Nafees Mahmud is a 5Pillars & RT UK journalist. You can follow him on Twitter @NxMahmud
Blessed Are The Strangers is a new documentary which tells the inspiring story about a group of Muslim converts in Norwich. Nafees Mahmud says it reveals some uncomfortable truths about the state of the Ummah, but offers solutions for those who pay close attention.
Why would a documentary about a group of British Muslims show footage of Woodstock hippies prancing, parading and partying in its opening scenes?
Take your pick from the following:
a) It wants to show all that is rotten about Western culture
b) It tells the story of an “Islamist” terror plot foiled at the festival, last minute
or c) Trevor Phillips didn’t produce it.
Whilst, thank God, option c is not true, the answer is, actually: none of the above.
Blessed Are The Strangers tells the story of a small but hugely influential – and largely convert – Muslim community with British and Caribbean roots based in Norwich, England, having taken root in early 70s west London.
The film offers a bare bones narrative of the community’s formation and development through interviews and archive footage. Their journey to the present day is told simply, yet with depth and required intensity, in 50 soul-piercing minutes. Although it could benefit from being ten minutes longer and touching upon the achievements of this group of “strangers.”
The community has made important contributions to Islamic literature both classical and contemporary, from the translation of Kitab Ash Shifa (The Book of Healing) from Arabic to English, to sharp discourses on economics and psychology such as Banking: The Root Cause of the Injustices of Our Time and Know Yourself.
Contextualising that in the documentary would have made the story all the more powerful.
The documentary takes us back to the 1960s. A play called The Madhouse on Castle Street is being performed. It features two people who will go on to profoundly impact others through their work. One is Bob Dylan; the other is Scottish playwright and actor Ian Dallas.
Dallas goes on to embrace Islam in Morocco and becomes the student of Shaykh Muhammad ibn al Habib. His name changes to Abdalqadir as-Sufi. He returns with a firm and perpetually developing grasp of the Islamic sciences and – of huge significance – a book of poetry gifted by his teacher.
His teachings resonate with a small number of people lost in the psychedelic era, searching, as one member of the community puts it “for what was missing from Western materialist society.”
They form a small community in Maida Vale, west London, before trying to build a self-sustaining, “Muslim village” in Norfolk. After much “experimentation” the plan fails: there is no mosque, no businesses, no education centres; just a dilapidated Tudor mansion which burns down.
Though the film does not explore it, the group’s rigid determination to remain financially independent is a fascinating but controversial discussion point.
Established in their philosophy is an understanding of Islamic theology which, they argue, has been lost in today’s capitalist age: that, essentially, Allah’s throne is not in RBS, HSBC, Santander, nor any central bank; and that Muslims need to re-evaluate their understanding of rizk (or provision) in order to truly make Islam a social, not just a personal, reality.
By 1977 they are able to purchase an old church school building in central Norwich which is converted into a masjid known as Ihsan Mosque and still in use today, welcoming hundreds of worshippers.
But there is more that shapes this group. The film takes us to 1980s Brixton, London – growing number of men and women of Caribbean descent are embracing Islam.
By 1991 the mosque they set up is slowly overtaken by an extreme cleric who will later be jailed for soliciting murder. His followers issue death threats to the mosque’s founders for resisting his teachings.
Wanting to protect their faith, families and lives, they move to Norwich at the invitation of Shaykh Abdalqadar as-Sufi allowing a truly multicultural Islamic society to grow in middle England, with Scottish, English, North African and Caribbean roots and cultural influences.
However, the documentary leaves me scratching my head. Why is the Norwich Muslim community unique, rather than the norm?
Why don’t most mosques contain worshippers of various ethnicities and nationalities? Why do we talk of Bengali, Pakistani, Arab, Turkish and Somali mosques in this country?
As one 80s Brixton resident says in the film, when he asked why the attendees at one mosque always spoke Urdu, he was told: “ because this is a mosque for people like us; the mosque for people like you is up the road.” (The film is worth watching simply for his response.)
It is strange that there is such a thing as a “convert community” in Islam. Of course, many of their children are now Muslim: born and raised white and black English Muslims, not converts.
That will seem strange to some Muslims who forget Islam is a way of life open to all, not an assortment of nationalist semi-secret societies. And it will most definitely seem strange to many non-Muslims who can be misled to believe pretty much the same.
Yet, as the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said: “ Islam began as a strange thing and will become thus again, as it was at the beginning. Blessed, therefore, are the strangers.”
This beautifully produced film shows how strangers can become brothers and sisters and build bonds beyond the superficial. It does so subtly, requiring close attention, and acts thus, not just as a historical documentary, but as a lesson in how human beings can face the challenges of today, from rigid consumption-led individualism to post-modern nihilism.
Blessed Are The Strangers is currently being screened at select venues across the UK including Q&A’s with members of Norwich’s Muslim community. The film will soon be released on iTunes.
Upcoming screenings will be held in Andalus, Glasgow on October 29 and Rich Mix, London December 13. For more information visit this Facebook page.