The first Aziz Foundation/Ebrahim College/Cambridge Muslim College retreat took place at the Markfield Conference Centre from Friday 27th July – Sunday 29th July. The participants consisted of Aziz Foundation scholarship students, final year and recent graduates of Ebrahim College, students from the BA programme at Cambridge Muslim College, Aziz Foundation Professor of Islamic Studies Professor Timothy Abdal Hakim Murad Winter, Aziz Foundation lecturers Dr Ramon Harvey and Dr Najah Nadi, the Aziz Foundation Chaplain Shaikh Ibrahim Mogra, and the Director and some staff from the Aziz Foundation. Approximately 30-40 people attended the various presentations, workshops and activities over the 3 days.
The retreat was organised as part of the Aziz Foundation’s Muslim Leadership Development Programme (MLDP), which aims to support the emergence of the next generation of British Muslim leaders. The MLDP offers scholarships in a variety of disciplines including public policy, academia, arts, community development, media and public life. It then facilitates the collaboration of these scholars with the graduates of the Islamic seminaries it supports. It is envisioned that the knowledge and expertise of this combined group will lead to creative solutions for the challenges that are facing British Muslims.
After leading the Friday prayer, Prof Winter led a roundtable session on ‘British Muslim Leadership; past, present and what should it be like for the future and what are the challenges?’ The discussion raised the various issues around fostering a collective vision for Muslim leadership in the UK and the obstacles in initiating and implementing effective public engagement and community empowerment.
The late afternoon saw the group taken to a surprise activity arranged by Sh.Ibrahim Mogra. Knowing that the mind and soul would be sufficiently nourished during the retreat, Sh.Mogra wanted to ensure that the body would not be left out, so he booked everyone in for a Paintballing session. Paintballing certainly allows for team-building and strategy but it gives the opportunity to see hidden individual characteristics as well. Slightly battered and bruised, the group left the activity feeling that they had found out a lot about each other. This was deepened in an explicit manner in the following session where everyone introduced themselves, spoke about their experiences which had brought them to the present situation, their current engagements and future plans. The purpose of this was session was to share ideas and create awareness to foster collaboration and networking. There were so many amazing stories of challenges overcome, of struggle and dedication, of inspiration, of insight; it was truly a humbling event for all present.
Dr Najah Nadi and Dr Ramon Harvey kicked off the Saturday with a session on the importance of Muslim leadership being able to present their ideas to a variety of audiences including academic ones. Saturday was also the first day of our mini conference and focussed on our scholars’ current research.. Day one consisted of two panels:
Conference Panel 1 – Qur’anic Studies
Chair: Dr Ramon Harvey
Conference Panel 2 – Theology, Sufism, and Society
Chair: Farhana Mayer
Each paper was followed by a fruitful Q&A.
The afternoon session started with Shaykh Sulayman Van Ael speaking on the topic of sincerity.
Using a variety of engaging anecdotes and analysis Shaykh Sulayman reminded us of:
The knowledge of Ikhlas, taking stock of oneself, purifying one’s nafs (lower self), of showing off, self-admiration, pride, any, arrogance and base thoughts and feelings is one of the most important branches of religious knowledge, and learning it is an individual obligation.
– al-Qadhi Hibatullah al-Barizi d.638 H.
He also spoke about the necessity of bringing and retaining balance in our lives:
The biggest challenge is reminding people of the existing harmony between: deen, dunya and akhira. When we fall short in one of these dimensions then we will be out of balance.
He recommended strengthening four things: 1.memorising the names of Allah; 2. a sound understanding of fiqh; 3. strength in the true Arabic language and; 4. spiritual upbringing (tarbiya).
The next session was led by Aziz Foundation scholar Shafina Vohra, who teaches in a school in east London and is also a PhD candidate at UCL. She ran a creativity workshop based around the use of lego. 15 pairs of participants were asked to use lego sets to construct models representing the ideal house, the ideal learner and finally a scene from Surah Yusuf. This hour and half workshop was very lively and pushed participants to new levels of creativity and analyses of each others’ work. It highlighted the importance of winning the hearts of learners and engaging them fully in the process of learning.
The last session of the afternoon was scheduled to be a ‘kick around’ but the weather intervened and forced us to look for creative alternatives. This manifested when Aaliyah Shaikh, Aziz Foundation PhD candidate in Women’s Health at City Uni. stepped forward to offer a yoga class. We expected a short 15-30 minute stretch, but didn’t notice the time fly by as the instructor led us through a series of, at times demanding, stretches to the back drop of benevolent guidance. We stopped 1hr and 20 minutes later, some of us dripping in sweat, but all remarkably more serene and of course significantly more flexible.
Our final session of the day was a short talk by Shaykh Sulayman followed by a Q&A session.
Shaykh Sulayman talked about the importance of ‘ilm and ‘amal, how ‘ilm is only truly manifested when it is enacted in our life. In this sense, shari’ah is through our lived experience, it is in the small things we do on a daily basis. He spoke of the importance of focusing on these small things, of not dreaming about the larger ambitions of qiyam al-layl while the five daily prayers are left with minimal focus, even though they are far more weighty. He also managed to easily connect metaphysics with our daily realities and offered some profound advice on how to reconcile painful experiences with accepting the Divine Decree.
The final day of the retreat started with our 3rd panel; this one focused on Islamic Law. Shahanaz Begum presented on ‘Al-Shāfi’ī’s contribution to the development of Islamic jurisprudence, particularly through al-Risāla, and Hibba Mazhary presented her paper ‘Distancing death: welfare and slaughter in the British halal meat industry’.
Our final session had Farah Ahmed, Aziz Foundation staff, ran a workshop on ‘Muslims in Higher Education’. Participants were put in groups of 4 and asked to discuss a range of issues that impact the experience and work of Muslim academics / public intellectuals in academia and public life. E.g.
A very stimulating and thought-provoking session which could have run for the entirety of the day, but…lunch was waiting.
After lunch, a short debrief session thanked all who attended and who had helped to organise the retreat. The tranquil surroundings of the Markfield Institute made the retreat not only an energising opportunity to meet and network with other scholars, but a genuinely relaxing experience, infused with the spiritual insights of Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad and Shaykh Sulayman Van Ael. Participants emphasised how inspiring it had been to meet and discuss with others who have the same aspiration of the betterment of the British Muslim community. Everyone expressed hope and anticipation of attending the next retreat!