There are two strands to my academic work:
Islamic law and ethics, and Christian-Muslim theology. I was
trained in the former, but the latter has become increasingly
important to my research on Islam as much as my desire to
understand Christian theology in greater depth.
I work now at Edinburgh University Divinity
School, which I joined in 2011. Before, I spent 15 years
at Glasgow, where I was their first female Muslim, non-white
I became interested in Christian theology through my
involvement with the Building Bridges seminar series. It
went from a personal interest in participating to an academic one,
because it is text-based: I wanted to understand in more depth how
certain words and concepts shared by Muslims and Christians can
have such different theological meanings in their faiths.
There are relatively few Muslim scholars of
Islam who have a Western training either in Islamic
studies or Christian theology. Conversely, many Christians who
participate in dialogue are also trained theologians, including
some who are also Islamicists. Things are changing very slowly in
My most recent book is Christians, Muslims and
Jesus. Last year I wrote The Good Muslim:
Reflections on classical Islamic law and theology, and also
edited the Routledge Reader on Christian-Muslim Relations,
which I use as a textbook for students. It has been a productive
couple of years.
Writing on Jesus was at the publisher's
invitation. The initial idea was for something more
accessible, but it became more of a challenging academic journey.
Jesus is both the bridge and the gulf between Muslims and
Christians, if you like. So I look at the theological history from
the eighth to the 20th century, how we have talked about Jesus, and
each other's faith. I look at primary sources in translation, and
have also provided some themes in comparison, such as the
understanding of love and law in both traditions. I also give my
personal reflection on the unintended consequences of our
understandings of love and law.
I end with my reflection of the cross - what it
means to Christians and what it might mean to a Muslim. I asked
seven or eight colleagues who teach Christian theology what they
felt about the cross. I put all their quotes in anonymously. It was
interesting, because some gave me four paragraphs, some said it
means very little to them, and one said they couldn't get the words
I sat in a church looking at the cross, and
watched people come in and out, and pray in silence. The cross is
very powerful in all its starkness. I was very open to trying to
understand how it spoke of the love and vulnerability of God, as
well as the triumph of God. However, in the end I was not drawn
deeper into it, maybe because I cannot conceptualise God in the
I'm excited that people still want to hear me speak
about my work. That's not only humbling, but a big
responsibility. I really enjoy translating the complex ideas of the
books to something more accessible for a public audience, both
nationally and internationally.
I love broadcasting, and feel very lucky to
have so many opportunities not just on Thought for the Day
for BBC Radio 4 and BBC Scotland, but for a variety of programmes.
I learned very early on that you don't survive in the media if you
can't think on your feet.
When I was at school, a careers adviser asked
if I had thought of doing something where I would speak a lot, as
he said I had a nice delivery! But it's also an ethical imperative:
people are interested in learning more, and not just about Muslim
issues. I often speak on secular or Christian ones.
Someone said early on that I had become the friendly
face of Islam for Christians. For me, it's the normal but
positive consequence of my work: studying, learning, and teaching,
and trying to relay all that to a wider audience.
There was no big plan for any of this. So much
of it has been chance, meeting certain people. . . When I came into
academia, I was almost immediately asked to be on radio and
television. I really enjoyed the quickness of radio, and the
urgency of debate.
I have never been asked to speak in a mosque.
They would think me far too secular or too liberal. Things have
changed a little bit. But by far the greater number of the emails I
get are from Christians or secular people, not from Muslims.
I was raised as a Muslim, in a family from an
Indian Muslim background. Mentioning God's name in daily
conversation is very much part of many Muslim households; so, in a
way, I think I grew up with God in my house.
I think I experienced God mostly in my prayers at
home, whether in the silence of the night-time prayers, or
in my voluntary prayers when I always prayed for my parents'
health. I always felt God was listening.
I still pray, but I feel I carry a feeling of
God within me all the time. That does not make me pious or
virtuous, but it makes me feel hopeful most of the time.
I think Islam offers the particular truth that God is
about forgiveness and compassion - which, sadly, is not
emphasised enough in many Muslim communities.
I think most Muslims in the UK don't fall into either
liberal or fundamentalist categories, but rather somewhere
in the middle: traditional with a Western flair. However, I do
think that in many Muslim societies the politicisation of Islam is
I don't know what religious peace means. People
can choose to be peaceful or violent, and they can use their
religion to defend either stance. We all have a choice to make,
irrespective of what is happening in global politics.
In the UK, I think many see institutional
religion as a problem that blocks human rights and moral progress
in so many areas. But, most importantly, many people see Islam
through the prism of radicalism or extremism, and are genuinely
either contemptuous or fearful of the faith and its place in the
liberal democracies of Europe.
Religion is not something static, and people
change their attitudes to many things over the course of their
life. We can choose to learn from someone else's faith, or we can
choose to remain convinced that we have the truth.
People are drawn to people with whom they feel a
connection, an empathy. Personally speaking, religious
difference doesn't factor in this feeling of emotional and
intellectual intimacy. It doesn't happen very often, but when it
does, you know you've made a friend.
My immediate family, my academic work, and my
role in public life are the three prongs in my life. I have always
known that I wanted to be true and committed to all three.
The most important choice I made was my
husband, and my mother was a huge influence on me. It was
an arranged marriage - but I still had the choice to say yes or no.
I'm happiest when I'm at home with the family.
My three sons, aged 18, 16, and 12, are being raised as
Western Muslims, with far more social freedoms than I ever
had. You can't control your children, but you can guide them and
discipline them. I would be more than relieved if they found their
ideal marriage partner, if they have that wish and maturity. It's
hard work arranging marriages.
I want my sons to feel connected to wider
society, to feel that they belong here, and should
contribute in making this world a more understanding and
compassionate place. I think I have had some of my best theological
conversations with them as they help me in the kitchen or tell me
about school, friends, or homework. I don't want religion to be a
burden on them; rather that faith in God should be part of the air
As a child, I wanted to be a diplomat, a
journalist, or a spy.
My biggest regret is that I stopped playing the
piano. Listening to the boys playing the piano is my
The Taj Mahal is my favourite place. I stand
mesmerised in front of it.
The Bible has some beautiful love verses, such
as 1 Corinthians 13.4-8. And the Qur'an? The "light verse" is the
most poetic and beautiful part, the closest we come to
understanding God. It's in Chapter 24 v.35: "the light of the
heavens and the earth".
I pray for my family's health. We all make the
mistake of taking our health for granted, but without good health,
we can do little for ourselves or others.
The kind things people say and do in everyday life are
what give me hope for the future. And I am optimistic that
things are changing in Muslim-Christian dialogue, and in Muslim
scholarship. If you are not optimistic about change, why be
involved in the first place?
I don't want to be locked in with anyone for a few
hours, and especially not in a mosque; though I think the
poet Rumi might be fun.
Dr Siddiqui was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.
Christians, Muslims and Jesus is published
by Yale University Press at £20 (CT Bookshop £18 - Use
code CT277 ).