Sexual desire, the search for happiness, dealing with death and living as a member of a minority are just some of the topics Muslim theologian Mona Siddiqui discusses in her new book – part handbook to life, part autobiography: My Way, which she will discuss at Glasgow’s Aye Write festival this April.
Siddiqui, known to many as a lively contributor to Radio Four’s Thought for the Day, is more interested in engaging with the big questions of existence than in explaining radical Islam to journalists, although recently that is what she has been asked to do most often.
My tea grew cold as I scribbled down her fascinating conversation when we met in a cafe close to where she teaches, at Edinburgh University’s School of Divinity in the old Assembly Hall on the Mound. The views of the New Town were spectacular, even as a grey winter’s afternoon faded into evening. Siddiqui, who lives in the west of Scotland, is Professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies. She teaches here rather than in an Islamic studies department because she is engaged with questions of faith rather than history or culture.
Her book reads like a massively expanded “thought for the day”, almost a “thought for life”: “People never stop asking the big questions: about happiness, about death, about aging, about love.”
About the book, she says: “I have lived like this. It’s not about issues, it’s more about marriage, children, happiness. I look at these things the way my tradition looks at these things.”
The book is “almost the way I teach.” She teaches about her own way of life “but I’m not teaching in a confessional manner, of calling people to the faith; I’m an academic.”
She has few Muslim students and is rarely invited to speak to Muslim organisations. In the book, she recalls: “During one of only a handful of invitations from a Muslim organisation, I was asked to address the topic of gender and Islam. The topic of hijab came up and I spoke about the scholarly debates over female covering. The whole session provoked angry responses from some women who exclaimed ‘Why is she here? All she has done is confuse us.’ I smiled and replied: ‘if you are confused then my job as an academic is done.’ “
For her Edinburgh University divinity students, she says: “They learn that there is not just one way of thinking. It makes them much better at thinking about Islam.”
An endless fragility
Perhaps one of the surprises of My Way is its frank discussion of sex and sexuality:“Quite simply, Islam views human sexuality and desire, erotic love as intrinsic to the fullness of human experience. Sexual desire compels us to reflect upon life and our deepest vulnerabilities … there is no shame in sex, there is no shame in desire and both men and women have rights over one another. Romantic love and sex may not be the same thing but marriage should have both. When sexual desire is realised in marriage, one is acting according to a traditional Islamic understanding of how eros finds its place in human life.”
She considers also that the uncoupling of sex and love is “a monumental change which defines our liquid societies” and quotes therapist Volkmar Sigusch: “All forms of intimate relationships currently in vogue bear the same mask of false happiness worn by material and later free love … As we took a closer look and pulled away the mask we found unfulfilled yearnings, ragged nerves, disappointed love, hurts, fears, loneliness, hypocrisy, egotism and reparations compulsion.”
Siddiqui writes that: “Love holds an endless fragility yet it is at the same time about holding onto the heavy, the difficult, knowing that two people are unfolding their worlds within themselves and for one another. Love demands both courage and humility and you have to listen well, to understand what someone else wants, not what you think they want.”
A marriage can’t survive without forgiveness: ”It is in these moments of forgiveness, whether we are close or distant, that we grow as people and learn how to love.”
Sexual culture and behaviour, Siddiqui points out, are major issues for all the worlds’ thought systems and religions, particularly perhaps for the Roman Catholic Church. “It is all to do with sexuality and sexual conduct and this isn’t going to go away.”
Islam has it own issues, as she sees it, to do with over-emphasis on apparent conformity. In her book she quotes a friend used to dealing with young Muslim women at a British university who wear the Niqab as a veil to cover double lives.
“ ‘So many come to my office and do you know what they ask for? They ask for the morning after pill’ ..It was not as if many of the young women felt liberated and empowered through their sexual experiences; they were simply lost or lonely and their faith could not provide any answers.’ “
Sexuality and desire, she argues, are part of the search for happiness. “This is perhaps the most important fact of all: love, sex, desire, wanting to be wanted. Happiness matters. I talk to my children a lot about happiness and what they want. We don’t know how to talk about happiness. Real happiness is probably quite difficult to find but it’s what we are looking for. Maybe we find lots of things to fill our lives with.”
In the book, Siddiqui recalls how being able to be there for her mother when her father was taken ill brought her happiness.
She explains that in Islamic thought, there is less emphasis than there may be in contemporary thought on abstract concepts like romantic love which relationships then have to measure up to. There is more emphasis on working within real world relationships. “In Islamic thought the meaning of life is found in relationships. I think that’s true.”
Identity? What’s that?
In her own life, Siddiqui manages to marry contradictions which have become faultlines for others; she is a Muslim who is deeply loyal to European values of freedom of expression and religion; she is happy in her arranged marriage but will allow her children to pick their own; and she sees faith in God and the pursuit of happiness as connected parts of the same journey.
However she is reluctant to discuss identity. She doesn’t find the notion helpful. “I don’t even think about identity. I never talk about identity. This is very modern stuff: what identity you have, for me, it’s more about how do I live.
“When I was raising my children, I never thought ‘what’s my identity?’ I thought more about loyalty to certain principles. I’m not even sure what identity really means. In terms of living my life as a British person, it’s just a big buzzword.”
She says she has always believed that “Pluralism is how we live our life. We have freedom and we have to give other people freedom, so we can have all space to be who we want to be.”
After the Charlie Hebdo shootings, Siddiqui has felt called upon to explain what happened.”People ask me to speak about it not because I have done any research but because I’m Muslim and a public figure.”
For her: “It was seen as an issue about cartoons but it wasn’t about cartoons. It was really about values and the values that Europe stands for. If you don’t abide by those values, the values that Europe stands for, where do you fit in in Europe? Where is your loyalty?”
She added: “These things test our own resolve, how we are coping as a society.”
But she was concerned by the growth of a notion of “them” and “us”, which she felt was toxic. “Most European Muslims have loyalty to the values of Europe: freedom of religion, freedom of expression. But there is a minority of Muslims have no loyalty to the values of Europe. This is something I am called upon to explain.”
For Siddiqui: “It’s not really about the Muslim community it’s about where we are going in terms of differentiating the us and the them. The sense that there is an us and them, with the ‘them’ being Muslims, makes politics even more toxic.”
In the book Siddiqui quotes someone who asked her: “ ‘What would you say to white middle-class families who talk of Muslims as a problem at their fancy dinner parties?’ I couldn’t stop anyone from thinking and saying what they felt about the Muslim presence but as a British citizen I could try to make my own positive contribution to society in some small way.”
A mono-cultural failure?
She adds: “The responsibility to think and act is real and urgent because in the end, when politicians and think tanks claim that multiculturalism has failed, they are really only referring to one minority and one failure – Muslims.”
For Siddiqui, it’s vital that more people understand that Islam is not a monolithic community or an identity. For her, it’s a religion she practises in the private sphere.
But the threat from extremism is real and it’s one that affects us all equally. “The peace and security we enjoy in Europe should never be taken for granted.”
She feels that the young Muslim extremists who head to Syria may be responding to a feeling in some families that “we live here but we don’t belong here.” Partly too, they may be rebelling against privilege, heading for something they feel is more exciting and dangerous. “If the whole world was full of pleasure, we would rail against that.”
Siddiqui, who recalls in the book suffering from incidents of playground racism, feels young people need to be encouraged to maintain a robust self-esteem.
They may feel that they don’t belong, they may get called names. We as parents have to say ‘people get called all kinds of names for all sorts of reasons but you have to find a way through this without becoming completely alienated’.
It’s very sad if a child feels so much on their own, that when someone calls them a name they become completely alienated.
They can indulge themselves in that way. People do have to feel that they belong somewhere but even though part of our society may not suit them that’s life. We have to keep on moving forwards.
In Britain, she says, children tend to be cut loose too young. Even older teenagers and young adults need lots of support and attention from the adults in their lives. “I think our children are grown up too quickly. Even as young adults they still need a lot of support, a lot of talking. Young people need respect to be able to talk.”
She said it is sad for her that in the current context, too often talking about Islam becomes talking about terrorism.
But in her tour of British book festivals in the last few months, she remarks that she is often surprised by her audiences who are so self-critical about the West. “There can be this self-flagellation, people say ‘Oh it’s all us, the West has done everything wrong. I say, ‘We live here. It’s still a good country.’”
Mona Siddiqui will be speaking about her book on March 14 at the Words by the Water Literary Festival, Kendall; March 25, How To Read series, Conde Nast College, London; March 26, Oxford Literary Festival; April 20, Ayewrite Festival, Glasgow; April 25: Hexham Book Festival.