CAMBRIDGE: The shaded garden where Dr. Timothy Winter has strung a hammock for moments of contemplation during Ramadan is also a place where students and staff at Cambridge Muslim College can enjoy a respite from the rigors of academic life.
In the future, this serene retreat will be redeveloped to increase capacity at the college where Winter, a leading Muslim scholar and convert to Islam, teaches the next generation of British imams to “explain to their congregations how British Islam will best flourish through positive engagement with others.”
“Whatever the present-day fundamentalists might think, it’s just the norm of Islamic civilization that it generates cosmopolitan, diverse, multi-religious, multi-ethnic societies. History shows us that,” he said.
At the beginning of Ramadan, the college hosted an iftar barbecue in a small clearing behind the 170-year-old building, which is tucked down a sleepy side street behind the local church. With its vaulted roof and wood-panelled decor, Unity House still resembles the English vicarage it once was, but the colorful stained-glass window halfway up the stairs bears one of the 99 names God is given in Islam — reflecting its new religious identity.
“We take a basically optimistic view, looking at the historical success of Islam in integrating itself in an indefinitely wide range of cultural contexts and having a very positive, invigorating effect … with a strong tradition of promoting diversity and pluralism,” said Winter, who is dean at the college.
Winter, who is also the Shaykh Zayed Lecturer in Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge, one of the UK’s leading seats of learning — ranked second in the world — founded Cambridge Muslim College nine years ago so that students could draw on the intellectual atmosphere of the historic English city.
A Sunni convert who adheres to the mystical traditions of Sufi Islam, he first encountered the faith while studying Arabic at Cambridge University’s Pembroke College in the late 1970s. After graduating with a double-first, he traveled around the Middle East, living in Jordan and Egypt before returning home six years later. Today, the 58-year-old is one of the foremost scholars of Islam in Europe, earning a place among the 500 most influential Muslims in a list published by the Jordan-based Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center in 2010.
Speaking to Arab News in his study at Cambridge Muslim College, surrounded by shelves groaning with books and a desk piled with paper and volumes, Winter recalls himself as a “rather serious” teenager sitting down with a black coffee at night to read and ponder life’s questions while others his age were out chasing girls and drinking in bars.
His family were Congregationalist Anglican ministers who preached in small chapels around Norfolk, one of which has since become a mosque. “My grandfather was from that last generation that took the temperance pledge,” said Winter, whose unease with aspects of Christian doctrine stems from this nonconformist upbringing.
Coming of age at the tail-end of the hippie-trail era in the 1960s and 1970s, when many soul-searchers looked eastwards to Afghanistan and India, Winter was drawn by the same spiritual quest to find something “higher or deeper.”
Disillusionment with Christianity and a sense that “bog standard atheism would not satisfy human beings’ deepest desires for meaning and a moral code” set the stage for the Cambridge undergraduate to convert.
Several of his university friends also “fetched up as Muslims,” including Gai Eaton, a British diplomat and well-known Sufi Islamic scholar, who was a consultant to the Islamic Cultural Center at Regent’s Park Mosque in London.
Another was Denys Johnson-Davies, an eminent literary translator who brought the works of Naguib Mahfouz and other Arabic writers to English-reading audiences.
After exploring Judaism, “which struck me as a religion of extraordinary moral and intellectual richness,” he settled on Islam, in part because it “already answers a lot of the questions people have about Christianity.”
At the time, Anglicans with a knowledge of Islam were unusual and converts even rarer, but recent years have brought a notable rise in Britons embracing the faith. According to a 2011 study by Swansea University in Wales, there are up to 100,000 Muslim converts in the UK, or about one in 600 of the overall population.
“With many people, it’s a spiritual epiphany in their lives or they are just intuitively unconvinced by a purely materialistic view of the world,” said Winter. For him, the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity was difficult to digest, while monotheism — the concept of a single God that is central to Islam — is “the most powerful idea that has ever been.”
Next door to his study, in a sunny upstairs library where students revise quietly for their final exams, he points out a section labelled British Islam spanning several shelves: “There are more and more books on this topic.” Muslims here are “moving into the mainstream,” he said.
With the UK’s Muslim population rising rapidly — the US Pew Forum think-tank suggested that it would treble from 4.1 million to 13 million by 2050 — the group is outgrowing its minority status. “We’re no longer looking at a minority … but rather a very significant, central part of what Britain is,” said Winter, adding that the UK’s Muslim communities represent a “cross-section of the entire Islamic world.”
One mosque in Cambridge calculates that there are about 60 national groups among its congregation, including those of Chinese, Venezuelan and Kazakh heritage.
While the younger generation born and raised in the UK is increasingly intermarrying and developing a distinctly British Muslim identity, their parents and grandparents remain rooted in the ethnic affiliations of the past.
According to Winter, 90 percent of British mosques can be readily identified by some kind of cultural marker, and from town to town the nature of Islam practiced by local Muslim communities varies.
This partly stems from initial patterns of migration. According to Winter, Leicester, in the East Midlands, now one of the country’s first majority non-white cities, was the target for many migrants from Gujarat in India, who were typically prosperous and upwardly mobile. Muslims there are much wealthier than the mainstream and the area has become “a model of coexistence in many ways.”
But in Peterborough, the Cambridgeshire city where many first-generation Muslims migrated from rural, semi-literate areas of Kashmir, the community is affected by educational underachievement, addiction and other problems typical of low-income inner-city areas, he said.
Attempts to approach such a rich and varied community with a one-size-fits-all mindset are bound to backfire, particularly in the absence of any representative voice for UK Muslims. “If you’re the home secretary and want to know what Muslims think about women or Iraq or anything, it makes it very difficult to talk to us,” Winter acknowledged.
With lack of leadership repeatedly raised as an issue among Muslim youth, access to authentic information about Islam needs to be more readily available. “Much of the mosque leadership in the UK feels beleaguered and confused … they cannot relate psychologically to the issues and turbulences that are affecting the young.”
The principle source of information about Islam for most young Muslims now is the Internet, which is also the primary recruiting ground for extremists, putting young people searching for answers at risk of gravitating toward “whoever happens to be shouting most loudly.”
Countering this with authentic interpretations of the faith to which he has devoted his life is integral to Winter’s work. His demeanor — calm, contemplative, and softly spoken — has the unhurried air of someone who has spent much of their life deep in thought.
At Cambridge Muslim College, students doing the year-long diploma, which is accredited through the Open University and accepts 15 male and female graduates a year, are given a solid grounding in defining aspects of British culture.
When Arab News visited, several students had been to a lecture on the 18th-century English poet William Wordsworth, and throughout the year seminars on subjects including physics, philosophy and literature form part of the syllabus. Students also attend talks given by high-profile religious figures, such as the Archbishop of Canterbury and senior rabbis, on major faiths represented in the UK’s multicultural society — “so they can see what has made this country whose passports they hold,” Winter said.
One of his former pupils, Ghulam Moyhuddin, now head imam at Ashton Central Mosque, said that third-generation Muslims in the UK are “rapidly developing a stronger sense of British Islam.”
“As they move away from their ancestral roots they are making Britain a home for their faith and future. In order for this progress to continue and remain deeply embedded in the society, the transplantation of Islam from Asia and the Middle East must decline,” he told Arab News.
Many of the male graduates at Cambridge Muslim College become imams, while a lot of women have gone on to head NHS chaplaincy teams.
“We are trying to facilitate the process of rooting the next generation of imams, Muslim chaplains and faith leaders in what is most authentic in the scriptural and religious heritage of Islam, while at the same time showing how fundamentalism is not the most proper reading of that heritage, and never has been,” Winter said.
A better knowledge of Islam isn’t just relevant to Muslims communities in the West, he said. Islam’s place in the modern world is one of the biggest questions facing us at the moment: “Everybody has to be informed on it, whether or not they are religious.”