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Wandering Lonely in a Crowd Book Cover Wandering Lonely in a Crowd
S. M. Atif Imtiaz
Philosophy
Kube Publishing Ltd
2011
200

 

True to its Wordsworthian title, this collection of essays, speeches and short stories is a pensive and sensitive work with keen observations on contemporary British society as a whole, and its Muslim component in particular. There is an immediacy and passion in Atif Imtiaz’s descriptions of the struggles and traumas of British Muslims, while also offering a detached and scholarly perspective. He is both amongst the worshippers circumambulating the Kaba, and also perched with the pigeons observing the frenetic scenes below.

The longest essay, ‘September 11: Thoughts and Emotions’ is a powerful account of the author’s own immediate responses and his attempt to take stock, while also drawing on his expertise as a social psychologist to explore the relationships between the media and behaviour and what he terms the ‘totalisation of discourse’: “the media, which usually struggles to capture major audiences, suddenly found itself serving captive audiences. There was no other topic of conversation…the language devoured us all. Muslims were objectified as the global Other at that moment, through the image of Osama bin Laden.”

In the author’s view, acts such as 9/11 have their roots in the loss of respect for traditional Islamic law: “If Muslims are to be critical of themselves, and indeed now they need to be so, they should ask about what happened to Islamic law that can abandon its traditional self so completely to permit some acts which are so obviously forbidden…the law is sacred in Islam, as the expression of a divinely-guided consensus. As soon as this is challenged and doors are opened for furious men to reread the scriptures themselves and ignore the scholars, then we will begin to arrive at destinations that we did not intend”. It is a fair analysis but one with excessive regard for ‘traditionalism’. In the first 150 years or so after Hijra, Muslims had plenty of territory, but no fiqh or law till the great savants like Imam Shafi’i set to work. Our problem today is that we have plenty of jurisprudential rulings, but little territoriality to make it operational! At the root of OBL’s vendetta was the resentment of foreign troops in the Jaziratul Arab.

Atif Imtiaz warns community activists from championing Muslim causes through means “that are un-Muslim” and for drifting towards “a lack of concern for personal morality”. The underlying plea is for greater introspection where “the focus is upon the believer’s immediate environment - primarily his self, and thereafter those whom he has to serve and then those whom he should serve if he can…all of this community work is service (khidma). “ He also believes in localism, noting, “there is no reason why those who are committed to khidma have to organize at a national level, or for that matter, at a regional or local level. They should organize at that level which makes sense in light of the objectives that they wish to achieve, and it would be my contention that most of what we would wish to accomplish can best be achieved by focusing on individual cities…we should be united in our hearts in helping each other, being generous towards each other, respecting and working honestly with people’s specialities and arenas of service”. This cordiality is not just an intra-faith matter, but the author develops it as a societal principle: “…the development of a language of human sympathy”.

The collection contains a brilliant semi-biographical account of the author participating in a march, traveling by coach from Bradford to London in the company of 'bros' Taz and Saj. Atif Imtiaz, together with his other wisdoms, provides here a modern equivalent of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Here is a book that should now be on every Muslim community organiser’s book shelf.

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