BBSI: New board of scholars is unifying fragmented Muslim communities
By Tim Wyatt
A new panel of Islamic theologians, academics and imams, which hopes to offer religious leadership to Britain’s disparate Muslim communities, has seen its work turbocharged by the pandemic.
The British Board of Scholars & Imams (BBSI) came into being in 2019, and at the start of the pandemic was still finding both its feet and an audience.
But as a result of the unprecedented crisis, the BBSI has met a vital need for up-to-date religious guidance. That has accelerated its acceptance by the Muslim community.
What is the context here?
For years, Islam in Britain has been a mostly fragmented faith, with a range of small, independent networks of mosques and no large denominational institutions comparable to other religions such as Christianity or Judaism.
There are a huge variety of schools of thought and tradition within Islam represented among British Muslims. Their internal division on theological positions has often stymied efforts to unite the UK’s growing Muslim community under shared institutions.
For the past 30 years a number of umbrella groups have been successfully formed, most notably the Muslim Council of Britain, but they have all focused on community representation and political lobbying. Hence, when British Muslims look for specific theological guidance, there have been no clear structures or hierarchies to consult.
Stephen Jones, a sociologist of religion at Birmingham University who focuses on British Islam, said Muslims would tend to either listen to their local imam or federation of mosques, or seek out the growing number of self-appointed experts offering Islamic opinions online.
“There is such a diversity of traditions in the UK that 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.
What is the BBSI?
As a result, since about 2016 a growing number of Islamic scholars, imams and academics have been holding occasional symposiums to debate particular theological issues and offer cross-tradition edicts, known in Islam as fatwas.
As a result of this work, a need was identified for a permanent body that would issue guidance and opinions for Muslims. In 2019, it became the BBSI.
Those involved in setting it up were deeply aware of the need to ensure representation from all of British Islam and have ensured imams and theologians from all of the various tribes and movements are included.
“Because of everyone being represented it gives an authority and credibility within the community, and that respect,” said the Islamic scholar Zuber Karim, an imam in Dundee and a trustee of the BBSI.
Qari Asim, another imam and BBSI member, said getting so many people from across the breadth of Sunni Islam was a significant achievement. “Over the years there have been many attempts from different angles to have this. It’s an evolving thing but it’s unusual and different because it brings different strands of the diversity of the Muslim tradition.”
Abdul-Azim Ahmed, a researcher into British Muslim Studies at Cardiff University, said the BBSI was unlike any other previous scholarly authority in the UK for this reason.
“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 said.
Dr Jones said he had never before come across any Muslim initiative in Britain that had managed to bridge the internal divides and include such a broad range of thinking
So far the board has not extended to Britain’s much smaller Shia Muslim community, which has different traditions of religious authority from Sunni Islam and has more institutions, too.
What role has the pandemic played?
Those who set up the BBSI expected it would evolve gradually, issuing fatwas as needed and slowly building credibility and support from the Muslim community over many years.
But within a few months of its launch the Covid-19 pandemic threw up many urgent questions that believers needed answering.
In Islamic tradition, the family of someone who has died must ceremonially bathe the body before a funeral and burial, but in the surge of deaths among Britain’s ethnic minority populations it was difficult, if not impossible, to carry out this ritual.
The government then ordered mosques, along with all other places of worship, to shut their doors during the first lockdown and imposed strict social distancing requirements for services once they were allowed to reopen.
Suddenly, British Muslims were facing religious dilemmas they had never considered before, and unlike in much of Christianity or Judaism, they had no well-established denominational leaders to tell them what they should or should not do.
The fledgling BBSI stepped into the midst of this vacuum and began issuing cross-community guidance, which was signed off on by respected figures from every tradition.
“In uncertain times there are some important opinions that are required and it gave that momentum to the organisation itself,” Mr Asim 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.”
Mr Ahmed agreed, and said that the BBSI launched at what turned out to be an important moment in history.
Mr Karim said the process would see the BBSI members discuss a particular issue via phone calls and online video meetings, consult specialists such as medical experts or particular theologians who had studied the topic, and then by consensus draw up and disseminate a ruling.
Even as the immediate urgency of the pandemic has ebbed away, there has continued to be a need for fresh guidance. Mr Karim noted how Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, and Eid, the festival that marks its end, both fell under lockdown.
Many Muslims needed to know if it was permissible to hold Eid prayers in their homes as the mosques were shut.
Some fell prey to conspiracy theories that argued that the pandemic was overblown or insisted lockdowns were fundamentally unIslamic. “You will find someone in the community who says ‘No, I will stick to praying together with my friend’,” Mr Karim admitted.
But 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.
The nascent board has also found itself playing an important mediating role between the community and the government, as part of the places of worship taskforce convened by ministers to work out how lockdown restrictions could be eased.
“It’s a conduit between the government and the community on this particular occasion and for this time,” Mr Asim said.
What does the future hold for the BBSI?
Dr 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 fewer 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.
Dr Jones said Labour governments had, after the 7/7 London terrorist attacks of 2005, poured millions of pounds into community groups trying to build a more “British” kind of Islam. But this top-down state-led model became too closely associated with anti-terrorism efforts and groups linked to it failed to find acceptance among the grass roots.
Mr Ahmed was also hopeful that the BBSI could become the long-awaited central, respected Islamic institution in the UK. “It’s been playing its cards quite slowly in general, but it definitely may turn out to be a much more important organisation in a few years’ time than it is at the moment,” he said.
And it would not be twiddling its thumbs once the current crisis eventually passed either, he said, noting there were a large number of issues it needed to pronounce on such as end-of-life care for the growing number of older Muslims, and also moon-sighting to calibrate the lunar Islamic calendar, a particular challenge in countries, like the UK, far from the equator.
Even getting as far as it has was a “great achievement”, Mr Karim argued. “There are quite a lot of issues that the Muslim community could be stuck on, but with everyone coming together from all these different backgrounds and finding a common ground, coming to an agreeable position — that’s a great achievement.”
A key feature of its success would hinge on its Britishness, he added. Unlike other competing authorities in Muslim communities, countries of origin, the BBSI was made up of British-born and bred experts who understood the local context and local needs better than a faraway sheikh in South Asia or the Middle East.
“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. In that respect, BBSI can play a great role.”
But Dr Jones sounded a final note of caution, warning that the same factionalism that had ruined many previous attempts at consensus could also cripple the BBSI, as rival groups could easily arise and ruin its position of unique authority.
“There is a reasonable chance it could become a prominent body for scholarly opinion, but I doubt it will ever be the case it is unchallenged because there is no real infrastructure to give it that,” he said.
“There is no pope who can nominate a cardinal for the UK. Any authority it can get will be developed very slowly through connections and working across different community groups.”