THE BLOG

Book Review: Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam by Innes Bowen

02/07/2014 13:18 BST | Updated 31/08/2014 10:59 BST

The author has called it a "labour of love". Seven years of painstaking research and interviews all done alongside a full-time role at BBC Radio.

The result of it all should prompt future generations as well as those alive today to show a debt of gratitude to Innes Bowen.

Aptly named Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent, Inside British Islam, Bowen has produced a work as accessible to the casual reader as it will be to policy makers and academics.

Peter Oborne of the Telegraph has already declared how Bowen's work is a must read for every commentator and politician who wants to open his or her mouth about British Islam.

Bowen's first success is to make clear how British Muslims are less of a homogeneous community and instead are composed of numerous identifiable sects and many less obvious and discreet sub-sects.

In order to make sense of the minefield she has distinguished eight different groups that identify as either Sunni or Shia and provided a brief and yet lucid historical narrative of each.

Furthermore, the development of each of these groups in the UK is given attention with reference to major historical milestones as well as an exploration of the different political events at play that brought into the limelight certain personalities and trends.

For intra-Muslim understanding the work is a masterpiece of nuance and counteracts the absolutist mentality that has clouded any attempt at understanding others who share the same basic doctrines.

In this sense the book will be an eye-opener for many Muslims who have been brought up on a diet of ignorance about their co-religionists and the peculiarities of their beliefs and positions on certain matters.

Bowen has established certain interesting facts that stand out and challenge prevailing myths. Amongst these is that Salafi Mosques are statistically the most accommodating of women which may surprise some.

What Bowen does especially well is to bring out the dissident voices of those who have either left or changed their position or views in certain groups. The example of Tablighi Jamaat and their practice of persuading those engaged in worthwhile worldly pursuits to give up careers for missionary work is a pertinent point that is often ignored when looked at in the spectrum of piety.

If Oborne in his role as political commentator is clear in recommending the work to those that inhabit his professional constituency, then on a personal level I would not hesitate to say that Bowen's work should be an essential feature of every Mosque library and the starting point for anyone wanting to engage with the subject of British Muslims.

All those who work within and form part of Muslim communities may also want to use the work as a proverbial mirror to asses where they stand within the great web of factionalism.

Perhaps then they can also be humble enough to admit their failings and even employ some of the good practices of their fellow Muslims and others to develop and strengthen their own presence and that of their communities within the UK.

Given the general lack of understanding of Islam as a religion and Muslims in Britain Bowen shows a great deal of neutrality as well as balanced argument and judgement in dealing with the subject.

However the referral to themes that have been the staple of those who have made a Muslim bashing into a favoured pastime is a slight disappointment. Amongst these is the issue of citizenship and loyalty to Queen and country. The common argument that any disobedience to status-quo is somehow a sign of disloyalty comes across in several instances and could perhaps have been examined and even challenged.

Despite this Bowen's work says loud and clear that British Muslims come in many shapes and sizes with different theological positions as well as world-views.

What is also clear is that Muslims are here and here to stay, and in the atmosphere of hate and suspicion anyone serious about understanding their presence in the UK could do worse than starting with this book.

Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam by Innes Bowen, 288pp, Hurst, (RRP £16.99)