Five years ago Ruhul Bhashani and his friends posted a ‘flash mob iftar’ on Facebook. It invited homeless people located around Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London to share a meal with Muslims during Ramadan (the iftar is the sunset meal which breaks the fast). Since then such flash mobs have been replicated in sixteen cities across the United Kingdom.
More recently, the flash mob iftars have become a Fasting not feasting campaign, encouraging introspection over gluttony during Ramadan, and challenging consumerism among young Muslims.
Drawing on Islamic traditions but applying them in new ways to social justice struggles, initiatives like these are part of a new generation of Muslim activism that connects the worlds of thought, spirit and action.
In a recent interview, Bhashani, an activist and researcher from the capital, told me that the goal of his work is to “start a conversation” about the direction of social change in Britain’s Muslim community.
The flash mobs and the campaign are two of the many ideas to emerge from a dynamic young Muslim scene in London which has developed rapidly since the late 1990s. In 1999 for example, a group of professional Muslims formed a networking group at Toynbee Hall in East London. “We wanted to fund social action projects ourselves”, said one early member, Monir Eid-Arimoku (an entrepreneur), after teacher Fatima Amir had expressed concerns that Muslim students were failing at school.
The group founded a new organization called City Circle which set up schools on Saturdays to teach English and Mathematics in an effort to raise educational standards. Fourteen years later, the Saturday schools have been set up across London and their first graduates are now teaching a new generation of the city’s children.
More recently, 26 year-old Bilal Hassam co-founded the The Leaf Network to act “as an incubator for community network and enterprise.” Recent activities have included an art exhibition about the negative power of technology in society, and a collaboration around environmental and consumer activism with MADE in Europe, a “Muslim-led movement of young people that wants to see our community leading the fight against poverty and injustice.” “Allah does not change the condition of the people until they change what is in themselves,” as MADE in Europe’s website puts it, citing the Qur’an (13:11).
The Leaf Network also runs a series of events that critically examine Islamic thought and practice, including one that put Islam ‘on trial’ in relation to gender, politics and the arts. “A group of us had gone through the mainstream Islamic organizations and we realized there were gaps in our community. We needed to provide a space for innovative and radical ideas”, Bilal told me.
“Muslims ought to question the status quo” and ask “difficult questions” he said, in order to “create a refined Islamic context.” The network provides a critical link between thought and action by creating a space for scholars to interact with activists. “Scholars need to learn about the realities on the ground.”
I asked Bilal whether there was anything unique about the London Muslim scene: “I think it’s ultimately about your worldview, your entire existence, and taking it to a transformational level” he replied, “This approach is connected to our legacy”.
Ruhul Bhashani also describes his work in terms of reform and transformation. The British Muslim community has traditionally focused on its own communities of origin, he told me, and it gives a large amount of charity to humanitarian crises abroad. But groups like the Leaf Network and City Circle are helping to create a shift towards working with vulnerable communities at home, inspired by Islamic traditions of renewal that encourage the re-interpretation of Islamic scriptures to meet the needs of modern society.
Islam has always had a strong tradition of serving the most marginalized people, along with an obligation to give to charity. Zakat (Islamic philanthropy) is one of the five pillars of Islam that make up the foundation of Muslim life. In fact The Times recently reported that Muslims are some of Britain’s ‘top givers’, with an average donation of almost £371 in 2012. But Islamic tradition is about much more than philanthropy. It also includes the obligation for self-examination: Islamic teachings - including key practices such as Ramadan - act as sobering reminders that keep active Muslims anchored in their ‘higher selves,’ or a state of mindfulness about, and sensitivity towards, the needs of other people.
Take the case of the ‘Ramadan Tent,’ which was the brainchild of Omar Salha, a postgraduate student at the London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). In 2011, he organized iftar meals for international students in London who were isolated socially. Two years later, he decided to pitch a tent in an open green space opposite the main SOAS campus, and invited people from all faiths and no faith at all to share a meal together.
Homeless people attended the Ramadan Tent after seeing adverts at St Mungo’s. So did participants in a Marxist studies conference that was being held at SOAS during the first week of Ramadan, after Salha invited the “comrades to please come and join us.” Importantly, the tent also hosted a series of talks by prominent Muslims and speakers from other religions, since Salha wanted to create an opportunity for people to learn about Islam at a time of overwhelmingly negative media coverage.
The Ramadan Tent reached more than 4,000 people and was transformational on many levels. It brought disparate groups together through sharing food - faith and non-faith groups, students and the homeless. And - like the flash mob iftars - it reshaped an urban space in London by issuing an open invitation to occupy a new part of the city. Those passing by on the street could join the group to share a meal or listen to a lecture, or just to talk with each other, free-of-charge and without having to be a member of any group.
The Tent also offered a new way of relating to homeless people beyond traditional modes of charity, since to share a meal is a reciprocal activity. It honors the other person and requires the sacrifice of time – a precious commodity in the metropolis that is London.
Across the city, young Muslims like Salha are using Islamic traditions of philanthropy and renewal to inspire a new generation of struggles for social justice. Being part of a network like this is essential to bring about effective change, since networks provide powerful skills, contacts and resources. These networks connect people from different parts of the capital, and provide them with precious opportunities to nurture ideas, raise money and launch new projects. As they spread, they have the potential to change the ways in which Muslims in Britain are viewed in the public eye – as a positive and dynamic force that is helping to re-shape the fabric of public life.
Islam’s rich traditions of thought, action and spirit – of renewal, philanthropy and personal introspection - provide an integrative force for social change that is striving to meet the needs of modern Britain, grounded in continuous ‘soul nourishment’. This year, flash mob iftars took place in Nottingham, Leicester and, of course, Lincoln’s Inn Fields where they began. Along with City Circle, the Leaf Network, MADE in Europe and many others, these initiatives aim to re-orient the consciousness of British Muslims towards social action on their doorstep.