, founder director of the Oxford Center for Islamic Studies.
In recent years, he said, “the complexion of the Muslim student body has changed,” with most, he expects, now British citizens rather than overseas students.

Woven with devotion: The curtain, known as “sitara”, forms the most elaborate part of the kiswa and covers the door of the Kaaba in Makka. Reuters

Set up in 1985 to promote the study of Islam and the Muslim world, the center has been instrumental in broadening the remit of oriental studies at the university to incorporate Muslim societies outside the Middle East and, increasingly, the study of Muslims in the West.
Last year the center, which is under the patronage of Prince Charles, opened the doors to an impressive new facility that rivals the traditional Oxford colleges for scale and grandeur.
With its domed roofs and columned cloisters opening on to the King Fahd quad — named after its Saudi benefactor — the building captures the lofty feel of its older neighbors with a design rooted in Islamic architecture.
“We wanted a building that would blend with Oxford and sit comfortably here,” said Nizami.
Inside the center’s white walls, which still have the gleam of fresh paint, different areas are named
after the countries that funded them, including the Malaysia Auditorium. Downstairs, polished bookshelves laden with volumes are tucked under the well-lit arches of the Kuwait Library, which is empty on the first day of the summer holidays.
A few professors eat lunch in the sunny Oman hall ahead of a guest lecture, part of a program of prestigious speakers that includes heads of state, members of the Arab League and royalty. From here, glass doors open out into tranquil gardens, where a satellite fountain runs between rose beds and down through an immaculate sloping lawn.
The mosque — a gift from the UAE — is one of four in Oxford, where for many decades Muslims had to make do with makeshift prayer halls, starting with the basement beneath an Indian restaurant in Jericho, which is one of the oldest quarters of the city.
Today, the eatery is a popular venue for university students, its faded facade now painted a smart powder-blue and the shabby neon sign replaced by elegant gold lettering.
Tables booked by groups from the university reflect the social, religious and ethnic diversity of Oxford social life, which groups such as ISoc actively promote. “I know in other universities the Islamic societies can be a bit polarizing and are sometimes inaccessible to non-Muslims,” but the ISoc, first-year student Rahman said, is open to all.
“I often bring my non-Muslim friends along to our events,” she said, adding that some envy her extended ISoc family. “They offer so much support. After exams I had messages from at least 20 ISoc girls congratulating me.”

King Fahd quad, named after its Saudi benefactor, at the Center. Reuters

During Ramadan, 80 to 90 students congregated every evening to pray together and break their fast. “I’m a bit sad it’s over, actually,” said Rahman, who found that the communal atmosphere made up for spending Ramadan away from home — a first for many students.
The society also hosts interfaith events as well as weekly socials and activities such as the Sisters’ Mocktails Party “to make sure Muslims don’t feel alone and can socialize with people who have the same values as them.”
“It is difficult and does require a thick skin,” Rahman said. But looking back on her first year, the experience of being a Muslim student in Oxford has been “overwhelmingly positive.” Now she is more daunted by the prospect of a whole summer away from college and her ISoc friends. 

 


Pakistan ex-PM in custody of anti-graft body amid Qatar LNG case

Updated 19 July 2019
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Pakistan ex-PM in custody of anti-graft body amid Qatar LNG case

  • Last year, the NAB ordered an inquiry into Abbasi over the alleged misappropriation of funds
  • Pakistan is currently receiving a supply of 500 million cubic feet per day of LNG from Qatar

LAHORE/ISLAMABAD: Former Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi was remanded in the custody of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) for 13 days, a day after he was arrested in a case involving a multibillion-rupee liquefied natural gas (LNG) import contract to Qatar.
Abbasi, who is also the vice president of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League — Nawaz (PML-N) party, was presented before Judge Bashir Ahmed of an accountability court on Friday morning. The case has been adjourned until Aug. 1.
Speaking to journalists before his appearance at the court, Abbasi called his arrest “an attack on democracy.”
Last year, the NAB ordered an inquiry into Abbasi over the alleged misappropriation of funds in the import of LNG that the agency says caused a loss of about $2 billion to the national exchequer. He is also being investigated for allegedly granting a 15-year contract for an LNG terminal to a “favored” company. Abbasi rejects the allegations.
PML-N Sen. Mushahid Ullah Khan said Pakistan was facing “the worst energy crisis of its kind” when his party came to power after the 2013 general election, and the LNG deal was quickly finalized with Qatar to overcome it.
“The industry was shutting down with thousands of people getting unemployed, but this LNG supply helped us reverse the tide,” he told Arab News.
Khan said Pakistan’s LNG contract with Qatar was “the cheapest possible deal” the country could have gotten, and rubbished allegations of corruption and kickbacks.
“If there is something wrong in the contract, why is this government not reviewing it?” Khan asked.
Pakistan is currently receiving a supply of 500 million cubic feet per day of LNG from Qatar under a 15-year agreement at 13.37 percent of Brent crude price. It is a government-to-government agreement and the price can only be reviewed after 10 years of the contract.
“It is the worst example of political victimization by Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government,” PML-N Chairman Raja Zafrul Haq said on Friday after the accountability court remanded Abbasi in NAB custody. “Shahid Khaqan served the nation with dignity and did not commit any wrongdoings,” Haq added.
Abbasi was arrested on his way to Lahore to address a news conference along with PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif on Thursday.
He served as federal minister for petroleum in the Cabinet of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif when he finalized an LNG import deal with Qatar. Abbasi then served for less than a year as prime minister following the resignation of Sharif in 2017.
On Thursday, Pakistan opened technical bids of four international companies for the supply of 400 million cubic feet per day of LNG for a period of 10 years to fulfil the country’s rising energy requirements.
Officials told Arab News that a Qatari delegation, led by Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani in June, resented that Islamabad had ignored its lowest offer of 11.05 percent of Brent for the fresh deal, and instead floated tenders seeking provision of LNG for 10 years from international companies.
The secretary of Pakistan’s Ministry of Energy said: “Yes, this is true. Qatar expressed its annoyance, but we are following our rules. Qatar has not submitted its bid to participate in the process.”
Khan won power last year vowing to root out corruption among what he describes as a venal political elite, and views the probes into veteran politicians — including Sharif and former President Asif Ali Zardari — as long overdue.
The NAB’s campaign has become a topic of fierce political debate in Pakistan, and its focus on the new government’s political foes has prompted accusations of a one-sided purge. The government denies targeting political opponents.
Commenting on Abbasi’s case, former NAB prosecutor Munir Sadiq said the anti-corruption watchdog would file a reference against Abbasi in an accountability court for prosecution, but only if it found irrefutable evidence against him.
“This case is now at the evidence-collection stage, and the NAB will file a reference in the court if it finds irrefutable corruption evidence against Abbasi during the investigation,” Sadiq said.
He added that any inquiry against Abbasi would be shelved after 90 days if corroborating evidence of corruption was not found.
“If a weak case will be filed against the accused, then he will surely receive support from the court,” Sadiq said.