Council of sages exerts a growing influence on British Muslims

Published by The Times

The British Board of Scholars and Imams played a vital role during the pandemic and is helping to unify the faithful in the UK

For more than a thousand years, whenever a Muslim has died their relatives have followed simple but mandatory funeral rites. The eyes are closed as prayers are said, before the body is ceremonially washed. It must then be buried within 24 hours. Over the past 18 months, Muslim families across Britain have had cause to perform these rituals often as coronavirus has cut through the community. According to the Office for National Statistics, the death rate among Britain’s three million Muslims has been more than double that of Christians or the non-religious.

Given the risk of infection and with lockdowns often in force, adhering to ancient customs has proven impossible for many. And washing bodies is not the only Islamic practice complicated by the pandemic. At times government edict has forced mosques to close to Friday prayers and the festival of Eid was effectively cancelled by the first lockdown. Britain’s Muslims have regularly had to search for answers to novel theological quandaries posed by the crisis.

All of this came as an unexpected boon to the British Board of Scholars and Imams (BBSI). This council of Islamic sages was only formed in 2019 but was quickly thrust into the deep end of emergency religious guidance. The board gathers clerics, academics and theologians from all of Britain’s Sunni Islamic traditions to debate issues and publish edicts. For bereaved Muslims worried their loved ones might suffer eternal consequences because Islamic funerary rites could not be followed, the BBSI had guidance to reassure them. Ritual cleansing could take the form of wiping down a body bag instead of the usual bath, and the deceased would be considered martyrs regardless.

Qari Asim, a Leeds imam and BBSI member, said the pandemic had given momentum to the fledgling panel, accelerating its acceptance within the fragmented British Muslim community. “In uncertain times there are some important opinions that are required,” he said. “BBSI brings the glorious ancient teachings and connects them with the modern world, for instance whether or not to suspend public prayers, which is a huge thing, or how to pray with social distancing. It all hinges on theological interpretation and the need to protect the community, and that’s where scholarship comes in. It’s very timely from that perspective.”

Even establishing the BBSI in the first place was no mean feat, given the often fractious sprawl of religious traditions present in the UK. Nobody had ever managed to get leading figures from all major schools of Islamic thought round the same table to issue cross-denominational fatwas before, said Stephen Jones, a sociologist of religion at Birmingham University. “There is such a diversity of traditions in the UK, it makes it very hard to have a coherent Islamic perspective on things. There has never been a figure who has achieved the stature of a Jonathan Sacks or an Archbishop of Canterbury,” he said.

And it was this rare unity that helped the BBSI gain influence over those it sought to guide. Anyone, hailing from any Islamic tradition, could find familiar names issuing BBSI guidance, said Abdul-Azim Ahmed, a Cardiff University academic who studies British Islam. “When BBSI was issuing their stuff on the coronavirus it was signed off by the Barelvis, the Deobandis, the Salafis. Whatever mosque inclination you’re from, if you’re looking for a name you’re familiar with you’d find that on their board,” he explained.

Zuber Karim, a trustee of the BBSI, an imam in Dundee, and Islamic scholar, said the BBSI had also played a vital role battling against misinformation in the Muslim community. Some had fallen prey to conspiracy theories that argued the pandemic was overblown, the vaccines were not halal or that lockdowns were fundamentally un-Islamic. “You will find someone in the community who says ‘No, I will stick to praying together with my friend’,” Karim admitted. Yet the BBSI could put them right by telling them what they might not know: that the Prophet Muhammad himself had pronounced on plagues in his own time and argued for the importance of isolating those infected.

Jones said, while it was too early to tell if the BBSI could cement a position as the religious authority in British Islam, the signs were positive. “I wouldn’t say I’m optimistic but I would say there is much more fertile ground for this kind of initiative than 20 years ago. There are less internal divisions in British Islam and it’s much more networked with public institutions.” The most important factor would be for the board to avoid the government “saying anything nice about it, which is the kiss of death”, he added. “It’s clearly coming out of a recognised need”, but if ordinary Muslims perceive it to be too closely allied with the secular authorities it will lose all its credibility.

The nascent BBSI may still be finding its feet but is certainly serving a growing audience. As Britain’s Muslim population has put down roots it has become more pious. The number of Muslims who practise their religion has steadily risen in recent decades, especially among those aged under 30. Only one in 20 told pollsters in 2018 that their faith was not very important to them.

Unlike their parents and grandparents, today’s British-born Muslims see no tension between their faith and their national identity, said Sophie Gilliat-Ray, who leads the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK. And they increasingly depart from the habits of their elders, preferring English-speaking imams and shopping around online for religious opinions, she added. The BBSI is clearly alive to these shifts. It is busy on Twitter and Facebook and boasts that its experts are all British born and bred.

“As we have more generations of Muslims here in the UK – you’re talking about fifth or sixth generation – the community now identifies itself as more British than their ancestors who might have had a Pakistani or an Indian or an Arab upbringing,” said Karim. “In that respect, BBSI can play a great role.”