When I met Mohammad Awais Tahir at the West Berks Peace & Integration Conference in Thatcham I took the opportunity to ask him about his faith and background. Islam is a subject we hear a lot about at the moment but I wanted a better understanding than you tend to get from the national press. Mohammad moved to Newbury last year and kindly agreed to this interview.
Penny Post: Where are you from?
Mohammad Awais Tahir: I’m originally from Pakistan but I was brought up in Saudi Arabia. My parents have been living in Saudi Arabia for over 30 years now.
PP: I’ve heard your friends call you both Mohammad and Awais. How does that work?
MAT: In Pakistan, it is very common for people to prefix their first name with Mohammad, out of respect for the Prophet – I was named Mohammad Awais by my parents, and my surname is Tahir. So, my full name is Mohammad Awais Tahir.To make it easy for my colleagues and friends in UK I introduce myself as Mohammad, which some of them simplify to ‘Mo’. However my Pakistani friends here call me Awais, because no one calls you Mohammad in Pakistan – that alone isn’t a name, it’s a prefix.
PP: What brought you to the UK?
MAT: After my middle schooling in Saudi Arabia I went to an army boarding High School in Pakistan. After that I didn’t want to continue in the army so I ended up choosing Telecommunications Engineering as my Bachelor’s degree at university. Then I went back to Saudi Arabia for a while to work as an Engineer. However in October 2010, I decided that I wanted to pursue a Masters degree and I chose the University of Glasgow as it offered a one year’s degree in degree of my choice. Also, I have some cousins in Glasgow and it’s always good to have some family or friends to help you settle in a new place.
PP: What brought you to Newbury?
MAT: Vodafone! After my Masters I got a job at Glasgow University as a Research Assistant and was working on developing a communication device for deaf-blind people. Unfortunately the funding ran out so, once again, I returned to Saudi Arabia to find a job. I worked as a Project Engineer in Alstom Saudi Arabia for a year, but in the meantime I kept on applying to Graduate Schemes in the UK. Vodafone offered me a role, and I accepted. I arrived in Newbury in September 2013.
PP: How does it compare to other parts of the world you have lived in?
MAT: I hadn’t lived in a small town before so it took a bit of getting used to. I am quite shy but I have made good friends at Vodafone, at the gym and with members of West Berks Peace & Integration Forum so I’m having a good time.
PP: Do you think people in West Berkshire can imagine what life is like where you come from?
MAT: It was hard for me to imagine what life would be like over here so I think it might be hard for people here to imagine living in Saudi Arabia especially as one thing that dominates life in Saudi Arabia is the climate – it’s about 40 degrees these days. From what I’ve seen of the British weather so far I think most people would find that difficult to imagine and even harder to cope with!
Many people in Saudi Arabia are migrants who came over from Asian countries looking for work. There are a lot of financial advantages in working there but the place is extremely immigrant unfriendly. Though it’s full of people from all over the world, there’s no cultural diversity the way there is here in the UK. The only real culture is Saudi – everyone else is considered just an expatriate.
As for Pakistan, the country is suffering from alarming levels of corruption, insecurity, poverty and unemployment. Nevertheless, at times I think of going back and participating in humanitarian activities, specifically to help remove the stigma attached to mental disorders in that part of the world. Returning to this work is what I hope to do in the future.
PP: When and how do you pray?
MAT: We have five daily daily prayers: in the morning, at noon, in the afternoon, sunset and night. Prayer involves a set of postures which include standing, bowing and prostration. When we pray we recite a portion of Qur’an, glorify God and ask God for guidance. Prayers can be said in congregation or alone. When we pray we face the Ka’abah in the Grand Mosque in Mecca (Makkah). I think it’s a really powerful image, Muslims all over the globe facing towards Makkah and praying in a similar way.
PP: What would you say are the main similarities and differences between Christianity and Islam?
MAT: Christianity and Islam have striking similarities. Muslims believe that the commandments and teachings handed out by Prophet Muhammad are a continuation of what the previous Prophets like Abraham, Moses and Jesus brought. So, Christians and Muslims share belief in several Prophets including Abraham (Ibrahim in Arabic), Moses (Musa), Isaac (Ishaaq), Ishmael (Ismali in Arabic) and David (Daud) etc. We share the belief in life after death. There are several verses in the bible for which we can find exact matches in Quran (in Arabic). The primary difference comes in the Christian belief of the trinity where Jesus is elevated to the position of God. For us, Jesus was a prophet. Its worth mentioning here that Christian Unitarians believe in one God, just like the Muslims, and in terms of belief they are closer to Muslims than to other Christian denominations. Also, as far as the laws are concerned, I’ve seen that Christians belonging to different Churches abide by different rulings. There are some Christians such as Seventh-Day Adventists and Ethiopian Orthodox who, like Muslims and Jews, do not eat pork. Similarly, the Pentecostalists and Methodists Christians abstain from alcohol, as do Muslims.
PP: Can you explain the Suni/Shi’a issue? How do most Muslims feel about these sectarian conflicts?
MAT: That’s a complicated one. In the early days of Islam there was an uprising against the third Caliph Usman which led to political differences amongst Muslims and to three major wars, and also to a number of scriptural and doctrinal disputes. The result was the emergence of two factions, Sunnis and Sh’iaas. Unfortunately, although the doctrinal differences are of a very trivial nature, there is a wide spread rigidity on both sides leading to hatred for the other group. This isn’t unique to Islam, of course: every major religion has seen factions and different groupings emerge with a good deal of bitterness on all sides.
PP: We only seem to hear about the radical Imans – but are they in the minority of Imans?
MAT: Radical Imams do not generally preach publicly in Muslim countries. Those who call for killing of innocents are never heard speaking from the pulpit in big Muslim cities. As far as my observation goes, they exist in areas that are in a state of war (like West of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq etc.), and in some cases they have their radio broadcasts. There is also the increased power and influence of the Internet. Anyhow, their presence is usually not visible to those living in peaceful societies. So, yes they are a very small minority.
PP: Do you feel that people get an accurate impression of your country and of Muslims in general from the media?
MAT: No! A lot of the mainstream media makes generalisations, pigeon-holes people and uses emotive buzz words and sound bites. It forces me to conclude that they are playing into the hands of lobbying groups. It’s obviously unfair to label a whole group because of the actions of a very small minority, whether it happens to Muslims or other groups like travellers, football supporters or people on benefits. What people hear in the media affects their opinions and hence we’ve seen a rise in Islamophobia in the UK in the last few years. Its a rather alarming situation where the media increases the gulf between communities. But at least in this country one can find a wide range of opinions in the press and online so people can make up their own minds if they want to.
PP: What do you miss about your country?
MAT: There are the simple and obvious things like the food and my family. There’s also always that slight feeling of loss or displacement that comes from being somewhere other than where your roots are – I think it’s impossible to forget the place where you grew up. But I’m happy to be here. I’m also aware that, like so many other people, I’ve got my own unique background.
PP: What don’t you miss?
MAT: I don’t miss the power-cuts. I don’t miss hate-speeches from the pulpit directed at other sects. I don’t miss the violence.
PP: What is your hope for the future?
MAT: I feel the acts of philosophising and empathising have been rendered mute in the busy materialist world of today. A subconscious social conditioning has led to a certain amount of nonacceptance of ‘others’ without an honest attempt to understand them. My message, which I try to spread through my website and radio talks, has been to ask people to get out of their comfort zones and attempt to understand what makes other people what they are. This applies to everyone, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. We can all slip into ways of thinking that become easy and comfortable, regardless of the reality. I suppose that’s one definition of ‘prejudice’.
I know this is an easy thing to say but my hope is that we’ll learn that what we have in common, as human beings, is more important than what divides us – and we should try to celebrate our diversity as well as our oneness. What is it the French say? – “vive la difference”. Food, music, art – these are all good ways this can happen. We should also reject generalised images of cultures and instead get to know people individually. There’s no substitute for that. The same in a lot of ways, different in others – that’s the way things are. We can’t change that but we can change how we react to it.
If you would like to read more about Mohammad Awais’s ideas and philosophies please see:
General audience: exploringpsyche.com
Muslimaudience: islamandpsychology.blogspot.com and http://islamandpsychology.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/inspecting-practices-we-are-born-into.html
If you would like to learn more about the West Berkshire Peace & Integration Forum see https://www.facebook.com/WestBerkshirePiForum