BARRISTER Zia Chaudhry has written a new book to help debunk some of the harmful stereotypes people may perceive of Islam – and which he hopes will get both Muslims and non-Muslims thinking about their attitudes. He spoke to DIANE COOKE...
AS a good Muslim, barrister Zia Chaudhry follows Islam and prays five times a day. But then he also checks his beloved Liverpool FC’s website five times a day too.
Zia, 44, who spent his formative years in Brierfield, is the author of a must-read book – Just Your Average Muslim – which calls for mutual understanding whilst putting into context some of the exhausted stereotypes.
But Zia would be the first to admit that he’s not your average Muslim – if indeed one exists. He’s more liberal, more confident and more dedicated to reform. Unlike many, he doesn’t feel “under siege” or victimised in this post-9/11 society in which the mere mention of a burkha can ignite racial resentment.
The book is a personal attempt to put Islam into context in a modern society, providing fascinating insights into history that a British-born Muslim will never learn in school.
It also exposes some of the myths – honour killings, forced marriages, niqab-wearing and female genital mutilation are not supported by the Koran. Quite the opposite.
Says Zia: “Muslims and Islam are never out of the news. I was very lucky. My dad was very balanced and educated so growing up for me as a Muslim was relatively easy. But it may not be so easy for my children which is one of the reasons I wrote the book.
“They’re only eight, six and three, but already they’ve said things that have made me question if they see themselves as different. The fact that they can’t eat certain things when they go to parties or school because the meat is not halal, for instance.
“You also have to be very careful what they hear on the news. Even my eight-year-old has picked up on Syria and asked. ‘Daddy why are all the problems in the Muslim countries?’ I had to tell them that it’s not always like that, there are problems all around the world.”
Zia attended the prestigious Bluecoat School in Liverpool and never considered sending his children to Muslim schools.
“Most of my friends are English and when I went to Manchester University my flatmates were English lads. I’d consider myself a very committed Muslim and if I heard something wrong about Islam, I’d argue the toss. It hasn’t made me any less Muslim because I didn’t go to a Muslim school. I have friends who have only mixed with Muslims and that’s quite limiting.”
Zia hopes his book will appeal to both sides. His intention is to inform non-Muslims and to get Muslims thinking.
“I’m very much against the idea that Islam is a bunch of rules administered by the religious authorities and it’s our job to follow the rules. The Koran directs itself to people of understanding. One of the great tragedies of modern Islam is that so few know what’s in the Koran. In my father’s generation they only read the Arabic without having a translation so they didn’t have a clue what they were reading. We are one step better off because we have translations so we can understand more.
“At six I could recite the Koran but I had no idea what it said. You go to mosques in Blackburn and Burnley and that’s what’s happening. These kids are learning by rote to recite the Arabic, but they don’t know what they are reciting.”
Reaction to the book has so far been overwhelmingly positive, by like-minded educated young Muslims.
“The ones that are going to react badly to it are the ultra conservatives who see everything in black and white as in, these are the rules and any departure must be bad. One of the controversial bits is about prayer times being based on sunrise and sunset. When these rules were delivered that’s how your day operated, but now in the modern West you don’t live your life like that. What do you do if you’re living in Norway? You have to think outside the box.”
The controversial issue of burkha or niqab-wearing is not something the Koran stipulates, neither is it such an issue in Liverpool where Zia lives. “My wife doesn’t wear one, neither does my sister nor my mother. My wife understands that the rule is to dress modestly. If you have your body covered but inside you’ve bad intentions, what’s the point?
“The only specific in the Koran is to cover your chest. My mother’s generation never bothered with the niqab. The majority of people wearing it are youngsters who were born in England. This is not a Muslim issue but an issue of identity. This is about asserting themselves as Muslims.”
Zia’s father arrived from Pakistan in 1962 with a bag of clothes and a law degree from Peshawar University. He moved to Burnley where work was guaranteed and property cheap. But after he contracted TB, the bar no longer seemed inviting so he began to study to become a teacher. He used to helped Pakistanis fill in forms necessary to get by in England.
The Pakistani community of East Lancs then was happy to observe religious rituals but could not be described as allowing Islam to inform the way it lived. “There were no hijabs and niqabs, and funny clothes and facial hair didn’t cause outrage. Newspapers did not carry daily debates about whether Islam was compatible with British values.” Maybe this book can pave the way to a renewed understanding.