Zaki Badawi

'Grand Mufti of Islam in Britain'
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The Independent Online

Mohamed Aboulkhair Zaki Badawi, cleric and Islamic scholar: born Sharkia, Egypt 14 January 1922; Director, Islamic Cultural Centre and Chief Imam, London Central Mosque, Regent's Park 1978-81; Principal, Muslim College 1986-2006; OBE (Hon) 1998, KBE (Hon) 2004; married (one son, one daughter); died London 24 January 2006.

Zaki Badawi was a well-rounded Islamic scholar who never allowed circumstances to colour either his actions or edicts, an activist who knew how to pursue an agenda within a political network too sophisticated and complex for most of his co-religionists, and a believer who never compromised on what he thought was right.

Badawi's contribution towards Islam in Britain was invaluable. It can be claimed that he invented both the terms "British Islam" and "Islamophobia". Urbane, passionate and wise, he was the father of Muslim engagement in Britain - forging inroads into mainstream society and making the so-called "Muslim case" long before it became fashionable.

More than anything, Badawi was a global Muslim: although born in Egypt, he spent most of his life in other countries and in the process touched the lives of people from West Africa to the Pacific Rim. But he held a soft spot in his heart for Britain. He loved the country, its institutions, its countryside, its dynamism and its "civilising potential". And for three decades he dedicated himself to building institutions that would not only consolidate and stabilise Islam in Britain, but also energise it. Always a teacher, he was one of the main advocates for faith-based schools that were inclusive, broad-minded and of excellent academic standards.

Badawi's imamship at the London Central Mosque in Regent's Park from 1978 was pioneering and exemplary. He was the first imam of a prominent mosque to invite leaders of other faith communities "for tea and theology - whatever they prefer" - as he fondly remembered. This pioneering initiative led to the emergence of an inter-faith movement to which Badawi was committed and dedicated all his life. Once he showed me a picture of him with a group of priests - Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian - explaining that it was the first inter-faith gathering he had organised, while teaching in Singapore in the early Fifties.

In 1997 Badawi established the Three Faiths Forum with Sir Sigmund Sternberg and the Rev Marcus Braybrooke. The idea of encouraging friendship, goodwill and understanding amongst "people of the book" appealed to the halal globetrotter who always envisioned himself as a bridge-maker of peace and understanding. Badawi was for many years until his death a leading member of the Tripoli-based World Islamic Call Society which shared his conviction of Muslim benevolence across the world. He was Vice-Chairman of the World Congress of Faiths and a founder director of the Forum Against Islamophobia and Racism (Fair).

Perhaps the most ambitious project Badawi initiated was the setting up in London in 1986 of the Muslim College, of which he remained Principal until his death. The Muslim College was not only a visionary but a pragmatic effort towards the construction of "British Islam". Long before it became an obsession of desperate civil servants faced with radical Islam, Badawi had realised the significance of a home-grown Islam in Britain - "free of the cancer of Muslim culture, neurosis and ignorance".

The story of Badawi's life is one of struggle, commitment, ambition and success. He was born in Sharkia, a small village outside Cairo, in 1922, to a traditional, pious Muslim family. He graduated from Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the foremost theological college in the Muslim world, with honours and was awarded the King Fuad First Prize for the best graduate of the year in 1945; then, between 1951 and 1954, he studied Psychology at University College, marrying a fellow student, Mavis. He earned a London University PhD in Modern Muslim Thought, then set off to teach in Malaysia, Singapore and Nigeria, finally settling in London in the mid- Seventies and becoming Chief Imam at Regent's Park Mosque and director of the Islamic Cultural Centre in 1978.

During the three decades he was in public life, Badawi dealt intimately with three prime ministers, three archbishops and two cardinals. The network he developed over the years included laymen and scholars, presidents and priests, politicians and academics. An animated conversationalist and generous host, Badawi never felt uncomfortable with dialogue or exchanging ideas and opinions with anyone.

A born leader, Badawi, however, had little time for the representational politics that proliferate in our times. He believed in himself and in the legitimacy of his opinions and had little time for "charlatans and jokers" - as he described people who made comments about Islam without the qualifications to do so. Of the Muslim leaders feted in the corridors of power in modern Britain he was the only "alim" - Islamic scholar. Essentially Badawi unofficially occupied the position of the "Grand Mufti of Islam in Britain" - a title which had become extinct in the first half of the last century. The title had been given to the Liverpudlian solicitor Abdullah Quilliam by the last Ottoman Caliph in the 19th century.

Disagreeing with Badawi was both a frustrating and futile exercise. He never personalised an argument or harboured malice just because you disagreed with him - you really had to work very hard at it to make an enemy of him. He loved the simple things of life: taking the train to work, a walk in the park and buying chestnuts at the wayside during cold winter days.

To the last, his love continued to be teaching. He made it a point never to miss his classes and hated to be late for an appointment. Unlike other dignitaries, he never minded how he travelled. If he believed in the journey he would take any sensible route there. Many fellow luminaries were shocked to see him in economy when travelling as he found first-class "wasteful and not really necessary".

His efforts to try and bring together religious leaders under the Council of Imams and Mosques never really took off because of the sectarianism and anarchy that exists within different communities. Although of Arab ancestry himself, he loved the Aziziye Mosque in Dalston, east London, where the majority of the congregation is of Turkish origin.

As British Islam enters what augurs to be difficult times, it will miss the wisdom, courage, passion and vision of its most vociferous proponent. However, they are many signs that Badawi's idea of an Islam based in tradition, yet not afraid of modernity and ready to adapt to the realities of a dynamic, plural Britain, has made deep roots.

It seems a long time since the days when Badawi was castigated by Muslim leaders because he talked to the authorities, invited "the other" to the mosque and called for caution in the mixing of culture and religion.

Fuad Nahdi

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