Emslie Horniman Award – Fahad Rahman

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Award Holder: Fahad Rahman
University: University of Oxford
Title of Research: “We are Muslims too”: The Politics of Identity, Practice, and Discourse among British ‘Progressive’ Muslims.

Introduction and Aims

In the British context individuals with a Muslim background are increasingly likely to form social affiliations, communities, organisations that foreground and are predicated on shared religious identity. This is interesting to interrogate because it is not necessarily the only potentially viable and conceivable manner of social organisation and grouping of these individuals as they can form alternative groups and affiliations based on other identities, e.g., ethnic, national, class, linguistic, etc.

The everyday experiences of individuals with Muslim backgrounds are increasingly shaped by the role their religious identity plays in different contexts, whether it is a perceived insult or discrimination specifically based on their religious identity or marketing for products directed at them based on their religious identification (halal food, dress, or entertainment). These shared experiences based on religious identity are increasingly playing a more central role in the everyday lives, values, and subjectivities of British Muslims, thereby making their religious identity a more meaningful social category for forming groups and affiliations as opposed to other potentially shared social identities, like linguistic or national heritage or socio-economic class.

Furthermore, the larger socio-political climate, especially post-9/11, emphasises religious identity of Muslims as a salient aspect of their selves that explains their behaviours, values, relationships, and politics. Hence, the British state is interested in locating a ‘community’ of Muslims and find people that can act as its spokespeople to negotiate and work with on various critical issues resulting in a proliferation of diverse civil society organisations engaging with some aspect of Muslim-ness or Islam. 

The broad aim of this ethnographic study is to bring two streams of anthropological scholarship—the anthropology of Islam and the anthropology of civil society—in dialogue through a critical description of the work being done by ‘progressive’ Muslims in community groups and civil society organizations in London. More specifically, this research was guided by the following research questions:

1)    What does the word ‘progressive’ mean in the specific contexts where it is invoked as a self- or other-focused identity marker for Muslims in Britain?
2)    How and why do ‘progressive’ Muslims engage with the Islamic discursive tradition as well as other contemporary and influential discursive structures?
3)    What role are civil society organisations playing in the configuration and nature of contemporary Islamic discourses, subjectivities, communities, and practices?
4)    What is the relation between individual and organizational-level processes of interpreting and performing scriptures as well as making religious traditions ‘do work’ that shifts broader power structures?


Anthropology is unique in its expectation that the researcher immerses themselves so fully and deeply into the research site and relationships that they become a part of the daily lives and social networks that they are studying. The fieldwork is not just a place they go to for work but it is their life. I moved to central London for the full duration of my fieldwork so I could be more intensely involved in the groups and events that are relevant for my research. I eventually ended up volunteering or interning at three organisations that fit my research criteria:

1)    Unity and Diversity Mosque- provides a space for multi-denominational Friday prayers every fortnight where there is no gender segregation and women often lead the prayers.
2)    Counterex- a counter-extremism think tank that has a dedicated Islamic Studies department.
3)    British Queer Muslims -arranges religious-themed events for queer-identified and practising Muslims.

As my fieldwork progressed my focus changed from an initial interest in how religious discourse was being constructed and applied to address different aspects of counter-extremism to a focus on marginalised individuals and groups within religious minority groups—women, queer, BME, disabled, and working class Muslims—and their agency in constructing empowering religious discourses and practices. This meant that UDM became my primary fieldwork site but I have also gained some valuable insights from the other two organisations.

The methodology required flexibility in both fieldwork schedule and methods as the events and meetings that I relied on to connect with my interlocutors and gain experiences did not usually have a fixed time or date. Some events operated on a fixed schedule like UDM’s Friday prayers or BQM’s Sufi zikr (Islamic meditative worship utilizing repetitions of sacred words and actions) and queer ijtihad (independent reasoning and interpretation of the Quran and Hadith) sessions but the majority of the events and meetings occurred on a varying, and often unpredictable, schedule. I made sure that I stayed connected with my main contact person at each organisation and followed the group’s social media accounts and internal communications (if I had access to it). I volunteered to help set-up and manage as many of the events as I could in order to contribute to the groups and gain experience. Therefore, I usually attended around 2-3 formal events every week and also went to a number of informal events and gatherings. I also volunteered with the groups and helped out with different tasks ranging from writing, researching, and organizing. I also attended and volunteered at relevant conferences and presented my own research and observations at some of them. The conferences have been excellent fieldwork sites as they allowed me to meet a large number of relevant people and get insightful viewpoints and comments related to the key issues. My fieldwork was also often located in virtual spaces ranging from social media pages of these organisations to the private organisational communication platforms. Finally, I conducted a number of unstructured interviews with individuals who are active in these spaces and social networks.

Challenges in the Field

During the beginning of my fieldwork, I interned at Counterex for six months mostly shadowing the head of their Islamic Studies department as he went about his day meeting people and networking, offering lectures and talks, and being interviewed by journalists. This was a very thought-provoking and informative part of my fieldwork but I soon realised that the unique immersive nature of being an ethnographer also provided a challenge for working with organisations. The main issue with being an ethnographer of organisations is that substantial activity and work occurs in the non-public and confidential space, especially when one is studying organisations that are doing work that is considered sensitive, private, and controversial.

Furthermore, not only is confidentiality and anonymity important for organisations but also to individuals due to the highly personal and sensitive nature of issues related to religion, relationships, sexuality, activism, and politics. Currently, I have decided to anonymise all the individual names as well as organisation names in my thesis. Although this takes away from my ability to provide identifying contexts and specific details of the organisations and individuals it allows me to write about these potentially sensitive issues and analyse them in ways that protect the privacy, safety, and professional and strategic interests of my interlocutors.

Contribution to Anthropology

My research contributes to the understanding of the relationship between the discourses, values, policies, practices, and positions taken at the organisational, public, and official-level versus the individual, private, and unofficial-level shows interesting disjunctions and continuities. Are the official policies and statements an expression of the consensus of all individuals associated with a group or does it reflect the views of specific stakeholders? How do people manage the contradictions and disjunctions between their ‘official’ public personal and their ‘personal’ or ‘individual’ selves? For me the interesting issue isn’t that there are often clear disjunctions between public and private personas, beliefs, and practices because that is a feature of all social life to some extent but how these differences are negotiated, processed, and made meaningful by the individuals involved.

For instance, there was often a striking difference in the tone of a conversation when individuals considered it as part of the ‘official’ conversation compared to when it was an after-the-event casual chat. At the Unity and Diversity Mosque there were monthly halaqah (Quran reading and discussion) sessions where individuals can come grapple with specific aspects of religious texts and issues and feel safe and encouraged to offer their own perspectives and meanings based on their values and lived experiences. There were specific norms regarding listening, turn-taking, responding to people, tone of voice, formality of language, focus of conversation, seating arrangement, and types of opinions expressed. On the other hand, after the session was officially wrapped-up with a closing prayer (dua) or a Quranic recitation people interacted, talked, and even acted in different ways. Interestingly, the opinions expressed could also vary substantially within the official format of the halaqah and in a more casual conversations or even more structured conversations in other settings.

Secondly, this research will contribute to a deeper understanding of how civil society organisations are shaping Islamic discourses and practices by focusing on the work of  ‘progressive Muslim’ organisations. I originally came across the term ‘progressive Muslim’ in the media and in academic articles describing Muslim individuals and organisations in the North American context that work on ‘progressive’ social issues and espouse liberal theological orientations. As I started working and talking to people who work on issues related to women’s ritual leadership, inter-faith marriages, queer rights, counter-extremism, and individual autonomy in interpreting and practising Islam, I realised that there is no agreement on the identifying label for people, communities, and religious outlooks associated with these and other related issues. In fact, grappling with the charged disagreements about the identifying labels for these ‘types’ of Muslims has been the most productive and insightful aspect of my research because through these debates and discussions people do the key work of creating their worlds: Who is part of their community and who is not? What are the core values and beliefs they live by?

My thesis will trace these debates in more detail but one of the main insights from my fieldwork has been that there is no ‘progressive Muslim’ community or identity in the UK. I do not intend to suggest that individuals don’t identify as such or congregate based on such values and identities, instead I am claiming that currently there is no distinct community that can be delineated as sharing a set of religious and ethical discourses and practices and a shared sense of social affiliation that can be referred to as the ‘progressive Muslim’ community. Instead we have a number of distinct organisations, groups, and social networks, which may overlap but do not merge, working to construct new Islamic communities, practices, norms, beliefs, subjectivities, and relationships.

Although the communities and issues that I have been looking at are not new within Muslim communities per se, the civil society space that they seek to occupy has not existed in the same way in all Muslim contexts. The specific organisational model of civil society organisations or non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is a relatively new and under-explored site for Muslim sociality, piety, and politics. All three organisations that I interacted with are structured as non-profit civil society organisations and, hence, are developing their communities, identities, values, theologies, and politics within the social logic that govern civil society in the UK context.

Therefore, this ethnographic exploration of ‘progressive’ British Muslims in civil society organisation in London highlights the complex and diverse ways that identities, practices, and discourses interact and are constituted through both individual actions and the broader social context of  civil society to impact the nature, role, and future of ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslims’.

This ethnographic fieldwork would not have been financially feasible for me without the Emslie Horniman grant and I would like to thank the Royal Anthropological Institute, the trustees of the Emslie Horniman Scholarship, the selection panel, Ms. Amanda Vinson and other administrative staff immensely for supporting my research. I am also grateful for the informal mentoring scheme and the support and feedback I received from my mentor, Ms. Rosemary Gosling.