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Travelling west from Rajanpur: it's a long way from a remote village in Pakistan to Brighton, England. Imam Abduljalil Sajid tells Mary Lean about the encounters which inspired his passion for interfaith understanding. (Profile).

The bridgebuilding Imam of the Brighton Islamic Mission, Dr Abduljalil Sajid, describes himself as an optimist. He believes the terrible events of 11 September 2001 have opened opportunities for better understanding between the West and Islam. `Evil exists,' he says. `It can only be eradicated with good. And good ultimately comes, provided our objective is clear.'

Since he settled in Brighton 22 years ago, Sajid has devoted himself to building understanding between different faiths and ethnic groups. He was one of 200 delegates to a world summit of Muslim leaders in Indonesia last December, which affirmed Islam's commitment to peace, justice and interfaith dialogue. `Islam is a religion of moderation,' he pointed out there. `Islam and terrorism are contradictory terms.'

Abduljalil Sajid has travelled a long way since his birth in Pakistan in November 1947, three months after the country's creation. `I'm a pure Pakistani,' he says. `I don't carry the past baggage of hate between Hindus and Muslims.'

The sitting room of his home in Brighton, where he tells me about his life journey, is lined with books. There used to be even more, until his wife put her foot down and he sent 35,000 to the Al-Hijrah Trust in Birmingham, where they have opened a section in his name. Yet when he was a child the only light he had to read by was the moon.

He was born in the remote village of Rajanpur, in an area which the British Raj had left undeveloped. `There were no roads, no electricity and all the buildings were made of mud.' He was one of 14 brothers and sisters, in a shared multigenerational home of 47 people.

The house had a well, and food came from the family farm just a few hundred yards from the house. His father, who had a cloth shop, was the only member of the family to have left the farm, and he was determined that his sons should be educated.

A devout Sufi (Muslim mystic), Sajid's father believed `that the difference between Islam and non-Islam is knowledge.' He used to wake Abduljalil at 2.30 am for prayers, to study the Qur'an and to hear stories about his heroes, who were not only Muslims.

Sajid was one of the first graduates of Rajanpur's primary and middle schools and then, at the age of 11, his father sent him to study at an Islamic University in Multan in the Punjab. The Madrassa Jameluloom combined Islamic religious education with optional secular subjects such as English, history and political science.

He left in 1965 with a BA with distinction in Arabic and Islamic Studies, the rank of Alim (religious scholar) and Mufti (the highest degree in traditional religious studies) and a secular BA in Political Sciences. Within four months the Punjab University in Lahore had granted him a first class MA--a course which normally took two years. He was only 18. When I suggest he must have been brilliant, he maintains he simply worked hard. `I never believed in wasting time.'

When he went on to study in Dhaka (now capital of Bangladesh), his village turned out in force to see him off. One of his mother's friends asked him why he had to go so far to study when he already had his MA and the President of Pakistan hadn't even got a BA. `Can't you replace him now?'

It was in Lahore that Sajid made his first step towards people of other faiths. He was set an essay on what different faiths believed about honesty. He had never met a Christian or a Jew before, but he set out round the city's churches, synagogues and temples to ask for quotations from the different scriptures. Only the Christians failed to come up with anything.

Finally, he tried the library of the British Council, where he was given the writings of Frank Buchman, a Christian, who initiated MRA (now Initiatives of Change). He found Buchman's emphasis on absolute moral standards of honesty, purity, unselfishness and love familiar. `It struck me that this was what the Prophet, peace be upon him, had said in his last sermon--that the human being cannot become a proper human being unless he is honest with himself.'

The process continued in Dhaka, where Sajid found himself in a multicultural community. He learnt Bengali and began to get to know Hindus and people of other faiths. When India invaded in 1971, he returned to West Pakistan and married Jamila.

Sajid arrived in Britain in September 1972 to start a PhD at the London School of Economics (LSE). His first impression was of `absolute loneliness'. Throughout his life he had been surrounded by people. He had left Jamila with his family and he was now alone in a country where no one seemed to bother about anyone else.

`In the trains people picked up their newspapers and hid their faces. In the library it was silent. In the university I knew nobody and everybody was rushing. The nights were long and dark. Those three months were really hell.'

As Christmas approached Sajid saw a notice in a students' hostel inviting overseas students to stay with local families over the break. He applied and found himself in the home of a Christian minister in Reigate, Rev Carr, who had 11 children, no TV and would not allow alcohol in his house. `This was very contrary to my stereotyping of the British that they love dogs and hate children. The prejudices I was beginning to build up went out of the window. I realized that not all British were selfish, greedy, immoral, all the things that had come to my mind during the previous three months.'

Sajid describes those days in the Carr home as a `turning point'. He decided to stay on in Britain and bring Jamila to join him. `Carr helped me to understand Christianity as a faith, a commitment, a way of life--he was a man of God himself. He opened a door for me to make my own life straighter. I was an angry and prejudiced man at that time and those days helped me to make my decision to respect others as they are rather than putting them in boxes. I made up my mind that if I was allowed to stay in this country I would make education and bridgebuilding between faiths my priorities.'

In Dhaka, Sajid had served as an imam, leading prayers at the university. The term, which often confuses non-Muslims, does not refer to an ordained profession. `Anyone can become an imam provided the community are satisfied that you can recite the Qur'an correctly, give a sermon and lead prayer.'

Sajid continued in this role in London. In 1976 a Muslim from Brighton spotted him at the East London Mosque and realized that his language skills would be an asset in a cosmopolitan city where Muslims spoke Urdu, Bengali, Arabic and English. He started working there part-time and in 1980 moved there with his family. The community bought him a house and with them he raised 300,000 [pounds sterling] to build and run the mosque.

By deciding to take on the Brighton mosque, Sajid was finally turning his back on his ambitions to work in the Education Ministry in Pakistan. Twice before--after he left university in Lahore and after he returned from Dhaka--he had turned down an invitation to become a professional imam. `This time I could not refuse God,' he says. He traces the decision back to his encounter with Rev Carr. `A Christian helped me to help Muslims.'

The post, where he remained for 20 years, was not without its conflicts. Sajid had to see off a takeover bid by an extremist group and twice took legal action against individuals who were inflaming feelings against other communities. In 1998 he moved on to a national role, training imams to work in prisons and hospitals all over the UK.

His decision to become a local magistrate in 1981 raised opposition from those who believed a man of God should not serve a secular state. He argued back with a statement from the Prophet: `When you live in a community, if you don't work for the common good you are not a Muslim.'

The war in 1971 which led to the birth of Bangladesh had left the Muslim community in Brighton fragmented. `The Indians, Pakistanis and Bengalis were not on speaking terms,' says Sajid. He went to visit them in their businesses and urged them to find a common voice in the face of their difficulties in Brighton. They set up the Ethnic Minorities Representatives Council (EMRC), whose first project was to tackle racial harassment by the police. `It brought the whole community together,' says Sajid. `They forgot their origins, their past, their hatred for each other.' The council now comprises 58 ethnic groups.

The division between Brighton's different religious groups was another concern. In 1985 Sajid helped to set up the Brighton and Hove Interfaith Contact Group (IFCG). Members started by visiting each other's places of worship and discussing common issues--their view of death, or heaven, for instance--with the aim of understanding what each other thought. Sajid invited a rabbi to address the mosque and, in his turn, was invited to all the synagogues. The organization continues to flourish.

These local beginnings have led Sajid into innumerable national offices, both religious and secular. He is chair of a committee of the Muslim Council of Britain, Vice-Chair of the UK chapter of the World Conference of Religions for Peace, Treasurer of the National Association of Pakistanis and a member of the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia. He has held positions with the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, the National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux, the Union of Muslim Organizations and, on the international level, the World Congress of Faiths. In recent months he has been called in to advise the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and many statutory agencies.

Sajid does not buy into the theory of a `clash of civilizations' between the West and Islam and was glad world leaders distanced themselves from the idea immediately after 11 September. `We're not talking about a clash between faiths, but a few individuals who committed a heinous evil crime.'

The events of 11 September, he believes, were `based on hurt and hate', and any response must go to the root causes. He is concerned about the poverty and the powerlessness of so many in the world, and about the double standards in the West which mean that people from ethnic minorities are treated differently from host communities. He sees `deep racism, Islamophobia and hatred' in Britain, in spite of laws to the contrary.

The waste to Britain indicated by the level of black youth unemployment upsets him--and it is not just a theoretical issue. Both his daughters have had to go overseas to find jobs. Even with a first in law from the LSE, Fatima could not find a place to do her articles in a law firm--and Sajid believes it was her name that was the barrier. `We had hoped our daughters would be able to give back to this society.'

He points out that there are few black British at high levels in the civil service, army, police or diplomatic corps. Unlike Sweden and Germany, Britain has no Muslim ambassadors in Muslim countries. He believes the country is missing out on badly needed skills.

Generously, he shows me a passage from the Qur'an which gives a `certificate of approval' for Christians who believe in God, do good deeds and are actively involved in charitable work. He believes that the faiths must work together. `We all have ugly pasts. We must learn from our mistakes, apologize and move on to build a better future based on mutuality, dignity and respect.'

After all, he points out, we went through a clash of civilizations in the Middle Ages. We ought to be beyond that by now.
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Author:Lean, Mary
Publication:For A Change
Article Type:Biography
Date:Apr 1, 2002
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