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Interview: Mona Siddiqui writer and academic

10 May 2013

'Someone said that I had become the friendly face of Islam'

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 professor.

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 this area.

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 out.

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 incarnation.

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 becoming toxic.

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 they breath.

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 favourite sound.

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 ).

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