CAMBRIDGE, England ― When Tim Winter became a Muslim in 1979, Islam was still something of a mystery to the West. He was a 19-year-old undergraduate student at Cambridge University and a self-described “freelance monotheist.”
Today, Winter, a 57-year-old native Londoner who also goes by the name Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, faces a much different reality. Islam has grown to one of the largest religions in Europe, and with it, Islamophobia.
Winter, keenly aware of this new reality, is tackling it head-on. As one of Europe’s most prominent Islamic scholars and dean of the Cambridge Muslim College, he spends his days training graduates of Britain’s top Islamic seminaries to better navigate and engage with British society.
Both Englishman and Muslim convert, Winter is uniquely positioned to bridge the gap between Islam and the West, largely because of the journey that got him here.
The late 70s were a time of religious experimentation for many British youth, and Winter was no different. He had a strong desire to understand the nature of God and humanity, and so he found himself immersed in a study of the world’s religions.
He turned to “the Far East,” then Judaism in search of something that “aimed ultimately to embrace the world.” These traditions fell short, and his own faith at the time, Christianity, had already proven flawed in his mind in part because his “school chaplain failed … to explain to our sneering, skeptical young minds the basic teachings of Christianity, the incarnation and the Trinity, the blood atonement … None of it made any sense, and [the chaplain] admitted that it was something that should just be accepted on faith and didn’t have any biblical or rational basis.”
'Those who insist that Muslim minorities become more British should really hold fire, because they haven’t got any persuasive definition of what that means.'
Finally, Winter came across Islam, which at the time, was “something you’d encounter when you were serving with the colonial office or as a missionary, but otherwise … not there on the English radar, for good or for ill.” He was familiar with the faith due to his Arabic course, and when he began to study Islam, “things started to snowball.” Winter found the religion to, as he put it, “check the boxes” that Christianity did not ― even making him feel closer to Jesus than he ever did as a Christian.
Now a Muslim, Winter went on to travel to the Middle East, living in a few Muslim countries and studying at Egypt’s famous Al-Azhar University before finally coming home a little over half a decade later.
When he returned to England in the 80s, he faced a changed Europe, but he was more comfortable with his identity than ever.
“Despite all the stereotypes of Islam being the paradigmatic opposite to life in the West,” he told The Independent in 2010, “the feeling of conversion is not that one has migrated but that one has come home.”
Yet not everyone here felt the same way about Muslims, and the newly converted Muslim found it incumbent upon himself to show both British society and the British Muslim community that being British and being Muslim were not mutually exclusive.
Winter began with “a preaching circuit” in English mosques then created his own film company that produced lectures for Muslim TV stations, finally returning to Cambridge as a professor. He later established the Cambridge Muslim College, where students study the history of the British state and its legal systems, British literature and learn about other faiths. Winter’s goal is to ensure graduates are able to “relate religion to the modern world” and bridge “Islamic traditionalism and Western postmodernity.”
From Beowulf and Shakespeare to a trip to the Vatican, complete with an annual meeting with the pope, his lessons could not be more relevant or necessary today, especially in the face of an increasingly fragmented and xenophobic world.
Winter attributes the current political climate to anxiety and an identity crisis that makes the British more unsettled towards outsiders. There has been what he called a “post-imperial unraveling” of British identity. “British” is a “political construct” that cannot be any longer defined in the absence of the old empire. “Those who insist that Muslim minorities or others ought to become more British,” Winter argued, “should really hold fire, because they haven’t got any persuasive definition of what that means.”
Further complicating matters, he said, is the crisis of religion in British society. According to Winter, “there are deep philosophical problems” that call into question what British values are today. The state reflects a Christian identity ― “our traditional constitution is theocratic” and “the legislative assumption is that the Bible and Christianity are the ground rock of where the values come from” ― yet society is largely secular, with a number of British people not even attending church anymore.
“One of the big conversations that has to happen over the next 50 years is where do the values come from if they’re not from Christianity any longer?”
'There’s a sense of disconnect between the discourse of the [Muslim] leadership and what the masses actually need.'
So far, he said, the vacuum in response to this key question, heightened by growing income equality and the erosion of European identity at the hands of globalization, has enabled the rise of right-wing European leaders. These leaders see “an easily visible scapegoat” for what has happened to “the indigenous” here, and they tend to focus on the visibly different Muslims who have immigrated in recent decades.
On the flip side are the tough identity conversations the Muslim community here needs to have as well.
“The message in the mosques is not always ideal,” Winter lamented, because imams are trained in outdated curricula not compatible with the culture of modern-day Britain. “And so there’s a sense of disconnect, a hiatus, between the discourse of the leadership and what the masses actually need.” As a result, “the masses are increasingly turning to religious scholarship, particularly as they see the mainstream culture as becoming more hostile.”
Unfortunately, “the bulk of funding and academic support for Islam in the United Kingdom,” he said, “comes from overseas fundamentalist sources.” Instead, Winter argued, the Muslim community “needs to mobilize its own resources” and “engage more [politically] to try and reduce the danger of further British military adventures in the Middle East, which usually result in instability and a growth in extremist recruitment.” Yet he reminded, “We don’t have radical mosques in England … radicalization happens through the internet and other private instruments.”
Winter is particularly worried about the youth, who, he said, often “feel misrepresented, disenfranchised, bullied [and] alienated from many of the things that the state is doing.”
Young Muslims, Winter told BBC Radio 3, “say, ‘why should we integrate into a society that obviously hates us so much? They don’t respect anything that is distinctive about Islam so why should we?’” Their argument is fair, he said. His answer to them is to say, “’Never mind what they think about you, trust in God. Islam is a religion that wants its members to succeed, to be positive neighbors, to be part of the national endeavor ― and whether or not people like you at the workplace, whether or not they bully you in the police or the armed forces, you just have to trust in God. Your faith in God, if it’s real faith in God, should enable you to deal with any obstacles that come your way.’”
Despite these challenges, “the British Muslim community is a success story in many ways,” Winter said. “The mosques are packed everywhere … The community’s growing very fast, establishing itself economically [and] creating an increasingly positive relationship with existing state and nongovernmental agencies within society.”
Seeing this gives him hope that marginalization of Muslims could eventually be something of the past. Part of what also keeps Winter optimistic ― and lends him much-needed perspective ― is history.
“It’s, I think, not a coincidence that the points of light in the dark [European] continent historically have tended to be Muslim points of light,” he said, pointing to examples like Muslim Spain and Ottoman times. “For most of Europe’s history, it’s been the other way around. The Middle East was historically much more tolerant than traditional Europe. So is traditional China. So is traditional India. Europe always had this idea of you had to follow the religion, the king, or you could be hung, drawn and quartered, which was not what the Chinese and the Indians and the Muslims historically believed.”
Winter often looks to prominent early Muslim converts like Lord Stanley, who in 1869 became the first Muslim member of the House of Lords, and Abdullah Quilliam, who founded England’s first registered mosque in Liverpool in 1889, for inspiration.
These pioneers, he explained, “laid the foundations for Islam in Britain. Creating a British, faithful Muslim identity during the reign of Queen Victoria in the age of empire was a much harder thing than the challenges that are facing us today, and I think they did it with extraordinary elegance.”
'The moral resources ... that Europe is starting to lose are present in the ethical teachings of Islam.'
In order to continue that tradition and improve relations between Muslims and other communities in our divisive world, Winter said that Muslims need to stand up for themselves and look to the core values of Islam. Doing so, he believes, will also help Europe rediscover its values.
“The moral resources in Islamic tradition are limitless in terms of love for neighbor, love for the other, solid family values and respecting the old ― all these things that Europe is starting to lose are present in the ethical teachings of Islam.”
In fact, Muslims are already making a large impact, he said. Just look at “the Spanish olive harvest,” which “would fail without Muslim workers” or think how the “National Health Service here in England would collapse but for the Muslim doctors and nurses,” he said.
“We’re already an indispensable part of what makes Europe work,” Winter said. “If we can move that forward so that we become the great harbingers of ethics and compassion and neighborliness ― in an increasingly atomized and self-oriented, materialistic Europe ― then I think we’ll have justified our presence here.”
This piece is part of a series on Western Muslim converts releasing throughout the month of Ramadan. The people profiled appear in the documentary film “Journey into Europe” and will be featured in the forthcoming book Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity.